As far as tourist attractions go, salt mines are probably on the rock bottom of the awesome scale for some folks, right next to field trips to the dentist, or a visit to the county landfill. In fact, when I toured the local salt lake near our home a few months ago, there was no one there except us. A trip to the salt mines may not be on everyone’s bucket list, but I find them fascinating.
However, I was surprised that one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Sacred Valley of Peru is a salt mine. At the Salineras de Maras salt mines outside of Urubamba in Peru, teetering tour busses packed with tourists crawled along the narrow dirt road to the salt harvesting pans. There were definitely too many people, and they were all mad for salt. The overwhelming sounds of throbbing engines and beeping back-up alarms of the busses filled the air with a sense of urgency and chaos in the tiny parking lot.
Urgency. To see a salt mine.
The running creek that is the source of salt at Maras is different than our natural salt lake at home, which is sort of a flat-land sink hole. But at Maras, the mountain spring that surfaces there runs cold, and is naturally chock full of salt. The flowing creek is diverted into low walled salt fields (also known as pans) that are owned and maintained by different families of salt harvesters. The stream is corralled into the salt pans, which hold a shallow pool of the salty water so that the water quickly evaporates, leaving the salt crystals to collect. The salt is raked and agitated so that the water evaporates efficiently, and doesn’t stagnate. (PS I really tried to find a scientific geological name to differentiate La Sal del Rey salt lake from the Maras salt creek but found nothing. If you have geological smarts, please contact me. I would love to get this right.)
Don’t believe that salt is only good for french fries and clearing snowy sidewalks. Aside from drying or freezing, salt is our oldest food preservative. We didn’t always have refrigerators, and having shelf stable food meant that your tribe would thrive. Salt was also used to extract silver from silver ore, so the Spanish conquistadores made sure that they claimed every and any source of salt in the New World. Salt was vital for food storage and silver mining. Author Mark Kurlanky’s book Salt is an excellent read for anyone whose interest is piqued about salt and it’s role in the conquest of the New World.
Back at the salt mines, vendors were hawking t-shirts, mugs, bags of salt, and some really gorgeous frutillada, which is chicha corn beer flavored with wild Peruvian strawberries. I had 2 glasses. On my awesome scale, the frutillada ranked at the top.
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