Loja, jewel of southern Ecuador

December 30, 2012 at 5:59 pm 1 comment

I just had to get to Loja to see it, feel it. I heard it was warmer than Cuenca and that I might also like it because it is known as Ecuador’s center of art, music , poetry, and dance.  Did you say dance?!! Well yes, cumbia will entice me every time!!  I was excited to get there!

on the way to Loja

on the way to Loja

another view on the way to Loja

another view on the way to Loja

The road trip from Cuenca along the Pan American Highway (also known as the Ruta del Sol) was long for such a short distance, 78 miles.  It took almost 3 hours. The car climbed and climbed, and then descended and climbed, and descended and descended…   The vistas were beautiful, magical, changing at each elevation. Haciendas below, horses, cows, and sheep, miles and miles of uninhabited land, flowers, trees, birds, the occasional indigenous woman in traditional finery walking along the road.  Far more beautiful for me than the drive between Quito and Cuenca.

I enjoyed the strong sun on the road. By the time the car pulled in front of Loja’s Howard Johnson Hotel in mid-afternoon, it was raining. You might cringe when you read the name Howard Johnson, but it was a nice surprise.

Howard Johnson Hotel, Loja, Ecuador

Howard Johnson Hotel, Loja, Ecuador

view of Loja from hotel

view of Loja from hotel

In Ecuador, HJ is a hotel of high standards and does not resemble what you might remember about HJ’s if you grew up in the states years ago – ordinary. Everything about this Loja hotel is welcoming – the staff, the delicious gourmet cuisine in the dining room (yes, excellent, really), the comfortable bed, the bathroom amenities, and the warm rooms… for a southern Californian like me, being warm is essential…  I usually stay at low budget hostels but am delighted I chose to splurge.  Other recommended places to stay are the Zamorano Real, Hostal Aguilera Internacional, and the Hostal Dubai (have not seen them, so cannot advise).

City Gate of Loja, Ecuador

City Gate of Loja, Ecuador

River next to Loja City Gate

River next to Loja City Gate

Loja City Gate, other side

Loja City Gate, other side

It doesn’t take long to see most of this hilly city of 200,000 (about 1/4 the size of Cuenca).  One of the best ways, if you have little time, is to hire a taxi at $10 an hour and have him let you off to visit and take pictures at major landmarks – the original city square (the city was founded in 1548 ), the original Gate to the City on Avenida Gran Columbia (looks like a walled fortress but holds 4 galleries and a cafe – climb the tower for a city view); the inviting 25 acre Jipiro park in the north of town with its replicas of a Chinese pagoda and an Arab mosque – a must; the Reynaldo Espinosa Botanical Garden on the road to Vilcabamba south of town, the mural of Simon Bolivar (known as the Liberator, the South American equivalent of George Washington), and La Banda park which incorporates a zoo. The walkways along the Malacatos and Zamora rivers are lined with weeping willows and full of lush vegetation.  If there were no muddy sidewalks and streets, nor a number of dilapidated buildings, due to lack of infrastructure and funds, you can see how Loja could transform itself into a small wonder.  I especially liked the gentility of its people.

Beautiful Jipiro Park, Loja, Ecuador

Beautiful Jipiro Park, Loja, Ecuador

Mural of Bolivar, Loja, Ecuador

Mural of Bolivar, Loja, Ecuador

It would be great if Ecuador could invest the way Mexico has (if it could) in restoration of its pueblos magicos (magical old cities) so they might invite more interest.  (Old town Quito and old town Cuenca are in the midst of such a transformation but it would be great to see this happen in smaller towns too).  I will always remember the perfection of El Fuerte in Sinaloa, or Los Alamos in Sonora. But of course, Ecuador’s President Correa has his hands full and is doing his best with basic, needed services first – education, health care, affordable food.  He has already elevated the standard of living in the country in four short years from an average income of $200 a month in 2006 to $318 per month beginning January 2013.

Dining Room at Howard Johnson, Loja

Dining Room at Howard Johnson, Loja

Loja is famous as a gastronomic center.  Coffee (you can also find it in downtown Cuenca at El Tostador on Avenida Sucre 10-20), quimbolitos con pasas (cornmeal, milk, butter, sugar and raisins baked in a banana leaf),  sweet tamales or meat tamales, also available in Lojana cafes in Cuenca or at grocery stores – the latter usually not moist), all kinds of meats, and other specialties. Because of the short stay and need to push on, I missed eating at the famous Mama Loja Restaurant . But I can attest to the remarkable quality at the Howard Johnson formal dining room overlooking the city.

Potato Soup, Loja, Ecuador

Potato Soup, Loja, Ecuador

I enjoyed a potato soup with vegetables that had remarkable flavors (no not Ecuador’s famous locro soup of potatoes, avocado and cheese, delicious in another way (see previous posts).  Remember to request NO SALT and add your own when traveling or living in Ecuador, otherwise you might be in for a surprise.

There are two universities in Loja, one publicly funded, the other a private Catholic institution.   Included are a medical school, a law school, and a music conservatory.  I toured a beautiful new private hospital – the UTPL – whose doctors come from all over the country; some have received additional training in the U.S., Europe, or Chile. I also visited two elder care homes, both run by dedicated nuns with a sense of humor, and, a hospice home for the terminally ill whose director is a young doctor/minister.

UTPL Hospital, Loja

UTPL Hospital, Loja

In the end, I never heard any cumbia music (not even in a taxi), nor did I discover any dancing. Saving all that for a return visit.

Happy traveling and stay safe!

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Entry filed under: Travel blog. Tags: , , , , , .

Meeting Lively Senior Citizens in Saraguro, Ecuador Vilcabamba – a remote Ecuadorian “oasis”

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Georgia Rencher  |  February 17, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Great writing, reams of information,thank you. Do you happen to remember the names of the elder care facilities in Loja? We are visiting here looking for same. Thanks, Georgia geogeo1122@gmail.com

    Reply

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