Saturday, August 11, 2012

Impressions of Loja and Cuenca Ecuador

Other than a vague plan of ‘going to Loja’ we had no agenda or timetable in mind when we boarded the bus in Chiclayo at 9:00am for the three hour ride to Piura at $5.75 per passenger. It’s a boring ride through barren desert with nothing to see, which is good because the bus company Linea has replaced transparent windows with thick screen windows, obscuring any clear view to the outside. I wonder how many complaints they have had from disappointed Nikon-bearing tourists.

Once in Piura we learned that travel options to Loja are limited to two bus companies. Cooperative Loja offers departure times of 9:30am, 1:00pm and 11:00pm. We and a handful of other passengers boarded the 1:00pm bus ($10.00 per passenger) for what is advertised as an eight hour ride to Loja. The bus has transparent windows which is good because the scenery improves a bit but not a whole lot. There was a “For sale” sign in the front window. That, and having to stop twice to adjust the right rear wheel brake didn’t do much for my confidence. The lavatory door on the bus has the sign, “Solo por urine.” The door is locked so you must see the attendant to unlock it. I wonder how many complaints they have had from uncomfortable tourists who ate and drank freely in Piura. Fortunately it’s only a three hour ride to the border town of Macarà.

Many gringos in northern Peru are familiar with Macarâ. This is where they do the border jump to get their visa renewed. The border crossing process is simple but can be time consuming if there are many tourists. The first step is to visit the Peruvian Immigration office to get an Andean immigration form. You fill out the form and take it across the road to the Peruvian police station. Assuming all goes well at the police station you return to the immigration office with the completed form and passport in hand. After the immigration officer stamps your passport you walk across the international bridge to the Ecuadorian immigration office, where you get and fill out their version of the immigration form. After the immigration officer stamps your passport you are free to take photos; board your bus and be on your way for the five to six hour ride to Loja. As the crow flies it is 93 km from Macarâ to Loja. Traveling the winding mountain road the distance is 197 km. There are times when I enjoy the scenery and almost constant up and down hair-pin turns through the Andes. There are other times when I feel…okay, enough already, let’s get there. We were glad and relieved to finally arrive in Loja at 10:30pm.

We checked in at the Grand Hotel Loja, where a triple room for me, Maribel and Brian cost $85 including breakfast. It’s a good hotel – fairly modern, clean, good service and a good restaurant. We would stay there again (as we unintentionally did).

It’s a new day. We’ve slept well and had a good breakfast. Now what to do? Almost every sizeable town occupied by the Spanish during the colonial period offers and features in their ‘what to do and see’ literature historic churches, colonial districts and parks. These are a given. For me the question then becomes…what beyond the standard does the town offer? Loja offers several interesting attractions. Without going into detail, we enjoyed the City Gate Monument, Reinaldo Espinosa Botanical Garden, La Banda Park encompassing the Loja Zoo, and the Museum of Loja.

Of all the attractions we agreed that our favorite was the 25 acre Jipiro Park. We walked through the entire park – much of it tree shaded and cool – all of it beautiful. Throughout the park are scale reproductions of various historic and cultural monuments. There is a wealth of information and photos on the internet about Jipiro Park. We rented a paddle boat and ate snacks on the shore of the lagoon. What particularly impressed me was the huge and elaborate skateboard facility in the park. I would think that this facility would be the dream-come-true of every skateboarder. If Chiclayo had something like that perhaps the monuments and the tiled pathways in parks would not be constantly damaged.

In total Loja offered enough to fill two days for us. If I can digress a bit, mountain towns like Loja and Cuenca also offer something the costal desert cities do not have… clean, cool and wholesome air. Part of that is due to the altitude, but trees and other greenery also play a role. I especially like the trees. My favorite tree in Wisconsin is the white oak. In Peru it’s the ceibo…a tree native to the dryer regions of Ecuador and Peru. It doesn’t grow to great heights but the bright green color and the width of the trunk and lower branches are impressive. There are two of them in the village of Tumàn near Chiclayo with diameters of fifteen feet. What struck me about the ciebos on the stretch of road between Macarà and Loja in Ecuador is their sheer numbers. There are dozens of them clustered together on mountainsides, bringing to mind Tolkein’s army of angry Ents descending on Isengard.  A majestic ceibo in a Loja park bears the sign, “I am your lungs. Do not cut me – do not burn me.” I like that. 

There are two modes of transportation from Loja to Cuenca. You can ride a bus for five hours at a cost of $10, or you can travel in a seven-passenger van for three hours for $12. We chose the van and departed for Cuenca at 9:30am. During this portion of the journey I mulled over the philosophical question of what constitutes being a ‘good driver.’ I decided that, if being in complete control of the vehicle plus being able to react instantly defines a good driver, then our chauffer was a good driver. On the other hand, if you factor in passenger comfort and passenger sense of well-being, then our driver sucked. We were stopped at a police checkpoint about halfway through our trip. The officer knew when the van left Loja so he knew the guy was driving the winding mountain road at breakneck speed. His words to the driver were this…”You are endangering the lives of your passengers. If you cannot be a better driver you will go to jail for three days.” After leaving the checkpoint the driver resumed his petal-to-the-metal driving (several days later as we were returning to Loja from Cuenca in the van of a different company, a woman actually shouted to the driver, “Sir!,..I want to get to Loja alive!).

I doubt if there is anything I could say about Cuenca that hasn’t already been written. It is a popular tourist destination with a huge expat population. In fact the central downtown area is sometimes referred to as ‘gringo land.’ I can understand why gringos would retire to Cuenca. Despite not being much different architecturally from other major cities in South America, it has a definite western look and feel to it, and I think the customs also reflect western practices. The two malls near our hotel opened at 9:00am and closed at 8:00pm, unlike Peru when hours would be something like 10:00am to 11:00pm. We heard no loud, raucous music during our stay (nor barking dogs or crowing chickens) and the streets are clean and most buildings well maintained. We noticed that many restaurants in both Loja and Cuenca closed as early as 9:00pm. We had been told that it was less expensive to live in Ecuador than Peru, but with some few exceptions we found that prices for hotels, restaurants and supermarket items were equal or higher than in Chiclayo. 

We stayed in Cuenca for two days. We visited the Central Bank museum, a church museum across from the principal park (I’ve forgotten the name), and did a lot of walking and looking. We also played mini-golf. Edgar is the owner of the golf course. He and his wife bought the property and constructed the 18 hole course plus driving range about two years ago. Edgar is a good guy. He gave free lessons to Brian and Maribel. And when we were done playing he drove us back to our hotel; a ride of 30 minutes. The ride to his property via taxi cost $10. Distance is one of the problems Edgar is having – that, and he could use a better sign at the highway turn-off leading to his property. If you live in or are visiting Cuenca you might enjoy a few hours at Edgar’s place. His website is:

One other Cuenca activity we did was a two-hour bus tour. It was well worthwhile and identified places we wanted to return to later. It also pointed out how congested traffic can become. At 3:00pm all of the tour bus passengers got off six blocks from our starting point at the principal park when we realized it would probably take 30 minutes for the bus to reach it.

When it was time to leave Cuenca we discussed where to go next. We considered Guayaquil but decided we were close to burn-out so opted to retrace our route back to Chiclayo. Upon reaching Loja we were unable to get bus tickets to Piura so enjoyed another good meal at Mama Lola’s Restaurant and another night at the Grand Hotel Loja before returning to Chiclayo the following day. 

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