Living in Loja, Ecuador: The Valley of Smiles

The passenger bus in front of us slowed and shifted into low gear on the steeply winding mountain road. I got a good look at the slogan gaily tattooed in huge cursive lettering across its rear panel: Si Ud. nunca ha ido a Loja, no conoce mi pais. “If you’ve never gone to Loja, you don’t know my country.”

I’d come to spend a week in Loja, one of Ecuador’s southernmost provinces, on the border with Peru. I planned to poke around nearby in little Vilcabamba, for some time now a destination for retirees and those seeking an “alternative lifestyle.” But even more, I was here, as the bus art suggested, to “get to know” the municipal capital of the province…also named Loja…and find out why it’s called “the most overlooked city in Ecuador.”

Even most Ecuadorians haven’t been to Loja, despite the fact that it’s one of the country’s oldest and most historic cities. Spanish conquistadors set out from here in their search for Andean gold and to explore the Amazon River basin. The great Simón Bolívar himself visited Loja in his campaign to unite Gran Colombia, and it was from Loja that Ecuador declared its independence in 1820.

But despite its rich history, Loja hasn’t captured much of the spotlight that shines on some of the country’s other colonial cities.

Enjoy the Music Living in Loja

Music is particularly important in Loja, and it’s known as the “Music and Cultural Capital of Ecuador.” The saying here goes that “Anyone who doesn’t play the guitar can sing a song; anyone who doesn’t sing a song can write a verse; anyone who doesn’t write a verse reads a book.” (Lojanos are also generally well-educated, mind you.)

Over the years, many of Ecuador’s most famous musicians have hailed from or studied here. Flyers posted everywhere in the city promote all genres of musical events, many of them for free. These include salsa, cumbia, vallenato, rock, hip hop, classical, and the romantic música lojana ballads for which the city is particularly well known.

Within one block of the central plaza alone are at least three cultural centers or museums where you can study art, music, theater, dance, and more. Young people, especially, are drawn to Loja for this reason. There are two major universities, a law school, and assorted arts and technical institutes in Loja, giving it a young, vibrant flavor.

In Centro, especially, little coffee shops and music bars are tucked here and there. Afternoons find throngs of young people walking home from school, stopping to chat and flirt, or grab an ice cream or dulce de coco, a sweet coconut treat…

Something else you’ll notice right away is how tidy the city is. Over the years, Loja has won several international awards for its environmental efforts, and its recycling program has been copied by other cities in Ecuador and South America.

Locals are rightly proud of the city’s clean parks, perfectly paved city streets, and pedestrian walkways along the two pretty rivers—the Río Zamora and the Río Malacatos—that run through the town and merge, in spectacular fashion, at the Puerta de la Ciudad. A castle-like structure with an arched stone entrance that spans Avenida Sucre, this “door to the city” is flanked by giant, colorful murals of regional and national heroes.

In the heart of the city, entire city blocks are home to massive Spanish colonial-style adobe buildings, with equally massive windows and arched doorways where horse-drawn carriages once entered. Some feature wide wooden balconies supported by huge stone columns. Others are marked by ornate exterior tile work and giant shuttered windows, often flung open to catch the breeze.

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