On Tuesday we left the fertile green fields of Banos, elevation 1800 meters, and quickly ascended to 4000 meters where the wind swept hillsides are nothing by dust, rocks, and wild packs of Vicuna, a cousin to the llama. Our bus passed within 1 kilometer of Volcan Chimborazo, a volcanic glacier and the farthest point from the center of the earth due to the equatorial bulge. I’ve never seen such dramatic landscape change over just a few hours of travel.
We got dropped off on the side of a dusty unpaved section of the highway, backpacks and all, and waited for the local bus or first pickup to pass that would take us the 30 minutes up the dirt road to the town of Salinas (Salinas de Guaranda, not to be confused with the Salinas on the coast). Salinas is in our guidebooks, known for a well run cooperative that makes cheese, chocolate, and salami. As soon as we boarded the bus it became very obvious that this was not a common tourist destination. In places like Quito and Banos, foreign backpackers are a common sight and the locals don’t looks twice at the pale giants with huge backpacks piled on. But in Salinas, we were obviously a sight to be seen. In fact, one day while we were mulling around the central square, a group of high school girls who were visiting Salinas from a nearby town on a school trip shyly approached us to see if we would be so kind as to have our photo taken with them. Over the next 30 minutes we took individual photos with each one of the girls. Oh, the life of a minor celebrity!
We rented a tiny room in the upstairs of one of the only two hostals for $6/person. The owner, Victor, is from a local family known for their knowledge of local medicinal plants. His brother can heal “any kind of snake bite” with natural methods. Outside our room was a small common area with a wood burning fire place where we’d gather at night to play cards and feast. All we ate for two days was local cheeses (Gouda, Gruyère, Mozarella…all very rare finds for Latin America!), delicious salami, dark chocolate, and boxed wine. It would be a logical assumption that things like dark chocolate and good coffee were easy to come by in South America. But actually, all the good stuff is exported and 95% of the time we are left with instant coffee and nestle milk chocolate. So Salinas was true luxury for us.
Cristian, a local 18 year old kid, gave us the official Salinas tour for $3/person, organized by the Salinas tourist office. He took us around to see the different enterprises in the cooperative, which besides the famed food items included dried mushrooms, textiles, a local herb/essential oil factory, and soccer ball fabrication (complete with child labor and toxic fumes). he even gave us the special tour that included instructions on how to make hallucinogenic drugs from the seeds of this flower (see below)
Now we’re in Cuenca, a fairly sedate colonial town in the South. Sedate except for the dozen of bars down the street, ALL specializing in karaoke, shwarma, and hookah. Go figure….