Spoiler alert: you don't need to join a tour to see this magical destination. Why? Because it's easily accessible and much more fun to explore on your own terms and time.
what are they?
The salt mines of Maras are among a handful of places in the world where pink salt is still harvested 100% by hand. It may seem strange that natural salt water exists in the middle of the Sacred Valley. But, the water comes from a natural spring that's mixed with salt deposits from prehistoric lakes. Tectonic plates have shifted and pushed the salt deposits deep beneath the mountains. Miraculously, the salt bubbles emerges above ground near the town of Maras.
To this day, the miners are using the same 500+ year old technique that the Incans used to mine the salt. We are not scientists so, to keep it simple, the miners fill the salt pans with water. After the sun works its magic through evaporation, a layer of crystallized salt is left in the pool. Miners aren't scientists either, but rather local members of the community. The individual pools are assigned to families based on their size and/or passed down through generations. We heard that there is a long wait-list for families hoping to be granted a portion of the salineras to begin salt production. The salt harvested from the pools can be kept within their family or sold for a profit.
why are the pools all different colors?
The variation in color of the pools depends on the talents of the individual miners. The brightest white pools are managed by true experts.
how do I get there?
We accessed the salt mines from Ollantaytambo because it's actually closest to there (or Urubamba). You can visit the salt mines on a day trip from Cusco, but you'll need a driver or tour. From Ollantaytambo's main plaza, we walked towards Mercado San Pedro where there are a group of white vans also known as colectivos. Always ask the price beforehand, but the driver should charge you 2 soles (~$.60 cents) per person. Ask the driver to drop you off at Restaurante Tunupa. We recommend downloading Google Maps and following your location on the map to ensure you don't miss your stop. Once you get out (approximately a 10 minute bus ride), follow the road down to the river, cross the river, follow the path a little further, and then stay left at the fork. The trail will then start heading up a short, but somewhat steep trail. Bre and I both hiked in sandals and her in a skirt, so it's nothing worth worrying about. There were plenty of locals around to point us in the right direction.
how much does it cost?
We have a dirty secret. Since we entered the back way and never crossed through the entrance where the tours park, we didn't end up paying an entry fee. We stayed at the far end of the mines where none of the tours visit -- meaning we had the place to ourselves. It's important to remain respectful and only walk on designated paths. Many locals were out mining their salt pans and didn't seem to mind our presence at all. If you enter through the front gate, I believe the entrance fee is 10 soles ($3.04 USD) per person.
how do I get back?
We hiked down the same exact way we came up and waved down the first white van we saw on the highway headed towards Ollantaytambo. It actually happened to be a tour company driver on his way back to town with an empty van. We negotiated 5 soles (~$1.50 USD) total for our ride back to town. Hitchiking is totally normal in the Sacred Valley, so don't be afraid to wave down a van!
Let us know if you have any questions about visiting Salineras de Maras. It's a beautiful trip that only takes 2-3 hours round trip from Ollantaytambo.
For love & adventure,