Ibarra, the White City

By Linda McFarlin

Ibarra is a colonial city in Ecuador about 3 hours north of Quito if you take the direct route along the well-maintained Pan American Highway.  The trip may take even less time now that the Pan American is now six lanes from the city and south to Otavalo. 

This north Ecuador city is known as the ‘White City’ because of its many stately white-painted colonial buildings and homes, or so I’ve often been told.  I’ve wondered about this because there are also many buildings that are not white.  Just the other day I heard a new explanation for the city’s label. 

An Ecuadorian building contractor told me that in the late 1800’s there was a city-wide pandemic. 

The treatment that led to the end of the pandemic was to paint the outside of all the city’s buildings and tree bases with a white solution of lime that resisted the plague.

When I checked this out, I found another source for this idea, a report that states that malaria was so bad in the area that in the 1700’s a proposal was made to drain Lake Yahuarcocha and plant the lake bed with sugar cane.  There was also bubonic plague, so the townspeople went to a nearby limestone quarry and painted the houses and trees with lime to stop the infestations. 

But now I'll return to modern times and more interesting and healthy information about the White City, which is somewhat overlooked by tourists.  Not that many expats live there either. 

I find it’s a great place to visit if you want a true taste of city life in Ecuador that is off the beaten path.  I can go there and feel like an ordinary citizen, without beggars or touts clamoring to part me from my cash.

Getting There

From Quito:

Bus:  Take a bus going to Ibarra from the Carcelen Terminal (Terminal Carcelen) in north Quito.  The cost is $2.50 and the ride takes about 3 hours. Bus companies that service the area are Flota Imbabura, Tourismo, Aerotaxi and Andina.

Taxi:  A taxi can be arranged from the airport or flag one down on the streets of Quito.  Costs will be about $50-60 one way.  Taxi Lagos is a taxi company that specializes in shared taxi rides.  The cost from Quito to Ibarra should be $8-$10.  Call 022-565-955 to make a reservation.

Car: Car rentals are available in Ecuador but are somewhat expensive.  The drive from Quito to Ibarra is about 115 kilometers and takes 3 hours along the Pan American Highway.

From Cotacachi:

Bus:  Catch a bus at either the Cotacachi main bus terminal on Diez de Agosto or in the main square at the covered bench in front of the church and near the taxi stand.  The cost is $.45.

Taxi:  A taxi ride to Ibarra is $10-$12, depending upon the driver, maybe more at night.  Determine the fare before entering the taxi. Taxis must pay a $1 toll each way at the toll booth on the Pan American Highway.  Returning from the city to Cotacachi the taxi drivers  sometime avoid paying the toll by turning left at San Antonio de Ibarra, a small town a short distance away, and taking the old highway to Cotacachi.

Tourist Information

Yura Tours, Agencia de Viajes, is a tourist information office located on the corner of Antonio Jose de Sucre and Miguel Oviedo.  The corner is also known as La Esquina del Coco, the street of the coconut, for the famous coconut palm that still grows there. Yura Tours has recently opened an office in Cotacachi on Calle Bolivar just a few doors down from the main church in the plaza.

Click here for more about the role the coconut palm has played in the city's history.

Climate and Population

There are 3 distinct micro-climates in the Ibarra area—warm, cool and hot.  The sub-tropical temperatures in the city are warm much of the time--warmer than in Cotacachi--ranging from 23 – 26 degrees C.

The city is ringed with mountains and out-lying residential areas and the temperatures are cooler.  In the nearby Chota Valley the weather is generally hot and very dry. Imbaya is one of the more upscale neighborhoods around Ibarra, due to its warmer climate.

The population is about 140,000 to 150,000, mostly indigenous, mestizo (indigenous and Spanish mixed) and Afro-Ecuadorians.  Each ethnicity has its own distinct cuisine, making the city a good place to sample a variety of local foods.

Activities to Enliven Your Visit

The city has a great number of activities to engage in if you take the time to search them out.  Click here for a detailed list of possible activities to enjoy in Ibarra.

From indoors to the great outdoors, you can enjoy museums, the many churches or take a leisurely stroll from park to park. The city has lovely tree-lined parks that are well-manicured—2 of the best ones are Parque Pedro Moncayo and  Parque Victor Manuel Peñaherrera  on Flores and Olmedo, which is locally called Parque La Merced.

Here's a friend of ours shopping for sweets at a street tienda.  The town is famous for aarrope de mora, which is blackberry syrup—great on pancakes and waffles. 

Vendors also sell nogadas, a sweet made with walnuts.  You can buy bags of local black walnuts, shelled, on the streets.  And don’t forget the healthy and delicious helado de paila, ice cream made from a recipe by Rosalia Suarez that dates back 100 years, perhaps even further to Incan times. The natural ingredients are stirred rapidly by hand in a large metal bowl over straw and ice until the mixture freezes.

My favorite helado de paila can be found at Bermajita’s, with ice cream shops downtown about a block from the original Rosalia location and also upstairs in the food court of SuperMaxi, a shopping center on the Pan American Highway as you enter the city from Cotacachi.

I love the coco and the leche (vanilla).  There are many exotic flavors--blackberry, guanabana, maracuya, tamarind, naranjilla and tree tomato.
The wide-open mountain and valley vistas offer great hikes, photo opportunities, mountain climbing, para-gliding and bird-watching.  Or relax in nearby hot springs at Chachimbiro.  

Ibarra is also close to various natural reserves great for bird watching and seeing other unique Andean wildlife.  Travelling north from the city it’s a short few hours to either the Colombian border or north and west to the beaches of Esmeraldas.

Ibarra Trains

There used to be a train that ran from Ibarra all the way to San Lorenzo on the coast, but no more.   A train travels from Ibarra to Primer Paso, which is only 45 kilometers away.  It travels through eighteen tunnels, across a bridge and into the basin of the Mira River.  It’s a fun way to spend part of a day.  The trip will take about an hour one way.

The “train” is really just a bus, called an autoferro, which has been adapted to the rails.  The route takes you through several tunnels, over the Ambi River bridge and past a waterfall.  The scenic ride is a good family experience.  At Primer Paso you can take a 30-minute bus ride back to Ibarra or venture 3 hours further to the coast at San Lorenzo.  You can sit on the roof of the train for an even more thrilling adventure.

There is also a train that makes the journey from the city to Salinas, also about 45 kilometers away or one hour’s travel.  The brightly-painted train stops at the town’s depot, where dancers and musicians will entertain you.

City Spas

Apparently there are a number of good spas in the city limits.  This information came to me via a long-time city resident and 37-year expat, who evidently spends enough time in them to know the good ones.  He says the spas act as a meeting place for “good old boys” and families, so the spas are mixed.

The good old boys meet in the spas to hang out, relax, conduct business and all the other things good old boys do in the states at bars, clubs and restaurants.

There are about 6-8 spas, most equipped with a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, hot tub, steam room (Turco or Turkish bath) and sauna. They are usually not open on Mondays and all of them are in hotels. The fee is under $10 per person.

Here’s some brief information about a few of them:

Hotel Al Prado - $6 per person or free if you are staying in the hotel.

Hotel Ajavi – swimming pool, sauna, turco, Jacuzzi and massage room

Hotel Chorlavi – small swimming pool, sauna, Turkish bath (turco) and large Jacuzzi, very nice.

Other attractions are the many restaurants specializing in local and international cuisine, bars, discos and a para-gliding club.  Several hotels have spas where you can swim, soak in a Jacuzzi or enjoy a massage, all for a very nominal fee.

The city is a market town and the main market day is Saturday, when the large produce market area overflows with an abundance of fruit, vegetables, staple goods and products of all kinds. Thursday is sea food day when fresh sea food is brought in from the coast in the early morning hours. When in the market, make sure to keep close watch on your valuables, as the market is know to be a hangout for thieves.

Some of the most pleasant aspects of the city are its mild weather, beautiful parks, good shopping and colonial houses. Quaint cobbled streets remain throughout the city, although many are being replaced with concrete pavers.


Ibarra is the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ibarra. There are many fine churches to visit and photograph, including the unusual Basílica de la Dolorosa, downtown on Calle Sucre.  The church has two clock towers and stained glass.  Most interesting is a neon sign over the altar that proclaims, Oh, Madre, Dolorosa (Oh Mother, Pain).

Below you can see a video of several churches, including Iglesia La Merced, Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Iglesia de San Agustín, Iglesia La Basílita and Iglesia de Caranqui.

The video also contains some shots of the excavations of the Inca ruins in Caranqui, a small village on the outskirts of the city.

One of the main festivals is the Fiesta de los Lagos, held on the last weekend of September.  Two important and colorful parades take place each July and are known as Virgen del Carmen and El Pregon.  

Other Places of Interest Nearby

Caranquia few kilometers south of Ibarra is a small village with historical interest.  It is the birthplace of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, and the site of several Inca ruins and a museum/temple of the sun to Atahualpa.

San Antonio de Ibarraa small town whose major artisan streets run parallel and uphill to a central square.  You’d swear every shop in town belongs to a woodcarver.  The woodworkers carve everything from inexpensive wood trinkets to exquisite sculptures and religious art.

Chachimbiro is the name of a hotsprings area about 30 minutes from Ibarra.  The route takes you through several picturesque villages, past an old hacienda and ends at several spas where you can soak in the healing waters.

Laguna Yahuarcocha is a few kilometers from Ibarra.  There is a mini formula 1 race track around the lake, as well as restaurants and hostels.  It’s a pleasant way to spend the day.

Peguche is a small village with artisans who specialize in textiles and musical instruments.  Stay at the charming adobe hostel Casa Sol and visit the nearby waterfall, where you can picnic, hike and laze away the day in a pastoral, unspoiled natural setting.

Bits of Ibarra History

The pre-Inca history of the area includes tales of the heroic standoff by local tribes such as the Caranquis and the Otavalos as they withstood Inca conquest for 17 years.

Ecuador was the last holdout against the Inca, but they eventually succumbed to Inca rule.  Bloody battles, both Inca and colonial were fought on Ibarra soil. Click here for more history of the White City.

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