“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard
Leaving Cuenca with only a week left before returning to the U.S., I decided I needed a few days in a small village. I found isolated Salinas de Guaranda (not to be confused with the coastal city of Salinas), in the central highlands between Cuenca and Quito in the north. I was intrigued because an Italian priest (Father Antonio Polo) and organizer came to the town 40 years ago, and helped the locals build cooperatives to elevate their standard of living though sharing raw materials and production processes. Father Antonio, who changed the lives of thousands in a profound and permanent way, apparently still lives in Salinas. These coops are coordinated and work together, and have developed over the decades. Also, the pueblo has a number of outlying, smaller pueblitos reachable by mountainous hiking within a day that are included in the cooperative model. Salinas is a perfect place to cool your heels in a unique, friendly, eco-conscious (advanced recycling system for example), laid back pueblo at 3550 meters (11,644 feet) in the beautiful Andes. The working girl below is about 7 years old.
The largest coops are cheese, wool products, and chocolate, but separate cooperatives include dried fruit, soccer balls, hostel, compost, mushrooms, sausages, jams, etc. It was exciting to speak with workers in the coops and find out about what it feels like to work in their own enterprises, their wages and working conditions, and the structure of the coop administration. Carlos runs the Refugio Hostel, one of a chain of cooperatively owned ones, where I stayed (see example of the mosaics created for each of the coops), and we became friends. He owns a ranch with cows, sheep, pigs, etc. and accompanied me on the trip to Quito, where he was buying a couple cows at the market.
I really got into the cheese-making and chocolate process. Here’s the main location of the chocolate factory, where the workers make $400/mo for a 40 hr week, plus OT. Some of funds go to education, health clinic, roads, cheap public transportation, etc. Most workers make the same wage.
Decades ago, sheep herders simply sold sheared wool for a paltry sum. Now, wool is processed into yarn, and artisans make beautiful products that are sold for an amount allowing a decent standard of living.
I went for a beautiful hike one day up a thousand or so Kms through a canyon to a neighboring pueblo, Natahua, where a handful of homes sitting on a hilltop. The only folks I saw in town were a couple women, a guy, and a couple kids. They greeted me, and the man turned out to be the local cheese maker who invited me to see what he does. I spent hours with Cesar as he taught me the process of making various cheeses (including pepper and oregano), and explained how the coop works.
Cesar told me that their two room (warm one to cook cheese and cold room for curing and storage) is out of compliance with health inspectors. They will need a new facility which I believe he said will cost $120,000, which is beyond their reach. So if the Natahua cheese processing ceases, farmers will need to transport their milk to another pueblito or to Salinas.
Here are a few more pics of the murals, market day, and other images–check out the girl around 4 years old leading her working llama. Also, saw many young women in traditional dress here…note the young mom below.
Believe me, I could go on quite awhile about the Salinas community where I felt right at home, but for those who want to know more detail and see better pics, I suggest you go to: Another, more detailed blog on Salinas and More pics and details of Salinas
With only a few more days left before my flight home, I reluctantly left Salinas with Carlos for Guarando and on to Quito. Note that I am back in the U.S. now and will post my experiences in the capitol of Quito soon!
Hoping all is well with you.
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
– Mary Oliver