Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.
~ Baba Hoffman
Loja - A Second Chance for a First Impression
LOJA, ECUADOR - First impressions are everything and no matter how hard you try they are sometimes hard to shake.
Loja got one of those first impressions.
My traveling companion, Pam, and I arrived to the bus station in Loja late afternoon. We crossed a busy street with a couple days of luggage and found our hotel just a half of a block away. It was quite nice and a pleasant suprise, until we checked in.
I had reserved the room quite some time in advance, as I always do when I travel. This particular hotel even through the website I used was 'pay at the hotel.' It was getting dark and we weren't familiar the area, so when the person at the front desk told me they would not honor our rate...'it was booked too far in advance'...I was dumbstruck. I argued a bit in my best Spanish, but to no avail. Finally, I said fine and agreed to the new rate, telling them that the booking site would be made aware. I felt blindsided.
After settling into our room, we wandered outside to look for a place to eat dinner. Just at the end of the block was another hotel! If only we had known there was another hotel in walking distance the bait and switch would have turned out different.
We turned right at the river and headed toward town. Night was edging out daylight as we walked and we finally came across a restaurant where we got a bite to eat to take the edge off.
I vowed to shake off the bait and switch from our arrival and planned to have a great day upon awakening the next morning. Breakfast at the hotel and we were off the explore the city of Loja!
With map in hand we returned to the street next to the river and headed toward town. Several blocks away we turned down a street to encounter what looked like an old world fort. It was the Puerta de la Cuidad, the entrace to the city, that sat along the river. OK! Let's go enjoy this place!
We looked around the outside of the fort like structure that had 4 galleries, a cafe and gift shop inside and looked up at the clock tower. The gates of city had been modeled after the Coat of Arms of Spain that was presented by the King of Spain in 1571. This was a good start to our exploration of the city!
Loja, capitol of the Loja Province, is located in the Cuxibamba Valley south of Cuenca by about 132 miles. I had read that there were 2 major universities and that it was the music and cultural capitol of the world, so I was excited to see what the city had to offer. With a population of 181,000 it felt very manageable.
We strolled through town and noticed that most everything was closed. I asked a woman in a small eatery where everyone was and why everything was closed.
"It's the weekend." she said in Spanish, or at least that is what I translated her as saying. "Everyone leaves on the weekend."
"Huh? It's the weekend and everyone leaves?" I thought that made no sense. Maybe it was a holiday weekend and everyone headed out of town? I had no idea. But what I was sure of was that it felt like a ghost town.
We plopped ourselves down at a table in the little eatery, ordered a coffee and sandwich and sat and looked at each other.
"What are we going to do?" A shrug was the response.
We had another coffee and contemplated some more. Maybe just a stroll through town to get a lay of the land would be good. And so, for the rest of day, we walked and wandered and explored.
We came across several churches and parks and were determined that we would return the next day to see more, hoping out loud that the city would be open.
When we arrived to the city center then next morning, the city had come to life. People were out and about, families were enjoying the parks and things were bustling. The weather was perfect, warm during the day and cooler at night, a mild Andean climate and so we explored the city in complete comfort.
The gold altar in the Cathedral of Loja, one of the largest cathedrals in Ecuador.
We first passed the main cathedral on the central square, the largest cathedral in Ecuador. The original structure, built in the 16th century, was lost to an earthquake and was rebuilt in 1836. It was a beauty to be sure.
The second church we encountered was The Church of San Sebastian. Another beautiful church, this one boasts a 32 meter clock tower that commemorates independence from Spain in 1820.
And then there was the lovely Gothic style Church of San Francisco that was build in 1557. An earthquake destroyed all of the structure except the spires in 1867 and it was refinished in colonial style.
We entered each of the churches and they each were beautiful in their own way. There were women with lace head scarves (chapel veils) in a moment of devotion in the pews in front of an all gold altar in the grand Cathedral of Loja. We wondered who they were. Were they novices or postulants readying for life in the order? Or was it a Ecuadorian tradition in Loja for women to wear these beautiful veils to service or was it just tradition when entering the cathedral? It was intriguing, as we had gone in two other churches and had not seen the same.
As we left the churches we spent a moment at the umbrella stands, positioned outside the entry doors, that sold all types of religious items to the faithful, such a candles, prayer cards, crosses, and rosaries.
Loja, from what I had read, was rich in the arts and is considered the music and cultural center of Ecuador. I cannot attest to that, as we didn't see any art or hear any music. I began to wonder if we really were in Loja!
There was a wonderful local market that we encountered during out day out. It was filled with vegetables, fruits, clothing and articles for use in the home. When we arrived it was pretty quiet and the vendors were standing near their stalls, waiting patiently for the next customer. Timing is everything and we missed the hustle and bustle of the market, but it did allow us time to explore and talk with the locals at their stalls.
We headed back to our hotel for dinner and to get ready to head to Vilcabamba by bus the next day.
It was a really short visit to Loja and I vowed that if I ever get back that way, I will stop by Loja again. I have read that many expats and retirees love the city. I need to get past my first impression. There is local saying, "The one who does not play guitar can sing a song. The one who does not sing a song can write, the one who does not write a verse can read a book," and that makes me think that Loja really is the music and cultural center I had read so much about. I hope to return and experience that aspect of the city.
Loja, I will give you a second chance someday to make a first impression.
Until then, off to Vilcabamba we go!