The self-proclaimed “Sultan of the Andes”, RIOBAMBA (2735m) is a handsome city made up of stately squares, flaking pastel-coloured buildings, cobbled streets and sprawling markets. An important centre since the early days of the colony, the place was dealt an abrupt and catastrophic blow in 1797 when a massive earthquake left it in ruins, though it was quickly rebuilt where it stands today, 20km north of its original site. Located in the centre of the Ecuadorian sierra, Riobamba is a major trading nucleus, with part of its appeal stemming from the lively mix of suited city dwellers and large numbers of indigenous traders from the countryside. The main market day is Saturday, when the city overflows with energy and colour. Another draw is the wonderful view (if the weather cooperates) across the city to Volcán Chimborazo; most hotels have flat roofs, so if you wake up on a clear morning – the earlier the clearer, usually – ask to go up to the roof patio.
The best place to start exploring Riobamba is the Parque Maldonado. This wide square is lined by the city’s most impressive nineteenth-century architecture, including the colonnaded, peach-and-white Municipio (where Ecuador’s first constitution was signed in 1830) and other flamboyant colonial buildings. On the northwest side of the square is the relatively new Museo de la Ciudad in a stately and elegantly restored building, with displays on Sangay national park, some stuffed animals and temporary art exhibitions. Across the square, the delicately carved stone facade of the cathedral is Riobamba’s only survivor of the 1797 earthquake, painstakingly transported and reassembled here when the town was rebuilt. The city’s two other major churches are the Neoclassical, pink-domed Basílica, three blocks southeast on Parque La Libertad, and the red-brick, neo-Gothic Iglesia de la Concepción, a couple of blocks northeast of Parque Maldonado.
Adjoining the Iglesia de la Concepción, the Monasterio de las Conceptas houses one of the best museums of religious art outside Quito. A series of small rooms around a leafy patio is devoted to various themes, with most pieces dating from the eighteenth century. The bulk of the collection is made up of carvings and paintings, but the museum’s most prized possession is a gold, jewel-encrusted monstrance used to display the consecrated wafer of the Eucharist during Mass, believed to be one of the most valuable in South America.
Other museums inlcude the Museo del Banco Central, Veloz and Carabobo, which features illuminating pre-Columbian artefacts, with detailed descriptions in English of the development of local and national cultures from 10,000 BC onwards, finishing off with a section on colonial religious art. The imposing Colegio Maldonado, on Parque Sucre, has a modest natural history collection; even if the museum is closed, it’s worth taking a look inside the college building to admire its marble staircases and arcaded courtyard. If you’re in town on a very clear day, wander out to the Parque 21 de Abril, a small, landscaped hill about eight blocks north of Parque Sucre, which has fine views over the town and across to Chimborazo.
If you’re around on a Saturday you can’t fail to be impressed by the immense market bulging out of the streets bounded by calles España, 5 de Junio, Guayaquil and Argentinos. The range of products for sale is staggering, from squawking chickens to rubber boots; for artesanías head to the Plaza La Concepción, in front of the church, where you’ll find many shigra bags, ponchos, shawls and jewellery. If you’re not in town on Saturday you can still catch the smaller-scale Wednesday version, as well as the daily covered fruit and vegetable market at La Condamine, or the smaller flower and fruit market at La Merced, off Colón, between Guayaquil and Olmedo. Something else to look out for is tagua nuts carved into items ranging from massage contraptions to jewellery; there are a handful of tagua carving shops on Daniel León Borja between Lavalle and Francia.