Between Banos and Guyaquil, about 20km north of the road, lies the small community (pop. 1200) of Salinas de Guaranda. For centuries, the people in this area eked out a living with subsistence agriculture and by mining the salt that naturally comes out of the rocks. They transported it long distances to trade for other goods. In 1970, an Italian priest arrived and began a very ambitious process of economic and social restructuring based on cooperatives. Salinas is now a modestly “thriving” community where teamwork and cooperation are the norm, and unemployment is very low.
Our arrival in Salinas was in the rain, in a taxi from the main road ($1 each). Our driver explained that the taxi service was run as a cooperative (of course!) We asked him to suggest a cheap place to stay and he took us to Hostal La Minga, which is located right near the town’s central square. Cam jumped out of the back seat to check it out, and the kids followed. The driver started taking our bags out of the back, but I asked him to wait since I wasn’t sure if the place would pass Cam’s initial ‘inspection’. When Cam said it looked good, I paid the driver, got the bags out, and off went the taxi. It wasn’t long ntil Cam noticed the wifi password posted in the common area and wanted to log in to the internet. Where was the tablet? Where was the black daypack? Uh oh… in the back seat of the taxi! From our short conversation with the driver, we knew that his name was Jorge and that he had 2 children, ages 7 and 11. We explained to our host what had happened and from the snippet of information he was able to track down the cab driver. Thank goodness this happened in a small community! Within about an hour, Jorge returned with the pack and all its contents (I don’t even want to admit how many valuables were in it, but suffice it to say that we would not have had any photos, video, nor been able to write this blog had we not gotten it back). As we met Jorge in the central square (hugged him and gave him a tip), we couldn’t believe it but the rain stopped and there appeared the most amazing rainbow we have ever seen! Many locals came out with their cellphones or cameras to photograph it as well.
OK, so we were getting pretty good vibes about Salinas. We went to the little shop that sold items from all the cooperatives and got a selection of chocolates (yes, they have a chocolate factory!), some cheese, the kids got Ecuadorian pants, and Cam got a colourful pullover.
We ate dinner at a restaurant right across the street from the hostel (a pizzeria — perhaps inspired by that Italian priest?) When we started looking at the extensive menu, the cook/waiter/owner came over and indicated the 2 items that were available today — calzones and veggie or meat pizza. That made it simple! Jake ordered a calzone and the rest of us decided to share a large meat pizza. However, when the party at the next table got their order (massive veggie pizza) they realized that something was wrong (I think someone was lactose intolerant or couldn’t eat mushrooms or something), so the waiter asked us if we wanted it. Sure! We were hungry and it was delicious.
The following morning, we made our own breakfast and then Kaia had a Skype conversation with her class. The connection was pretty good and she was able to hear the results of some research the class had done about Ecuador and share her own impressions.
Earlier, Cam had gone to the tourist information office and lined up a guide for the day to take us around the town. We met Frank at 9:30. He spoke little English, but kept his Spanish clear and simple. First, he took us to the chocolate factory where we could see the Swiss-inspired process through windows. Milk is sourced locally and the chocolates are sold domestically as well as abroad. Unfortunately, no tasting room! But we picked up a few more goodies from the shop.
Next, Frank took us a few blocks away to a tiny upstairs workshop (that we never would have found without him) that was a soccer ball factory! One room, one guy (at least when we were there), making soccer balls from start to finish!
Next (brief) stop was the sausage manufacturing plant. Frank, as a vegetarian and Rastafarian, does not like to walk inside of it! On this particular day, they were processing pork. We bought some of the cured sausage which was very good and lasted us several days.
We then went to the wool manufacturing plant (I was pretty excited about seeing this one as I don’t travel without my knitting needles and didn’t currently have a project on the go!) In Salinas, they process both sheep and alpaca wool from local farms in a very mechanized process (originally it was done by hand, but they have expanded and updated). The plant operates 7 days a week and employs dozens of people.
I only bought one ball of alpaca wool and have started making a pair of mittens in preparation for the highlands of Peru.
Our final stop was the cheese factory which had pretty much finished production for the day. However, we saw many local people arriving with donkeys or llamas and large empty containers. The cheese factory gives away their by-product (whey?) for free, and Frank explained that it is used as pig feed.
That concluded our visit. Apparently the Italian priest is still living in the community, but is quite frail. Frank believes that his legacy will continue for a long time since the people of Salinas have embraced the idea of teamwork and are reaping its benefits. He, himself (Frank) grew up in Salinas, went away to study graphic design at college, but has returned to live permanently in the community. I don’t think there are too many other Rastafarians in town, but he has found a comfortable niche as a tour guide, musician, and freelance graphic designer. His parents are retired from the cheese cooperative and maintain a small farm with some cows.
Salinas is a friendly, productive place. We’re glad we made the sidetrip!