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Forget Machu Picchu, the salt ponds of Maras are Peru's go-to attraction

Agencies|
​Salt ponds of Maras in Peru
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​Salt ponds of Maras in Peru

Tourism in Peru is focused on a handful of star attractions – Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines and Colca Canyon tend to hog the limelight. The Inca citadel in the sky alone attracted a whopping 1.2 million visitors in 2013 and the numbers keep rising.

Up against that kind of pulling power it’s challenging for places off the beaten track to get a look in, but one site is making a name for itself – and was around long before the Incas.

With the help of high-profile Peruvian chefs, the salt ponds of Maras, 40km north of the southeastern city of Cusco, are hot property.

In pic: General view of the Maras salt-evaporation ponds, 48 km northeast of Cusco, Peru.

AFP
​What makes these salt ponds striking
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​What makes these salt ponds striking

Rounding the corner on the long and winding road through the high Andes to the Inca site of Moray, the bleached white strip of salt ponds comes as a surprise.

The steep valley slopes are rusty brown and covered with coarse scrub, making the ponds all the more striking.

In pic: A woman cleans a salt pool at the Maras salt-evaporation ponds, 48 km northeast of Cusco, Peru.

AFP
​Impressive mountain range
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​Impressive mountain range

Salt ponds are more commonly found on coastal plains, filled with seawater from the incoming tide.

The ones in Peru are at an altitude of 3,000 metres. It’s a long way to the ocean, but it wasn’t always so; this impressive mountain range was once part the sea floor.

In pic: Picture of salt pools at the Maras salt-evaporation ponds, 48 km northeast of Cusco, Peru.

AFP
​How are these created?
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​How are these created?

The movement of tectonic plates pushed the seabed up to form the Andes. The sea salt was locked into the rocks and filters out through the Qoripujio spring.

The Incas (early 13th century to 1572) are credited with many of Peru’s striking constructions, but these ponds were created during the Chanapata Culture (AD200 to AD900).

In pic: A man and a woman walk along the border of a salt pool at the Maras salt-evaporation ponds, 48 km northeast of Cusco, Peru.

AFP
​Admission fee
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​Admission fee

Admission fee is 10 soles (HK$24). The Qoripujio spring is only about 20 centimetres wide and would be easy to miss if its sides weren’t encrusted with a thick layer of salt.

Dip your hand into the stream and you’ll find the water is warm; lick your finger and you’ll be left in no doubt as to where the salt comes from.

In pic: A man runs between salt pools at the Maras salt-evaporation ponds, 48 km northeast of Cusco, Peru.

AFP
​Intricate network of channels
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​Intricate network of channels

This small stream feeds all of the roughly 5,000 ponds – each of which is about four metres square – staggered down the valley in terraces.

An intricate network of channels feeds the spring water into the ponds. The keeper of each pond lets water into their pool by opening a notch in the side wall.

Each pond is about 30 cm deep and, when it is full, the water is left to evaporate in the dry Andean air. When the pool has crusted over, the keeper uses a wooden baton to scrape up the salt, which is put in a basket to drain.

In pic: A woman compresses the salt at the bottom of a pool at the Maras salt-evaporation ponds, 48 km northeast of Cusco, Peru.

AFP
​Tourist attraction
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​Tourist attraction

Five years ago, the salt ponds were turned into a tourist attraction.

There is now a thriving collection of shops clustered just above the ponds, selling pink salt neatly packaged and labelled “gourmet” and “100% natural”. There are plenty of salted snacks on offer, too – including corn chips and fried banana slices – and entrepreneurial locals have created an extensive range of bath salts and exfoliating scrubs.
There are even big slabs of the salt for sale, to use on a barbecue, to flavour the food. Amazon sells an 8oz bag for US$5, almost 10 times more than the sellers in Maras charge.

Determined to make sure that Maras is on the tourist map, one shopkeeper offers to stamp visitors’ passports with a message that reads: “Peruvian Pink Salt”. It’s uncertain what immigration officials will make of the chop, but it shows the locals are keen to be noticed.

In pic: People work at the Maras salt-evaporation ponds, 48 km northeast of Cusco, Peru.

AFP
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