Marooned at the bottom of the country and several hours’ drive from any other major town, LOJA is a remote but thriving little provincial capital. Thanks to its isolation, it has long been good at taking care of its own affairs, even dabbling with self-government in 1857 – not to mention its distinction of being the first city in the country to generate electricity, in 1897. With a progressive emphasis on learning and culture, the city boasts two universities, a law school and a major music conservatory, which give the place a youthful, vibrant atmosphere. Spread over a fertile valley at 2100m above sea level, Loja is about 500m lower than most sierra cities, and noticeably warmer (usually 16–21°C).
Loja’s most exciting fiesta kicks off on August 20 when the icon of the Virgen del Cisne arrives in the cathedral for a two-month “visit”, having been carried on foot from El Cisne, accompanied by hundreds of pilgrims. The festivities which follow culminate on September 8 with the Feria de Integración Fronteriza, a huge craft and trade fair Simón Bolívar established in 1824, in an effort to promote cross-border relations; the fair is still attended by many Peruvians today.
The town sits on the doorstep of the western edge of Parque Nacional Podocarpus, a pristine tract of páramo and cloudforest, and is the best place to get information on the park or arrange a visit. The eastern part of the park, over the sierra and down towards the Oriente, is approached from Zamora, easily reached by bus from Loja. Loja is also the gateway to Peru via two border crossings, one of which is a short hop from Vilcabamba, an easy-going village that has become an obligatory stop for many backpackers before leaving the country.Read More
A paved road heading east connects Loja with the small town of ZAMORA, sitting 64km away in foothills on the edge of the Oriente, the other side of the Sabanilla Pass which, at 2700m, is one of the lowest crossing points in the Andes. For most visitors Zamora’s main use is as a base for visiting the lower section of Parque Nacional Podocarpus, but the bus ride here is itself worthwhile, with the road snaking down from the sierra past numerous waterfalls, giving occasional views onto miles of densely forested hills. As you get lower, the air becomes warmer and moister, and the vegetation becomes increasingly lush, with giant ferns hanging over the road. At 970m above sea level, Zamora has a subtropical climate, with an average temperature of 21°C – a stark contrast to the coolness of the sierra.
Sitting at the confluence of the Zamora and Bombuscaro rivers with a backdrop of steep, emerald-green hills rising over its rooftops, the town’s setting is lovely, yet the town itself is unattractive, with sprawling grid-laid streets and functional, cement-built houses. Despite having been founded by the Spaniards in 1549 it’s still, at heart, a modern, rough-and-ready pioneer town, its main function being to service the local gold-mining industry – which it’s being doing on and off for four hundred years.
Although visitors to Zamora mainly use it as a base from which to visit Podocarpus, there are a couple of other sights to take in while you’re here, including a 1600-square-metre clock – apparently the largest clock face in the world – in the hillside above the market, where it glitters like a fairground at night. A block from the parque central is the Refugio Ecológico Tzanka, on Tamayo and Mosquera, once the town rubbish dump, but now a small zoo and orchid garden.
Parque Nacional Podocarpus
Parque Nacional Podocarpus
Spilling down the eastern flanks of the Andes towards the tropical valleys of the Oriente, PARQUE NACIONAL PODOCARPUS presents a spectacular landscape of high páramo, dense, dripping cloudforest, rushing waterfalls and crystalline rivers. Its wide-ranging altitudes (900–3600m), climates and habitats harbour a staggering diversity of flora and fauna, including an estimated 3000 to 4000 plant species, over 500 recorded bird species – hummingbirds, toucans, tanagers and parrots among them – and important populations of mammals such as mountain tapirs, giant armadillos, pudu (dwarf deer), spectacled bears, monkeys and pumas. The park was created in 1982, partly to protect some of the country’s last major stands of podocarpus trees (Ecuador’s only native conifer, also known as romerillo), whose numbers commercial logging had drastically reduced. Other notable trees here include the cinchona (known locally as cascarilla), whose bark is the source of quinine, first discovered in this very region.
There are two main entrances to the park, corresponding to its geographical divisions: one is the Sector Cajanuma in the Zona Alta (upper section), near Loja; the other is the Sector Bombuscaro in the Zona Baja (lower section), reached from Zamora. Also in the Zona Baja is a third, little-visited entry post at Sector Romerillos, the gateway to a very rugged, long-distance hike down to an even less frequented entrance to the Sector Valladolid in the far south. The southwestern reaches of the park are often visited on guided hikes and horse treks from the small village of Vilcabamba (for more details), though there’s no formal entry post here. Tickets, available at the entrance posts, cost $10 and are valid in all sectors for up to five days.