From Ambato, most tourists head either east to Baños or south to Riobamba, with few opting for the route west to Guayaquil. This is a shame, as the road provides one of the most scenic bus rides in the sierra – especially the first 99km to Guaranda through low, round, intensively cultivated hills, with some dizzying views onto Chimborazo. Guaranda has a beautiful location and some handsome colonial-style architecture, but there’s little to keep you interested for more than a couple of hours. Nearby, Salinas is one of the prettiest and most rewarding villages in the whole sierra.
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About two hours after leaving Ambato, you wind your way down to GUARANDA (2670m), which sits in a shallow basin surrounded by hills. It’s hard to believe this is the provincial capital of Bolívar, what with its physical isolation and sleepy, small-town air. The centre of town is marked by the charming Parque Bolívar, lined with old adobe houses with painted wooden balconies and sloping, red-tiled roofs flecked with lichen. The square also houses a grand, twin-towered church, a striking mixture of bare stone and white stucco, and the gleaming, white-walled Municipio, looming over the mature palms that give this place a more tropical look than its climate warrants.
The town’s narrow, cobbled streets see relatively little traffic, and it’s not unusual to spot someone leading his horse down the road, or a couple of hens clucking around the pavement. After you’ve nosed around the square, and checked out the Museo Escuela Cultura Andina in an old hospital on 7 de Mayo and Rocafuerte – a building at least as interesting as its displays on archeology, local culture and medicine – the only real “sight” to head for is the towering stone statue of “El Indio Guaranga”, the sixteenth-century indigenous chief after whom the town is said to have been named. It’s up on one of the nearby hills ($1 by taxi; 45min walk), with sweeping views down to the town and across to Chimborazo, and a modest museum of history (variable hours; free) alongside it. Otherwise, there’s a colourful Friday or (bigger) Saturday market on the Plaza 15 de Mayo, where you’ll see campesinos from local villages trading wheat, barley and maize for fruit brought up from the coast.
The final bend in the dirt road branching north from Guaranda for 30km suddenly reveals a dramatic view of SALINAS (3550m), a collection of white houses huddled together near the foot of a vertical wall of rock, surrounded by rolling fields and plains. This isolated village, also called “Salinas de Guaranda” to distinguish it from the coastal resort, is named after the abundant supplies of salt that have been exploited here since pre-Hispanic times.
The village is today best known for its flourishing cooperatives, which were established with the help of a Salesian missionary, Father Antonio Polo, in 1971. The FUNORSAL foundation (Fundación de Organizaciones de Salinas) he founded provided locals with training, materials, technical support, bank loans and accounting assistance. It transformed villagers’ lives: sheep owners who had previously sold raw wool to middlemen for a pittance began to spin their own yarn and supply directly to manufacturers for a decent profit; and dairy farmers set up highly productive milk and cheese factories, supplying retailers at a national level.
Visiting the village’s cooperatives ($1 per person), particularly the cheese factory, wool workshop and chocolate workshop, makes for an enjoyable and enlightening few hours, especially if you take a local guide to show you around ($10), which you can arrange at the community tourist information office on the parque central (t03/2390024 or t2390020, wwww.salinerito.com). They also offer numerous tours, horse rides, bike trips and local hikes and can help with visits to the Subtrópico, the warmer subtropical part of the province in the west, such as Piedra Blanca, a community ecotourism venture (t03/2608544 or t09/3044290, wwww.piedrablanca.org; $21–25) with a simple lodge and plenty of opportunities to explore its surrounding forests.