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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Loja - Southern Ecuador's hidden gem


Just 4 hours travel south of Cuenca is Loja, southern Ecuador's hidden gem of nostalgic charm. Established in 1548 it is one of Ecuador's oldest cities.

 

It has often been described as a smaller and warmer version of Cuenca. We found it to be full of natural beauty, and warm hospitality, while its tourist services are somewhat limited.



A $ 5 dollar city highlights tour on a double-decker bus is an excellent way to get a good overview of the city – when on the upper deck just watch out for numerous low hanging wires !

Surprisingly it was the first city in Ecuador to have electricity in 1897, provided by a hydro-electric dam. It also lays claim to be the safest city in Ecuador.

 

While protecting its heritage, culture, and environment it continues to be a leader with

 

Ecuador's first 11 wind turbines in Parque Eolica Villonaco, commissioned in January 2013, now provide 59GWh energy annually representing 23.4 % of the province of Loja, Zamora, & Chinchipe's needs.

 

The renewable electrical wind power generation reduces atmospheric emissions, represents 254 jobs, and has an excellent interpretation centre for visitors.



The urban center lies in the bottom of the Cuxibamba Valley at 6,750 ft its surrounding green slopes are fringed with the country's main coffee plantations, and several excellent viewpoints for city views.

 




With a population of about 182,000 it is the capital of the

 

province of Loja, holding a rich tradition in the arts & music it is considered the music capital of Ecuador.

 

The city comes alive with a variety of music, cafes, bars, and salsa clubs providing nightly activity, and bands often perform in public plazas. Their music conservatory has produced some of the most acclaimed musicians in Ecuador.

Two rivers, the Zamora & Malacatos, flow in north / south channels through the city, and are framed by walkways and some green lineal park.



We lived in Bahia de Caraquez, the "self proclaimed eco-city" for six years, where basic recycling programs were neither successful nor a community priority. Ironically we now discover Loja has officially been declared Ecuador's " Ciudad Ecologica" and has a sophisticated and very successful recycling program, and a strong commitment to environmental protection that has won International awards and is now being copied by other cities in Ecuador.

 

The sanitation vehicles play a pleasing, catching musical melody to alert citizens to bring out their recycling & waste.

Main attractions of Loja include :


The iconic landmark city gates attraction modeled after the city's 1571 Coat of Arms. The Spanish castle like structure forms the northern gateway into the city. 

 

At the merging of the two rivers the charming entrance gate sets the stage for Loja's friendly residents, clean streets, and charm. On the north side are several bustling marketplaces serving fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, flowers, and artisan crafts. 
 

Climb the castle towers for a 360 degree panoramic view of the city. It houses a small museum, several small art galleries, and a cafe. Admission is free and the hospitality wonderful. Its character is handsomely illuminated in the evening providing a second photo opportunity.



Massive tile murals adorn the city, including the frescoes of Bolivar & Sucre greeting visitors passing through the city entry gate.




 

The well appointed main civic plaza reflects Spanish architecture with the main Cathedral which houses the Virgin of Cisne,

 

Provincial and Municipal government buildings, and Central Bank Museum surrounding it.




 

Beautiful churches of San Sebastion,




Santo Domingo, San Francisco, and San Augustin filled with precious art.




Independence Monument a 32 metre clock tower in Plaza San Sebastian.



Behind Plaza San Sebastion is a block long section of Lourdes Street picturesquely showcasing a narrow cobblestone antique alleyway flanked with colourful well preserved & restored colonial buildings with balconies and flowers, artesanal galleries, and cafes.





Loja has several museums, two of Ecuador's major Universities, and the oldest high school in Ecuador. The Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja has three international campuses located in New York (USA), Madrid (Spain), and Rome (Italy).



Parque Recreacional Jipiro's over ten hectares of greenspace along the river provides a beautiful theme park oasis featuring something for everyone.

 

It is very unique providing a multi-cultural world tour with a colourful assortment of scaled models of world famous monuments in natural surroundings.



Replicas of the Eiffel Tower, a medieval castle, Buddhist shrine, St Basil's Cathedral, Big Ben, Japanese pagoda, Hansel & Gretle cottage, & Incan pyramids provide children's playgrounds and are enjoyable for the young-at-heart.

 

A pretty lake with beautiful swans, ducks, geese, and flamingos, and river channels offer a relaxing pedal boat experience.
 

Even though the attractions are not new, and require a little paint or TLC it is still enjoyable. Admission is now free. An extensive network of trails for walking, hiking, jogging, cycling, or rollerblading alongside grazing sheep, cows, horses, and chickens.

 

Sporting facilities for soccer, outdoor excercise gyms, indoor swimming pool, basketball & volleyball courts, tennis, frisbee, athletics, aerobics, yoga, and a large skateboard & BMX park with a full pipe. Other activities include horseback rentals, bicycle rentals, flying kites, picnicing, playgrounds, people watching, strolling in the sun, reading under a big shade tree.



Adjacent to Jipiro is La Banda Park on the shores of the Rio Zamora. A huge greenspace with a public carting race track, riding trails, an orchid nursery, and the Loja zoo.





Across from University Park is the Jardin Botanico, the oldest in Ecuador created in 1949, and among the highest altitude in the world. A seven hectare living laboratory with over 800 native and exotic species.

 

Loja's airport service is about 32 km away in the Catamayo Valley.

Highlights of the region :

Just 10 miles south is the protected diversity of the massive cloud-forest reserve Podocarpus National Park which is an extraordinary park ranging from chilly highland páramo, gigantic coniferous forests of Podocarpus trees, to jungle.

 

Home to over 800 different bird species, and one of the last major habitats for the spectacled bear.



Travelling south to Vilcabamba, is Mandango a sacred Incan hill shaped like a sleeping Incan.



Vilcabamba, an hour away is the famous sacred valley of longevity, and has vacation properties for the wealthy Lojano's.

History

Founded in 1548 by field marshal Alonso de Mercadillo it was named after his hometown Loja, Spain. Originally located 35 km east in the Catamayo canyon it was relocated to its present location due to a devastating earthquake, and problems with malaria. The primary reasons for its establishment was to provide fortification for the nearby gold rich region of Zaruma, and provide a departure point to the Amazon to search for the mystic town of El Dorado.




Annual Loja Festivals & Events

  • January 23 – festival of a sea of yellow flowering Guayacans
  • May 30 - August 15 - Pilgirmage of the Virgin of El Cisne - a 43 mile religious mountainous pilgramage made by thousands to transport the Virgin Mary statue to Loja
  • June 25 - Foundation of Loja Province
  • September 1–15 - Ecuador-Peru Border Integration Fair
  • November 1 - Return of the Virgin of Cisne to the town of El Cisne
  • November 18 - Independence of Loja
  • December 8 - Foundation of Loja





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Bahia de Caraquez, Manabi, Ecuador