The Salt mines of Maras are located 50 km northeast of the city of Cusco, at an altitude of 3,200 meters above sea level. Geographically, they are located in the lower part of the sub-basin and left bank of the Salineras stream, towards its mouth in the Vilcanota river, in the jurisdiction of the peasant communities of Maras and Pichingoto, between the ravines of the Qaqahuiñay, Cruz Mocco, Llully Mocco and Chupayoq.
It has three access routes: from the town of San Francisco de Maras, along the bridle path or runañan to the salt mines of Maras, the paved road from the town of San Francisco de Maras, and crossing the Inca bridge of Tarabamba through the community of Pichingoto.
The salt mines of Maras themselves are made up of a set of approximately 4,500 salt pools located in the form of stepped terraces on the middle slope of the Qaqawiñay hill with slopes of 20 degrees incline to the bottom of the ravine on the left bank of the Salineras stream, with dimensions that fluctuate around 5 linear meters, occupying a total area of approximately 1.5 to 2 hectares.
The terraces are made up of irregular stone retaining walls settled with mud mortar, forming dikes that delimit the pools as small reservoirs of approximately 5m2. The saltwater conduction system from its catchment is carried out through a main irrigation channel, which branches into several small channels that feed the pools. The conduction and maintenance of the salt water canal is associated with a path that, due to its layout and characteristics, is presumed to be of pre-Hispanic origin. This technology is similar to that of irrigation in pre-Hispanic agricultural platforms characterized by the conduction and equitable distribution of water.
Legend has it that the salty waters that flow from the mountain are the tears of Ayar Cachi. Within the Inca mythology, this was one of the 4 brothers and sisters that originated the great empire of the Incas: The God Wiracocha made these brothers come out of a cave to found a great empire. Ayar Cachi threw a stone at a mountain, forming a ravine. Then his brothers, fearing his strength and power, tricked him into the cave, preventing him from being the founder of the empire. The tears of this character formed the pools that the sun then dried up, forming the salt flats.
The set of pools and channels is in perfect continuous operation from the pre-Inca period to the present. The very particular effect of great landscape value produced by the set of staggered pools that are perceived as the sum of numerous white, cream or brown grids, arranged in a certain order following the topography of a slope of the Qaqawiñay hill, most of which which looks flooded with water and others dry with salt on their surface, highlighting the particular configuration of the complex and the chromatic contrast with the natural environment provided with low shrubby vegetation.
Salt production takes place once a month and is marked by the calendar of the seasons of the year. Thus, in the dry season (May to October) the accumulation of salt is rapid, there is greater production and better quality salt of “white or pink color that commercially characterizes this salt” is obtained, on the other hand in the rainy season (November to April) production is difficult and the color of the salt shows brown in various shades.
The traditional production process is strictly communal without any external participation and consists of filling the pools, previously cleaned, with salt water from a Salineras stream spring conducted by a system of canals, up to a height of 5 centimeters and then allowing it to evaporate. for 3 days, repeating this practice for a month, mainly during the dry season, a period in which a solid volume of crystallized salt of 7 to 10 centimeters is reached, equivalent to 3 or 4 inches in height. The extraction of the salt is carried out in layers, obtaining different commercial qualities.
The extraction process or “harvest” includes the fragmentation of the salt using the force of the feet and then proceeding to scrape each layer with a wooden tablet or a small pick and then sift with a sieve and stack what is obtained to one side. Once the salt is completely dry, it is collected in a basket or container for its transfer to the warehouse of the Marasal communal company, which is in charge of the classification and commercialization. The profits from the sales are distributed among the owners according to the number of pools they have. Each pool produces between 150 and 200 kilos of salt on average per month.
In the process of extraction and elaboration of salt, traditional community-type social relations predominate, currently maintaining its traditional form. The salt production system is inherited from father to son, as witnessed today by many elderly community members, who work their wells since they were children, just as their parents, grandparents and ancestors did. The community members of Maras and Pichingoto establish production agreements with the community members who do not have salt pools or with those who have few units; This is how the owners cede their wells to the non-possessors in a condition of cooperation and reciprocity or ayni, and the result of the production is distributed in a proportion of 5 to 1 in favor of the community owner.
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