The Incas were the masters of the terrace, carving their steep Andean territory into enormous staircases, where layers of crops could be grown. In the mountains above the Sacred Valley, some 25 miles (40 km) from Cusco, on the road to Ollantaytambo, lies a very different use for this most innovative technology.
Just northwest of the old Inca city of Moray lie the Maras Salt Pans, a slender crevasse through the pale pink Qaqawinay mountain packed with some 3,000 shallow pools. An artesian spring, as salty as the ocean, is deliberately poured through the individually owned pools as it has been for untold centuries. The water evaporates in the arid Andean air, and blocks of salt are carved away from the mountain and sent to market.
Though the idea that saline evaporation pools would be a tantalizing attraction seems odd, it is one of the most highly rated excursions from Cusco. The glittering pools, a shimmering rainbow of earthen colors in the stunning high-altitude scenery, are an architectural marvel on par with the regions more famous ruins. If you might appreciate an ancient scientific achievement in an out-of-the-way corner of the Cusco corridor, you may have found your tour.
While all trips differ, most generally take in the town of Moray first, known for its own outstanding terraced fields. These are angled around the mountains and can have a 10°C difference in temperature from plot to plot. This allowed the Incas and their predecessors to develop and grow the enormous variety of potatoes, corn and other vegetables available today.
From there, you’ll take a road, sometimes impassable in rainy season, when you’ll need to hike to the salt pools. The region was also important in colonial times (the Spaniards appreciated salt in their soup as much as any Inca), so there is a fair amount of interesting Spanish architecture as well; the brick church is a standout. After walking around the salt pools, you’ll find several shops and vendors selling salts as spices and for baths, as well as a huge variety of local herbs and other produce.