Salt of the Earth

I don’t remember their names.

I still don’t know much about them. All I really know is that they were dirt poor, and they invited the group of us for dinner.


It was a busy day. We had started by going to Ollantaytambo to see the ruins at Temple Hill and learn about the Sacred Valley, then moved on to Moray to see and learn about the agricultural research station and how the Inca used that info to help build an empire.

Our next stop was the salt ponds at Moras.

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We don’t know for certain when the salt ponds got started, but it goes back at least to the time of the Inca empire (1438-1533), and possibly before.

But how did there come to be salt ponds in the Peruvian highlands, far from the nearest ocean?

The source of the water springs from the side of a mountain. The Inca would have called it a gift from the gods. In the Inca mythology the gods lived in three realms: the hana pacha (world above), the ukhu pacha (world below), and the kay pacha (this world); so the salt stream would be a gift from the world below to this world.

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This little stream, maybe 6 inches across feeds all the salt ponds.

A more prosaic explanation suggests that an ancient seabed was raised enough to evaporate, then thrust up by subduction from the Nazca plate along with rest of the Andes, and covered by volcanic activity. A subterranean stream runs over the top of or through the salt layer and runs out the mountain. No one knows how long the salt or stream will last.

The water is very salty, an 8% solution according to our guide. Dipping in a finger and tasting the residue confirms the saltiness.

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The ponds are bordered by channels fed by the main stream. Each pond accesses a channel and can be blocked for evaporation or opened to add salt water.

DSC_4432-2.JPGEvaporation takes about 10 days. Our guide told us they’ll do an evaporation/fill cycle three times, with the bottom layer of salt having the most sediment and the top being the cleanest. The cleanest salt gets the best price and the dirtiest gets thrown out.

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Anyone in the local community can harvest from a pond, but they need to coordinate with the local cooperative and be trained. New members get ponds in the lower levels and move up with seniority.

There’s not much money to be made harvesting salt. It does not contain iodine. We learned that despite taking far less effort the process of adding iodine more than doubles the price of the salt. Tourism for the salt ponds is now generating near as much income as harvesting does, and it’s likely to surpass it.


Salt of the Earth has more meaning than just the literal translation we’ve just explored. The dictionary describes it as a simple, good person; reliable, trustworthy, and straightforward. While I did not meet that many Peruvians, I had the sense that, especially for the people of the highlands, salt of the Earth is an apt description.

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A friendly pair in a small town square near Moray

Most are poor, with limited education. But if you approach them with a smile, they are friendly in return.

I suspect our hosts for dinner back in Urubamba would fall into this category.

The tour company had arranged a dinner with a local family as an optional part of the package. We didn’t know what to expect, our guide filled us in.

Like the school visit, this was a case of the tour company helping out locals who were resource poor. This particular family had lost everything the year before; their home was on the flood plane next to the river and when historically high rains came through they lost the house and all their belongings. They were living with the in-laws and using the income from these tour group dinners to rebuild.

Dinner opened with soup, a nice broth with potato. We learned the potato had been dehydrated and purchased from the market looking like a small white mushroom, then rehydrated for the meal.

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The entrée included stuffed pepper, potato, rice and pasta, corn, fried bread, chicken, and a sweet potato paste.  For dessert, a peach in sauce.

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Chicha Morada, a non-alcoholic drink made from purple corn, and optionally with pineapple, cinnamon, clove, or sugar.

The dinner conversation was a little awkward. Our hosts spoke no English, and we spoke little to no Spanish. Our guide translated, but mostly we smiled and said gracias. To fill the space, we learned more about our guide’s life.

He had tried several careers before settling on guiding, but what was surprising was how much training a fully certified guide required. He started with two years for the hospitality side, something like hotel management. Then he did three more years, with more focus on history, archeology, geology and the like. Guides are well regarded in Peru, for both their level of training and for helping bring money into the economy.

He too, like our other encounters that day, was a good representation for salt of the Earth.

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28 thoughts on “Salt of the Earth

  1. pinklightsabre

    My god, I have never heard of such a thing! Again, the photo on your header of this is just stunning and so strange. What a lovely looking meal, too. You have a goldmine of cool adventures and memories here to share Dave, thanks for doing it. All I can think that comes close to this is Moses Lake and that ain’t much! Bill

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fascinating post! (For one thing, I had no idea a whole potato could be dehydrated and then re-hydrated!) But I agree that the people are truly the “salt of the earth” and am so glad you had a chance to get interact with them. Thanks goodness for the guide!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You got some great photos at Maras! I loved our walk down through the salt pans – such a strange but interesting area. Nice link with the spirit of the Peruvian people, some of the warmest, humblest people I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know that I’ve heard of another place like it – truly unique. I really started getting a feel for the warm, humble aspect when we did the school visit. There didn’t seem to be a sense of entitlement. On the other hand I understand alcoholism is a problem in Peru, so maybe, like the salt, there’s a darker side.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Green Global Trek

    What terrific memories this post brings back for us. We loved that whole area so much that instead of spending a few days in Ollyantantambo we ended up spending ten days there. We stayed at the beautiful little hotel right on the train tracks (which has a eucalyptus sauna and is owned by the artist Wendy Weeks.)

    Love your photos of the salt mines. We really enjoyed our visit there, what an amazing place it is. I remember the rather hair raising drive to get there, as well.

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

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