Loja, Ecuador: Hidden Gem or Diamond in the Rough?

by Courtney
VivaTropical

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Located in the nation’s Southern Sierra, Loja, Ecuador, may very well be one of the country’s most underrated retirement destinations.  Known as the “Valley of Smiles,” it’s a friendly village whose amenities rival, if not exceed, those of some of its more popular counterparts.

One of the oldest cities in Ecuador, it’s also one of the most pioneering. Loja successfully marries authentic colonial charm with modern conveniences, and it comes with an attractive price tag.  In many ways, Loja, Ecuador, offers its foreign residents the best of both worlds.

And, while the city does receive its fair share of tourists, surprisingly few expats have made it their permanent retirement destination.  This could make it the ideal place for those looking for a more authentic expat experience in a place that doesn’t seem to be headed in too much of a North American direction.

Here are a few things would-be expats should know about undiscovered Loja, Ecuador:

Despite its rural location, it’s incredibly easy to reach and get around in.

Located in the Cuxibamba Valley, Loja is surrounded by lush, green mountains that cascade down into beautiful valleys with rushing rivers.  Its climate and elevation of 6,750 feet above sea level make it the perfect place for growing crops ranging from coffee to plantains to citrus fruits.  Those who want to own a large tract of land or farm can easily find one.

However, Loja itself is a very walkable city.  In fact, most residents find owning a car to be unnecessary for day-to-day life.  Taxis are readily available and inexpensive.  They can shuttle you across town for about a buck or even to other parts of the country. Loja has a modern bus system, as well as jet transport to other major cities in Ecuador via its nearby airport.

Loja, Ecuador, may have the world’s most ideal climate.

With daily temperatures rarely rising much above 70 degrees, you won’t need air conditioning.  Heat is also unnecessary, although the cool nights will require a few extra layers.  This same wardrobe will get you through the entire year, though, as there’s very little seasonal variation.

What fluctuation there is comes in the form of a wet and dry season.  The best weather days are in October to January.  The wettest time is February through May, but the daily afternoon rainbow is likely to make you forget about any inconvenience.

Loja offers modern amenities without compromising any of its authentic details.

Established in 1548, Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador.  Its town squares are full of statues, frescoes, and other remnants of its colonial past.  Original structures, with their arched doorways and wide balconies, stand adjacent to similar new construction designed to complement the city’s historic architecture.  This harmony of old and new is something that Loja intentionally aimed for and achieved beautifully.

Loja established itself as one of Ecuador’s most forward-thinking cities when it became the first to make use of electricity, as early as 1897.  It has continued this trend of well-planned modernization and industrialization, while still maintaining its historic charm.

Visitors to Loja can tour centuries-old churches like the Fatima and Santo Domingo. They also have access to conveniences often found only in much larger cities, including several universities, shopping centers, and hospitals.  Its technology is up to par, and its nightlife rivals some of the country’s liveliest destinations with its restaurants, bars, and other happening hotspots.

The city has also thrived financially as a result of its carefully planned economic development.  It has also been internationally recognized for its efforts to protect its environment and natural resources.

Loja, Ecuador, is the ideal place for optimal cultural immersion.

With a population of about 185,000 people, Loja has a more small-town feel than many of its competing expat destinations.  For comparison the mountain town of Cuenca, located 3 hours north of Loja, has almost double the population at 330,000.

The people of Loja are friendly and social.  The town’s squares function as places to relax, spend some time people-watching, or meet up with friends.  The locals also welcome foreign residents in a way that’s much different than many expat destinations.

Loja has virtually no expat community to speak of.  As a result, immigrants are treated as just another member of the local community.  Not as just another gringo.  While many would-be expats are deterred by cities without an established expat community, others welcome the opportunity to be accepted on their own merits and not pigeonholed into a certain stereotype.

Loja is both safe and affordable.

Like many other smaller-scale expat destinations, Loja does not suffer some of the problems of its larger counterparts.  For starters, it’s an incredibly safe city.  It experiences far less crime than in places like Guayaquil or Cuenca, or the capital city of Quito.  Residents can walk through the city streets in the middle of the night without any concern for their safety or fear of robbers.

And since it’s still somewhat off the radar of most expats, prices (for everything) in Loja are still reasonable.  A large, picturesque 70-acre property on the outskirts of town, complete with waterfalls and a view, will only set you back $150,000.  A two- or three-bedroom apartment in town rents for as little as $300 per month.  In fact, a couple could enjoy a fine lifestyle in Loja for $1,000 per month, less if they want to live more like locals.

A 3-course meal for two in a nice restaurant runs around $15.  You can enjoy a pint of domestic beer in a local pub for $1.  And there are no “gringo prices.”  Whether you’re renting a car or buying land, you can rest assured that the amount you’re being quoted is the same as what locals would pay.

Loja is the musical and cultural capital of Ecuador.

As one of the few expats in Loja, you will have a front row seat to some of the best culture Ecuador has to offer.  Unarguably, most of the the country’s most talented musicians and composers got their start in Loja.  Music can be heard throughout the city most evenings, from the bands at the outdoor restaurants to the lone crooners on their balconies.

The city is home to a noted music conservatory.  It also has two orchestras.  You can check out the local talent at the Teatro Bolivar, which offers many concerts free of charge.

In addition to its musical scene, Loja also offers a local movie house and museums with a variety of historical and art exhibits.  If you’re looking to take up some of the hobbies of the locals, the Allianza Francesa offers both cooking and dancing lessons.  The Virgen del Cisne festival is another popular cultural event, where a famous statue makes it annual pilgrimage from nearby El Cisne to the town of Loja and back again.

Loja is perfect for those who want to live a healthy life in harmony with nature.

The natural beauty and climate of Loja, Ecuador, make it an ideal place to live a healthy lifestyle and enjoy everything the environment offers.  Due to its year-round spring-like weather, fresh tropical fruits and vegetables can be grown all year.  You can grow them yourself or buy them at the local markets for a fraction of the prices you’d pay in North America.

Fresh squeezed fruit juices are very popular.  They’re packed with vitamins and so much tastier than the bottled varieties.  The area offers several well-equipped gyms and fitness centers, all for very reasonable prices.

In addition to the healthy food and fitness options, it’s proven that being in nature is just flat out good for you.  And Loja is a great place to do just that.

Nearby Podocarpus National Park is a habitat for approximately 800 species of birds, as well as others that have yet to be discovered.  It’s also one of the last major habitats for the spectacled bear.  The area’s jungles and cloud forests also offer miles of opportunities for exploration.

While there’s speculation as to the accuracy of its claims, the region is known to be one of the healthiest in the world.  Due to the quality of its drinking water, as well as its challenging terrain and nutrient-rich produce, nearby Vilcabamba has been studied for the longevity of its residents, many of whom are reported to have lived to be over 100 years old.

The mere fact that other expats are overlooking Loja, Ecuador, may be reason enough to consider it as a potential destination.  It’s either a still little-known city that will eventually experience the same boom as some of its neighbors.  Or it could be one of those well-kept secrets that manages to remain untouched and unaffected by the increasing influx of North American immigrants.

Either way, now is a great time to take a closer look at this hidden Latin American gem.

Loja Ecuador Fast Facts

Population: About 200,000.

Typical temperature: Ranges from the 60s to mid 80s

Nearest airport with U.S. flights: Camilo Ponce Enriquez airport in Catamayo, 30 km (30 min) distant. From there, it is possible to fly to Quito or Guayaquil.

Nearest U.S. consulate: Quito

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