San Juan de Ambato – known simply as AMBATO (2580m) – was founded in 1570, but very little remains of its colonial character due to a catastrophic earthquake that virtually razed the city to the ground in 1949. The modern buildings that sprang up in its wake are for the most part bland and unattractive, making Ambato a less appealing place for a stopover than Latacunga or Riobamba, the two other main central sierra towns on the Panamericana. The town does have a couple of enjoyable museums, plenty of banks and some great-value hotels and decent restaurants. If you’re passing around Carnaval time (just before Lent, in February or early March), don’t miss the Fiesta de las Flores y las Frutas, held over several days, with big parades, beauty pageants, bullfights, music and plenty of fruit and flowers; you’ll need to book a room in advance when it’s on. Unlike the rest of the country, water fights are banned in Ambato during Carnaval.
Ambato’s focal point is the leafy central square, the Parque Juan Montalvo, overlooked by the city’s brash, modern cathedral, monolithic Municipio and the Casa del Portal – a handsome survivor of the 1949 earthquake, sporting a row of graceful stone arches spanning the width of the square. The square is named after the locally born nineteenth-century writer, the most distinguished of the trio of former residents that gives Ambato its nickname, “the city of the three Juans”; the other two are the novelist Juan León Mera, and lawyer and polemicist Juan Benigno Vela. Sitting on the north corner of the square, the humble, whitewashed Casa de Montalvo (Mon–Fri 9am–noon & 2–6pm, Sat 10am–1pm; $1) was Montalvo’s birthplace and former home, and displays a moderately interesting collection of photos, manuscripts, clothes and other personal effects. Adjoining it is the Mausoleo de Montalvo (same hours and ticket), an elaborate Grecian-style temple in which the writer’s carved wooden coffin is displayed on a platform, forming a kind of morbid altar.
Three blocks northeast is the city’s second major square, Parque Cevallos. On Calle Sucre, lining its northwest side, the Instituto Técnico Superior Bolívar houses Ambato’s most compelling attraction, the Museo de Ciencias Naturales, an old-fashioned natural history museum spread over five halls of a nineteenth-century building. The displays kick off with some evocative early twentieth-century photos of the region’s volcanoes, including one showing fumaroles spouting dramatically out of Cotopaxi’s crater in 1911. The bulk of the collection is formed by stuffed animals, including a jaguar, puma, elephant, boa, spectacled bears, iguanas, monkeys and condors. These are later followed by a stomach-churning display of preserved “freak animals”, including a two-headed calf, a three-legged hen and a lamb with one head and two bodies.
Also downtown is the handsome Iglesia de la Medalla Milagrosa, a French Romanesque-style church built of lovely golden stone, at the corner of Rocafuerte and Egüez. If you’re around on a Monday, check out the sprawling market spread over several sites, including the Mercado Central, next to the Parque 12 de Noviembre, and the Mercado Modelo, a couple of blocks further north. Otherwise, jump in a taxi or a bus from Parque Cevallos and head out to the Quinta de Mera, a couple of kilometres north of the centre in the suburb of Atocha. The former home of Juan León Mera, it’s a grand nineteenth-century adobe house with an overhanging clay-tiled roof supported by thick wooden pillars. There are some original furniture and paintings inside, but what makes a trip here worthwhile are the lush gardens and woods that fill the extensive grounds. Paths lead through at least 200 species of plants (seven endemic) down to the river, and half a kilometre east to the neighbouring Quinta de Liria, once the fine house of Dr Nicolás Martínez, head of an influential local family at the turn of the last century, which has been recently restored and is open to visitors. Across the main road from the Quinta de Liria, the Centro Cultural La Liria (same hours and ticket as Quinta de Mera) displays changing exhibitions of photography, sculpture and paintings.