By Jerry Luzu
Expats living in Cuenca, who often feel the need to explore other regions of the country, venture frequently to the coastal areas and the western Amazon jungles. It’s a pity that they don’t visit the southern province of Loja more often, especially the areas south of the well-known towns of Loja and Vilcabamba.
The city of Loja, capital of Loja Province, is three hours from Cuenca by car on a modern highway. It’s kind of like Cuenca, only smaller (150,000 people) and a little warmer. It’s a clean, friendly, and safe town, with many nice-looking plazas, museums, and three-star hotels, plus two universities, two rivers that cross the city from north to south, a big urban park (Parque Jipiro), and a national park nearby (Parque Nacional Podocarpus). It is attracting attention as a place to visit and, more recently, as an expat retirement destination. It’s estimated that about 100 North Americans live there.
Vilcabamba, the best-known town (to foreigners, in Loja Province, is 30 miles south of Loja and well-known for its beautiful setting and the alleged longevity of its inhabitants. It has become a popular tourist destination and home to a community of American, Canadian, and European residents that numbers about 250. At an elevation of 5,000 feet, Vilcabamba has arguably a close-to-perfect climate, with temperatures averaging between 65 and 80 degrees and relatively low humidity.
Then there are a couple of hidden gems south of Vilcabamba.
The little town of Yangana can be reached in 15 minutes from Vilcabamba by cheap taxi or bus on a very good road. The location of the village is breathtaking, set on a narrow basin enclosed by steep green mountains, which often shine with double rainbows. It has a pretty central square and church, and its people are kind and friendly. Vilcabamba was very much like Yangana 20 or 30 years ago.
Hacienda Yangana, on the outskirts of town, is one of the most attractive and luxurious country lodges you will find in southern Ecuador.
The setting of the lodge is green and lush and the weather is typically in the 70s during the day, 50s at night, year round. On the extensive and nicely landscaped grounds, you’ll find hidden terraces and all sorts of ponds, springs, llamas, birds, and flowers, to delight your senses and soothe your soul. It is a lovely place, a true gem.
This compound has as its center a historic house, which has been exquisitely renovated and upgraded. The main house is adjoined by Mediterranean-style cabins and an old trapiche (traditional sugar mill), which has been tastefully converted into a social area with dining facilities and a bar.
Located in an idyllic and peaceful place, nearby Yangana Lodge has the kind of high-standard amenities that will satisfy the most demanding visitors: nicely decorated rooms, hot water, TV lounge, wifi, bar, and a brand-new spa with sauna and massage amenities.
The lodge accommodates groups of up to 20 people on a special reservation basis. It offers special packages, which include transportation from Vilcabamba, Loja, or the Catamayo airport that serves the area, all meals, maid service, and various activities.
The lodge is not for everyone: it is best for people who wish to enjoy nature and just relax. However, if you’d like to mix in some action and adventure, the lodge can organize hiking excursions to a small horsetail waterfall close by and to the neighboring hills (with fantastic views), also bike-riding expeditions (bikes are provided), and horseback riding. Although the Yangana Lodge isn’t inexpensive ($100 or so per night), it’s absolutely worth the price. Check the lodge’s website, www.yangana.com.
To get there: From Yangana just after the central square, the road that comes from Vilcabamba forks. One goes left, uphill, toward Tapichalaca and Zumba, the other goes right, downhill, toward Comunidades and Palmira. Take the right fork; 250 meters from the square, you’ll see a large wooden gate, the entrance to Hacienda Yangana.
To see the facilities, call ahead and get specific instructions. The lodge isn’t always open and isn’t a restaurant. It’s geared to groups (minimum six people and a three-night stay) on a special-reservations basis. I imagine that as long as a group is already there, they might accept other guests, depending on availability. Again, call and ask.
Ecuador is well-known for bird-watching (1,600 species; pick up a copy of the wonderful book Plumas: Birds of Ecuador by Murray Cooper). and orchids (5,000 varieties) and not far from the Yangana Lodge is a unique natural reserve called Tapichalaca, managed by the Jocotoco Foundation. Most visitors to Loja or Vilcabamba have never heard of this exceptional reserve. But if you’re in the area, go explore it! It’s only 20 minutes from Yangana, via a paved road.
The biodiversity of this natural reserve is incredible. Admission is cheap and there are bathroom facilities, nature books for sale, well-maintained trails, and knowledgeable guides. It can get a bit misty out there, so in addition to camera and binoculars, bring an appropriate jacket.
The visit to the reserve can be done in two to three hours. And if you’re staying at the Yangana Lodge, the delights of the sauna, a relaxing massage, and a healthy and delicious meal awaiting you on your return. Check the Jocotoco Foundation’s website (fjocotoco.org), and contact the Yangana Lodge (email@example.com, +593-99-2164017) for more information.
Jerry Luzu is Ecuadorian by birth and Californian by adoption. He lives with his family in Santa Monica and travels back to Ecuador every so often to hold onto his roots. He’s familiar with the four regions of Ecuador, especially Loja Province, where he grew up.