33 Things to Do in Loja, Ecuador
I’ve written a lot about Loja as a potential place to live. It’s the main focus of my book on Loja, and will continue to be a major focus in the second edition of the book. But what about the city and province of Loja as a destination for travelers? I’ve explored this theme in more depth in the second version of my book! (CLICK HERE to learn more if interested!) In this post, I'll share 33 things to do in Loja--both the city and the province (and one thing outside the province, but close to Loja).
Most foreign travelers—even travelers to Ecuador—don’t know about Loja. This up-and-coming region is a great destination for lovers of music and the arts, hikers, birdwatchers, and adventurous travelers who enjoy venturing off the beaten path.
Loja city is the capital of the Loja Province, which is in the Andes mountains of Ecuador bordering Peru in the south, between the coastal province of El Oro to the west and the province of Zamora-Chinchipe in the Amazon region to the east.
It’s nestled in a mountain valley at around 7,000 feet in elevation. For those concerned about the Zika virus, Loja is a relatively safe destination because according to the CDC, Zika-carrying mosquitoes do not live above 6,500 feet.
Ecuadorians recognize the city of Loja as the cultural capital of the country. Although the larger cities like Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca may actually have more cultural events, it’s impressive what Loja does have given its modest size of around 200,000 people. I’ve been astounded at the level of talent that they have in such a small city. Many of Ecuador’s most renowned musicians and other artists studied in or came from Loja.
Should You Visit Loja?
Recently someone asked me, "Would Loja make a list of 500 places to go before you die?"
The answer depends on what kind of traveler you are.
For tourists who like everything easy, gravitate toward famous world landmarks, organized tours and vacation resorts, no way. For folks who don't like Latin America or developing countries, have NO interest in attempting to communicate with people who can't speak English, or do not care about nature or music, Loja would not and should not make their list.
However, for more independent travelers who like adventure, physical activity, nature, and Latin American culture, absolutely YES.
Loja would be an ideal (not just top 500, but top 50 or even top 20) destination for travelers who already have some experience traveling in Latin America and love the culture; have some basic Spanish skills; love nature, especially birds; love to hike; and love music and cultural experiences. For such a traveler, the city and province of Loja is a dream.
It would make the top 500 list for most adventure-minded people who simply enjoy traveling to beautiful undiscovered places with friendly people, amazing birds and scenery, and good music.
In my opinion, what makes Loja such a special place is the nature in the whole region. The city of Loja has some wonderful qualities, but would not be a top destination in and of itself. Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage city, has more to offer in that regard. (CLICK HERE to read my post about Cuenca.)
However, Loja makes a perfect base for enjoying a few local events and hikes, then hopping onto a bus and exploring the region.
We have enjoyed hikes and cultural activities within other parts of the province and region, including a 24-hour stay with an indigenous family (twice!) in Saraguro, hikes to a beautiful waterfall and Yacuri National Park in the southern part of the province along the Peruvian border (Espíndola region, near Amaluza), and trips to the edge of the Amazon rainforest in Zamora, in the province just east of Loja about 90 minutes away.
Neighboring Podocarpus National Park is a wonderful place to observe some of the 560 species of birds or 46 species of mammals there.
All of these places, except the Amazon region, are within the province of Loja--and that's just the tip of the iceberg. My husband and I have spent a total of four months in the region and I feel like we could spend another year and still not see everything!
To get an idea of what this province offers, check out this video:
The fact that the city of Loja is also the cultural capital of Ecuador is icing on the cake. If you time your visit to coincide with one of the festivals or can make it to one of the regular musical performances in the city, you're in for a treat.
Beginning in November of 2016, Loja now also hosts the annual International Festival of Live Arts which attracts artists and performers from all over the world.
A popular song in Ecuador says, "If you've never been to Loja, you don't know my country." Loja is the very heart and soul of Ecuador, in my opinion!
Best Time to Go
Loja’s weather does not vary drastically throughout the year as it does closer to the poles. Thanks to its position on the equator, there are drier months, warmer months, wetter months and colder months, but it’s never baking hot nor freezing cold. At the coldest time of year, a few weeks around June-July, it feels especially cold because they don’t bother to heat or insulate the buildings—95% of the time it’s unnecessary! At that time of year, be sure to bring extra base layers for warmth.
Most of the time it’s comfortable T-shirt or light jacket weather—mid-60s to mid-70s Fahrenheit. It is often overcast, and when the sun is out it feels strong. Be sure to wear sunscreen, even on cloudy days, and always, always be prepared for rain.
It rains regularly in Loja—that’s what keeps it all so green. Even if it’s sunny, it’s wise to take a rain jacket and/or umbrella with you when you go out, because the weather can change very fast in the mountains. You may even find different weather in a different part of town! There are so many hills and valleys that it can be raining in one part of town and sunny just over the hill in another part of town.
Even during the so-called “dry” season, it often rains, and during the so-called “rainy” season the clouds will part and you’re likely to see the sun for at least a few minutes almost every day.
Most of the city’s biggest events and festivals happen between August (beginning with the Pilgrimage of the Virgin of El Cisne) and New Year’s, so that might be a great time to visit if you want to take part in a festival! Around Loja, the best months for hiking are October and November. The best times for hiking in other parts of the region may be different, though.
Things To Do in Loja
And now, without further ado, here are 33 random activities you can enjoy while visiting the city and province of Loja:
1. Go to Jueves Culturales
The city sponsors music and dance performances every Thursday from 8-10 p.m. in Plaza San Sebastian. Watch talented local and visiting artists perform many different types of music and dance, from traditional to very modern!
Time commitment: 2 hours on a Thursday evening
2. Climb Up the Lookout Tower at Puerta de la Ciudad
Visit the Puerta de la Ciudad, a life-sized replica on the tower in Loja’s coat of arms which has become the city’s iconic landmark. Inside you’ll find a gift shop, a small museum, a cafe, and stairs leading up the tower where you can look out over the city.
Time commitment: 1 hour
Cost: Free (unless you buy something in the cafe or gift shop, of course)
3. Spend 24 Hours with an Indigenous Family
Pack a change of clothes, some basic toiletries, an extra layer for the higher elevation and cooler temperatures, and your camera. Take a bus two hours north to Saraguro ($2.10 each way for the ticket) and stay with an indigenous family for 24 hours! Experience the traditional way of life. Meals and activities are included. Arrange through the tourist office (www.turismosaraguro.com) or look up "Posada El Bosque" on Facebook to book directly with the family we stayed with (vegetarian friendly!). Read more about our experience with the Indigenous family HERE!
Time commitment: 24+ hours
Cost: Around $35 per person for 24 hours. Includes 3 meals, accommodation, and activities with the family.
4. Eat Traditional Food
Mamá Lola, a restaurant on the corner of Av. Salvador Bustamante Celi and Santa Rosa in the “El Valle” neighborhood, comes highly recommended by many locals for its traditional dishes from Loja. See the restaurant’s Facebook page HERE.
Pucará de Podocarpus, on Calle Cesar Vallejo next to Parque Colinar Pucará, is another great place for traditional local cuisine. I loved the repe blanco - a creamy white soup made from plantains. This restaurant also offers one of the best views of the city! See the restaurant’s Facebook page HERE.
Cafetería El Tamal Lojano is another highly recommended eatery with lots of local specialties. On 18 de Noviembre and Imbabura in front of Parque Bolívar, with another branch on 24 de Mayo between Mercadillo and Azuay. tamallojano.com.
Oh, and try some horchata Lojana. It is nothing like Mexican horchata!
Time commitment: Mealtime
Cost: Varies, but much cheaper than comparable meals in the US
5. Visit the Oldest Botanical Garden in Ecuador
At the Jardín Botánico “Reinaldo Espinosa,” owned and managed by the Universidad Nacional de Loja, you’ll find a variety of beautiful plants and orchids from the region. Visit their website HERE.
Time commitment: 1-3 hours
Cost: $1.00 entrance fee for foreign tourists; $0.50 for residents.
6. Touch the Edge of the Amazon
Although it’s technically not in the province of Loja, you can go just 90 minutes east and be on the edge of the Amazon region. Pack your binoculars and bird book, clothes to swim in if you’re in the mood, plenty of water and a lunch and catch an early morning bus to Zamora. Take a taxi from the bus station to the trailhead at the Bombuscaro entrance to Podocarpus National Park (free entry). Enjoy the trails, waterfalls, orchids, birds, butterflies and swimming holes! (Read more about Zamora HERE.)
Time commitment: Full day
Cost: $3 per person each way for bus tickets + $4 each way for the taxi.
7. Ride a City Bus to the End of the Line and Explore
Ride a Loja city bus to a turnaround point and explore on foot to see what treasures you find. Enjoy amazing views of Loja and the surrounding mountains as you ride up the hillsides.
Some of my favorite trails are all the way north (walk from the northern turnaround point of bus L-2) and all the way south (walk from the southern turnaround point of bus L-7). Note: I would skip the L-8 to Ciudad Victoria which looked like a rougher neighborhood.
Time commitment: 90 minutes to all day, depending on how much you explore!
Cost: 30 cents per person, per ride.
8. Walk Along the Malacatos River from Parque Lineal Sur “La Tebaida”
From Parque La Tebaida in the south part of town (across from the Supermaxi store) there's a trail that goes south along the river. The trail goes all the way to Vilcabamba (almost 40 kilometers)!
The trail follows the river on both sides for a few kilometers, so it makes a nice loop hike if you turn around on one of the bridges along the way. Mostly flat, easy hiking inside and just south of the city.
Time commitment: 1-3 hours or all day, depending on how far you walk
9. Enjoy a Drink and Tex-Mex Meal at Loja’s First Craft Brewery
Zarza Brewing Co., owned by a Texan/Ecuadorian couple, makes amazing Tex-Mex food and craft beers. Popular with both expats and locals, and vegetarian-friendly. Sometimes they have live music, too! Visit the website at www.zarzabrewing.com and see the Facebook page to find out if anything special is going on.
Time commitment: 45 minutes to a few hours, depending on what’s going on!
Cost: Depends on what you get. Prices are reasonable.
10. Play in Parque Jipiro
Visit Parque Jipiro, a large park north of downtown, especially on weekends for great people watching and cheap activities like horseback riding and paddleboating.
From the park you can walk several kilometers north along the river. There are trails on either side for flat, easy walking. (Exercise caution on these trails—some people have reportedly been mugged. I recommend walking during the weekend when there are many people present.)
Time commitment: 1-5 hours
Cost: Free to enter the park. $3.80 for 1/2 hour of paddleboating; $1.50 for a short horseback ride through the park
11. Participate in a Local Celebration, Event, or Festival
Go to the tourist office in the Plaza Central for a cultural agenda and visit the “Que Hay en Loja” Facebook page HERE to see what events are coming up.
You could also time your visit to coincide with an event such as Carnaval (February or March), Semana Santa (Holy Week, March or April), the Pilgrimage of the Virgin of El Cisne (August 17-20), the Feria de Loja (September 1-15), the Festivities of Loja Federal (September 18), the Virgin’s return to El Cisne (November 1), Loja’s Independence Day (November 18), The International Festival of Live Arts (last half of November), the Founding of Loja (December 8), or the New Year Celebrations (December 31)—among others.
Time commitment: A few minutes to a few days, depending on the event
Cost: Probably free, but depends on the event
12. See the Historic Center of Loja from the Top Deck of a Double-Decker Bus
If you want to see an overview of the historic part of the town, ride a loop on the double-decker tour bus. It leaves from Plaza San Sebastian three times per day. Enjoy the scenery, but watch out for the overhead cables and tree branches which sometimes hang alarmingly low over the bus!
Time commitment: 90 minutes - 2 hours
Cost: $7 per person.
13. Go on an Adventure Trip with the Locals
For adventurous activities in the region including caving, rappelling, camping, hiking, and more, see if you can join a LojAventura trip and hang out with a bunch of locals doing something fun. Visit the Facebook page HERE to see what’s coming up. They also have a brand new website: lojaventura.com.
Time commitment: Usually between half a day and 2 days, usually on weekends.
Cost: Varies depending on the trip.
14. Enjoy the Symphony - Orquesta Sinfónica de Loja (OSL)
Loja's Symphony Orchestra puts on frequent performances, usually either in Teatro Bolívar in the historic center of town, or in the brand new modern 20 million dollar Teatro Nacional Benjamín Carrión, on the east side of Jipiro Park north of downtown. To see what’s coming up, visit the OSL website - www.sinfonicadeloja.gob.ec - and OSL Facebook page HERE.
Time commitment: About 2 hours, usually in the evening
Cost: Usually free.
15. Enjoy the Best Ice Cream in Town
Tutto Freddo and Nice Cream. Two downtown locations, same company. Tutto Freddo is at Bolívar and 10 de Agosto close to the Plaza Central; Nice Cream is at Bolívar and Mercadillo in Plaza San Sebastian. This is the best ice cream in Loja according to every single local I asked. www.tuttofreddo.ec Visit Tutto Fredo on Facebook HERE.
Time commitment: 15-30 minutes
Cost: Varies depending on what you order.
16. Watch Birds from the Trails in Podocarpus National Park (Loja Entrance)
This is one of the most biodiverse places in the world and popular with birdwatchers. Podocarpus National Park has over 550 different species of birds! The Loja entrance is actually the most challenging to get to. The cheap way is to take a south-bound bus (toward Vilcabamba) out of town and get off at the entrance right there on the highway. The ride will probably be about 50 cents. But then you have to walk 6 km uphill on a dirt road to reach the visitor's center and trailhead. The other option is to take a taxi all the way from Loja to the trailhead, probably $15-$20.
When you're ready to come back down you could have someone in the visitor's center call a taxi for you, or walk back down the road and catch the bus on the highway.
Time commitment: Half to full day, depending on how much you hike and how you get to the park.
Cost: $1.00 to $40.00 to get there and back. Entry to the park is free.
17. Tour the Parque Eólico (Wind Farm) and Enjoy Great Views of Loja and Catamayo
Visit the Parque Eólico - the wind turbines you'll see up on the west side of town. You can see the turbines up close and tour the visitor's center (it's in Spanish, but very interesting to see anyway). Excellent views into the valleys on both sides of the ridge, too. Take an extra layer and a windbreaker with you; the wind can get cold up there!
Time commitment: 2-4 hours (including the ride up and back)
Cost: A taxi to get up there will run $5-$8 or so each way. The park itself is free!
18. Explore Loja on an Electric Bike
From the Plaza Central, Plaza San Sebastian and Parque Jipiro (and soon, other locations as well) you can rent electric bikes, so go explore the town and park trails on two wheels!
Time commitment: A few minutes to a full day, depending on how much you want
Cost: $0.90 per hour or $5.50 per day.
19. Hike at Parque Universitario de Educación Ambiental y Recreación (PUEAR)
A nice natural area with trails that take you up to the ridge for some great views of the city and the whole valley. This is another great birdwatching spot. The entrance is across the road from the Botanical Garden. Trails are well maintained by the university, which owns the park. Steep in some places.
Time commitment: 2-4 hours
Cost: $1 per person.
20. Listen to Local Musicians Play Live
Most Friday and Saturday nights you’ll find live music by local and visiting musicians in the local bars. Some recommendations from the locals:
- Zarza Brewing Co. - https://www.facebook.com/ZarzaBrewingCo
- La Huerta - https://www.facebook.com/lahuertagaleria
- Lemon Trip - https://www.facebook.com/lemontriploja
- La Mancha De Don Quijote - https://www.facebook.com/lamanchadedonquijote
Time commitment: 1-4 hours, usually starting late in the evening on Fridays and Saturdays
Cost: Depends on the cover charge and what you drink.
21. Stroll Through the Museo de la Cultura Lojana
Located in the Parque Central is the Museo de la Cultura Lojana, or Museum of the Culture of Loja. It contains the archaeological, historical and colonial history of the province and the city of Loja. There are seven rooms in the museum, each showing a different aspect of the area including its nature, archeology, important historical figures, art, and more.
Time commitment: 1-2 hours
Cost: Museums in Loja are usually either free or $1
22. Visit El Santuario de El Cisne
Take a bus (90 minutes each way) to El Cisne, north of Catamayo, and see the cathedral where the pilgrimage of the Virgin of El Cisne begins each August. Visit the cathedral and the museum. There are also lots (LOTS!) of souvenir shops.
Time commitment: 1/2 day to 1 day
Cost: $2.50 each way on the bus. $1.00 per adult/$0.50 per child to see the museum. The cathedral is free.
23. Check Out the Zoo and More at Parque Orillas del Zamora/La Banda
This park in the northern part of the city contains the city zoo which has recently acquired some giraffes and also has a collection of animals from the region, an orchid garden, a go-kart track called the “kartódromo,” a playground, picnic areas, etc. The trail originating in Jipiro follows the river through this park and continues northward.
Time commitment: 1 hour to 1/2 day, depending on what you want to do
Cost: Zoo, $2 for adults and $1 for kids. Kartódromo: $5 for 7 laps, 4 laps if you have a child with you, and on Wednesdays and Thursdays they have a two-for-one special. General entrance to the park is free.
24. Visit Pristine Yacuri National Park and Hike to Beautiful Cofradía Waterfall
Travel a few hours southwest and hike in Yacuri National Park, a pristine place on the Peruvian border that only sees 1,500 visitors per year. From Loja, take a 4-hour bus ride to Amaluza. This area is virtually untouched by foreign tourists, and a great hiking destination.
From Amaluza there is a bus or a more rustic vehicle called a "ranchera" (used during the wetter seasons when buses can't use the road) every two hours that goes another two hours south to a little town called "Jimbura," and from there you can hire a driver to take you to the park. Or, to make things simpler, you can fork out $40 one way, or $60 to get a taxi to take you straight from Amaluza to Yacuri National Park and wait for you for you all day while you hike.
At least do the easy hike to the Lagunas Negras, and if you're in good shape hike up to the rocks that overlook the lagoons. Stunningly beautiful. If you're a backcountry hiker with your hiking gear, you could do some overnight backpacking in the park. In Amaluza, also hike to the Cascada La Cofradía. See the Facebook page for the region HERE.
Time commitment: 2-3+ days
Cost: $6 each way to Amaluza and up to $80 round-trip for transport to the park. Entry to the park is free. $20-$25 per night for a double room at a hostal in Amaluza, or camp in the park for free.
25. Explore Loja’s Musical Roots at the Museum of Music
This museum houses exhibits on the musical history of composers and performers from Loja, from Renaissance to the avante-garde. The collection spans almost 200 years of history, with more than 7,000 musical scores and 65 instruments on display.
Time commitment: 30 minutes to 2 hours
Cost: Museums in Loja are usually either free or $1
26. Go to the Valley of Longevity for Great Food, Hiking, and Birdwatching
Travel one hour due south to spend a few hours in Vilcabamba, the famous "Valley of Longevity." This small town with a New Age vibe has a large international expat population and you'll hear lots of English being spoken around town!
There are some great restaurants (I like El Colibrí Mexican restaurant and Murano, which serves several different kinds of ethnic food). There are many vegan- and vegetarian-friendly spots.
Vilcabamba has another entrance to Podocarpus National Park, where you can hike for hours in the mountains. Also, go hiking and birdwatching at the Rumi Wilco nature reserve.
If you fall in love with the town, as many others have, stay for a night or two! For a unique lodging experience, stay at one of the river cabins at Rumi Wilco (pack light; you have to walk about 10 minutes on a path to get to the cabins). The reserve has several other lodging options, too. www.rumiwilco.com.
Time commitment: Half a day to 2 days
Cost: $1.25 each way on the bus.
27. See Religious Art at the Museo de las Madres Conceptas and/or at Museo de Arte Religioso San Juan del Valle
If you like religious art, visit Museo de Madres Conceptas at 10 de Agosto and Bernardo Valdivieso. This is in a 17th century convent from the colonial era. The museum contains pictures, household utensils, and tools used by the nuns for self-flagellation. It also houses a collection of works of religious art.
For more religious art, head over to the corner of Salvador Bustamante Celi and Guayaquil in the Iglesia de El Valle (the church). Four different rooms display paintings and works of metal and wood. The paintings, sculptures, and other works of art date back to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Time commitment: 1-3 hours
Cost: Museums in Loja are usually either free or $1
28. Join a Community Bailoterápia Class
In order to promote health and fitness among its citizens, Ecuador sponsors instructors all over the country to teach “bailoterápia,” which is like Zumba fitness classes in the U.S. They crank up the music and everyone dances (following the lead of the instructor) for an hour! Great workout, and SO fun. They happen in many neighborhoods throughout the city, but you can almost always catch one at 6:00, 7:00, or 8:00 on weekday mornings in Parque Lineal Sur “La Tebaida” in the area with the basketball courts. Join in anywhere you see a class!
Time commitment: one hour (also make time to shower afterward, because you’ll work up a sweat!)
Cost: Almost always free, but sometimes there is a small charge of $0.25 or $0.50 per person.
29. Appreciate Some Art at One of the Exhibit Halls
Loja has multiple exhibit halls where they have different artistic exhibits every month, including paintings, sculptures, and more. Visit the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana Núcleo de Loja (CCE-Loja) Facebook page at www.facebook.com/cce.nucleodeloja to see upcoming film screenings, art-related workshops, exhibits, and more at one of Loja’s main cultural centers.
Time commitment: A few minutes to a few hours
Cost: Admission is often free
30. Watch a Performance at the National Theater
Watch for upcoming theater, dance, or music performances at the Teatro Bolívar and Teatro Nacional Benjamín Carrión (or one of Loja's several other theaters), with new things on the agenda almost every week. Go to the tourist office for a cultural agenda, look up “Que Hay en Loja” on facebook (facebook.com/quehayenlojainfo), and also check the Coordinación Zonal de Cultura Facebok page (facebook.com/Zonaldecultura7).
Time commitment: Varies. Usually 1-3 hours.
Cost: Sometimes free, depends on the event.
31. Go Back in Time at the Museo de Arqueología y Lojanidad at UTPL
This archaeological museum on the campus of the Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja houses many artifacts from the pre-Columbian period. See Paleolithic and Neolithic artifacts and remains of the Valdivia culture, artifacts from the Tolita, Jamás Coaque, Bahía, and Guajala cultures, and items from the Carchi, Imbabura, Panzaleo, Puruhuá, Casholoma, Tacalshapa, Manteña, Tardía, Milagro, Quevedo, Huancavilca, and Inca peoples.
Time commitment: 1-2 hours
Cost: Museums in Loja are usually either free or $1
32. Step Into the Churches in Loja’s Historic Center
There are several churches and a cathedral in the downtown area: the Cathedral in the Parque Central, Iglesia de San Francisco, Iglesia de Santo Domingo, and Iglesia de San Sebastian. Pop in and see them all!
Time commitment: A few minutes to an hour or more, depending on how many you see.
33. Go to an Open-Air Market and Hunt for Weird Fruits and Vegetables You've Never Tried Before
We lived in Loja for 4 months and went to the open-air market every week, and always found something we'd never seen before! See what you can find at the regular mercados or one of the weekly open air markets around town. See the posts I wrote about weird fruits and weird vegetables we found in Loja.
Time Commitment: A few minutes to an hour. Go in the morning because markets usually close by early afternoon.
Cost: Depends on what you find! Almost always extremely cheap.
Loja is overlooked as a travel destination but the city and province (along with the entire country of Ecuador) is working hard to improve their tourism infrastructure and attract more visitors. Right now it is a hidden gem for hiking and birding enthusiasts and lovers of art and culture who also happen to be adventurous independent travelers.
If you love Latin American culture, hikes, birds, and music, and are willing to at least attempt to communicate with non-English speakers, do visit this undiscovered treasure!
Talk to Me!
Which of these activities are YOU most excited about? Comment below! And if you’ve been to Loja before, how many of these activities have you done? What would you add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Last but not least, if you want to get more information and updates about Loja and Ecuador, enter your name and email below!
My husband and I are nomads, having lived in over a dozen U.S. states, plus Mexico, Antarctica, and Ecuador. I write. I recently released the 2nd edition of my 2nd book, "Live Like a Local in Loja," and I'm looking for a publisher for my third book, "Seven Years Running"--the true story of my fugitive childhood.