Once upon a time, Loja was the thriving base from which Spanish conquistadors sallied forth to explore the jungle just over the mountains. Now, with a new mayor bent on putting this proud provincial capital back on the travel map, perhaps foreign visitors will start to stop by for similar reasons.
Oh, Vilcabamba: where mountains soar allurinigly above town, where the balmy air is synonymous with longevity (it shot to fame for its high number of centenarians after Reader’s Digest did stories on them in 1955), where those who encounter it simply get waylaid – sometimes for months, sometimes years… The area’s beautiful scenery, mild weather and laid-back vibe attract wav.
The hot, humid capital of the Zamora-Chinchipe province is part Oriente and part Sierra. Perched between these regions in the Andean foothills, it attracts settlers from the high-altitude communities of Saraguro and the Amazon Basin Shuar. The town bills itself as the ‘City of Birds and Waterfalls.’ Tourism here is all about nearby Parque Nacional Podocarpus.
Macará & the Peruvian Border
The descent from Catacocha toward the Peruvian border offers sweeping views of mountains and deep, dramatic valleys that give way to hilly, dry tropical forest. Adobe ruins bake under the strong sun, and livestock roams untethered along the road. At the bottom of all this is anti-climactic Macará – a sleepy border town, although fairly innocuous as such places go.
Surrounded by emerald hills that have been sown with hearty tubers and grains for thousands of years, Saraguro, 165km south of Cuenca, is the center of indigenous Saraguro culture. This prosperous and proud indigenous group originally lived near Lake Titicaca in Peru but ended up here in the 1470s as a result of the Inca Empire’s system of resettlement, or mitimaes.
Along the banks of a small, swift-moving river lies the craft-shopper’s paradise of Gualaceo (2591m): a biggish town with a few accommodation options. Over the bridge and a few blocks from the bus station, the feria artesanal sells excellent crafts from the region, and even more if you wander around town.
Gualaceo, Chordeleg & Sígsig
If you start out early, you could easily visit the Sunday markets at all three of these towns and be back in Cuenca for happy hour. Between them all you’ll find many traditional handicrafts: woven baskets, fine gold and silver filigreed jewelry, woodwork, pottery, guitars and ikat textiles – made using a pre-Columbian technique of weaving tie-dyed threads.
Parque Nacional Podocarpus
Podocarpus National Park fills in much of the triangle between Loja, Zamora and Vilcabamba as well as a huge swath to the southeast. Because altitude ranges so greatly within the park borders – from around 900m in the lowland sector to over 3600m in the highland sector – Podocarpus has some of the world's greatest plant and animal diversity.
Declared a National Cultural Heritage Site in 1994, Catacocha basks in its places of worship, sun-baked adobe houses and wooden balconies, but has yet to capitalize on its tourism potential. Strolling its streets is the best way to appreciate the timeless cycle of highland life. The Sunday market is the most important event of the week: also known as Las Paltas.
The capital of Cañar province has a highly visible hillside church, Iglesia de la Virgen de las Nubes (Church of the Virgin of the Clouds). This stone and stained-glass structure offers broad views of the countryside. At the lively Saturday market at Rivera and Sucre, woven panama hats are sold and sent to Cuenca for finishing.
Ecuador’s most preserved archaeological site, Ingapirca, 1km above the homonymous village, pales in comparison to large archaeological sites in neighboring Peru. This said, the small site, with its semi-intact temple, grazing llamas and open fields, is definitely worth a stopover if you are headed this way. And hikers won’t want to miss the three-day Camino del Inca trek.
The main access to the lowland sector is the Bombuscaro control, 6km south of Zamora by a dirt road that follows the Río Bombuscaro. From the parking area at the end of the road it’s a half-hour walk on a wide, uphill trail to the control point. Basic cabañas without mattresses are available, and you can camp for free.
Access to the highland sector of hte park is through Cajanuma control, about 10km south of Loja. From here, a dirt road leads 8.5km uphill to the park office and adjacent refugio, which has seven basic cabañas with mattresses and a camping area. From the refugio, several self-guided trails wend through the cloud forest.