The Salinas Valley is a dry plain resting midst the mountains of Imbabura province about 1 ½ hours from Cotacachi and ½ hour north of Ibarra. In the valley is a small town called Salinas, not to be confused with the more popular and better-known beach resort town of the same name on the Ecuador coast north of Guayaquil.
The town is made up mostly of small unassuming concrete houses. The people are poor but seem to enjoy life, which is improving with help from the municipality of Ibarra.
You will also find a small salt museum, a little train depot and colorfully-painted tourist train and an interesting legend about mini-monsters.
History tells us that salt has been mined here for centuries, making the valley one of the richest, most productive regions in Ecuador. The Spanish sought to control production.
In more recent times when many of the locals developed goiters, it was discovered that the salt lacked iodine. Production for human consumption fell off and now the salt is made into blocks mainly for animals. Read more about the salt's history.
The town of Salinas fell into decay with nothing but mud and cane huts and dusty streets. There were no paved roads, electricity, drinking water or sewers.
In the last ten years all that has changed. There are now paved roads and utilities, parks, churches and a library. Tourism has become a focus for the town. A gastronomical center serves local and international food.
A train station and a small train that arrives from Ibarra about one hour away. You can sit on top of the train as it chugs toward the valley in order to take full advantage of the spectacular scenery—commanding cliffs, expansive fields, tiny villages and wide open spaces. Dancers greet the train to entertain tourists with music, song and traditional dances.
From the train station it’s a short walk to the salt museum. There’s not much else to see in town except some interesting graffiti/wall murals.
But the surrounding area holds lots of promise for further adventure and enjoyment of the fantastic natural beauty that encompasses the Valle de Salinas. You can hike, mountain bike, mountain climb and swim, raft or tube the beautiful Chota River during the rainy season when the river rises.
The hot springs of Chachimbiro is very close and the coast is about 3 ½ hours away. Chota and the Chota Valley is home to Afro-Ecuadorians with a lively culture of art, sculpture, distinctive cuisine, dance and music. Lita is a subtropical area with great biodiversity.
The incredibly rich volcanic soil makes farming especially productive here. You will find bananas, sugar cane, pineapples, papayas and other tropical fruits.
A wide variety of beans are also grown throughout the region. Locals have an interesting update to their ancient method of harvesting beans.
After picking the beans, the intact pods are placed on one lane of the highway. Cars drive over them to break apart the dried pods and separate the pod from the beans. Saves a whole lot of labor, not to mention very sore thumbs.
Next local women arrive with plastic bags or cloths. They further winnow the beans by throwing them up into the air using the plastic cloths. This further blows away the dried hulls.
The men then rake the beans on the highway with long-poled wooded rakes, turning the beans for days until they are thoroughly dried. The men in this picture were drying red and white pinto beans and having a good time doing it.
The beans are then stored for 3 or 4 months, to be eaten throughout the year or in times of famine or poor crops. Traditionally, not many of the beans are eaten fresh.
In times past, the beans were stored underground, which kept them preserved for up to a year. They were placed in large ceramic jars whose mouths were wrapped in leather.
Most interesting of all is an ancient legend about a local monster. There’s a painted sign on a building in Salinas that says, “La Leyenda del Duende.” When I asked what that meant, the answer was this:
In this area and especially in the Black Mountains further north toward Colombia, there are duendes or monsters that occasionally are seen by humans. They are very short humanoids with long ears. I didn’t find out why they are considered monsters. Perhaps it’s best not to ask. . .
What I notice when I am in the Salinas/Tumbabiro area is its similarity to Hawaii. With the fertile fields of papaya, pineapple, and sugar cane, majestic volcanoes and sheer mountain peaks, I’d swear I was on Oahu or the Big Island. All that’s missing are the beaches and the ocean.
Are the duendes perhaps the same as Hawaii’s little people, the Menehune? The Menehune live in the deep forests and hidden valleys and eat fish and bananas. They are believed to be pranksters who will steal things if you leave them unattended. Who knows, perhaps Ecuador and the Hawaiian Islands were once joined as one big continent, part of which sunk beneath the ocean, only remaining as the legend of Lemuria.