One Year in Ecuador – Part Four – “Loja”

Loja, Ecuador

Loja, Ecuador – View from Pucara looking North

We moved again – this time to Loja, “the Music and Cultural Capital of Ecuador” – and our final stop on our adventures in Ecuador.  We have lived on the coast, a place with beautiful beaches, fantastic sunsets and delicious seafood, and for a while enjoyed a small town nestled in the Andes Mountains surrounded by beautiful vistas, indigenous people and lots of culture.

We are now settled in the southern part of Ecuador, in the city of Loja.  We are still in the Andes, located in the Cuxibamba valley. Loja is the capital of Loja Province which shares a border with Peru in the southwest, holds a rich tradition in the arts, and is home to two major universities.

The city is situated at an elevation of 2,060 m (6,758 ft.) with a population of about 200,000. It has a mild Andean climate – it feels like spring year round – and the Pan-American Highway runs past Loja.  It was the first city in Ecuador with electricity and now has 11 wind-powered generators on the mountains overlooking the city.

Windmills, Loja, Ecuador

Windmills, Loja, Ecuador

We moved into our rental apartment in the north end of Loja at the end of October, after making two exploratory trips from the small town of Girón. Finding it very difficult to find a rental on our own, we used the services of a local lawyer who drove us around, translated for us, and helped us find an apartment.  Thank you so much, Kelley, for all your help.  She also helped to finally get my residency visa – another story to tell!

Our apartment is located in the city but away from downtown, so you could say we are in the country.  We have many small parks, a basketball court, and pastures with cows, sheep, and chickens surrounding us.  To see someone riding down the street on their horse or burro is a common occurrence.  We are close to the bus route and taxis are available almost any time.  To take a bus to downtown only costs 30 cents, and a taxi is from $1.25 – $3.00 depending on what part of town we go to.

Shortly after we arrived, the first “International Festival of the Arts” started on Nov. 17 and ran through Nov. 27.  This festival celebrated music, theatre, performance, puppet shows, exhibitions, workshops, and forums.  Artists from around the world and many Ecuadorian groups performed day and night.  The festival attracted more than 31,000 people who attended the different events organized in theatres, squares, and parks around the city.  We enjoyed parades, fireworks, and chalk art on the closed downtown streets.  There were many local food vendors and lots of dancers in their traditional costumes.  It was a great time!

Parade, International Festival of the Arts, Loja

There is always something happening in Loja, which is one of the reasons we moved here.  Here is a list of some activities you can do including many we have enjoyed:

  • There are various festivals happening throughout the year. New Year’s Eve in Loja is a spectacular event, lots of fireworks and burning effigies.  People wear masks like it’s Halloween and there are many fiestas in the streets.
  • Feria de Loja is a weeklong fair at the end of August, featuring parades, music, dancing, crafts, and food.
  • The new Teatro Nacional Benjamín Carrión Mora – Benjamín Carrión Theatre features regular performances, many free. You can see the symphony, ballets, traditional music or even AC/DC or Metallica music.  We recently attended the Festival La Caña de Oro which featured traditional dancers and music.  It was very entertaining and our favourite was Yanantin – a band from Cañar Province, excellent music.
  • Other places to enjoy entertainment include the Teatro Bolívar – Bolivar Theatre, the Museum of Culture Auditorium, the Music Museum Hall, and several other venues around the city. We have been to the Bolívar Theatre for plays, a Blues concert, and a five-man classical guitar concert.  We have visited many culture displays, one on traditional costumes, and another on local musical instruments and have visited many art displays.  There is so much talent in this small city.
  • Rent a bicycle and discover the trail system along the river.
  • Horseback riding is available in Parque Jipiro.
  • Walk along the Sendero (the trail along the river) – we walk it almost every day, it’s very peaceful.
  • Every Thursday evening you can attend “Jueves Culturales” at San Sebastian Plaza which features local talent – and it’s always free. My favourite is watching dancers in their traditional costumes but the younger, modern dancers are just as entertaining.  You never know what you are going to see on a Thursday evening at San Sebastian.
  • Visit the Zoo. It’s in the north end of the city and only costs $2.00. We have been there many times and enjoy it more each time.
  • Visit the Orquideario which is connected to the Zoo. It features thousands of amazing orchids – the best time to go is when they flower in October. There is a nursery there as well and the collection of flowers and trees is incredible.
  • Have fun at the Kartodromo – go-carting for young and old.
  • Visit the Botanical Gardens just outside of town. The Jardín Botánico Reynaldo Espinosa has nearly 900 plant species.
  • Walk up to the castle in Pucara Park. Have a picnic and enjoy the breathtaking view of the city.
  • Take a stroll through all the amazing churches around the city and don’t forget the cemetery – very interesting.
  • Visit the “Puerta de la Ciudad” – the City Gate, which features artwork, has a gift shop and a very good café. A great place for some tourist photos.
  • You have to stroll down Calle Lourdes, the oldest colonial street in Loja. There are many fine gift shops on this street – a lot of souvenirs have been purchased here.
  • Relax in one of the many squares in the city, Parque Central, Santo Domingo, Parque Bolivar, and San Sebastian to name a few.
  • One of Loja’s most popular tourist attractions is “Parque de Recreación Jipiro”, Jipiro Park. It is a large, landscaped park with an ornamental lake and has an international theme.  It features models such as the Eiffel Tower, an Arabic mosque, Afro-Bantu Shack, a replica of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral and more.  There are also sports areas, playgrounds, a swimming pool, camping areas, a bandshell, and typical Lojano food areas.  You can go horseback riding and bicycle rentals are available in the park as well.
  • You can go watch a futbol (soccer) or volleyball game at the main stadium, two arenas, or at many other outdoor sports areas around the city.
  • At Christmas time, you absolutely don’t want to miss the biggest Nativity scene in Ecuador! It’s located inside Catedral de Loja, across from Parque Central. It’s a must-see and is simply fantastic!
  • We can’t forget Carnaval! Held every year in February, Carnaval features fiestas, food, dancing and music – and lots of foam!  People like to spray each other with espuma – sort of like shaving cream, all the stores sell it at this time of the year.  Also be prepared to be hit with water balloons, eggs, and flour, but foam is the most popular.  We had a great time watching parades, dancers on stage and music in the park and around town.  And yes, we did get foamed! More than once…

There are many day trips to keep you entertained:

  • Visit Parque Nacional Podocarpus – Podocarpus National Park. You can hire a taxi to take you to the refugio – shelter – and walk one of the many trails to see the beautiful scenery from 9,000 ft. You can rent a cabin or go camping if you want to do some backpacking.  We walked a short, very steep trail to the mirador – the look off – which has some fantastic views of the mountains and the city of Loja.  Then we hiked back down the mountain, 8.5 km to the Cajanuma entrance, where we caught the bus back to Loja.  We were lucky and had a beautiful sunny day as it can be very cloudy and rainy at times.
View of Loja from Podocarpus

View of Loja from Podocarpus

  • Walk, bike, or go on horseback along the Caxarumi Trail, near the entrance to Podocarpus Park which will take you all the way to Vilcabamba if you so desire.
  • Visit El Cisne which is a small town 71 km from Loja and is home to Ecuador’s most revered icon, the Virgin de El Cisne. Each year, starting on August 15th, thousands of pilgrims gather in El Cisne to carry the Virgin Mary statue on their shoulders. This religious procession takes five days, with the pilgrims walking all the way to the cathedral in Loja.  The Fiesta de la Virgen starts with the arrival of the icon, and two months later they carry her back to El Cisne.
  • An hour and a half’s bus drive will take you to the town of Saraguro which is the centre of the indigenous Saraguro culture. The women wear broad-brimmed white hats, long pleated skirts, ornate pins and elaborately beaded collars.  The men wear fedora-like hats, black ponchos and knee-length black shorts. These descendants of the Incans still maintain many of their customs and ethnic identity.
Saraguro Woman

Photo by Rinaldo W.

  • Chill out in Vilcabamba. Located in the Valley of Longevity, it is known for a high number of centenarian residents. Is it the water, the stress-free lifestyle, or the fresh Andean air that leads to such long lives?  The beautiful scenery, the laid-back atmosphere, and the mild temperatures attract many people to this area as well. Horseback riding adventures are available for brave, adventurous souls – like us. You can read about our terrifying – but fantastic and memorable – 4-hour journey by clicking on the above link.
  • Want to experience part of the AmazonZamora is only 64 km from Loja and is on the edge of the Oriente. A good base for visiting the lower section of Parque Nacional Podocarpus.  From Zamora, you can also arrange jungle and Amazon river tours.
  • Catamayo is a short bus trip from Loja and is where the Loja Airport is located.
Vilcabamba, Ecuador

Vilcabamba, Ecuador

Zapotillo, the dry forest and the blossoming of the Guayacánes:

Another fantastic trip that we ventured on was to Zapotillo and Mangahurco in the south-west of Loja Province, near the Peruvian border.  We went in January for the flowering of the yellow Guayacán trees.  These trees only grow in the dry forest and only bloom once a year, lasting for less than a week.  The blooming usually starts after the first rains begin.  It can happen in December or as late as February.  What a fantastic display!

Some good friends travelled the 7-hour bus ride from Loja with us. After getting settled in our hotel in Zapotillo, we hired a driver to show us around.  Our driver, Marco, took us to a restaurant that specialized in “Chivo al Hueco” or “goat in the hole”, a local dish made by building a fire in a hole in the ground and roasting marinated goat meat in the covered hole for 5 hours or more.  It was absolutely delicious!

Guayacan Trees

Guayacán Trees

The next day Marco took us on a leisurely drive along a dirt road to Mangahurco to view the Guayacán trees.  Along the way, we passed burros, cattle, pigs and a lot of goats roaming along the side of the road – sometimes on the road.  We stopped many times along the way and were mesmerized by the Guayacán trees.  The whole valley was a canopy of yellow.  The flowering of the Guayacánes brings thousands of tourists to this area every year. It is amazing!

The goats and other animals like to feed on the fallen flowers which are rich in vitamins.  And of course, there is an annual “Festival of the Blossoming of the Guayacánes“  to celebrate the beauty of the trees and the beginning of the planting season.

We have enjoyed Loja enormously and have had many great adventures here.  An adventure in itself is to visit the Mercado and Street Markets.  Every Sunday there are various street markets around the city.  Many vendors bring their wares into the streets and it’s a real hive of activity!  You never know what you are going to see – exotic fruits, native vegetables, eggs, live poultry, flowers, meats of all kinds, fish, spices, local honey, and coffee, etc.  It’s exciting and, to me, overwhelming!  The Mercados are more enclosed and are open every day.  They offer the same fresh produce but the atmosphere is not the same as the street markets.

After living in Loja for almost eight months – and in Ecuador, for a year and a half – we have decided to move on to another new adventure.  We are moving back to Canada, starting out on the east coast for a couple of months, and then driving our camper van across Canada out to the west coast.  We have thoroughly enjoyed Ecuador but alas, our journey here is coming to an end.

We will miss Ecuador and all the good people we have met along the way.  We have made so many incredible memories here and will never forget our South American adventure.

¡Adiós, Hasta Luego Ecuador!

If you’d like to join us on our new adventures in Canada, click the following link to Facebook “I Want to be Outdoors” and like our page.

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