Discover Ecuador’s Affordable “White City”

I had just polished off an al fresco meal at an Argentine steakhouse with my family, and was relaxing to the mingling sounds of several street musicians, when the bill arrived. Though I’ve been in Ecuador for some time, I still suffer from reverse sticker shock. A similar meal for four at a restaurant of the same caliber in the U.S. runs well over $100. Our dinner here in Ecuador’s northern city of Ibarra cost less than half that amount, including the tip. It’s still hard to fathom.

Despite frequent trips to this city of 200,000 residents, I always find something new to enjoy on each visit. That particular day was spent doing one of my favorite activities—roaming through the streets of the city. Though much of Ibarra was destroyed in an 1868 earthquake, the charm remains. It never becomes tiresome to gaze at the colonial-style structures, and you don’t need to be an architectural expert to appreciate the beauty of Ibarra’s cathedrals.

Ibarra is known throughout the country as La Ciudad Blanca (The White City), due to the many whitewashed buildings that line the cobblestone streets. One might think the city lacks color, but nothing could be further from the truth. Brilliant sculptures rise from traffic circles and murals brighten up many a street.

Charming shops grace the avenues, and they sell everything from arrope de mora (blackberry syrup) to jewelry to sporting goods. My favorite places to stop and sit awhile, though, are the ones that sell Ibarra’s special spin on ice cream. Known as helado de paila, this treat is technically a sorbet, since it lacks dairy. Native fruit juices are mixed with other special ingredients in a large copper bowl that sits on a bed of straw, ice, and salt. The resulting concoctions are smooth, delightfully sweet, and just right for taking the edge off a hot equatorial day.

And Ibarra can be hot. Sprawling through a valley buffered by the soft peaks of the northern Andes, its elevation is only 7,300 feet above sea level. This is more than 2,000 feet lower than Quito and 1,000 feet lower than Cuenca. It may not seem like much, but that drop makes for an overall warmer feel that most Ecuadorian mountain towns lack. Still, there’s no need for air conditioning, and you’ll still grab a sweater for those clear, cool nights.

Like all towns within Ecuador, Ibarra has a large, open-air market with meat, produce, and other goods. Choices can become overwhelming, with straight-from-the-sea shrimp, lobster, and sea bass, along with cuts of beef and other meats on display. Juicy pineapples, plump papayas, and leafy greens line nearby tables, where $5 will set an extra-large grocery sack to overflowing.

If you happen to stop by the market on a weekday afternoon, stick around to witness a rousing game of pelota de guante in the nearby Parque Pilanqui. Involving a ball and a large spiked paddle, pelota de guante appears to be a dying sport among Ecuadorian men under age 40, though for now it’s alive and well.

If sports are not your thing, you can spend some time at the Casa de la Cultura, where weekly shows include live music, dancing, or lectures. Free movies are also shown here each Thursday. Museo Banco Central houses historical exhibits and an auditorium that has been used in the past for film festivals and musical performances.

While many people consider entertainment options and culture vital to a city in which they live, others require more basic services. Ibarra comes through on both fronts. In addition to the amenities mentioned above, the city is home to shopping malls, large hardware stores, and three private and modern medical clinics.

Clínica Ibarra, Clínica Metropolitana, and Clínica Moderna have all been given good reviews by expats who have used their services. Patients have been pleased with the treatment of everything from childbirth, to severe kidney infections, to double-hernia operations.

For my own part, a liver infection, which led to dehydration, called for a visit to the emergency room of one of these clinics. I was admitted overnight, given four bags of IV fluid, had multiple blood tests run, and several consultations with a doctor. The care was professional and the staff had excellent bedside manners. Total cost? Less than $350. Chalk up another instance of reverse sticker shock.

In addition, there are dentists, orthodontists, optometrists, and physical therapists available. Only the most severe or rare health issues would not be treatable here.

If you come to Ibarra, the affordability of the housing will surely surprise you as well. You can find accommodation to fit any budget, with rental properties typically ranging between $300 and $600 a month, depending on size, location, and furnishings.

A newly-built townhouse, with over 2,300 square feet of living space, is priced at $125,000. Included are stunning mountain views from within a nice neighborhood. Or build your own house close to the nearby thermal springs, where you can look down on the city from the mountainside above; 5,000-square-foot lots start at $8,500.

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