Salt Mines of Maras
Salt Mines of Maras is part of the Tentative list of Peru in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Salt Mines of Maras is a network of 4,500 salt wells arranged in terraces on the side of a hill. The production of salt, practised here since pre-Inca times and still using traditional methods, results from the capture of streams of salt water by means of canals, reservoirs and dykes forming the wells. The mosaic of thousands of white, cream and brown wells offers a landscape of great beauty.
Map of Salt Mines of MarasLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
We decided to move to Urumbamba after a week-long stay in Cusco during our trip to Valle Sagrado in August 2022. We thought that this was a good base to explore some of the sights between Cusco and Ollantaytambo, such as the archaeological ruins of Chinchero, the Moray terraces, and the focus of this review--the Salt Mines of Maras. We planned to visit Moray and Maras on a half-day trip, but circumstances changed and we ended up focusing on Maras.
The site is to the south and across the river of Urubamba. Using public transportation to get to the salt mines could be quite confusing, thus, we decided to hire a car and a driver. Before reaching the town of Maras we turned right to a well-paved road that leads to the site. Upon arrival, we noticed that there were less cars than expected, but the number of closed shops and eateries indicate that this place could get really crowded. Past the entrance a path leads down to the viewing "platforms" that provided a great panorama of the salt mines, the gorge and the valley and mountains in the background. It's a beautiful sight despite the dark grey clouds that loomed over the mountains. The salt mines are basically terraces of white rectangular pools that slope down until it reached what seemed to be the bottom of the gorge (though it's not after checking Google Maps).
We saw a bunch of locals doing different things: (1) one was cleaning a couple of pools; (2) a man was shoveling salt grains and putting them into sacks; (3) a woman with a manta bag on her back was collecting salt using a wooden basket; and (4) another lady was doing visual checks. What's amazing about this was that the people working there were said to be the descendants of workers and owners of the salt mines since the pre-colonial times. We then joined a group of tourists who were checking out what seemed to be the spring and the source of the saltwater, which flowed into a catchment that eventually branched into several channels and down to the pools. I could only appreciate how the water was distributed throughout this large area, and how workers tirelessly manage and protect their respective pools. After half an hour observing the workers, we then traced our way back to the parking lot, encountering shops that were selling white and pink salts, snacks, drinks, local textiles and some other knick-knacks. In retrospect, seeing the salt mines reminded me of the Salinas Las Grandes that is part of the Tehuacan-Cuicatlan WHS in Mexico.
In this regard, I see a potential in the Salt Mines of Maras to be inscribed in the WHS. First, precedent sites that attributed their OUV to salt mining and trade had been successfully inscribed before (e.g., Wieliczka, Arc-et-Senans). Second, the Maras fills the gap in salt mining heritage in South America, and third, this is a living heritage where people work and trade, which also indicates how locals manage and maintain their respective pools (and possibly the high level of integrity and authenticity of the site?). I'd also love to learn more about their management plans in case of natural disasters, climate change, or socio-economic issues.
On the other hand, is it "strong" enough to represent the OUV it claims? In other inscribed sites (e.g., Tehuacan-Cuicatlan) salt mines were just a small part of a more diverse cultural landscape. Arc-et-Senans and Wieliczka, attributing to their industrial development, have other things going on such as the buildings and associated built environment. But this is also what makes Maras unique, as it did not have the same level of exploitation seen in Wieliczka and Arc-et-Senans that necessitated industrialization. In other words, they maintained much of the traditional methods of salt extraction, as the locals attested. In the end, I can only speculate as a non-expert and casual fan of WHS, but I feel like there is a case of it as a living heritage and I would love to see this site inscribed in the future.
As if Peru doesn't have enough awesome stuff to see, they added a few more tentative places in 2019. I'm quite sure most were already on the average tourist's itinerary. Take a bus from Cuzco towards Urubama and drop off at the junction heading to Maras to find a taxi driver who will take you around. If not then take a bus that heads to Maras and ask around in the "town". The junction has a shaded bus stop to wait for buses heading back. I ended up taking a bus that goes the "scenic" route through the villages which cost me nothing but pain, literally, it was almost a penny to take the bus but the road is bumpy and dusty and the "air-con" aka "windows are open" doesn't make it pleasant - you do get to meet some interesting characters though. Also the buses on the main road are often full so I was happy to get going one way or the other.
Anyhow, the region is super popular with tourists already and this was a day trip together with Moray which is ultimately a great day out but nothing I would see on the UNESCO list as outstanding value. The same salt mine structures are in northern Spain, and...well, other places. I think they do it better in Spain anyway. It also takes an effort to press through all the tourist crowds that shop on the only way down the ramps and most of it wasn't even salt-related. I overheard a guide talking about the process of several drying layers which wasn't the case in the Spanish site but perhaps it is the same...
The only thing I thought was worth seeing is that the mountains in the area make it a great sight. As there are many other things to see in the area it isn't even a long detour just for the view so don't forget to add this to your trip - it only takes 20-30 minutes to see everything really.
2019 Added to Tentative List
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