The Salineras is a fascinating site where salt has been harvested for over 500 years and maybe even for millennia. Most people approach the site from the village of Maras in a vehicle, but the trail up from the Sacred Valley is a rewarding hike.
After about 45 minutes of climbing, occasionally using the excuse to look back down the valley to catch your breath, you will come upon the site of the Salineras — a grand operation! In another 20 minutes, you will be walking along the pathways among the ponds.
This high plateau lies on a bed of salt and soluble minerals. As a result, one of the major springs flowing from the mountainside has a high saline content — the water tastes like the ocean! As far back as 900 years ago — maybe longer, no one is sure — the people here figured out that they could direct the spring water into shallow terraced ponds during the dry winter months. The water is allowed to evaporate, leaving behind the salt and minerals, which can then be harvested. Today, the area is farmed cooperatively. Any family who wishes to is encouraged to lease one or more ponds and, after receiving instructions, they can begin “farming”.
The evaporation process takes about a month, then the salt is harvested and the pond is refilled with salt water.
(Photo: Cathy Fulton)
The ponds and sides of the water channels are encrusted with salt, giving an other-worldly feeling to the entire site (Photo: Cathy Fulton)
The salt, in various forms, is sold wholesale to companies who bring their trucks up to collect large bags from the on-site warehouses. After visiting the site, you may wish to continue your hike to the village of Maras. You will most likely encounter only a few locals along the trail that will take you through fields and pastures and your breath will be taken away with the dramatic views of the Andes.
(Photo: Cathy Fulton)
Directions for the full hike:
From the Urubamba bus station, take a colectivo to Ollantaytambo. Ask the driver to let you off at Tarabamba at the “puente” (bridge). Look for the sign pointing toward the river for the Arco Iris del Puente Restaurant. Walk down the dirt road following the signs to the restaurant which is next to the bridge. Cross the bridge. There may be someone stationed on the other side to collect the entrance fee for the Salineras. Continue to the right along the river until you reach a junction. Then turn left and walk through the village. You will soon come to a creek crossing and then the trail will begin its climb up a series of switchbacks. As you near the Salineras, the trail will become a dirt road.
After visiting the site, you can (1) backtrack down the way you came; (2) take a taxi to the road that goes between Cusco and Urubamba and catch a bus there in either direction; or, (3) continue hiking to the village of Maras.
If you decide to continue to Maras, walk through the gift shops and up the path and exit through the main gate. Cross the parking lot. The main auto road will go left. Look for a dirt path zig-zagging up to the right. This is the walking path to Maras. Keep following the most well-traveled path for about 2.2 miles. You can find refreshments at Maras. Ask where to catch the colectivo or bus. Sometimes there is a bus going directly to Urubamba. Other times, you will have to catch a colectivo to the main road that goes to Urubamba and then catch a bus there to take you down to the Urubamba terminal.
It is a somewhat steep, rocky trail and trekking poles will come in handy.
Take your time at walking at this high altitude.
Be sure to carry plenty of water and obtain more at Salineras if you plan to hike to Maras — at least a liter per person.
Be prepared for heat and rain. Even though the morning weather appears perfect, it is not unusual for storm clouds to gather in the afternoon — especially in the summer.
Cathy Fulton is a somewhat nomadic US citizen who has spent two (southern-hemisphere) summers in Peru. She enjoys staying in one place for one to two months savoring the local way of life, getting to know locals, hiking, and exploring the food and fiber. You can read more about her Peruvian slow travel experiences here on her website.