The smooth Panamericana snakes north from Ibarra, offering plenty of pavement to spandex-clad cyclists, who pound up this punishing route on weekends. Entering the Río Chota Valley at 1565m, the road drops sharply. Round, dry hills covered with cacti surround a lush green valley floor fed by the chocolatey river. Within an hour’s drive of Ibarra, this always-warm valley is within arm’s reach for day trips.
One place worth checking out is Grutas de la Paz, where you’ll find a famous grotto converted to a chapel as well as thermal springs (open Thursday to Sunday) and waterfalls within easy reach by foot. Other notable sights include the waterfalls at Las Cascadas de Paluz, 3km north of San Gabriel.
An example of the unique Afro-Andean culture is bomba music, a blend of driving African drums and plaintive highland notes.