“En las calles de Loja y bajo su cielo, nadie es extrano”
“In the streets of Loja and under its sky, nobody is strange”
(Plaque in Plaza San Sebastián)
Do you want to know what it’s really like to live in Loja?
You’ve probably read articles that make it sound too good to be true. In this post, I’ll give you our honest opinions – along with facts about the city. We’ve lived here for 7 months and have a pretty good feel for the city. We’ve enjoyed our time here.
After our extensive research on Ecuador, before moving here in January of 2016, we narrowed our locations down to somewhere on the coast and Loja – we chose the coast.
After the earthquake of April 16th, we decided to head to the mountains. We first moved to Girón, a small town just south of Cuenca. Finding Girón a bit too small for us, and not wanting to live in a large city like Cuenca, we decided to move to Loja.
Loja is known as Ecuador’s music and cultural centre. It’s a small city of about 200,000 in southern Ecuador, nestled in the Cuxibamba Valley (which means “cheerful and flowery orchard”), at an altitude of about 2100 metres/6800 feet.
We’re out and about the city often and we like it here – as far as cities go. Having lived in rural Nova Scotia most of our lives, we’re not particular to city life. However, Loja is not too big, not too small, and we live in a rural area within the city limits. There are plenty of things to do, places to go, restaurants and bars, parks – everything you’d expect from a small city.
How does Loja compare to Cuenca?
We’ve never lived in Cuenca – we did visit often during our six-month stay in Girón. It’s similar geographically, being surrounded by mountains, with rivers flowing through each city. There is not much difference in altitude, so the climate is similar.
There are no “gringo” nights at bars and restaurants like there are in Cuenca – there are hardly any retired gringos living in Loja, unlike the estimated 5000 in Cuenca. Without Spanish at a conversational level, you will find it very difficult to make new friends in Loja, whereas in Cuenca you can meet many English-speaking people.
Loja is 3 hours south of Cuenca, further away from the popular beaches of Salinas and Puerto Lopez, and attractions such as Quilotoa, Avenue of the Volcanos, and the adventure town of Banos.
However, there are many adventures and attractions close to Loja making it a very attractive place to live. Podocarpus National Park, El Cisne, and, if you want to meet up with lots of fellow gringos, the town of Vilcabamba is less than an hour south of the city.
What’s the weather like?
Being from Nova Scotia, we have a high tolerance for cold, wet days. While we walk around wearing just T-shirts, some of the locals wear sweaters or heavy jackets with the hoods up. Since we’ve been here we’ve had some cloudy days, but not much rain and few cool nights – a pullover sweater is all I’ve needed for warmth since living here.
The sun can be hot here, even at this elevation, and you will sunburn quickly. We hiked to 2900 meters/9500 feet in Podocarpus Park, on a sunny day, and it was amazingly hot way up there.
I’ve been told that it rains a lot in Loja, but since we’ve been here it has rained very little – at least according to Nova Scotia standards. When we arrived at the end of October, the hills and grass were turning brown – everything is green now from the little rain that has fallen. I’ve also heard that it can get cold in Loja.
I guess it depends on whom you talk to and what climate they’re used to. Weather patterns are not the same each year either. For us Nova Scotians, having more than a couple of months of good weather is a bonus!
*Not five minutes after I wrote the above paragraph, a thunderstorm moved in and now it’s pouring a sea out there…
Are there any good restaurants and bars in Loja?
Yes. There are hundreds of places to eat here and several nice bars. We’ve eaten at many small, family run restaurants and had good “almuerzos”, or lunches, for between $2 and $3 each. An almuerzo includes a glass of juice – usually made from fresh fruit, soup-of-the-day, the main course, and a small dessert.
*The first time I had an almuerzo, as I was eating my soup, up out of the depths of my bowl arose a chicken’s foot! The feet and heads are commonly used for flavouring soups in Ecuador.
We’ve also eaten at some very nice, much more expensive restaurants in Loja. There are several steakhouses, a few good pizza joints, a KFC and other fast-food places, and some very good traditional restaurants where you can try typical Lojano foods.
We’ve gone to several nice bars for drinks, some with live entertainment. Most of the bars don’t open until 4 or 5 in the afternoon, but if you want to drink a cold beer in the afternoon, you can enjoy one in almost any restaurant.
What are some typical foods of the Loja area?
Repe Lojano soup is on the top of my list. The main ingredients for repe are green bananas or plantains, onions, cheese, milk or cream, and cilantro. It is delicious!
Another favourite is “chivo al hueco”, or goat-in-the-hole. It’s common in the southern areas of Loja province. We savoured it while in Zapotillo for the famous Guayacan flowering in January.
Pieces of marinated goat meat, along with “camote”, a sweet root vegetable, are placed on top of hot coals in a hole in the ground, covered, and baked for 4 to 5 hours or longer. It is super tasty and tender!
Not on the top of my list, but nonetheless worthy of mentioning, is “cuy” or guinea pig, a specialty of the mountain regions of Ecuador. It is usually BBQd and served with the limbs and head attached. It tastes like wild rabbit. I’ve tried it several times but found it to be tough, and overcooked…
*The first time I tried it, I couldn’t help but laugh – on my plate was a small animal with claws, its mouth open, teeth showing – all I could think of was the movie “Alien”.
What are some things to do in and around Loja?
Loja is the music and cultural capital of Ecuador. There are many festivals and performances year-round at various locations throughout the city.
The new Benjamin Carrion Theatre features regular performances, many free. Other places to enjoy entertainment include the Bolivar Theatre, the Museum of Culture Auditorium, the Music Museum Hall, and several other venues around the city. Every Thursday night a free outdoor show is presented at San Sebastián Plaza.
The first annual Festival of the Arts was held in September and was a huge success. It kicked off with a long, fantastic parade featuring traditional costumes and dancing, bands and music. The downtown streets were closed and full of people for the duration of the festival, day and night. The many venues in town hosted performances by international artists. We loved every minute of it!
There’s always something happening in Loja. Since we’ve been here we’ve seen a classic car show, a Peruvian horse show, enjoyed the Russian Circus, attended performances at theatres, and watched several traditional dancing and costume events.
We’ve witnessed effigies burning on the sidewalks on New Year’s Eve, fireworks displays, went pedal boating at Jipiro Park, enjoyed the Loja zoo and adjoining orchid gardens, and were totally amazed by the biggest Nativity scene in Ecuador inside Catedral de Loja.
Jipiro Park is a great place for children and adults, with many activities including horseback riding, pedal boats, a swimming pool, and a skateboard park. Go-cart racing and a zoo are north, or downriver, of Jipiro and you can walk there along the trail adjacent to the river (roughly 30 to 40 minutes). Several other parks located within the city provide green areas and trails. From the city, you can hike, bike, or ride a horse to Vilcabamba on a 40 km/25 mile-long trail.
We’ve experienced an exciting horseback riding adventure in Vilcabamba, enjoyed hours of hiking at Podocarpus National Park, witnessed the flowering of the Guayacan trees in Mangahurco – and Carnaval starts this weekend, the end of February! Yes, there are lots of things to do here if you want to get involved.
Two other major events, that we weren’t here for last year, are also major attractions:
Fiesta de la Virgen: Ecuador’s most revered icon, La Virgen del Cisne, is carried from the town of El Cisne to Loja, a journey of 70 km/44 miles. A procession of thousands carries the statue on their shoulders for days, eventually placing her inside the Catedral de Loja on August 20th.
Feria de Loja is a weeklong fair at the end of August, featuring parades, music, dancing, crafts, and food.
What about renting an apartment or house in Loja?
We came here from Girón for two days to find a place to rent. There were not many suitable houses or apartments available. We searched OLX for weeks, ending up with a short list of possibilities. Luckily, we had our own furniture, which made the search a bit easier.
We looked at several places, most either too expensive, not what we wanted, or not in a suitable location. We originally had hoped to rent an entire house but settled on a 3-bedroom apartment on the main floor of a house. We live in the north end of town in a section called Amable Maria.
We walk downtown some days, which takes us about 1 ½ hours along the river trail. A bus costs 30 cents each, and the average cost for a taxi is about $3. There are hundreds of taxis in Loja, so the wait is not long, and a bus goes by about every five minutes.
It’s rural, which is what we wanted, and we see chickens, cows, sheep, and watch a señora ride her horse along the sidewalk almost every day. Our rent is $300 per month, which includes electricity, drinkable water, and internet – which is a bit slow at times, but reliable. We don’t need a TV connection, but it’s available. We supply the propane for the water heater and kitchen stove – so far, we’ve bought two tank refills at the cost of $2.75 each!
There are some furnished places available at higher prices, but more options are available if you have your own furniture. The taxi drivers are pretty nosy here, and they’ll ask questions about how much money we have coming in and how much we pay for rent. When we tell them $300, they say it’s too much…
We have garbage pickup six days a week – supplied by a musical garbage truck, and a propane/water truck comes by several times daily – also musical, by the way.
Is it safe in Loja?
We’ve never felt threatened, although I have heard stories about pickpocketing, armed robberies, and home invasions in the city. Like any large town or city, there is bound to be crime.
The locals we talk to – mostly taxi drivers and the women we rent from – all say the same thing – “tranquilo” or peaceful. We have seen no violence, we don’t see many town drunks, and nobody bothers us, asking for money as in other places we’ve lived. The police patrol regularly, day and night, and there are always security people in the downtown areas. We feel safe here.
Do many people speak English in Loja? Are there many “expats” living there?
A few people speak English here, not nearly as many as in Girón, where many locals have spent much time working in North America. There are several English language schools here, so quite a few younger people have a decent English vocabulary, and some of the teachers are fluent. We went out with a language exchange group a few times, where most of the members could speak to us in English.
Retired “expats” are scarce in Loja. There are a few students studying Spanish in the universities. We do run into a few gringos at the Supermaxi grocery store when we shop there, but they’re mostly from Vilcabamba. We personally only know two couples from the U.S.
Basically, if you want to live comfortably in Loja, you need to able to converse in Spanish – at least at an intermediate level.
What’s shopping like in Loja?
There are no big malls in town. There are several larger grocery stores, including Supermaxi, Tia, and Gran Aki, and many smaller, family-run stores. You can buy most everything you need to eat at the “mercados” (markets), which are open daily, at lower prices than the grocery stores.
Other stores are numerous throughout the city, including a big, new hardware store close to Supermaxi. There are lots of pharmacies, clothing stores, etc. If you’re looking to buy a wall calendar, you may have a problem – we could not find one in Loja and had a visiting friend bring one for us.
Is adequate medical care available in Loja?
We’ve never needed a doctor or hospitalization in Loja, or during our entire stay in Ecuador, so we don’t have any personal experience with medical care. There are hospitals here like everywhere else in Ecuador, including a cancer centre, and many doctors, dentists, etc. Larger facilities can be found in Cuenca, about 3 hours north of Loja. For major emergencies, English is not widely spoken, so if you don’t speak Spanish, it may be necessary to hire an interpreter – which you won’t have time for in an emergency situation.
Loja is a very livable city. It’s small but has basically everything you need. There are lots of things to do and many interesting places close by to explore.
We like it here. If you’re moving to Ecuador or relocating within the country, it’s a place that you should definitely consider.