Anyone who’s been to the Cusco area can probably attest to the fact that it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what to see and do. There’s so much ancient history and so many different preserved cultural sites that you see something different every day for a week and still not cover it all. We knew we’d go to Machu Picchu, but what else should we see? Our time was relatively limited and we didn’t want to blow our budget, so we had to choose wisely.
We thought about getting the boleto turistico, a ticket that allows you to see a number of different Inca ruins for a set price over either one or a few days. It wasn’t cheap, though, and we realized that as interesting some people might consider them, we didn’t actually want to spend our time and precious soles travelling around seeing a bunch of different old stone structures. It’s probably a bit sacrilegious for me to admit that, but it’s the truth. The fact that most of the sites apparently don’t have much in the way of signage so they’d be pretty meaningless without a guide, which we couldn’t really afford, was another reason for us to skip them. There’s often a lot of value in seeing the stuff that everyone says you have to see, but it also pays to realize that you don’t need to do everything that Lonely Planet recommends. Anyone else struggle with this?
We ultimately decided to veer a little bit off the beaten path on one of our Cusco days and head to Salinas de Maras. The Salinas are a grouping of hundreds of salt pools owned and harvested by the surrounding community. This spot wasn’t on our radar at all until we saw it a little ways down Trip Advisor’s Top Attractions in Cusco list, but we were intrigued by the pictures and the fact that it was something different from the Inca ruins we knew we’d be seeing lots of already. After doing some more research on how to get there, and with a bit of guidance from our hostel owner, we were on our way.
You know that old saying, “sometimes the journey is more important than the destination”? Well, our destination on this day was pretty incredible, but the journey was also a major part of the adventure. We’d been told that in order to catch a collectivo, basically a large shared taxi van, we’d need to go down a certain street. We didn’t have many details about how the system worked, but we were under the impression we should just watch for a van driving by and flag it down. After waiting on a street that seemed all too quiet for twenty minutes or so we decided we’d better walk down the block and ask someone for more guidance, only to discover that there was a guy very obviously advertising the destinations we were looking for. It’s a good thing we decided to move, or we would have been stuck waiting a block away out of luck!
Unfortunately we were some of the first to get in the van, so we had to wait almost an hour for it to fill up. Despite the driver’s yells and assurances to passersby that we only had two seats left to fill even when there were actually five or six empty, travellers were slow to trickle in. When we finally had a full house, we were on our way.
Another moment of confusion came when it was time for us to get off the bus. Based on what our hostel owner had told us, we thought we should disembark in the town of Urubamba and then take a cab to Salinas de Maras from there. Our bus driver disagreed when we told him where we we were going, though, saying that we should have gotten off much earlier. Oops. He insisted that we get back in the van and instead let us off at a small dirt road, pointing to a trail zigzagging up a mountain and telling us that we should walk up that way. Okay…? He drove off and left us standing on the side of a deserted rural Peruvian road feeling more confused than ever. We weren’t mentally prepared for any kind of hiking that day, and we really didn’t know if his estimate of ten to fifteen minutes was accurate for us, or whether it applied more to people who were a little more adept at climbing in high altitudes. Needless to say, we were a little concerned, but we didn’t really have much of a choice, so we headed towards the trail he’d pointed out. Luckily the locals we encountered were very kind and were quick to give us guidance when they sensed our confusion. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the landscape was in the area, and I was happy to marvel at the desert covered mountains even if it did mean climbing a little more than we’d bargained for.
As it turned out, his estimate really wasn’t that far off and we spotted Salinas de Maras little more than twenty minutes after we’d set off. From the first moment we laid eyes on it, we were both in awe. Rows and rows of salt water ponds covered the hills for a kilometre or more. The contrast between the white salt “walls” of the pools and the water, which came in shades from dark brown to light blue, was incredibly striking. As an added bonus, we basically had the area to ourselves, other than a few groups of locals that were working to harvest the salt. They were very kind and had no problem with us walking around as they worked and taking pictures. And we certainly weren’t stingy with the pictures. Every few steps we were struck by a different angle and perspective on this amazing place.
Salinas de Maras will most definitely go down as one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen. It may be a little bit off the beaten path, but in an area so saturated with tourists I’m shocked that it’s not more heavily visited. Add the fact that it only costs seven soles to enter to it’s very unique beauty, and there’s no reason not to go if you’re in the Cusco area. Just make sure you’ve got a handle on the transportation situation before you go. Or don’t, because sometimes getting a little bit lost makes for the best stories.