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.