The capital of Imbabura province and the largest city north of Quito moves to the everyday rhythms of its working residents, a mix of Afro-Ecuadorians, indígenas and mestizos. Known as la ciudad blanca (the white city), Ibarra's downtown streets are lined with finely detailed, whitewashed colonial architecture.
Western Andean Slopes
The old road to Santo Domingo wends past dramatic drop-offs while descending through lush, misty cloud forests. Within just a few hours of Quito, visitors can experience a welcome climate shock in the cool, humid hills. The area is known for its bird-watching, but the landscape inspires mountain-biking, horseback-riding and hiking as well.
With its lovely setting surrounded on all sides by forested mountains, tiny Mindo has become a deservedly popular destination for backpackers. Conveniently located just off the main highway between Quito and Esmeraldas, a curvy road descends to a rather ramshackle yet immensely likable town center. Development is in the air, however.
The busy highland city of Tulcán is the last Ecuadorian stop for visitors headed overland to Colombia. For a border town, especially when compared to Huaquillas on the Peruvian boder, Tulcan, with its narrow pedestrian-filled streets, everyday commercial vibe and topiary gardens feels like Paris.
Cotacachi is best known for its leather and its main street, Calle 10 de Agusto, which is lined with shops stocked with good-value leather jackets, luggage, wallets, gloves and shoes. But its appeal, known to an increasing number of North American retirees who have snatched up real estate, is its easygoing tranquility, even sleepiness. The feeling is infectious.
Hang on for the dramatic descent into Intag, where trees are weighted with tropical fruit and kids ride horses bridled with a scrap of rope. The lush valley is famous not only for its coffee, but also for its activism. Since the early 1990s, rural communities have struggled to stop large-scale copper mining, which has taken a significant toll on the environment.
In this small and sleepy village known for its weaving, traditional and modern methods of weaving coexist – look out for clotheslines draped with handmade, dyed wool drying in the breeze and listen for the whirring sound of electric looms. Cooperativa Imbaburapac buses go through Peguche en route to Agato from Otavalo.
The snow-dusted peak of Cayambe looms over the rolling farmland surrounding the town of the same name, 64km north of Quito along the Panamericana. Enormous white tents packed with rows of blooms blanket the nearby hillsides – the region is considered Ecuador’s flower capital. Most people, however, breeze through town on their way to Otavalo.
Tufts of ocher grasses ripple along the hillsides surrounding the stark, still Andean village of El Ángel. The village is the entry point to Páramos El Ángel, a misty, remote wilderness favored by foxes and condors. It’s part of the 160-sq-km Reserva Ecológica El Ángel, which is home to frailejones – rare, otherworldly plants with fuzzy leaves and thick trunks.
Reserva Biológica Guandera
This 1000-hectare, tropical, wet, montane forest reserve was founded in 1994 by Fundación Jatun Sacha. The reserve lies between 3100m and 3600m on a transitional ridge (forest to páramo), 11km east of San Gabriel. Projects include reforestation and finding alternatives to chemical-intensive potato production.
Cloud Forest Reserves & Lodges
Most of the private reserves (Masphi is an exception) allow day visitors for a fee ($10-25, guides are additional) and can arrange private transportation from Quito or Mindo. In addition to those reviewed below, there are several other community ecotourism initiatives in the area. Taxis from either run anywhere from $50 to $80.