Riobamba has a couple of minor city attractions, but most folks use the city as a base for tours, activities, and excursions outside town.
Riobamba's city parks are perfect for people-watching. Relandscaped in 1911, Parque Maldonado has pretty gardens, tall trees, and flowing fountains, and it fronts the city's picturesque cathedral. Parque Sucre has a splendid fountain of Neptune, while Parque La Libertad fronts the pretty 19th-century basilica. Toward the north end of the city, Parque Guayaquil (also called Parque Infantil, or Children's Park) is the largest in Riobamba, located near the city's main football stadium, with a small lagoon, row boats, and a large abstract sculpture strangely resembling a cow; there's also a children's playground. For a panoramic view, head to Parque 21 de Abril, from where you can marvel at the scenery, particularly the plumes of smoke coming off Volcán Tungurahua.
The Museo de Arte Religioso (tel. 03/2965-212), on Argentinos and Colón, is the town's most prestigious museum, with a fine collection of 18th-century religious artifacts and a priceless gem-encrusted .9m-tall (3-ft.) monstrance. Housed in a former convent, the Convento de la Concepción, the collection here is large and spread out, some of it in the rooms, known as cells, which were occupied by the prospective nuns. It's open Monday to Friday from 8am to 1pm and 2 to 6pm, and Saturday from 8am to noon. Admission is $2 (£1.35). Ask at the entrance and you should be able to hire a bilingual guide for a few more bucks.
Alternatively, check out the city museum, Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City; tel. 03/2951-906), on Primera Constituyente and Espejo; it houses exhibitions on Old Riobamba and its surroundings. The collection also features pieces by contemporary local artists, and the museum frequently projects both national and Latin American cinema. Set in a pretty restored building, the museum is open Monday to Friday 8:30am to 12:30pm and 2:30 to 6pm, and Saturday from 8am to 4pm. Admission is free.
Riobamba really comes alive on Saturday, with its famously colorful regional market, as villagers from all over the province pour into the city to sell their produce and handicrafts. The most activity occurs around calles 5 de Junio and Argentinos, where vendors principally sell produce. Tourists are better off heading to the charming market in Parque La Concepción (Orozco and Colón). La Condamine is a smaller daily market on Carabobo and Colombia. On nonmarket days, you can find handicrafts in a number of shops located along León Borja close to the train station. Check out The Tagua Shop (tel. 03/2942-215), at León Borja 35-17 and Uruguay, which sells a wide range of handicrafts carved from the extremely hard nut of the tagua tree; or nearby on the same street, try Almacén Taller Rescate Artesanías de Chimborazo (no phone), which specializes in woven bags and woolen goods.
While in Riobamba, don't miss out on a trip to the region's beautiful lakes. The Lagunas de Ozogoche, composed of 60 lakes, is a stunning spot, as is the Lagunas de Atillo, both of which are about a 3-hour drive outside the city. A closer option is the Laguna de Colta, just 20 minutes away. All the local tour agencies and hotel tour desks can arrange these trips.
From Riobamba, you can also visit surrounding indigenous villages. Easily accessible by bus, the small village of Guano, famous for its carpet and rug weaving industry, is located some 9km (5 1/2 miles) north of the city. You can also head a few kilometers farther to Santa Teresita to visit the Balneario Los Helenes (no phone) hot springs, where you'll find amazing views of Volcán Tungurahua and where visitors can camp out overnight. Buses to both these villages leave from Riobamba at the stop located on Pichincha and New York.
An excellent time to come and experience the typical Ecuadorean highlands culture of Riobamba is during its annual fiestas. The festivities take place on and around April 21, when the town comes alive with music, drinking, dancing, street parades, and fireworks to commemorate the 1822 Battle of Tapi, and Ecuador's independence from Spanish rule.
The Devil's Nose Train Ride
Most tourists come to Riobamba to embark on the exhilarating Nariz del Diablo (Devil's Nose) train ride, which winds through some fantastic scenery and daring zigzags up a solid 100m (328-ft.) rock face. The tight switchbacks and sheer drop-offs are enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of anyone's neck. The journey is an absolute must for visitors to Riobamba. Note: Travelers used to be able to ride on the roof of the train, but this was prohibited following an accident in 2007. Be sure to bring your camera and dress warmly.
The journey is a round-trip run from Riobamba to Sibambe, with the Devil's Nose itself on the stretch between Alausí and Sibambe. The train leaves at 7am on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, but check locally before going because sometimes there are changes to the schedule, or unexpected cancellations. Tickets go on sale the day before at the train station's administration office (tel. 03/2961-909), on Carabobo and Av. León Borja. You can also sometimes buy the tickets at the train station the day of your trip, but it's best to reserve in advance. (I've heard you need a passport to purchase tickets, though I've done so without showing one.) The fare is approximately $20 (£13) for the round-trip -- you should be back in Riobamba around 5pm. Alternatively you can get off the train at Alausi and either stay the night or head to Cuenca by bus. On the day of your trip, try to arrive early to get a good seat. Head toward the middle to rear of the train; those sitting closest to the front get the worst of the soot and fumes from the train's exhaust. The best views are reputedly on the right-hand side. Local touts will rent you a cushion for the trip for $2 (£1.35), a well-recommended investment.