Loja Ecuador is just five hours from Cuenca and is quickly becoming one of the most popular places to visit.
Picture yourself walking along cobblestone streets, looking up at colorful buildings flanked by wooden balconies as you listen to soft lilting music from nearby cafes.
One of the oldest cities, Loja is characterized by its beautiful colonial architecture. But it offers all of this and more.
This dreamy hidden gem is also called the Castilian city but it feels like a small town. Loja is both the cultural and music capital of Ecuador, making it an idyllic destination for your next travel adventure.
Loja lies in the southern part of Ecuador and is home to the country’s second oldest university.
The small but lively city is only an hour’s drive from Vilcabamba, which has a healthy expat community.
Yet Loja has a much different vibe.
It doesn’t really have an international tourism program and there’s not a lot of English.
With a population of just over 170,000 and deep Spanish colonial roots, the vibrant city has plazas, churches, monasteries, and historic buildings. You can visit to learn all about its rich cultural heritage.
So when you visit you experience daily life in Loja and get a true sense of Ecuador.
Why Visit Loja Ecuador
The city of Loja has retained its cultural and historical roots without compromising on modernity. With its fully developed city services and tons of things to see and experience.
It is both a convenient place to stay for extended vacations as well as an allrounder when it comes to sightseeing and travel.
Green valleys, gushing rivers, lush green mountains, and a national park are just some of the sights.
Despite all the attractions it has to offer, the city is relatively underrated. It is still considered to be off the beaten path.
This is exactly what makes it ideal for tourists who are looking for authentic travel experiences away from the crowds.
Another unique characteristic of Loja is the weather and the effects of its geographic location. It has an elevation of 2,060 meters or 6,759 ft, which is about 1,400 ft lower than Quito and Cuenca.
It lies at the bottom of the Cuximbamba valley, situated between the Amazon basin and the Peruvian Sechura.
Aas a result of which comprises mainly of paramos (moorlands with high treeless plateaus), jungles, and cloud forests.
For tourists, this means lots of tropical forests, cold foggy mountains, and warm sandy beaches. These are all a one- or two-day trip from each other.
Because of Loja’s unique location, tourists should take into account the possibility of experiencing altitude sickness when in the area.
To avoid it, opt for low-energy forms of recreation at the beginning of your vacation. And end it on a high note with more intense activities around when it’s time to leave.
And take advantage of Loja’s reputation as the capital of Ecuador’s coffee-producing regions.
It’s success is primarily due to its weather. And as the country’s first “green city” it strives toward sustainability amidst its growing coffee and tourism industries.
La Virgen del Cisne Festival
And while it isn’t as popular as Cuenca Ecuador just yet, it still has an expansive expat community that is steadily growing due to its cheaper real estate rates.
Nothing beats Loja when it comes to experiencing the culture and music of Ecuador. The city is home to two orchestras, as well as a notable music conservatory.
In fact, many of Ecuador’s most famous artists, musicians, and composers hail from this city.
If you plan on being anywhere near Loja between August and November, you should make it a point to stop by and witness the city’s largest celebration, the festival “La Virgen del Cisne.”
This Catholic festival celebrating the Virgin of the Swans begins in the town of El Cisne on the 15th of August with a statue of La Virgen being hoisted and carried to Loja.
This is where the journey ends, marking the beginning of a massive celebration that lasts months in Loja!
On the 1st of November, the festival takes place in reverse with the statue making its way back the El Cisne Basilica.
Things to do in Loja
There is no shortage of things to do and places to visit in the small city of Loja. Here are a few of our favorite attractions and locations in the city.
The City Gate
The City Gate of La Puerta de la Ciudad was built in the late 1990s. It is a castle-like edifice with a museum, café, and galleries that display local artwork.
Drop by to view artworks like the metal sculpture of Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza. On weekdays visitors get to climb up to the clock tower and enjoy the view of the entire city.
Central Park Plaza
The Central Park Plaza is located in the heart of the city and is surrounded by some of the most important and recognizable buildings.
A number of historical monuments, as well as lush gardens adorned with different kinds of roses and other flora, can be found in the beautiful square.
The premises of the park also contain the Cathedral, Museum Music, and Museum of Religious Artifacts for those who want to do some exploring.
It’s a peaceful spot to unwind and people-watch under the shade of the trees during some downtime between sightseeing.
The Loja Cathedral
The Loja Cathedral, or Catedral Católica de Loja, was originally constructed in Central Park Plaza in 1820 and is distinguished today by its eclectic style of architecture.
The beautiful structure that houses a gold-glitter-embellished wooden statue of the Virgin of the Swan has undergone two periods of renovations since its inception.
Once in 1838 after it was damaged by an earthquake, and once in 1990 by the students of the fine arts department from the Technical University of Loja.
This has led to the fusion of the kinds of art styles pertaining to the three different periods in which it was built and refurbished.
The Loja Music Museum or Museo de la Música is a unique museum that lets you take a deep dive into the history of the local Loja music scene.
This place has a lot going for it, including a collection of eclectic instruments, artwork and other memorabilia surrounding the life and achievements of Loja’s musicians. Be sure to stop by!
Museum of Lojana Culture
Situated in a unique building from the republican-era near the Central Park Plaza, the museum of Lojana Culture holds various exhibits including city art, archaeology, and even ethnography.
As far as beauty goes, the best place in Loja to visit is Lourdes Street. It is also the most narrow street in Loja Ecuador.
Stroll down the cobblestone streets among the colorful colonial buildings as you peek into the galleries to find local handicrafts.
End your day by settling down in a quaint cafe or restaurant for a cup of coffee and a delicious meal.
The Loja Botanical Garden is the only botanical garden at 6,560 ft above sea level in the Andean region.
It’s home to over 1000 types of plant species, including native and non-native flowering plants, native orchids, the Podocarpus, which is the only pine tree native to Ecuador, as well as a working farm.
Located within walking distance from the University of Loja, the Botanical Garden is only $1 to enter. It operates from Monday through Friday between 8 and 5:30 p.m., and 1 to 5:30 p.m. on weekends.
Jipiro Recreational Park
Jipiro Recreational Park is free to enter and encompasses over 10 hectares of land. It’s home to several unique and diverse recreational exhibits including a small lagoon and zoo.
It also features many representational exhibits from around the world like an Arabian mosque, a Chinese pagoda, St. Basil’s Cathedral, a Shuar hut, a Euro-Latin castle, and much more.
Open 24/7 throughout the year, the park also has volleyball and basketball courts, a skate park, a giant chessboard, a heated swimming pool, and a pond with pedal boats.
Other activities you can take part in include bicycle riding, horseback riding, rowboat rides, and hiking.
Independence Plaza “San Sebastian”
Loja is a city to spend time outdoors in one of the amazing plazas. You’ll find locals congregating there, surrounded by lush greenery.
Independence Square is more commonly known as San Sebastian for the church on this square.
It is also home to a 32 meter clock tower that celebrates Loja’s independence from the Spanish on November 18, 1820.
On each side of the tower are brass historical scenes of the history of Loja.
Best Loja Restaurants, Bars, Cafes and Markets
Cafeteria El Tamal Lojan
This humble, family owned business (above) has been serving up some of the most delicious tamales around for almost two decades.
The tamal Lojano in particular is a little different from traditional Ecuadorian tamales. It uses ground corn to make dough. As opposed to using the traditional dough that is cornstarch-based flour (maiz sabroso).
Chicken, pork, and fresh cheese are the three varieties of tamales that this homely cafeteria serves. It also offers an assortment of other tried and true regional, authentic dishes.
Open every day of the week between 8 a.m and 8 p.m. It’s the perfect no-fuss place to call home-base when it comes to eating in Loja. Just be sure to plan around the midday break on Sundays.
José Antonio Eguiguren y 18 de Noviembre Loja-Ecuador
The Central Market, located on 18 de Noviembre, has a wide variety of local Lojan food that you can sample or even fill up on in place of a whole meal!
Check out Comedor 413, a spot that is famous for its chaunfaina and cecine. Chaunfaina is a rice side dish that is cooked with sofrito and pig offals, or innards, that would usually be thrown out.
Ecuadorians elsewhere don’t enjoy this ingredient as much as their southern counterparts. The city of Loja does use unripe bananas to make two different types of soup.
One called “repe con arveja con guineo” and another one called “repe blanco.”
Repe con arveja con guineo is a type of split pea soup. It has cubes of uncooked repe. While the mild repe blanco is made by mixing boiled, unripe, mashed bananas with potatoes and fresh cheese.
Interestingly enough, both of them are best eaten with an avocado (or aji)!
Before you leave, be sure to follow the Ecuadorian custom of stopping for some dulces (sweets) in the market when you visit Loja. Sweets from loja are uncomplicated, rustic, and mainly made using ingredients like molasses and sugarcane.
Some traditional options you can try include the signature sweet of Loja, the bocadillo, which is a square of molasses set with peanuts; roscon; as well as other simple sweet treats like peanuts covered in sugar and fig in syrup.
If picking out just one is too hard, get yourself a mixed bag and figure out what you like best after you try them all!
De Noviembre 18 entre 10 de agosto y Vicente Rocafuerte, Loja 110150 Ecuador
Emporio Lojana is a great place to stop by if you’re looking for some tasty coffee, food, and artisanal beer.
Their signature drink, “trino,” which means to sing or tweet, is said to make you feel like doing just that!
Their service times vary day to day, so be sure to decide which day to visit accordingly.
They work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays; from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays; from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays, and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m on Sundays.
10 de Agosto entre Sucre y Bolívar Loja 110108
Wilco Tasting Room
While the Wilco Brewery itself is located in Vilcabamba. They do have a tasting room in Loja. It serves samplers of their craft artisanal beer as well as full pints.
Wilco also serves some modern eats like wraps, burgers, tacos, and more.
They operate from Tuesday to Saturday from 4:30 p.m. until midnight. Closed on Sundays and Mondays.
José Antonio Eguiguren 10-53, Loja
One of my favourite discoveries, we were visiting the Central Plaza and as we were about to leave we walked by Somos Loja.
At first it looked like a souvenir shop.But I am so glad we did not dismiss it as that and continue walking.
It is a cooperative artisanal shop that also has an incredible coffee shop in Ecuador. It sells 19 types of coffee from Loja.
And you can try 10 of the coffees from Loja for $1/cup.
It is a must visit. And as a cooperative you directly benefit the artisans.
Corner of Jose Antonio Eguiguren and Bernado Valdivieso
Mama Lola is spread out over three floors and features the three main facets of dining in Loja; timeless decor, friendly service, and traditional flavors.
The cuisine at this restaurant truly seems to be rooted in the nineteenth century. Its standout dish being the chicken that is cooked in the same way as a cuy (guinea pig).
Despite the classic and typical nature of the food it serves, the establishment boasts modern innovation. It is only enhanced by the use of fresh, locally grown, organic ingredients.
They operate from noon to 11 p.m. between Mondays and Thursdays; from noon to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays; and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
Av. Salvador Bustamante Celi y Santa Rosa esquina, Loja 110150 Ecuador
Getting to Loja
Both Aeroregional and LATAM fly into Loja.
Getting into the city from Loja’s airport, Aeropuerto Camilo Ponce Enriquez or La Toma in Catamayo, takes about 45 minutes by road.
Taxis are available right outside the airport and buses run every hour from the airport to the city between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.
There are about a dozen buses that service Loja between 1:30 p.m. and midnight through Cuenca from Quito’s main terminal, including Transportes Loja, Cooperative Santa, and Pullman Viajero.
The journey is about 11 to 13 hours to get to Loja with bus fares that average at around $15.
Two other buses, Cooperative Loja and Pullman Viajero have 24/7 hourly services between Loja and Cuenca. The ride is about 4.5 hours and costs $8.
There are also regular services to Guayaquil by Cooperative Loja which is a 12-hour journey.
All the main buses leave from Loja’s main bus station, Terminal Terrestre, located on Avenida 8 de Diciembre.
Aside from the main cities listed above, it is also possible to find bus connections between Loja and Huaquillas, Machala, and Vilcabamba.
The most important thing to remember when taking public transport is to mind your luggage.
Do not keep it in the baggage stand or on the floor. It can attract thieves who have been known to cut the backs of bags and steal your belongings!
Instead, carry your luggage in your lap.
From Quito, follow the directions to Cuenca and keep to Pan-American Highway (E35) to drive directly into Loja.
If you are coming from Guayaquil, follow the directions to Machala. Continuing south on E25, you’ll arrive at La Avanzada, where you will take the well-marked exit for E92 to Loja.
Weather in Loja
With an average yearly temperature ranging between 48°F-70°F. The weather in Loja can best be described as tropical for the most of the year.
Due to its geographical location, it experiences rainy weather for half the year with comfortable temperatures and overcast skies. During the dry season it is cool and cloudy.
The warm season lasts between November and May with temperature that ranges between 68°F-52°F. The hottest month of the season is March with an average high temperature of 70°F.
The cool season lasts from June to August with the highest temperature reaching 64°F. The coldest month is July where the temperature reaches lows of 48°F.
It is said that the best months to visit Loja and take part in the warm weather activities are from mid-April to mid-June. As well as from late-August to mid-October.
As you can see, Loja, Ecuador is a beautiful city with deep colonial roots, great architecture and delicious food. It is local, authentic, and full of flavor.
Whether you’re a solo traveler, a family looking for a summer getaway, the small underrated city of Loja offers tons to do and see.
So, what are you waiting for? Pick out your own must-visits and get packing!