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Maras is a town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, 40 kilometers north of Cuzco, in the Cuzco Region of Peru. The town is well known for its nearby salt evaporation ponds, in use since Inca times. The salt-evaporation ponds are up-slope, less than a kilometer west of the town.
The Maras area is accessible only by a poorly maintained dirt road, which leads from the main road leading through the Sacred Valley between Cuzco and the surrounding towns. Tourist sites in the area include the colonial church and local salt mines, and the surrounding scenery is interesting to observe and photograph with views of the Andean mountains on the horizon.
Since pre-Inca times, salt has been obtained in Maras by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The highly salty water emerges at a spring, a natural outlet of the underground stream. The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred ancient terraced ponds. 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. It is agreed among local residents and pond workers that the cooperative system was established during the time of the Incas, if not earlier. 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. 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. Some salt is sold at a gift store nearby.
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.
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