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.
Once extending to San Lorenzo down on the coast, Ibarra’s railway now runs from the train station only as far as Primer Paso, a 45-kilometre journey serviced, actually, by an autoferro, a converted bus on rails but it’s best to pitch up about 30min before departure to buy your ticket t06/2950390, wferrocarrilesdelecuador.gob.ec). The train only departs if there are at least twelve passengers or $60 worth of ticket sales – though you can always pay the difference if there aren’t enough people. The ride itself is fun; you can sit on the roof while the train skirts vertiginous drops, clatters over the rickety 120-metre Ambi bridge and disappears into the gloom of at least a dozen tunnels, one with its own waterfall. At the end of the route in the Tulquizán sector, the train pulls in near the faded Hostería Tulquizán, across the river by cable swing, where you can get lunch, swim in the pool for a few dollars and sleep in rustic cabins, although most visitors just while away a few hours here rather than stay the night. You are at the hotel’s mercy once you cross because they seldom take people back over the river until the train is about to depart. The tracks cross the road a little before the final stop (ask the driver to be let off), from where you can take a bus back to Ibarra (30min) or to San Lorenzo on the coast (3hr).
All visitors to Ibarra should try the wonderfully smooth and flavoursome helados de paila, a sorbet prepared in great copper pans (pailas) kept cool on a bed of straw and salted ice, into which fruit, sugar and water are stirred – found at a number of excellent heladerías throughout town. Other local specialities are sold at the stalls around the Parque La Merced, namely nogadas – nougat-style treats made from sugar, milk, egg whites and walnuts, sometimes flavoured with cinnamon, aniseed or vanilla – and arrope de mora, a sticky blackberry syrup, usually diluted with water or spirits.
Buses to La Esperanza (every 20min, 30min trip; last bus 7.30pm) leave Ibarra from the Parque Grijalva, a few blocks south of the obelisk. Tell the driver you want a hotel, otherwise you’ll be taken to the end of the village about fifteen minutes away. Casa Aída (t 06/2660221; $11–15) is the best, with a restaurant, simple and pleasant rooms, a two-floor thatched cabin, and clean, shared bathrooms and hot showers. Another option is to stay at the nearby indigenous village of SAN CLEMENTE, which runs its own community ecotourism project, called Pukyu Pamba (t 09/9161095, w www.sclemente.com; $22 or $35 per person per day depending on comfort of the house, including three meals and activities, except for horse rides $10 and trips using 4WD vehicles $15). Visitors can stay with families, learn about embroidery, hear local musicians and join in dances, go on hikes or a four-day trek to Nueva América, horseriding with local guides, learn Quichua and generally get to know about the community. Buses leave from the same Parque Grijalva in Ibarra about every two hours (40min).
Just off the Panamericana, 6km west of Ibarra, SAN ANTONIO DE IBARRA is not much more than a handful of streets and a little square, but has nevertheless chiselled its way to fame as a major centre for woodcarving. Its plentiful shops and galleries are crammed with a huge array of subjects and styles, mostly carved in cedar, from saints and angelts to chess sets and life-size carvings of Don Quixote. San Antonio’s best-known artist is Luís Potosí, whose gallery is on the main square, and who seems to have a predilection for nude mothers nursing their newborns. There are many other artists’ showrooms located on the main square and Avenida 27 de Noviembre; prices range from $1500 for large pieces down to $1 for a keyring.