Whilst once upon a time, Loja was the thriving base from which Spanish conquistadors set off to explore the jungle just over the mountains, now Loja's main lure is its proximity to one of Ecuador's most diverse protected areas, the vast Parque Nacional Podocarpus, south of town. But Loja's center has plenty of appeal too.
Oh, Vilcabamba: where mountains soar alluringly 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 wave.
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.
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.
Cuenca is an easy base for day trips to indigenous villages in the surrounding area. Many are invested in community-based tourism, so you can support local people by hiring local guides and buying traditional crafts. Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Sigsig can all be done together in one day, while Parque Nacional Cajas and the ruins at Ingapirca are separate day trips of their own.
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 is proud of 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.
Access to the highland sector of the 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.
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.
About 10km south of Gualaceo, hilly Chordeleg has been an important jewelry-making center since before the arrival of the Inca. Its characteristic style is fine filigree. Fakery is common, however, so know how to discern high-quality gold before laying out the big bucks. Chordeleg also produces wood carvings, pottery, textiles and plenty of panama hats.