Aside from visiting the local churches and people watching from a bench at one of several downtown parks and plazas, there's not much of interest for tourists in Ibarra proper. The most popular attractions, San Antonio de Ibarra and Laguna Yahuarcocha, are just outside the city limits.
While the Iglesia de la Merced, Iglesia San Augustin, Iglesia Santo Domingo, and the Cathedral are all worth a quick visit, my favorite church in Ibarra is the Basílica de la Dolorosa, located several blocks south of downtown, on Calle Sucre. This somber stone-and-brick church features two high clock towers, several large stained-glass murals, and a bright neon sign over the ornately carved wooden alter reading OH, MADRE, DOLOROSA.
The local branch of the Museo del Banco Central de Ecuador (Ecuador Central Bank Museum; tel. 06/2644-087) has a respectable collection of Inca and pre-Inca relics. The museum is located at the corner of calles Sucre and Oviedo. It is open Monday through Saturday from 9am until 5pm. Admission is $1 (65p).
The Museo de Arte Religioso, on Plaza Boyacá (Bolívar and Rafael Troya), is a small museum housing colonial-era Dominican art attached to the Iglesia Santo Domingo. With its large carved wooden doors, this church houses the famous La Virgin del Rosario painting, and fronts a small park with a statue of liberator Simón Bolívar. The museum is open daily from 9am to noon and 2 to 6pm. Admission is 50¢ (35p).
If you fancy a stroll around the town's pretty plazas, head to the palmed Parque Pedro Moncayo, located on Bolívar between Flores and Sucre in the heart of Ibarra, surrounded by the Municipal Palace and Roman-style cathedral; alternatively, wander on down to Parque La Merced, with a huge Virgin statue towering over its namesake church.
For a reasonable daily fee, you can use the pool, sauna, gym, and other facilities at either the Hotel Montecarlo or Hotel Ajavi.
Tip: Try to catch a local match of pelota de guante, a popular game played with a soft ball and large circular leather paddles with large nails embedded in them. This is a team sport, played on a large field, whose rules can best be described as a rough blend of team tennis (without a net) and dodge ball. Ask around town and you should be able to find a game to watch, especially on Saturday afternoons, after the main market activity winds down.
San Antonio de Ibarra
Cedar wood is abundant in Imbabura province. Take a trip to the small town of San Antonio de Ibarra and you can see how local woodcarvers transform this raw wood into a centuries-old form of high art. The town, nestled in the Imbabura foothills, is full of galleries selling wood figurines in almost every shape and size; all are beautifully hand-painted. Many are religious-themed, although there are plenty of artisans making secular decorative and functional pieces as well. The best stores are on the main street, 25 de Noviembre, and along Calle Ramón Teanga, whose colonial-era charm has been restored. This cobblestone road now features brightly painted buildings, which are a mix of residential homes, tourist shops, galleries, and artisans' workshops. All along the street are broad brick sidewalks with iron, antique-style street lamps.
Tip: I recommend starting your tour of San Antonio de Ibarra near the church known locally as La Capilla del Barrio del Sur. This diminutive blue church is near the top of the restored section of Calle Ramón Teanga. Catty-corner to the church is Escultura Cisneros (tel. 06/2932-354), the workshop of Saul and Alfonso Cisneros, prominent local sculptors. From here, walk downhill for several blocks, stopping in at whatever shops strike your fancy, before jogging over toward the town's central plaza and the main Avenida 25 de Noviembre. Heading out of town on this avenue, be sure to stop at the Asociación de Artesanos (tel. 06/2933-538). This large space exhibits works by local artisans, and also has a large gallery that often hosts traveling exhibitions. For a real treat, try calling on Alcides Montesdeoca (tel. 06/2932-106), a renowned maker of large Virgin Mary sculptures used in prominent Holy Week processions around the world. Alcides can usually be found at his home workshop, on Calle Bolívar 5-38.
Getting There -- San Antonio de Ibarra is located 5km (3 miles) south of Ibarra, just off the Pan-American Highway. Any bus from Ibarra to Quito or Otavalo will drop you off at the entrance to San Antonio de Ibarra, although it's 10 blocks or more uphill from here to the center of town, so be sure to hop on one of the similarly frequent direct buses to San Antonio proper. These leave roughly every 20 minutes from Ibarra's Terminal Terrestre throughout the day. The one-way fare is 20¢ (13p). A taxi ride here should cost around $3 (£2).
Laguna Yahuarcocha (Yahuarcocha Lake)
This small lake is a popular local spot for picnics and small-boat outings, and has a racetrack on its shores. But for me it holds more interest as a historical site. The lake's name means "Blood Lake," in reference to a fierce battle, in 1495, in which Inca King Huayna Capac massacred thousands upon thousands of the local Cara people. The massacre was so intense that the lake allegedly turned red.
Getting There -- Laguna Yahuarcocha is located 3.2km (2 miles) north of Ibarra, just off the Pan-American Highway. Frequent buses leave Ibarra's main bus terminal for Yahuarcocha. The fare is 30¢ (20p). Alternatively, a taxi ride here should cost around $3 (£2).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.