I’ve added a map to this blog entry to give you an idea of the distances and terrain on our trip from Cuenca (green A) to Saraguro (red pin) and now on to Loja (green B). Google maps gives the distance from Cuenca to Saraguro as 139 km with an estimated driving time of 2 hours. It gives the distance from Saraguro to Loja as 58 km with an estimated driving time of just under an hour. This estimated driving time of 3 hours total is probably reasonable if you are in a private vehicle and like to take those twists and turns you can see on the map at high speeds. However, when we rode the bus from Loja back to Cuenca, it was a 5 hour trip!
On Sunday afternoon, March 4, our tour of Saraguro was over. Our tour guides and the other participants climbed in the van and headed back towards Cuenca. We had made arrangements for a taxi to take us further south to Loja. It arrived about 2:30 pm.
Our little red taxi set off at a rather alarming pace. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road but there was some. Although the road was quite new, we were a bit worried that one of the fellows riding on, not in, the back of the Toyota truck would fall off before we could get past. The countryside was quite mountainous and the road twisted and turned as it followed the contours of the land.
These mountains are not made of solid rock like the Rocky Mountains in western Canada. These are mainly composed of volcanic ash and loose rock. As a result, it was quite easy to make cuts so the road was more level. We passed several small villages along the way. In many of them the inhabitants dressed similar to the inhabitants of Saraguro. Recent heavy rains meant that you had to watch for rock and mud slides along the highway.
Loja lies in a long narrow river valley. As a result, it is long in the North-South direction and narrow in the East-West direction. The bus depot is at the North end of the city. In front of the bus depot is a roundabout containing a tall pillar and a statue of Isidro Ayora who was the President of Ecuador from 1926-1931. The taxi driver had quite a bit of difficulty finding our hotel because the Jardines Del Rio Hotel is in the south part of Loja, well away from the central area that contains most of the other hotels. However, it is a very elegant hotel as you can tell from the furnishings in the sitting in the lobby.
On the second floor there was a large sitting area with a TV as well as two computers for accessing the Internet. We rarely used these computers because we used our netbook and WI-Fi. Our bedroom was nice and clean. This was a “family room.” The stairs led up to a second bedroom with a double bed on the floor above. The room was equipped with a TV and a writing desk. There was a large private bathroom with toilet, sink and bathtub. Only cold water was available at the sink. The tub wasn’t really usable for a bath because there was no stopper and the only source of water was the shower head that provided electrically heated water on demand.
The Jardines Del Rio Hotel is a small, family-run hotel. The first night we were the only guests! We ordered dinner in the very elegant dining room. The father served as the chef and the oldest son, Christian, who spoke quite good English was our waiter. The food was freshly prepared and was tasty and quite inexpensive. There is a large municipal park across the street from the hotel.
Parts of the park were quiet and restful. In the first photo you can see the mountains that border the river valley. Other parts of the park are more heavily used. There is a children’s playground with traditional metal slides and swings. There were also food vendors. This one was using a Swan block ice shaver to make snow cones.
In the first photo we see an inflatable tent for kids to bounce around in. They had a very popular set-up for basketball enthusiasts. There were four hoops facing out from a central support so lots of people could practice shooting hoops in a small area. The last photo shows a food vendor preparing hot treats over a charcoal fire.
We rode the buses in Loja. The fare was 25¢ the same as it is in Cuenca and Quito. However, when I got on I looked in vain for a fare box to put my money into. Eventually the conductor came up to me and collected the fare. The map in the second photo shows the Loja bus routes. Note that the main route is from left to right (north is on the right) with branch lines going up (west) to serve the residential areas. Outside of the central part of the city you enter or leave the bus through the front door. In the central part of the city there are raised bus stops and you enter and leave the bus through a pair of doors in the middle of the right side of the bus.
At one point we saw a large group of people walking down one of the main streets of Loja carrying flowers. It wasn’t until we saw the pallbearers carrying a coffin that we realized that this was a funeral procession. The coffin was followed by more people walking carrying flowers. They were followed by a string of cars and trucks with additional mourners.
To give you a bit of an organized look at Loja, we’ll start at the North end of the city and work our way to the southern end of the city’s central area. We’ll begin at the roundabout in front of the bus terminal. In the center of the roundabout is a tall pillar and a statue of Isidro Ayora who was the President of Ecuador from 1926 until 1931. Traveling south we come to the largest market in Loja, Mercado Gran Columbia. Flower stalls fill the front entrance to the building giving it a very festive look.
The vendors have a good supply of potted plants and gardening supplies for those who want to plant a garden or update their landscaping. Inside the market there are a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for sale. Some of them are familiar but there are many new and different items to try.
The mercado also has a meat section where there are a wide variety of meats and fish for sale. Just south of the Mercado is the bridge over the Rio Malacatos that leads to the gates of the city. They were built in 1999 to look like a medieval gatehouse, complete with (fake) portcullis. The Entrada a la Ciudad straddles Sucre Street.
The sign indicates that the gatehouse contains an art museum and cafeteria. Going inside the gates we find an interpretive display of the history of Loja and a poster describing the art works currently on display in the gallery.
The first two photos show paintings done by the abstract artist Nestor Ayala. The alcove contains several portraits done by Delicio Toledo.
The first photo shows another painting by the abstract artist Nestor Ayala. We then climbed a set of spiral stairs to a walkway that had lovely plants and statuary. This is where you entered the cafeteria.
Climbing another set of steps brought us to the third level. We could see we were getting close to the top of the tower. The view from here was spectacular. When we looked South towards the central part of Loja we saw the two giant murals that face the gates. In the distance we could see the city center and the mountains that surround this river valley.
There was one final set of steps to climb to reach the top of the tower. But, the climb was worth while. From the top of the tower you could look North past the Mercado towards the bus terminal or South past the murals towards the center of Loja.
On our way down from the tower we stopped in at the cafeteria to have a drink. Note that Nan’s Pepsi comes in a glass bottle with an old style pop top. We paused to look at some of the statuary along the walkway on the second level of the tower. On the city side of the gates is this large bronze statue marking Loja as part of the best and shortest route from the Pacific Ocean to the Amazon River system.
The first photo is a close up of part of the statue. The second shows the city gates as seen from the city side. The final photo shows a nearby shop that sells a different kind of monument – grave stones.
This area of the city has many shops of sign makers and graphic artists. One unusual part of their business is making license plates for cars and trucks. You get your registration papers and a license number from the government but have to have a sign maker produce the license plate for your vehicle. This is a fairly run down part of town although many buildings are being restored and renovated.
Here is one of the street vendors selling fresh fruit. Our first stop on our walk south from the gates along Av. 18 de Novembre was at the Plaza de Simon Bolivar. The park commemorates a visit to the city in 1822 by Simon Bolivar the great Liberator of the Gran Columbia region. The statue in the center is of Simon Bolivar. surrounded by six columns with six shields symbolizing each of the Bolivarian countries: Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Bolivia and Ecuador.
In the plaza there is a geological marker indicating that this location is almost 4° S of the equator and 80° W of Greenich and at an elevation of 2064 m (6772 ft) above sea level. That puts it due south of Hamilton, Ontario or Miami, Florida. As we walked toward Plaza de San Francisco we passed one of the credit unions, CACEL, that are becoming popular in Ecuador.
The sound from the “boom box” on a mobile advertisement for an upcoming performance caught our attention. We noticed that one of the vehicles parked along the street had been given the boot and wasn’t going anywhere until the owner contacted the authorities. The Plaza de San Francisco is dominated by a statue of Field Marshal Alonso de Mercadillo who founded the city of Loja in 1548. The city is named for his hometown of Loja in Spain.
Along the East side of the plaza is the Iglesia de San Francisco (church of Saint Francis). As we head further south along Simon Bolivar we pass Cuna de Artistas. This is a favorite evening hangout for Gringos. It is easily recognized by the stylized “lava lamp” just outside the door. Just around the corner facing Plaza Central is the tourist bureau. The folks here were very helpful even allowing us to borrow publications and have them photo copied at a shop up the street.
The first photo shows Hostal Central Park, one of many hostels in the central part of Loja. It faces Plaza Central with its Statue of Bernardo Valdivieso, the founder of Loja’s universities. The Iglesia Matriz is in the background.
As we walk south along Simon Bolivar we pass many beautifully restored colonial buildings. One that stood out was directly opposite the north-west corner of the Plaza de la Confederacion. Nearby was the modern church and school of the Immaculate Conception.
The Iglesia de Santo Domingo extends along two sides of the Plaza de la Confederacion. The elaborately carved doors of the church were amazing.
As we walked along Av Bernardo Valdiviezo we saw what was obviously a gringo. We stopped to talk. Turns out he is Alann de Vuyst, a gringo artist who would be having a showing down in Vilcabamba in a few days (the day after we visited Vilcabamba). He told us about the local gringo hangouts including el Sendero where we had lunch. By the way, they make very good hamburgers there. Although we didn’t find out until we were back in Brandon, el Sendero was set up by SIM missionaries as a safe place for Loja college students to hang out and learn about Christ. There is space to play ping-pong and other games on the second floor.
While we had lunch at el Sendero we spoke with Glen. He is from the US and has been teaching English as a second language in an English school in Loja for about 3 months. He earns $5 per hour (about half the rate paid in Cuenca schools). We walked south from el Sendero along a busy street and soon came to the Plaza de la flores where fresh flowers are sold.
There were many different flower vendors displaying their wares on the plaza. I particularly like this arrangement of yellow roses. As we walked further south we came upon this wood carver’s shop and stopped in.
The carver, Ramon Febres Alvarado, was busy working on a carving that was a reproduction of a smaller statue of a monk. He showed us a larger statue of Christ on the cross that he was working on.
The southern part of the central core is a busy place. There are numerous musical instrument stores in this area. Because of its fine music school, Loja is considered to be the musical capital of Ecuador. Many of the buildings in this area have been restored to reflect their colonial Spanish nature. The last photo shows the interior courtyard of one such building.
This is the Plaza de la Independencia, so called because it is here that the citizens of Loja gathered on November 18, 1820 to declare their independence from Spain. On one side of the plaza is the Church of San Sebastian. In the center of the plaza is a huge clock tower.
As we walked along we noticed a crate of huge bean-like pods in a milk crate. Some of them were 2 feet long! We later identified as guaba, the fruit of the Inga feuilleei plant. The signs indicate that this area seems to be where many lawyers’ offices are located. On the way back to our hotel we passed this large mural which depicts the history of this area and the mining done here.
On one of the days we were in Loja we caught a cab and took a day trip to Vilcabamba and the valley of the immortals. However, before long it was time to head back to Cuenca. So we took a city bus up to the bus terminal at the North end of town and caught a bus to Cuenca. It was a 5 hour bus ride (fare was $7 each). We traveled through a lot of mountainous country. The farms we passed were mainly dairy farms.
The driving was slow because the highway, although in good condition, twisted and turned as it followed the contours of the mountains. It is only 197 km from Loja to Cuenca but it took 5 hours. We managed to average 40 km/hr. Near Saraguro we crossed the geologic fault that moves so much that the highway just falls apart. You can see how churned up the earth is alongside the road.
The road over the geologic fault is nothing more that a deeply-rutted dirt track full of potholes. They are planning to build a bridge with built-in flex over the fault so traffic doesn’t have to slow to a crawl. In several locations the bus had to wait while earth moving equipment cleared mud and rock slides from the highway. Recent heavy rains had made the roadsides unstable and prone to slide. Eventually we came to more a heavily settled area just south of Cuenca.
Eventually we came to the outskirts of Cuenca. It had been a long drive from Loja. Despite the fact that we has chosen to ride on an Executivo bus, it still had stopped at many locations along the way to pick up or drop off passengers. I’m not sure there is such a thing as an express bus in Ecuador.