Once upon a time, Loja was the thriving base from which Spanish conquistadors sallied forth to explore the jungle just over the mountains. Loja's main lure will always be its proximity to one of Ecuador's most diverse protected areas, the vast Parque Nacional Podocarpus, spanning chilly highland páramo (grassland) and sweltering jungle within its wild confines (and, indeed, the chilled traveler hangout of Vilcabamba just south of town).
But Loja boasts plenty of bait itself. Its cuisine, its musical traditions and its university are known across Ecuador and beyond. Its streets, although traffic-clogged and a tad tame after Cuenca, offer inroads into the local culture its more famous rival to the north cannot. Lying dramatically along the bottom of the Valle de Cuxibamba, Loja's surrounding slopes are fringed with the country's main coffee plantations, and several miradors (viewpoints) offer unforgettable city views.