We have arrived to Maras, at 12 Km from the city of Urubamba and at 3,028 meters above sea level. The temperature is between 1°C and 21 °C. It is one of the towns more far away and more interesting of the Sacred Valley circuit. We see it, ¡n the uphill and quiet roads, in their two floor house (but of little height.) The roads are of stone and mud, the houses are of adobe, white walls and roof and windows blue. In the lintels you can read inscribed in stone the date in which they were built or who were their owners, or see some shield or decoration. This tradition of the lintels is unique and shows pieces of great testimonial and artistic value. Many of them are registered by Unesco.
Maras had during the Colony a privileged situation because of its strategic location and the passing of the muleteers that went to Cusco from the low jungle. Its Spanish foundation dates from 1556 and it was in charged to the captain and “encomendero” Pedro Ortiz de Orue, whose house is located at one block from the Plaza de Armas in Jesus Street 221. What is curious of this house, similar to others in the town – built of adobe, not ostentatious with low roofs and two slopes – is that its original owner inscribed in the lintel of the door the date in which it was built; also who was the owner and other personal information. It was he who gave birth to this custom of inscribing in the lintels that has been continued until today. We recommend you to see all the porches throughout the Jerusalén Street: the house that belonged to Tupac Sinchi Roca Inca – Jerusalén 249-, the Jesuit porch, Jerusalén 233 – or the portal Sancho Usca Paucar – located in number 245 -, that will surprise you for its labored decoration.
It was also Orue who built the church of San Francisco de Asís, of gothic and Mudejar architecture, of stone, bricks and adobe. It has four altarpieces baroque style from the XVII century, with beautiful carvings and covered in gold leaf. The marine painter of the Cusco School, Antonio Sinchi Roca, decorated the walls with pictures that represent scenes from the gospel and portraits of the saints, including one of Judas Iscariote, most of them, recently restored. It also stands out the beautiful baptismal font of the XVII century and the wall painting of the Holy Trinity. The church is at the end of Jerusalen Jirón, in the outskirts of the town.
The tourists usually do not stay in the town of Maras, but go ahead to the salt flats. Great mistake! If there is a place where you can have and share a traveling experience of dialogue, learning, entertainment and varied emotions, this is Maras. To begin, the physiognomy of the town is something we have talked. It must be added to the description of the architecture that many of the colonial houses are today empty lands or very rustic houses with pens and large kitchen gardens connected since a long time ago, this way the colonial front hides a piece of today’s rural life. Then, the streets are all the time walked by shepherds, farmers and salt extractors, who in their donkeys – it is the place where there must be more donkeys in all of Peru – take and carry food for lite livestock or miscellaneous cargos. The women still wear the garments called “traditional”, not so the men. It must be said, that this subject of the garments demands precisions for a better understanding. It is known by the chroniclers that the pre-Columbian garments were made of an “anaco” or a straight tunic with openings at the side, with a neck in angle or in a horizontal cut over which the poncho was added if it was cold. During the extirpation of idols, when the European Counter Reformation demanded to adjust to the Christianity rules of living to recover power, the viceroy Toledo forbade the use of this old garment and imposed to change it to the one used in the different rural zones of the Iberian peninsula. It is in this way that appeared the skirts, blouses, embroideries, hats of different types in women and in men, this garment has the reminiscences of the bullfighter dress, trouser, little vest and a shirt, even though the “ojotas” always succeeded. When Jose María Arguedas travels to Spain in the decade of 1950 to carry out an ethnographic research on this subject and he is surprised by the amount of similarities found between the uses of Spain and the’ Andes, but also for the amount of elements added to the highlands. In Maras, the women wear top hats of “toquilla” straw glued and painted in white while in the men in brown color.
Mr. Argandona is an elder who always had his workshop in Pacheco road to glue and repair hats. He keeps a notebook with very old notes of his works and flatly refuses to sell any piece, even those abandoned for more than 30 years. Through this humble person and very much skilled in his work, we found out that the “toquilla” straw hats that come from the north he modifies them to local likes and wear. Beside the Argandona workshop, opens its doors one of the many “chicherías” that offer the famous fermented drink of Maras, that is considered one of the best in the valley. The “chichería” belongs to Jesusa Lucana who has a special hand for seasoning the chicha and Andean snacks. It is here where all the inhabitants of this town gather to talk, eat, drink, play music, because additionally to the salt in Maras, do not let pass the opportunity to eat and drink chicha and if you hear sounds, stop, you will not repent because in this town everyone is a musician. In the town you have to promenade through the streets searching for the lintels and discover the old custom of carving and placing it, that has continued until today. It also calls the attention the black pennons nailed in the doors of some houses: it is a reminder of recent mourning. In Punku Mayor, there is a pretty square where the ancient La Candelaria Chapel ¡s, a beautiful large house in the comer, in which you have to stop. The colonial house with a patio, of two floors and a backyard with a graveyard, belonging to the Amilcar del Castillo’s family, a great friend and promoter of his town as nobody else. On the second floor of the house, ¡t has an elongated room full of light with a balcony to the street; in which four beds are rented and all the decoration is an exhibition of local culture and very good taste. Amilcar’s mother is an excellent cook born ¡n the frozen lands of Canchis and cooks delicious dishes with local seasoning, but tamed so as to avoid bad digestión: potato cream, trouts, cheese and corn, soft and delicious stews, and always a cup of “muña” for the digestion. With Amilcar we can get to know the last little place of the town, visiting chicherías, stonecutter’s workshops and other artisan friends. If you ask for it, our Amilcar will prepare a visit down to the salt mines, where the traveler rides on a donkey and starts riding, followed by a small ensemble of “tinya” and small flutes. It is unforgettable; we have seen visitors to rave of joy after the experience. Amilcar is a true genius. Anyway, there are other less notorious ways to go down the salt mines. One of them is by walking, for more or less half an hour going down. Another, if the traveler has a car, then by car until the point of entry. To arrive to the salt mines, that it is a visiting must during our stay in Maras, you must take the path that starts on the Plaza de Armas – Jerusalen – and goes down towards the valley. If you walk, the journey will take about twenty or thirty minutes (by car is five minutes.) This way, you will arrive to a moon like scenery: the salt mine. The kill that is extracted in Cusco since always and very recently, in a very small scale, in Lima, is a gastronomic luxury (half a kilo box can cost S/.12.00.) Located at the hillside, the salt mine in the shape of terraces or andenes is crossed by a stream that nurtures salty water to the puddles, that form a mantle whose color tones go from white to brown, depending on the season of the year. When it rains, it takes a more chocolate tone. The use of this resource dates back to thousands of years and is inherited in each family but it is managed in a communitarian form, as if it were farming land. Each family owns a determined amount of puddles that exploits manually, but then the communitarian enterprise is the one in charge of the processes to add the iodine, the picking, gathering and the sale through an intermediary.
In the case of the gourmet version, the company Tierra del Monte purchases the salt to the families and commercializes it under the brand Pink Salt, not only table salt, but also as skin revitalizing products. In Lima, these products can be found in gourmet shops and in Wong; and in the valley at the hotel stores. The name in quechua of the salt mine is Kachi Raqay, and is composed by 3,000 pools of 5 square meters each, that require special care: the land must be leveled and sprinkled up to three times per week, then, after the water is filtered through the soil and it is evaporated due to the intensive sun, crystals of thick salt spring up. After a month, the salt reaches ten centimeters high and has to be harvested. Currently, there is a participative tourist project that has the backing of several entities, for the visitors to share a moment with the salt mine workers extracting this resource that provides to the marine families and of Pichingoto since ancestral times.