Perhaps, we must begin our tour walking down Avenida Daniel Leon Borja: an eclectic scene with restaurants and bars (and what was once the entire city with its 20 blocks), the main artery of the city and an entertainment hub in its own right (grab a bite or drink at Rayuela, a nice place with live music on Fridays). You will first pass by Parque Guayaquil, a park with everything including a section that celebrates Ecuador’s “four worlds” and a curious “zebra cow” (created by famed Ecuadorian artist Endara Crow).
From here, you reach the stadium, the first of its kind in the country. Some of the stone walls of the original construction remain. It was built for the 1926 Olympics, where, for the first time in Ecuador’s history, a crowd of over 10,000 people gathered in one place, something unthinkable for the time!
The next landmark is the train station, on Avda. 10 de Agosto. In a time when the distance between Quito and Guayaquil was 15 days (when it didn’t rain!), the train obliterated space-time conceptions by making the same trajectory a mere 14 hours. At the beginning, Riobamba was excluded from the route, but in 1924 a direct line arrived at this very station and with it, the fragrant fruits of the tropics, and travelers astonished by Mount Chimborazo and its imposing summit at 6,268 masl.
A number of historic gems
A striking building of eclectic architectural style appears suddenly, the Pedro Vicente Maldonado School, in memory of the famous Riobamba geographer of the eighteenth century, who surprised the members of the French geodesic mission with his verve and knowledge. One also notices the street honoring the First Constituent Assembly (calle de la Primera Constituyente), because the country was founded in Riobamba. And since many things happened for the first time here, Riobamba is also known as the City of Firsts (Ciudad de las Primicias).
At Sucre Park, find the striking statue of Neptune placed in 1913, honoring the inauguration of drinking water in the city (although this was not a first for Ecuador). And two blocks further down is Maldonado Park, surrounded by beautiful buildings with striking tin roofs, including the Government Office and City Hall, among which the Riobamba Cathedral, its gem, shines. The effigy of the historical figure of Maldonado (the geographer mentioned above) rises high on a column with a condor with open wings at his feet. The frontispiece of the Cathedral draws our attention immediately, built with the same stones of the original baroque church that crumbled during the infamous 1797 earthquake that leveled the city. It truly is a beautiful, peaceful temple.
You can then head back towards José Veloz, where the neo-Gothic La Concepción Church is located. Also known as the Red Church, one quickly notices its arch windows and stained glass. You can’t miss out on the turnstile, Our Lord of Justice refectory and the actual Conceptas Cloister Museum on calle Orozco. Beside the church towers one notices four-leaf clover motifs and rosettes, while the brick façade offers it a reddish tone overall. Perhaps this is why the square in front is called the Red Square. On Saturdays, this very place is an explosion of colors, with indigenous crafts decorating the entire square. You can still get to see professions that are practically extinct, such as “hemmers” that come out with their sewing machines ready to tatter garments.
On calles De Velasco and Benalcázar, you’ll find the Basilica del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, built with stones from the Gatazo mines (used especially for its high central dome). In front of this lies parque Libertad, with a monument to Juan de Velasco, who is considered the “first historian” of the then Real Audiencia de Quito.
By noon, it’s good to get out to the market of La Merced, time for hornado, a whole pig roasted in wood ovens with secrets like cooking since two in the morning so that, after five hours, the meat is perfectly crispy. Another secret is marinating the pig in garlic, cumin, annato, sesame seeds and nutmeg. The most exciting part of it all is getting to experience the selling process itself: a cacophony of greetings to every customer as the sellers give away free samples as they pass by. The dish is usually accompanied with classic llapingacho potato pancakes, and a delicious fruit juice some say is made out of ice brought directly from the mountain glacier at Chimborazo (we can’t confirm this, however). Or try the neck-snapper (rompenucas), a drink named after the effect its cold has on you when you drink it (they say it comes from the Chimborazo glaciers themselves!).