Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Salt Pans of Salineras, and the Sacred Valley of Peru



I've given you a hint in the title of this post, so you probably already know what you're looking at in the photo above. They're not terraces of snow or white marble -- they're thousands of individual pools of salt in Peru's Urubamba River valley.
Years ago, I'd visited underground salt mines in Austria and felt claustrophobic riding down a wooden slide where the salt was mined. But that felt like child's play compared to the descent to the salt pans of Salineras, Peru. It was a little too close to the edge for most of the harrowing ride down the valley, but our driver assured me he had done it many times before. 
The 6,000 individual salt pans of Salineras de Maras have been mined since Incan times. 
Individual salt pans form cascading terraces along a hillside.

They are all family-owned and passed down through generations.

The pools are filled with heavily salted water from a natural spring. The water is diverted into the pans through a series of channels, which can be blocked off, controlling where the water flows.

Once the pan is filled with water, the sun does its job and helps evaporate the water in a few weeks, leaving layers of salt about one meter deep (about 40 inches).
 The top layer is used in the leather industry; the middle layer is used for animals and the very bottom, and finest salt layer, is for human consumption. I'm sure many of you have purchased fleur de sel from France for your cooking. In Spanish it's called "flor de sal" or "flower of salt."
At Salineras, they sell lots of different kinds of salts, including some flavored with herbs and spices.
I bought several bags, including one type of salt that's used for medicinal purposes -- very useful after my ankle injury on this trip.
I was sidelined at the edge, due to my injury, but my daughter explored, walking carefully along the paths between the salt pans. 
When it's time to harvest the salt, families arrive with shovels and start filling bags with the salt.
Salineras is in a beautiful area of Peru called the "Sacred Valley" -- an area of rolling fields and fertile farmland between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

It's also an area of many ancient Incan sites, all crowned by the magnificent backdrop of the Andes mountains.
One of the most unusual places we visited was Moray. These concentric circles are thought to have been a center for Incan agricultural research, where crops were grown at different levels, and where temperatures changed precipitously from the lowest to the highest terrace.
We also stopped at Chinchero, where there are more Incan ruins and where we got a demonstration on natural dying and weaving from two Quechua women who were spinning baby llama wool.
 Most of the colors came from plant material, such as this purple corn:
But one of the colors came from a small beetle that lives on cacti, called the cochineal beetle. It appears to be white, but once it's scraped off the protective white covering on the cactus and crushed between the fingers, it turns as red as bright lipstick.

The beetles are dried,
 Then crushed into powder before mixing with water.
Artists and textile experts have long used the natural dye in their work, and it's also been used in food coloring for centuries as well as in cosmetics. It fell out of favor for a while, but after some synthetic red food colorings were found to be carcinogenic, the natural cochineal red is making a comeback. 
Similarly, Italians produce a liqueur called alkermes, whose intense red color also comes from an insect. The liquid, infused with flavorings like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, is widely used there in baking and as a digestivo.

 There are so many more Incan sites to visit in the "Sacred Valley" and we barely scratched the surface.
 The people we met were so friendly and warm, we were sorry we couldn't spend more time there. I hope you get a chance to visit too.
Hasta la vista.

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7 comments:

Claudia said...

This is amazing. I have always loved how people used natural materials for coloring yarn and the like. I don't think I could have braved the journey to the salt mines (one really sees how the phrase "salt mines" has come into existence from this post). But I love that you and your daughter did so I could see it! What an amazing trip.

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

The salt mines looked so interesting, Linda, so I'm glad you braved the ride to see them. I wonder where that spring originates that make it contain salt?

The natural dye process is also interesting to see, and the beautiful photos of the Sacred Valley. I looked up its altitude and it is about a thousand feet lower than Rocky Mountain NP'a highest point! Amazing for a valley to be so high. Did you suffer any altitude sickness?

Rosa said...

Impressive and so interesting! Thanks for sharing your impressions with us.

Cheers,

Rosa

Roz Corieri Paige said...

As a life-long learner, I was taught two things that I never knew in this post, Linda: The salt fields is something that I never knew and just like you, I'd be shivering of being on the edge going down! The concentric planting fields -- simply amazing and so ancient. I did know about the cochinea bug from a textile study tour in Oaxaca during my masters work, where there was a 'nursery' to grow the bugs at a massive level to supply the demand. I covet the super, deep red rug and yarn that I bought. I must get to Peru . . . must, must, MUST! Thank you again for these wonderful posts!

Proud Italian Cook said...

You are one heck of an adventurer, even with your foot you still carried on, you can be on Amazing Race! I was telling my visiting family from Florida all about your trip, showed them your pictures and the decent down, some good conversation at the table here!

Frank Fariello said...

I've been vicariously enjoying your trip through Peru, Linda. What a fascinating place! I need to get back there. Was in Lima a couple of years ago for business, but didn't have time to get out and see the country!

Velva said...

Incredible! What an amazing journey. Visiting Peru is on my bucket list. Love, love your post.

Velva