More than any other northern population, the largest city north of Quito feels urban, moving to the everyday rhythms of its mix of Afro-Ecuadorians (the first Sunday of October, the city takes part in the nationwide Día Nacional del Pueblo Negro Ecuatoriano), indígenas and mestizos. Known as la ciudad blanca (the white city), most of the buildings have been turned into ordinary shops with a bustling commercial atmosphere. Several beautiful plazas with towering palms and baroque churches lend a distinctively sophisticated feel.

Volcán Imbabura looms impressively nearby and Laguna de Yahuarcocha (in Kichwa it means 'Lake of Blood' for the nearly 30,000 Caranqui warriors killed by the forces of Incan emperor Huayna Capac) is only 3km northeast. Today, joggers, cyclists and paddleboaters occupy the lakeshore. Throw in a couple of small, interesting museums, a worthwhile train journey, good cafes and proximity to Otavalo and other indígena villages, and you might wonder why the tourism infrastructure is fairly lacking.