Some 115km north of Quito, the Panamericana passes around the base of Volcán Imbabura to reveal IBARRA (2225m), basking in a broad, sunny valley. Known as the ciudad blanca (white city), its low blocks of whitewashed and tiled buildings gleam with stately confidence, interrupted only by the occasional church spire. It was founded in 1606 to oversee the region’s textile workshops, but only a few of Ibarra’s original colonial buildings survived the great earthquake of 1868, from which the town eventually recovered to become the commercial and transport hub of Imbabura province. Ibarra’s population of more than 100,000 people, an unusual blend of mestizos, indígenas and Afro-Ecuadorians from the nearby Chota valley, makes it by far the largest highland city north of Quito, but despite this, it still enjoys a relaxed pace of life and an easy-going charm.

Ibarra’s a great place to unwind, with good hotels, cafés and bars, a pleasant climate and friendly residents. It’s also not nearly as touristy as Otavalo, while being close to the craft villages of La Esperanza and San Antonio de Ibarra, a good base for hikes in the surrounding countryside and for visiting the excellent hot springs at Chachimbiro. It’s also a jumping-off point for the coast, by way of lush subtropical valleys filled with fruit farms and forests.

The best place to start exploring is Ibarra’s focal point, the Parque Pedro Moncayo, featuring a statue of the eponymous nineteenth-century journalist, politician and local. The neatly clipped lawns and lofty palms of this grand square are flanked to the north by the cathedral, adorned with a golden altar and displaying portraits of the disciples by Rafael Troya, born here in 1845 and one of Ecuador’s greatest artists. Along the west side of the park, the seat of the province’s government, the gobernación, is a colonial-style building painted in white and butterscotch, which looks ravishing under evening floodlights.

A block to the west, tall flowering trees fill the quieter Parque Victor M. Peñaherrera, better known as the Parque la Merced after the Basílica de la Merced, an imposing grey-stone church crowned with a weighty statue of the Virgin and housing a towering red-and-gold altarpiece. Opposite the basilica, on the eastern side of the park, the old infantry barracks give the square a distinctly Mediterranean flavour with its impressive Moorish castellations and arches, under which street vendors in their sunshaded stalls sell the sweet Ibarra specialities, nogadas and arrope de mora.