Home > Ecuador > New and magic routes on Ecuador’s southern Andes, Part two

New and magic routes on Ecuador’s southern Andes, Part two

September 17, 2011

It is barely past the noon hour when our vehicle enters the impressively clean and nicely gardened city of Loja, capital of the southernmost province of Ecuador’s Andean Region. Our four wheel drive makes its way to the pretty country-style Hostel, a boutique-school Hotel located on a residential area of the middle-sized city of Loja and less than ten minutes away from the colonial center of this beautiful city. Marcelo, Eulalia, Jose and I get ourselves settled into our comfortable rooms and have a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful gardens and tall trees, an oasis amidst a provincial capital city.
Our local hosts have invited us to a typical “lojano” luncheon, featuring the traditional “repe”, a delicious tasting thick soup with mashed green plantain, green peas and herb spices. The main course is a bountiful platter of roasted guinea-pig, with its share of crackling skin bits, hot “aji” pepper sauce and huge cooked potatoes smeared with a Creole sauce. A selection of local sweets and freshly brewed coffee from southern Ecuador complement the superb meal. This culinary introduction passes on the message that, as a growing trend, tourism these days is closely associated with the local and international gastronomy.
In the afternoon we tour Loja’s colonial centre with its nicely preserved cobble-stoned streets, pretty plazas, courtyards and monuments; while the towers and domes of a dozen colonial churches, over four hundred years in age, are some of the city’s main attractions. The architecture downtown shows nicely restored colonial houses with their typical balconies, interior courtyards with a central fountain and the overall charm of the Spanish-Andean architectonic style. Loja is traversed by the Malacatos River and this provides for a well designed lineal Park covering the length of the river as it crosses the city, and the venue for pleasant walks, biking lanes and park spaces with abundant willow trees.  If there is a single word to accurately describe Loja, it is “charming”. The Villonaco Hill, an old volcano, provides a dramatic backdrop for the city, which regards the mountain as its natural guardian.
On a wide esplanade on the newer part of the city is the Jipiro Park, complete with sporting facilities, children’s games and a host of cultural and open-door activities. Lojanos are famous musicians and we are invited to a practice session of the local symphonic orchestra, playing traditional Ecuadorian music. The event is complemented with a session of informal singing and guitar playing (Loja has provided Ecuador with famous composers, poets and writers).  For the evening we are treated to the famed Lojano tamales, aromatic coffee brought from nearby Zaruma, an area of high quality coffee; and, as a downer, a local spirit made of sugar cane.  The night drive back to our Hotel shows us a beautiful Loja with its churches, convents and monuments ornamentally illuminated, a nice view to close a busy yet fascinating day.
The next morning we continue our journey, this time, south west of Loja, descending to the sub-tropical valley of Catamayo.  The drive, as usual, is magnificently scenic as we drop more than one thousand feet on a well paved winding road. Catamayo is a hub for the sugar cane industry and we stop to visit one of its most renowned plantations, hundreds of acres of the plant, which nowadays is not only cherished as the raw material for producing sugar, liquors and other elements for human consumption; but also one of the basis for the production of ethanol, an alternative clean fuel.  We continue our voyage, now heading west, towards the famous Sanctuary of Our Lady of El Cisne.  The almost one hour ride takes us along a narrow road, winding along a deep gorge, the evidence of ancient geological activity. A brief stop at the quaint village of San Pedro de la Bendita to taste its famous bread, precedes our arrival to El Cisne town and its Sanctuary, located atop an amazing cliff, standing almost in the air, an impacting view from afar…. The local history claims that it is the exact location where the Virgin Mary appeared to some humble shepherds many decades ago. The huge neo-gothic Basilica, built entirely in solid granite rock from the nearby mountains, is one of the biggest in Ecuador and every year it congregates thousands of worshipers for a five day long procession with the precious image of Our Lady of El Cisne, warmly called “La Churona” by the faithful, due to the fact that the colonial sculpture presents an unusual Maddona, with very curly hair.  The procession is one of Ecuador most impressive religious massive acts in the year’s calendar, while our local hosts remind us that there is an identified segment of tourism, precisely oriented to religious events and locations……

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