In Nacho we have a cylindrical stainless steel salt and pepper mill. It is our most used kitchen utensil containing our most used food product. We use it every day with every meal. No traveler sets up camp without it. Our German cyclist friends carry their salt in a small canvas satchel, carefully stored in one of their waterproof pannier bike bags. With every meal, they loosen the hemp cord and take a few pinches out, sprinkling its sparkling granules on their food.
It is a magical and powerful mineral. For thousands of years humans have extracted it from the sea and searched for it on land. Wars have been fought over it and taxes on its purchase have increased the wealth of countries. It runs through our bodies. We crave it. Yet, it goes unnoticed, always in the shadows. It never takes credit for why something is so delicious; it always hears the applause from backstage.
Like many trades, the art of saltmaking has sadly been demoted, dying in the modern global economy where standardized processes rule all. Now, our option in the standard grocery store is a blue box of Morton salt, made by a company whose primary production of salt is not even for consumption, but rather for industry. Fortuantely, there are still regions in the world that have held onto their traditions. In the Sacred Valley lies one of these gems.
A saltmaking demonstration was just finishing up for a camera crew. Two women with crisp white blouses and exuberant smiles stomped their bare feet in a salt pool. They scraped the pool with their wooden boards, forming a mound of salt which they scooped up with their woven baskets. Their pool shimmered in the sunlight. And behind them, a couple thousand more pools brilliantly shimmered. We squinted, the sun’s rays ricocheting off of every particle of evaporating salt.
It was an insanely beautiful sight; ponds terracing down the hillsides like puzzle pieces, separated by salt covered borders and trenched canals. Main arteries of salt-laden water ran alongside the walkways, splitting off into capillaries which reached each and every excavating pond. There was no organization to the mess, just a myriad of salt pools, all in different stages of the evaporation process; varying from puddles of water, to clumping blossoms of salt formation, to ripe and ready, scrape me now. Like miniature pyramids, salt mounds neatly rested, letting the sun’s rays suck them dry one last time. There were also walking arteries; made for traversing down into no man’s land. They were almost indistinguishable, yet there were well worn routes the locals used; like a climbing wall, some super sketchy, balancing with your arms out, scrambling up the sides of walls, and others meant to cover distance quickly.
A few hundred meters down the valley, an older man and wife with tired faces harvested from their pool. Why the camera crew wasn’t recording the true workers of the ponds was beyond me. With a dowel in hand, the man patted the top of his salt mound flat. They loaded their riches into canvas bags and secured them onto their backs with a long piece of fabric. They scrambled their way through the maze of salt pools, rubber sandals gripping the slippery surface. This couple owned one salt pool out of the thousands as Salinas de Maras was owned by hundreds of families; plots which had been passed on through the generations, sometimes sectioned off to other family members.
So why salt pools here? It all seemed so random. A dry desolate landscape and then BOOOOOM!! Nothing you’d ever expect to see with the crest of one hillside. It turns out, however, that it is not so random. Salt has been cultivated in the Peruvian Andes since well before the arrival of the Incas. Higher up in the mountains, off of a tributary on the Urubamaba river, rain and snowmelt makes its way through subterranean streams, passing through a deposit of salt dating back tens of millions of years. Water saltier than the sea. Diverted from the river, the water meets its resting place at 10,000 feet, trapped in place, left to slowly evaporate in thousands of terraced ponds along the valley’s narrow slopes.
After leaving Salinas de Maras I was curious about salt. I knew nothing of it; only that I liked to grind it in my salt and pepper mill. From a brief reading, I discovered there are two main types of salt: evaporative and rock. Rock salts are mined while evaporative salts are crystallized from saltwater seas, lakes, or springs. Countless varieties of salt arise from these two processes, but most artisan salts are evaporative. Some salts form in an instant while others take years. For evaporative, wind is vital, increasing the water vapor which is needed to crystallize the salt.
Location definitely made sense now. Did I mention the scary wind? I was in a constant state of fright, fearing I’d lose balance, ragdoll off a terrace, and fall into someone’s salt pool.
If I would have fallen, I would have been covered in irregular and unevenly shaped “Sel Gris” salt. This was the type of salt here; solar harvested by evaporating saline water with the sun and wind. The blossoms of their fine crystals were then raked into a pile, allowing the lingering water to dry. The end result was a salt high in trace minerals, deepening the flavor of food, high in moisture, and complexity with its “tart boldness, mild sweetness, and light funk of clay”. Here, in a book called “Salted” is where I found this profile along with dozens of others. I also came to the realization there is a world of salt connoisseurs out there that I never knew existed.
With a few packs of mixed salt rubs in hand, we were on our way. Like all days in the week, the Quechan people were out and about. Young girls walked their sheep home and women herded fleets of livestock, whether it be pigs, sheep, or cows, showing domination with their tree branch whips. They always stood out like pops of color, their skirts radiating in a rainbow of hues.
No doubt about it – their life was hard in the manual labor sense. Working and living overlapped to such an extreme that the two were nearly indistinguishable. They never rested, always working the fields, transporting livestock, selling livestock, buying food, growing food, cooking food. Even for the children. They grew up in the fields, involved fully in the economic and household tasks. They swung their picks high, tilling the land alongside their parents, breaking when it was time for lunch.
So many things to miss in Peru; like the women in the fields spinning wool, pickup trucks full off sheep’s wool, sheep in taxis, young boys wearing ponchos, animal trading events, sheep skin drying on the walls of adobe homes, homes turned billboard, and the all encompassing people watching while driving. Also not to be forgotten are the herds of llama with tassels on their ears, elegant vicunas, and flamingoes wading in lakes.
…And just the unexpectedness of every day occurrences.
Yet, it was time for Chile.