Salinas is cold. Nestled in the mountains at an altitude of 5,300 metres, the temperature warrants the wearing of every piece of relatively warm clothing I own, topped with a waterproof jacket to combat the sudden downpour that rolls in with the cloud cover every afternoon.
I can see my breath in the confines of the bedroom, even sitting heavily under five layers of blankets.
But the people of Salinas are anything but cold. This tiny pueblo, unassuming at first sight, is actually the location of something rather extraordinary; a community formulated almost exclusively of co-operatives.
Forty years ago, Salinas de Guaranda was poverty stricken. Like countless other tiny pueblos throughout South America at that time, the people of Salinas – so named because the sole means of labour here was salt extraction from a local mine – didn't have access to medical care, schools or even to a road; the nearest town of Guaranda was a thousand metres lower in altitude and must have seemed like a world away.
But in the 1970s, an Italian missionary named Father Antonio Polo arrived in the region and established a fair trade co-operative in Salinas, whereby the locals could work together to produce local cheeses and then share out the profits equally. For a community that had previously only produced cheese and milk for self-sustenance, the concept of sharing the wealth made a lot of sense.
Over the years, the pueblo took control of the co-operative concept, forming twenty four different industries with over ninety different projects altogether. From cheese, chocolate and salami to footballs, sweaters and snails, the people of Salinas now create and distribute a myriad of different products around Ecuador, even boasting their own brand name of 'El Salinerito'.
And yet there's still a sense that Salinas has no real idea of its own interest value.
“¡Bienvenido a Salinas, extranjeros!”
When we arrived in Salinas, the small main square was the site of preemptive carnaval celebrations. Kids sprayed each other with canned foam, screaming with feigned upset that turned abruptly to joy as retaliation attempts proved successful.
Crossing the square with our two large backpacks in search of our hostel warranted a shouted greeting from the microphone-holding man on stage. We felt welcomed from the outset.
Equally welcoming was Luis, standing at the edge of the square in a distinctive red jacket with his dog at his side. One of the resident tour guides of Salinas, he offered to take us around the pueblo later that day and explain a bit more about the history of the pueblo.
As we trudged towards the cheese factory, where 90% of the population still work, Luis explained that each coop has a coordinating council, the members of which are democratically elected. Of the twenty four different industries, cheese production is still the largest, which has allowed a certain amount of reinvestment in starting up many of the other coops, allowing them to reach fruition.
Sadly the cheese factory wasn't in action that afternoon – too many carnaval celebrations impeded its progress – but as a sudden rainstorm opened up above us we were momentarily stuck in the cheese factory welcome area, and free to snack repeatedly on the various cheese samples.
The young women working at the counter giggled shyly as they played YouTube videos on the computer and Josh and I started dancing to the music, singing lyrics they clearly didn't understand. Eventually Luis ran down the dirt track in a borrowed waterproof to fetch his truck, and we spent the next hour driving along muddied tracks, peering through steamed up windows and jumping out to visit each new location on Luis's tour.
Over the next few hours, we drank chocolate yoghurt made from soy beans, tasted Swiss inspired chocolate flavoured with the famous salt (as well as one made with the local firewater, Pajaro Azul), bought an entire salami, and toured the bowels of a wool factory, where we saw the wool being sorted, spun and dyed.
The tour eventually finished but the rain didn't, and we ducked quickly into an almuerzo restaurant for a late lunch. Anita Lopez, the owner and namesake of the restaurant, placed two glasses of juice on our table and immediately announced,
“Este jugo es con agua limpia, ¡no te preocupes!”
As we peeled off our layers of damp clothes, steamy heat clouded out from huge pots filled with soup and boiling rice, dominating the stovetop.
A slow life in Salinas
Over the next few days we developed something of a routine: a morning of walking above the pueblo, almuerzo lunches at Anita's, time spent playing with Luis's two dogs in the street and smiling at different familiar faces, all of whom wished us a 'buen dia' without provocation.
We snacked on salami and cheese while the regular afternoon downpour soaked the streets outside.
And in the evenings, we headed to a pizza restaurant with only four tables, buried in the basement at the end of an alley, where the owner cooked with exclusively local ingredients we requested.
He carried the poster for Ecuador's First Annual Cheese Festival (located in Salinas, of course) on the wall, and would leave the kitchen, don his waterproof and head outside to get more dough when we were the only people there.
By the time we left Salinas, we'd amassed a bottle of chocolate soy yoghurt, three kinds of cheese, and had spent an evening being offered shots of Parajo Azul by the overly friendly owner of our hostel, who poured a generous amount into a small plastic cup from an unidentified animals horn.
And my overwhelming impression of Salinas as a whole? That a cooperative economy seems to foster a more cooperative social mentality.
Salinas de Guaranda has started over.
Forty years ago the people of this pueblo had nothing – and now with a change in the way they handle their economy they're super friendly. The prevailing attitude in Salinas is wonderfully laid back: a place where the appearance of two foreigners in a tiny and clearly close-knit community warrants nothing more than a cursory stare and eventually a smiling nod of approval.
And despite being an incredible example of the way that a cooperative society can work, nobody shows you where to go or what to do, either. The assumption seems to be that you're probably already aware of what you're doing if you've made it this far: to a chilly, misty pueblo buried in the Ecuadorian mountains, with a history soaked in salt but a future bright as anything.