A Detour West: Guaranda
As the capital of the province of Bolívar, Guaranda is a charming, relatively small provincial town set among seven lush green hills -- hence its nickname, "Rome of the Andes." It has pretty views of the surrounding rolling patchwork pastures. While there isn't an extensive repertoire of things to do, Guaranda is a perfect place for taking leisurely walks and hikes, doing some horseback or bike riding, and visiting the colorful Saturday food market. It also makes for an excellent base from which to explore the giant Volcán Chimborazo or the nearby village of Salinas de Bolívar, where you can see the famous Salinerito cheese-makers at work and indulge in chocolate to your heart's content. Other popular local activities include picnics and barbecues at Las Cochas Lake and visiting El Indio de Guaranga, a large monument towering over the town, in honor of its namesake 16th-century Indian chief.
Guaranda's claim to fame is its annual Carnaval, arguably the country's best. Local and international visitors pour into town by the hundreds to celebrate in traditional Guarandeño style with folk music, dancing, street parades, beauty contests, and plenty of alcohol, as well as massive public water, egg, and flour fights. Fritada con mote (fried pork with white Andean corn) is typical Carnaval fare in Guaranda, traditionally accompanied by a shot of the infamous Pájaro Azul (Blue Bird), a locally brewed alcoholic concoction that would work well as paint stripper. But it's extremely popular: The locals won't let you go home without trying it! Carnaval is 5 solid days of crazy festivities leading up to Ash Wednesday.
Your best bet for accommodations is Hotel Cochabamba (tel. 03/2982-124), on García Moreno and 7 de Mayo, which charges around $20 (£13) for a double and is the most comfortable and conveniently located hotel in downtown Guaranda. Alternatively, check out the slightly more expensive and luxurious Hotel La Colina (tel. 03/2980-666), at Guayaquil 117, a 10- to 15-minute walk up the hill (the splendid views are worth it). A double room here costs approximately $60 (£40) and includes breakfast and use of the pool and Jacuzzi. Another good option is Hotel Tambo del Libertador (tel. 03/2980-634), on Avenue Guayaquil opposite the Provincial Police Office, with doubles at $35 (£23), including breakfast. Hostal de las Flores (tel. 03/2984-396), at Pichincha and Rocafuerte, is set in a charming building and has rooms with a balcony and cable TV for around $12 (£8) per person. Try to book far in advance if you plan to travel to Guaranda during Carnaval; the town gets packed and hotel rates rise somewhat.
When hunger strikes, check out the numerous, inexpensive restaurants around the town near the Plaza Roja; most serve typical Ecuadorean cuisine, including the region's specialty, cuy (roasted guinea pig). Restaurante Cochabamba (tel. 03/2982-124), at García Moreno and 7 de Mayo, belongs to its namesake hotel, serves some great international dishes, and is one of the town's more upmarket restaurants. Los 7 Santos (tel. 03/2980-612), on Convención de 1884 and 10 de Agosto, is without doubt the trendiest eatery, with tasty, inexpensive international and Ecuadorean fare; the open fire makes for a cozy ambience and the artsy decor is a welcome change of pace for Guaranda. For Italian cuisine, try the excellent Pizzería Buon Giorno (tel. 03/2985-406), Circunvalación, 2 blocks from the Plaza Roja; locals rave about the scrumptious lasagna and delicious pizzas. Restaurante La Bohemia (tel. 03/2980-269), on the corner of Convención de 1884 and 10 de Agosto, serves tasty chicken, meat, and seafood dishes in a rustic atmosphere.
For nightlife, Guaranda has few discotecas, most only open on weekends and during Carnaval. Check out No Bar, at Azuay and Pichincha, which pumps out typical electronic tunes and infectious reggaetón vibes.
Getting There -- The drive to Guaranda, by bus or car, certainly makes for some breathtaking views, particularly at dawn or dusk. Along the way, you'll ascend 4,000m (13,123-ft.) mountain passes, with huge ravines dropping off from the roadside, and pass right by Volcán Chimborazo.
Express Atenas (tel. 02/2570-024) has modern buses heading to and from Guaranda approximately every hour from Quito (trip time: 5 hours; $4.50/£3), and twice a day from Guayaquil (trip time: 8 hours; $8/£5.35).
You can get here from Riobamba, on Flota Bolívar (tel. 03/2982-061 in Guaranda; 02/2570-699 in Quito; 03/2941-832 in Riobamba), which runs buses roughly every 90 minutes between Guaranda and Riobamba from 4am until 5pm. The ride takes about 2 hours and costs around $2 (£1.35).
The Guaranda bus terminal is a 15-minute walk from the Plaza Roja.
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.