When admiring the city from the Tapillas lookout or from the UTPL University, Loja doesn’t lie. It is a small city, a place that will transport you back decades into the past, to a world free of shopping malls, where everything is at hand in markets and mom-and-pop stores, to a time when one returned home for lunch and didn’t open the shop until the late afternoon. If you accept her invitation to walk along her streets, several of these impressions are confirmed. Many Lojanos deem the growth of the last decades has made their city “unrecognizable”, but as an outsider, you can still very much feel the kindness and generosity of yesteryear. People are happy to engage with you. They smile back. They help you find what you are looking for. They might tell you a story or tale or two. If you have a chance to talk to a real Lojano, you will be amazed at how much they know, at how critically they think, at how smart and elegant they are.
The city in the castle
It is only natural that one would start a walk in Loja at the city gates, or Puerta de la Ciudad, an imposing construction that looks like a medieval castle ambushed by asphalt and a swarm of cars. Manuel Vivanco — a Loja native, like many, who has migrated to Quito — reminds us that migration has been central to understanding the city: if this is a great gateway in, it also represents the exodus of all those who have had to leave and the talent they have sown throughout the country.
On Avenida Gran Colombia, this fort-like structure seems to hide a kingdom. You can visit the exhibition halls, cafeteria, and craft store, but do make it up to the viewpoint: a memorable panorama awaits. At night, illuminated, this city icon is romantically-photogenic and the union of the Rivers Zamora and Malacatos, arriving from Puente Bolívar (the bridge) give it all a dose of drama. To one side stand statues of Conquistadors heading out to El Dorado, along with the slogan Fidelis Loxa Liberis (Loja Free and Faithful). On the other side, stand Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: a nod to the city’s deep-rooted literary tradition.
Across the street, a curious-looking condor rises, that passers-by like to call the pajarraco (ugly bird). He certainly is not the condor the city deserves: it perches on a pedestal several times too large. More interesting is the colorful mural that covers a wall behind the condor. Created by Fabián Figueroa in 2000, it illustrates Simón Bolívar with secondary figures who have no eyes, a tribute to the artist’s father who was blind.
The visit to the castle complete, we can now cross the great gateway and head along Calle 18 de Noviembre, the same way the Libertador purportedly rode (on horseback) when visiting the city, once it had been liberated from Spain in 1822. The Tamal Lojano is a mandatory stop: taste the texture that characterizes this Loja specialty, as well as the creaminess of their humitas — delicious with a cup of fine Loja coffee. In adjacent Bolívar Park, the monument to the South American hero is surrounded by six columns, a tribute to the Itamaraty Binational Peace Treaty that ended the war between Ecuador and Peru, echoing the local’s preoccupation with the close-to-home border dispute.
Bolivar’s thirteen-day-stay in Loja is still evoked. It served to strengthen the independence cause throughout the region. Many Lojanos insist that it was here, and at that time, that Bolivar wrote his famous poem “My Delirium on Chimborazo” (although most believe he wrote it in Riobamba).
Two blocks down, on Calle Eguiguren, and then left and down two blocks more to Calle Bolívar, we reach the Plaza Central main square. In Colonial times it was known as the Plaza de Armas (weapons). It was from this point that the city was configured as a checkerboard and where important buildings were erected: today we find the Cathedral, the Municipality, the Prefecture, the Tourism Information Center and the Museo del Banco Central (where the history of the city is told in seven exhibition halls). You can also find the monument to Bernardo Valdivieso, an important city philanthropist.
Every year in August, the Cathedral, built in 1920, receives a very special guest: the Virgen del Cisne, who stays “to live” until November. Thousands of devoted pilgrims accompany this religious icon as it journeys from the small town of El Cisne to the city. The temple organ hails from Germany and came to life more than once under the fingers of famed Loja composer, Salvador Bustamante Celi.
Other religious landmarks include the Museo de las Conceptas, rich in history and art (an important painting illustrates the Baptism of the Virgin Mary; in the Americas, only Mexico has a work that illustrates the same theme). This is a functioning cloister and those who take care of it are not keen to help the curious. But do try to ask for a peek to glimpse both the wonderful art and Colonial beauty found inside.
One block west (Calle Colón) find San Francisco Church, today a museum of religious art; and two blocks east of the Central Plaza, Santo Domingo Church, one of the first in the city, where the Our Lady of the Rosary rests; she was brought from Seville. The church has two water towers and a Crucified Christ attributed to famous Quito sculptor Caspicara.
Returning to the main square, on Calle Valdivieso, you will find the Museo de la Música (Museum of Music). Settled in the first courtyard of the old Bernardo Valdivieso school, this permanent exhibition, concert hall, café and music store provides a comprehensive vision of a Loja obsession. The city is deeply rooted in its musical traditions and this is a place to discover why. The “Music Menu” will allow you to listen to pieces by Loja composers or those composed in honor of the city.
Next-door to the Museum, we find the Simón Bolívar Municipal Theater. Brought back to life in recent years from oblivion, it is today a true architectural gem and a hub for the city’s rich cultural agenda. Beautiful sculptures of the Muses line one of its corridors, ready to inspire. They were in fact part of the theater’s stage in times past — so impressive they must surely have stolen the attention of the performances.
The pretty streets
Four blocks south of Santo Domingo extend the San Sebastián square and Church, where you will also find the fantastic San Sebastián Market. Its characteristic architecture, with narrow, vertical windows and tiled roofs, reflects another time; in fact, the entire block surrounding the square also has this special air to it, with old houses now occupied by retail stores and other businesses. Inside the market, each stall invites visitors to buy fruit or vegetables, try a traditional sweet or admire how Doña Clara (stall 140) makes tamales, humitas and quimbolitos every day.
The square, on the other hand, is dominated by a 32-meter-high tower. At the gazebo, Cultural Thursdays take place in the evening, offering free concerts and dance performances.
Calle Lourdes is a must-see. It was the first street to be built and dates back to the 16th century. Narrow and full of color, its Colonial houses with flowery balconies and wooden windows on both sides give it a wonderful feel. Handicraft shops, tourisy services, restaurants and cafés bring the street alive by day and, at night, the streets shines romantically beneath elegant lampposts. Portal 16 is a café with peculiar décor: old chalkboards, antique phones, a relaxing atmosphere, ideal to share with friends. Also striking is Bird Explore, a curious store that sells drawings and paintings of birds, as well as birdwatching tours. At Calle Bolívar, find the Alfredo Mora Reyes Cultural Center, named after a celebrated writer. It is one of the most important cultural centers in the city.
La Lourdes takes us to Calle 24 de Mayo, an attractive avenue lined with trees and a plethora of restaurants. You can try German dishes at Lecka Bistro Alemán (the Frikadellen will change your ideas of what a hamburger really is), or cheese shawarmas at El Hez. La Mojigata is a café with vintage posters and red metal chairs, and joins several breweries, pizzerias, friendly bars and cafes, each retaining their character and menus, to offer colorful nightlife options. And, of course, to finish your walk with a cherry-on-top (no pun intended), try the Amor Brujo ice cream in La Tienda (they describe it as a fruit concentrate with dried fruit, jam and dulce de leche: there’s nothing like it, believe me).
This street leads to the banks of the River Zamora (Orillas del Zamora is the actual name of the street). Here the river runs beneath several decorated bridges, shaded by tall trees that rise elegantly all around… it is a nice place to walk before or after a good dinner, bringing us to the symbolic end of our walk in this city criss-crossed by flowing rivers.
Parks and recreation
Loja is a very green city. When visiting, don’t miss the chance to connect with nature for a while. The large Jipiro Recreational Park at the north end of the city has plenty of space for families and a theme park dedicated to the universality of culture (with replicas of buildings representative of the world, from an Arab mosque to the Eifel Tower, passing by a local Shuar hut). Another special site is the Reinaldo Espinosa Botanical Garden (on the city’s southern outskirts), with beautiful paths full of medicinal plants, local trees and beautiful flowers, all duly sign-posted. The visit is also an opportunity to see a few chinchona trees remain — it’s a species on the verge of extinction that was once a major source of quinine. It was once a significant motor of the local economy given its effectiveness in curing malaria. If you want to escape the city altogether, head to the Cajanuma entrance of the Podacarpus National Park, just 10 minutes south of the city, on the road to Vilcabamba.