At the Mascarilla junction, the busy Panamericana continues east up the sere and dusty Chota valley, where the only greenery clings tightly to the banks of the Río Chota. This and the Mira valley are home to a number of Afro-Ecuadorian communities, the principal highland settlement being the slightly ramshackle town of Chota. The communities have developed a unique culture, an exotic mix of African and Andean traditions best experienced at a cultural performance (check the local press or ask at the tourist office in Ibarra). Their distinctive Bomba music features percussion, guitars and impromptu instruments, such as those made from leaves, while local dances involve such feats as balancing a bottle on the head, thought to represent the traditional African way of carrying objects. The valley is also home to many of Ecuador’s best professional footballers, despite a lack of grass pitches or stadiums.
A few kilometres further on, in the dry Quebrada de Ambuquí (Ambuquí Gorge), local resort-hotels draw weekend crowds of affluent Colombians and Ecuadorians, but few gringos. The best of these is Oasis, at Km39 (t06/2941200), which hosts a live Afro-Ecuadorian music show at weekends and features “mini cabañas” set around three pools, one with a wave machine (weekends only).