“Where are they?” I wonder. “Am I the only one here?”
How strange to be roaming the narrow streets, poking about in the antique-filled museums, resting on a bench in the shady, centuries-old plaza…whiling away three hours on the double-decker tour bus…and being the only gringo.
It’s not like this isn’t a place that deserves notice. It’s exactly what most of us are looking for.
On the edge of the hugely beautiful and diverse Podacarpus National Park, the city is large enough to support a vivid cultural life—with several universities, shopping centers and hospitals. And people live here very affordably and happily. (It’s actually called the “Valley of Smiles.”)
Loja, Ecuador: The World’s Best Climate
By the way, this place boasts the world’s best climate…averaging daytime temperatures in the mid-70s every day of the year.
So where am I? In Loja, a manageable city of about 180,000 people in southern Ecuador.
At 6,750 feet above sea level, Loja is at a lower elevation than many of the country’s other major cities perched along the spine of the Andes mountain range. (Popular Cuenca is at 8,200 feet, for example.) Loja is in the Cuxibamba Valley, perfect for growing everything from citrus to coffee, plantains to potatoes.
Loja itself is a treasure trove of Spanish colonial history and influence. In Centro, you’ll find plaza after plaza, each with its own unique statues, frescoes, and attractions. And all are rimmed by massively impressive colonial structures with arched doorways, shuttered windows, and wide, plant-filled balconies supported by thick stone columns.
Music wafts from these ancient windows and doorways, down the cobblestone streets and into the plaza where smiling old men sit on park benches, whiling away the hours in the sunshine. In the afternoon, throngs of young people amble home from school, stopping to chat and flirt, grab an ice cream or dulce de coco, a sweet coconut treat…
Loja: Ecuador‘s Music and Cultural Capital
Some of Ecuador’s most famous musicians hail from Loja so it’s no surprise that the city is also known as the “Music and Cultural Capital of Ecuador.” A saying here is that “Anyone who does not play the guitar can sing a song; the one who does not sing a song can write a verse; the one who does not write a verse reads a book.”
So why haven’t North Americans found their way to this little Andean Shangri-la? Most bypass Loja for the larger Cuenca three hours north, with its well-established expat community, or for little Vilcabamba, about 45 minutes farther south. There, they buy small farms, grow their own food, have a couple of horses, maybe some chickens and goats…
There are, of course, a few English-speaking foreigners living in Loja. One I met teaches English at a Loja university. He pays $70 a month to rent a room in a house close to the university. And he says his monthly expenses are about $500. While he lives a more spartan life than most of us might choose, it would be possible to live well in Loja on $1,000 a month. (Two- and three-bedroom apartments can be rented for $300 a month.)
And if you’re looking to buy, I found a 70-acre property on the edge of the city… with beautiful views, spectacular waterfalls and crystalline rivers…selling for just $150,000. Gringo prices aren’t found here, either…
Editor’s note: Suzan will present the full findings of her recent exploration of Loja at the Fast-Track Ecuador Conference in August. Also on hand will be all our Ecuador experts sharing everything they know (and you need to know) about this country, from valleys to coast to cities to mountains. Registration for the Fast-Track Ecuador Conference 2012 is now open. Remember, this is a popular event and it’s our only Ecuador event of the year.