Bald-from-the-neck-down alpacas (and their pricier vicuña cousins) watch our bus skirt its way along the periphery of the Chimborazo Volcano, carving a path through the candy-cane rock strata lining the highway. Out of nowhere, a fast-falling hailstorm prompts the driver to apply the brakes for perhaps the second time that afternoon, picking up the pace again as the landscape reverts to a reassuring green. The drive to Guaranda, the closest neighbor to the enterprising town of Salinas, which teeters at a cool 11,600 feet above sea level, is impressive to say the least.
Yet what awaits you in the high-altitude, nosebleed-inducing unassuming village of Salinas is arguably even better. It’s home to some of Ecuador’s finest cheeses (as well as salamis, chocolates, preserves and, bizarrely enough, handmade footballs), which members of the tight-knit, entirely cooperative-based community have been producing for over 40 years. But how on earth did a small Andean village become such a hub of impressive industry?
Well, the unlikely scenario reads a bit like a bad joke at first glance — “An Italian priest and a Swiss cheese maker walk into a tiny Ecuadorian town …” — although that’s exactly what happened and what turned around a once impoverished village. It was the early ’70s when Father Antonio Polo settled in Salinas and planted the proverbial seeds of a more organized, cooperative-run way of life, based on the Quechua concept of minga, aka communal work.
… from soft and fresh, impregnated with pesto, to nuttier hard cheeses with darkened rinds and creamy textures.
And that cheese maker? Thanks to José Dubach’s introduction of Swiss techniques, cheese-making became the first of all Salinas’ cooperatives in 1978. Nowadays, Salinas’ El Salinerito brand is, once you know what you’re looking for, practically ubiquitous throughout Ecuador and remains the village’s star attraction. You can even tour the bright blue, pinwheel-shaped cheese factory, or just head to the community shop for a few (dozen) samples. And you should.
The varieties produced in Salinas are as delicious as they are surprising, running the gamut from soft and fresh, impregnated with pesto, to nuttier hard cheeses with darkened rinds and creamy textures. It’s impossible to choose a favorite. As an impatient man next to me prods a chubby finger onto the nearby meat samples, I decide that sampling the embutidos (salamis) could probably wait for another day.
Around the corner of the glass-fronted store counter, baskets of chocolate truffles are tucked away from overly curious customers. When I ask about prices (individual truffles are well below a dollar), a plastic shot of gloopy chocolate liqueur is thrust into my hand. Despite having the consistency of melted Nutella, it’s perhaps the most deliciously indulgent thing I’ve tried in Salinas and leaves me cursing my lack of luggage space.
While tourism has grown in recent years — the construction of the road from Guaranda in 2006 probably did the trick, explains local mushroom exporter Lenin Vasconez — Salinas and its fair-trade lifestyle and impressive foodstuffs remain way off the radar of most casual travelers in Ecuador. So, if you need a break from empanadas and boiled rice, get yourself to this tiny Andean town for a serving of cheesy and chocolatey indulgence instead.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.