Whenever you see a Loja Internacional bus go past they all seem to have a phrase written in Spanish on the back saying something along the lines of 'you haven't visited Ecuador until you've visited Loja'. After seeing this shortly after arriving in Ecuador I started to conjure up blissful images of how the town would look, like some kind of lost tropical paradise. Upon arriving and making my way to the designated hostel, I was hugely disappointed with what I saw; the city looks very similar to more or less every other town up and down the Ecuadorian Sierra I have visited. Loja's only saving grace seems to be the huge investment the local government has put into the local parks, for which numerous international awards have been won, which certainly help to give the town a clean, fresh feel.
After checking into the hostel, Hostal Londres (Calle Sucre 07-51, Tel: 07/561936), which seemed to double as local hospital lodgings with doctors offices in the centre, it was time to experience what the town had to offer, as with only a day here and with the town boasting so much to offer a perspective tourist, an action packed day was expected. The first port of call was something I had been excited about for a number of days, a trip to Loja Zoo, where a giraffe was seemingly the star attraction. I was a little sceptical at whether or not the zoo, or many other places for that fact would be open, due to the public holiday that was rudely taking place, but I really had very little to worry about. Loja seemed to be heaving with business and people.
A short taxi ride later (costing $2) and paying the ridiculously cheap admittance price of $0.25, my girlfriend and I were left to our own devices in the pleasures of animal viewing. As to be expected the zoo was nothing in comparison to those in Western civilisations, containing fewer than twenty different species, but was well worth an overcast morning. Highlights here included having monkey faeces thrown at me by the cheeky devils themselves, having my hand snapped inside an ostrich's mouth (their reflexes were slightly quicker than I was expecting) and stroking the lone giraffe who seemed to be lacking a soul mate, wanting a little company.
Although enjoying zoo environments, it does disturb me how badly and poorly managed some of the third world zoos can be, and I have a few concerns about Loja Zoo, similarly to those with another zoo in Baños. I would much rather pay a higher admittance price in order for more attendants to watch over the visitors. During my time there, two groups of families threw bunches of bananas to the parading monkeys, while children old enough to know better banged on monkeys cages for angry reactions. Even the lonesome giraffe could not escape such brutality, getting hit in the face with leaves and sticks after failing to be force fed by these evil adolescents. They say ignorance is bliss, but I have a tendency to disagree in this situation and for my girlfriends sake I had to hold back from wading into these people with my limited Spanish skills to tell them how insensitive and cruel they were being, especially when big signs throughout the zoo stated that such behaviour was prohibited.
After walking away from possible confrontations and returning to Parque Central to eat a now customary Mexican meal, at the highly recommended A Lo Mero Mero (Calle Sucre and Calle Colon), it was time to return back to the tourist trail and taking in the rest of the sights that the town has to offer, mainly revolving around the colonial churches of Iglesia San Francisco, Loja Cathedral, and Iglesia San Sebastian. Iglesia San Sebastian was by far the most impressive, painted in a warm pastel yellow and overlooking Plaza de Independencia with its giant clock tower, built to commemorate the date of November 18th, 1820 when the town came together in this exact spot to publicly declare its independence form the Spanish crown. Brave souls.
Apart from numerous churches the town also holds a couple of other gems well worth a visit, including La Puerta de Ciudad, a mock gatehouse, complete with portcullis to mark the old entrance gate to the city, and Calle Lourdes, what most inhabitants see as the gem of their towns thoroughfares, painted in a variety of cool shades, that help brighten up the street from the influx of polluting cars that pass down the cobbled street.
You would have thought with this list of places visited, an afternoon full of fast walking would be needed to see everything. If only this was the case. To be truthfully honest, visiting everything that the town centre had to offer took little over an hour, leaving plenty of time for Internet usage and an afternoon nap. I am certainly happy that it was decided to spend only one day here, as thumbs would have been a twiddling otherwise.
With a much anticipated departure to Cuenca the following morning, surely the highlight of any trip to the south there was no enthusiasm for staying out late, and as soon as darkness drew near my girlfriend and I were in bed ready for the next days travelling. Before retiring for the night I noticed the rather amusing positioning that the local Alcoholics Anonymous Organisation had chosen for their Loja offices, above one of the towns most thriving nightspots, 'The Beer Factory'. Not the best pieces of judgement I have ever seen.
My biggest disappointment while in Loja was the inability to find any restaurant serving one of the local delicacies of the area, either horse, cat, and dog meat. Venturing down every backstreet I came across proved a fruitless expedition and after an hour of searching, I decided to call off the hunt, settling instead for a less exotic meal of pizza and garlic bread. I do enjoy trying local delicacies such as these and coming from a part of the world where such meat is frowned upon, I think I will have to wait a good few years until a voyage to Asia is embarked upon before getting the chance to try them again.