Being big fans of the finer things in life, namely cheese and wine, we couldn’t pass up the chance to take a road less travelled and indulge in both, whilst also helping a local Ecuadorian community.
When a visiting missionary witnessed the poverty of the small salt mining pueblito of Salinas de Bolivar in the 70’s, he got to work encouraging and educating the locals to help them setup small cooperatives using regional produce. Salinas has now become a haven of locally made products including chocolates, salami and cured meats, wool and textiles, mushrooms and oils as well as cheese and wine.
After a brief overnight in Ambato where we opted for the overpriced (USD$16) yet more enticing Hotel San Ignacio (the other option was two single rooms in a ‘hostel’ run by a well-dressed transvestite), we took the short walk to the bus station headed for the small town of Guaranda. The road takes you right by the impressive snow covered Chimborazo, Ecuadors highest volcano at 6,268m.
Whilst enjoying the views we were distracted by a perfect example of the lack of nutritional education in this part of the world when a woman, after having breastfed her baby only an hour before, proceeded to feed it an entire sugar-coated jam donut, washing it down with a mouthful of a sugar filled strawberry yoghurt drink (we also witnessed breastfeeding women feed their kids chocolate milk and pink fizzy drinks straight from the bottle). But moving on…
In Guaranda we bought some fruit from an old lady in a corner store who insisted on giving us free grapes with our apples and free apples with our bananas. We then spent an hour in a pickup truck with a lovely old local woman linking arms with Sarah and stroking her hair before finally reaching Salinas.
Dropped off at the miniscule main square we found nearby Hostel La Minga to be just what we needed. A clean dorm room to ourselves, beds piled high with warm blankets with an ensuite to boot, this place ticked all the boxes for just USD$8 each a night. Throw in a bright lofty common area complete with a couple of small couches around a wood burning stove for the chilly nights and you can understand our surprise at having the entire place to ourselves.
Our first stop in town was the most important…El Salinerito (literally, “the little person from Salinas”). Producing goods sold throughout Ecuador and exported across Europe, the small dairy cooperative is a short slightly uphill walk out of town. On offer are many varieties of cheese plus some fruity yoghurts, though we were disappointed when we realised the brie was unavailable. BOO! Settling for a litre of strawberry yoghurt and a bag of mixed cheese cubes, we headed back to town to hit store number two, the chocolate shop.
A counter containing a drool inducing variety of cocoa filled bliss, we found it hard to choose, so we didn’t. Buying two of each, including one filled with local ‘Paraja Azul’ or Blue Bird liqueur (if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll see blue bird references all over town), we then took an anticlockwise stroll around town to visit the salami factory (working but not open for sales), the wool spinning factory and store, housing some soft brightly coloured alpaca wools, the textiles shop where local woman sell and export their hand knitted wares, the mushroom shed, finally finishing at a local store selling most of the products produced in these factories.
Grabbing a bottle of local red, some salami, biscuits and a locally made beeswax lip balm to add to our earlier haul, we headed back to the hostel a total of £15 lighter though with plenty to get stuck into.
Finishing off with the cheese and biscuits (obviously) washed down with the very pleasing bottle of red, there was nothing left to do but retire to the couches as darkness set it. Lighting a fire we spent the evening overindulging on chocolates and cheap red wine whilst catching up on the last five episodes of Game of Thrones (making the most of a good WiFi connection while we had it). Feeling we’d done our part to support the local community by gorging wholeheartedly we retired to bed planning to work it off tomorrow.
An early start saw us hiking the short, steep hill behind the church to a large unremarkable crumbling cross which towers over the town. The short sharp effort affords some pretty fantastic views, and from here we planned to follow our pretty crude local map to some mineral pools in the surrounding area.
Headed down an equally steep muddy path, we reached a small canyon heading away from town, however after a few minutes hike the weather turned against us so we opted to wimp out and head back. If you’re here on a nice day the picturesque flora and fauna, including small brown hummingbirds and mossy xxx would make this a great little hike to work off those calories.
After a filling $2 lunch at upstairs Anita Café (on the main square) we headed back to Ambato the way we’d come, this time opting to sit in the back of the camioneta, and upon reaching town we weren’t surprised to once again be dropped anywhere but the bus station. Finding a local bus to take us the final 15 minutes, we arrived at the station at 5pm to find the ticket office for Cuenca closed until 9pm. Even worse, despite the ticket window listing a bus almost every hour, when it did open the next bus wasn’t until 1am!
Desperate not to have to spend another night in dingy Hotel San Ignacio (or worse) we waited patiently for the office to open and were amongst a number of people who immediately pounced to snap up the final tickets. Snatching a few hours of bumpy sleep we were glad when the sun came up and we finally arrived in the beautiful old town of Cuenca.
- Getting to Salinas is an easy and cheap side trip if you’re in the area, and you’d be greatly helping the community. The bus from Quito to Ambato cost USD$1.60, a bus from Ambato to Guaranda USD$2.10 and a camioneta from Guaranda to Salinas USD$1. Which leaves you plenty of cash to splash on the goods!