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 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, and as a jumping off point for the coast, by way of lush subtropical valleys filled with fruit farms and forests.
Among the most important local festivals are the Fiesta del Retorno, on April 28, commemorating the return of the town's citizens after the 1868 earthquake; independence day on July 17, marking Simón Bolívar's triumph over the Spanish at the Battle of Ibarra in 1823; and the biggest of all, the Fiesta de los Lagos, on the last weekend in September, celebrating the city's foundation (Sept 28) with parades and decorated floats rolling through town and motorcar races held at Laguna Yahuarcocha.