The second stop on our Sacred Valley tour was to Mara, home of thousands of natural salt pans/ponds/flats/pools originally discovered by the Incas. There is only one way in and out of this canyon and the road is very narrow with a sheer drop-off on one side (no guard rails). It is a dangerous road and never in a million years did I think I would see a coach bus on the road but there it was, coming right at us, pushing its way down the road like a snowplow.
Protip: If you are afraid of heights, sit on the driver’s side of the vehicle on the way into the canyon and on the passenger’s side on the way out of the canyon.
The salt pans are shallow pools built into the steep hillside using dirt and other natural materials to make the “sides” of the pools. The depth of the pool typically never exceeds 1 ft / 30 cm and the average surface area is 50 sq ft / 5 sq m.
One natural stream containing saltwater from the hillside fills all of the pans with water through purpose-built “gutters”. Each pan has a “valve” (technically a hole) that allows the owner to start/stop water flow into the pan. The water is stopped by stuffing a towel or other organic material into the hole and when it is stopped, the evaporation process begins. After the water has evaporated, the salt is painstakingly harvested by hand.
The color of the pan is an indication of how far along the evaporation process is and the saltiness and color of the finished product is based on the depth of the salt in the pan.
We tasted three different depths of salt during our visit and agreed that the middle layer contained the best salt level. The whitest salt was the saltiest and oh my god was it salty.
I bought a small bag of salt from one of the vendors for 1 Sol on our way out but have yet to use it. It is slightly pink and I feel like it should be for decoration purposes only.
On our drive out of the canyon, I stared at the pans. Photos of the canyon do not show the vastness of the area (it is many American football fields in length and width). In refreshing my memory for this post, I did a bit of online searching and there is a lot of misinformation about the pans. One blog post stated that there were 6,000 pans which I do not believe.
Based on what I saw with my own eyes, there are probably 1,000-2,000 pans, however, I could not see the full area from the lookout platform because it is located at the end of the area.
Prior to July 2019, visitors could walk along the path above the pans but due to rubbish, dirt, and other things falling (humans!) into the top-level pans, the path was closed to visitors. This is a food production site, after all. Walking along the path would have provided a proper perspective of how big the area is.
The site is incredible and was unlike anything I’d ever seen but at the same time, it reminded me of the whitewashed cave houses in Oia, Santorini, Greece. I recommend visiting this area as a must-do in Sacred Valley.
Note: Our day trip to Sacred Valley was on October 3rd, 2019 which is the very beginning of spring in South America.
- Motion sickness medication
- Hand sanitizer
- Sunscreen (apply liberally to your nose)
- 10 Soles for the entrance fee (free toilets)
- Phone charging cords + portable power bank/battery
- Small day pack with a water bladder
- Camera (a proper one since this is a once-in-a-lifetime visit)
It was warm and the sun was shining on the day of our visit. I saw people dressed in beachwear (sandals, shorts, t-shirt) and I saw people dressed in full hiking garb. Anything goes for clothing; just make sure you dress for the weather.
Next, the village of Misminay.