I was within 20 miles of Machu Picchu but Ollantaytambo was overrun with tourists. It was the Christmas holiday, and apparently Peru’s high season. Although a local hostel owner tried to describe how to trek to Machu Picchu alone following the train tracks, it sounded a bit hairy, and I wasn’t interested in confronting Peruvian police, gangs of bandits, or packs of wild dogs. Not wanting to spend the nearly $500 to visit the Inca site, I decided to check out equally beautiful and far less expensive places around the Sacred Valley instead.
For a thousand years, the Inca supplied salt to their capital at Cusco from ponds buried deep inside their Sacred Vally. The Maras Salt Ponds are about 25 miles north of Cusco, and when I was visiting in late 2014, were obscured from the popular vision. I was staying in Urubamba, and heard about the ponds from my hosts, an English-speaking family of Alpaca herders. On my second day in the Valley, I took a taxi to the ponds, and rode the local bus to return to my hostel.
The salt ponds have been in use since before even the days of the Inca. Glistening, salt crusted terraces of white, red, amber, tan, and brown, contrast against the verdant vegetation of the surrounding Andes. I wandered the grounds, careful of where I stepped to stay along the designated trail, and felt thousands of years permeating my pores from the salt at my feet.
In modern times, families own some of the 5000 ponds, and others are either unused or available for whoever wants to harvest salt for their personal, household use. However, only members of the local community can own a pond, and families that are new to the area must consult with the local cooperative to learn how to properly maintain the pond. As of September, 2019, tourists are no longer allowed to visit to area.