Moray and Maras Salt Ponds

After returning from Puerto Maldonado and our jungle adventure, it was time to spend a couple of days in the Sacred Valley near Cusco. The valley contains numerous archaeological remains and villages.   It was formed by the Urubamba River, also known as Willkamayu in the native Quechua language which means the sacred river.  The valley was appreciated by the Incas due to its special geographical and climatic qualities and one of the most important areas for corn production in Peru.  Large scale corn production started around 1400 as Inca urban agriculture based on varieties bred in Moray.

We had arranged ahead of time to have Miguel, a private driver, pick us up at the Cusco airport and drive us to Urubamba where we would spend the next couple of days.  It’s about an hour drive from Cusco to Urubamba.  We had rented a beautiful 3-bedroom home to relax at for a couple of days.  After getting dropped off, we arranged to have Miguel pick us up at 9:30am the next morning to take us to Moray and the Maras Salt Mines.

A few shots of our little villa in Urubamba.

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A couple of views from our upstairs balcony overlooking the countryside.

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On Sunday morning Miguel picked us up at 9:30am and we climbed back from the valley floor of Urubamba to the high plateau above.

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Moray is located just west of the village of Moras and is 17 km from Urubamba.  The site sits at an elevation of 11,500’.  The site contains unusual Inca ruins, mostly consisting of several enormous terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is about 30 m (98 ft) deep. The purpose of these depressions is uncertain, but their depth and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and bottom. This large temperature difference was possibly used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops. In other words, Moray was perhaps an Inca agricultural experiment station.

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Some wildflowers we saw when hiking around the Moray ruins.

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After hiking around the Moray ruins, we got back in the car with Miguel and headed back down the road to the Maras Salt Mines.

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During pre-Inca times, beginning with the Tahuantinsuyo culture, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water (provided by a nearby subterranean Qoripujio spring) in the sun, leaving the salt behind. The highly salty water has been flowing from this nearby stream for hundreds of years. A main channel flows across the mountain and trickles down to all the pools below. As the salt water becomes supersaturated, salt crystals begin precipitating out of the water. The farmers then scrape the salt to the side and collect it once a sizable amount has been gathered.

Almost all the ponds are less than four meters square in area, and none exceeds thirty centimeters in depth. All are necessarily shaped into polygons with the flow of water carefully controlled and monitored by the workers. The altitude of the ponds slowly decreases, so that the water may flow through the myriad branches of the water-supply channels and be introduced slowly through a notch in one sidewall of each pond. The proper maintenance of the adjacent feeder channel, the side walls and the water-entry notch, the pond’s bottom surface, the quantity of water, and the removal of accumulated salt deposits requires close cooperation among the community of users.

A view from up above looking down on all of the salt ponds.  There are more than 3,000 salt ponds below!

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After taking in the view from above, we headed down to get a close up view.  Heading down the trail into the salt ponds.

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The kids took a shot of Lisa and I at the ponds.

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A view looking down the valley from the salt ponds.

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A closeup shot of showing the water flow being directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred terraced ponds.

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A close up view of the ponds.  You can see some of the salt crystalized on top of the ponds.

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In this shot you can see where a pile of salt deposits that have been removed from one of the ponds and is ready to be harvested.

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As water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated and salt precipitates as various size crystals onto the inner surfaces of a pond’s earthen walls and on the pond’s earthen floor.

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The pond’s keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry. Within a few days the keeper carefully scrapes the dry salt from the sides and bottom, puts it into a suitable vessel, reopens the water-supply notch, and carries away the salt. Color of the salt varies from white to a light reddish or brownish tan, depending on the skill of an individual worker.

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The salt mines traditionally have been available to any person wishing to harvest salt. The owners of the salt ponds must be members of the community, and families that are new to the community wishing to propitiate a salt pond get the one farthest from the community. The size of the salt pond assigned to a family depends on the family’s size. Usually there are many unused salt pools available to be farmed. Any prospective salt farmer need only locate an empty currently unmaintained pond, consult with the local informal cooperative, learn how to keep a pond properly within the accepted communal system, and start working.

After touring the salt ponds, we had Miguel take us back into Urubamba where we got some lunch before heading off by local bus to Pisac to the local outdoor markets for some shopping!

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