The Panamericana does not actually pass through Riobamba, which is located to the east of a significant elevation. The road veres west on the northern outskirts of the city and cuts through a gap in the mountains before turning south towards Cuenca. If you’re bypassing Riobamba from the north look for a slip road to the right. Guayaquil is clearly signposted. This leads to a major roundabout where you turn right and just continue along the Panamericana.
The road climbs uphill to Punín where there is a turning and a large sign for the Chimborazo Reserve (the road takes you incredibly close to the peak of the volcano). The Panamericana soon descends and passes a turning for Guaranda (this is the direct road and a scenic route), the cement works and the train tracks. It climbs again to pass through Cajabamba and Balbanera de Colta (check the Riobamba page for more details) where it splits in two. The international Panamericana forks right just after the church and goes down to the coast. The “Ecuadorian” Panamericana continues south past the lake. This stretch is a good chance to observe rural life as there are lots of houses and people working in the fields. One Sunday I saw groups of people feeding corn into a harvester and others still tilling it by hand.
The next town is Guamote, a pretty uninteresting place which livens up on market day and when the train stops for breakfast. From here you can take a road which is environmentally bad but scenically brilliant (I’ve heard), as it is still being constructed right through the centre of Sangay National Park. Along the way you can visit lakes at Atillo and trek to more lakes near Ozogoche.
From Guamote the road continues to wind through the highlands to Alausi. This stretch is fairly straight and flat. There are large clusters of pine trees and few houses or crops. Just before Tizan there is a turning on the left which leads 31km along an unpaved road to Ozogoche lakes. Trans-Ozogoche buses cover this route. After the turning the Panamericana starts to descend and the landscape opens up as the road sweeps past Tizan and then Alausi, which is spectacularly located on a hillside facing south-west. Many people stop off to take the train down the Nariz del Diablo. The road between Riobamba and Alausi is in perfect condition and the journey takes 90 minutes.
From Alausi the road descends, climbs and winds towards the Austro region. It is not a route you should try to drive quickly and you probably don’t want to see how your bus driver is taking the corners. When I first took the bus north from Cuenca to Baños in 2001 there was a thick fog and I couldn’t see much. In August 2010 I finally drove along the stretch to Zhud and can confirm it is truly spectacular with wonderful views west where the land falls away towards the coast. Most of the road is in good condition but resurfacing works are still ongoing and there are a few unpaved sections, particularly from Zhud to El Tambo.
Zhud is nothing more than a crossroads but is immortalised in my mind by the Ecuadorian film “Que Tan Lejos” in which the main characters take a diversion down to the coast here on their way to Cuenca. This is your last chance to look down on the carpet of cloud as the Panamericana curves slightly inland (east) and a western ridge rises again. As you approach El Tambo it’s difficult to make sense of the landscape which opens up in front of you – a wide valley chopped and sliced by ravines and scattered with houses, villages and towns. Cañar is visible on a slightly elevated plateau. The road passes straight through El Tambo where you can turn off for Ingapirca or take a train to Coyoctor. It passes through Cañar and then continues south to Biblián and Azogues. Cuenca is about 30km further on. This area is slightly lower than the land around Riobamba and densely populated with lots of little villages and more activity on the roadside.