The San Francisco Plaza is one of my favorite touristy spots in the Historic Downtown area of Quito. It’s a good place for people watching and you have great views/photo opportunities from every angle: the statue of Virgin on the top the Panecillo hill, the green and gold domes or cupolas of La Compañía church, the pigeons and street vendors, the stairs and the entrance to church. There’s a conveniently located restaurant (Tianguez) right underneath the church/monastery area – and it’s a great place to have an Ecuadorian Pilsener or Club beer (or a jugo de mora) while you enjoy the view.
I took this photo of the Vilcabamba valley and mountains when we visited Ecuador a couple years ago. We went to the restaurant at Hosteria Izhcayluma, located outside of the town. The view from this place are amazing, you can stay there or just come for lunch/dinner or drinks. We shared a bottle of wine and had a caprese salad, with this view!
My preferred source for trying new restaurants when I travel is usually recommendations from friends and people I meet through the blog. In my personal view, restaurant and travel sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor don’t typically have the best coverage of local restaurants in Ecuador – though to be fair, it is getting better and bigger cities like Quito/Guayaquil/ Cuenca have more online restaurant reviews. Even then sometimes the reviews are very gringo skewed (since foreigners tend to use these sites more often and sometimes rate restaurants based on what they expect in their home country). However, I still check them out just in case, and I was mainly curious to see what restaurants from my home town of Loja would be included on TripAdvisor. I was surprised to see that one of the top places was a restaurant in Saraguro – which is actually a few hours outside of the city of Loja – right in between Loja and Cuenca. The restaurant Shamuico Espai Gastronòmic got my attention and I started researching (ie Googleing) it to get as much information as I could. I loved their concept and since I knew that we would be driving from Cuenca to Loja, I added it to the list of places to try, and asked my brother, who was picking us up in Cuenca, that we stop there for lunch….
Loja is small city (and province) in the southern highlands of Ecuador. I was born in the town of Vilcabamba (45 minutes away from Loja) and went to high school in the city of Loja. As a result, so many of my memories of Ecuador are associated with the food I ate in Loja. This list is my recommendation of foods to eat in Loja. Some of these dishes are very authentic and traditional “lojano” meals, and some are dishes that can be also be found in other cities of Ecuador, but are included because I personally love the way they are prepared in Loja or they became part of my Loja experience.
You will be able to find many of traditional dishes at restaurants in the city of Loja and throughout the province. There are some foods that are very specific to the city or are mainly found during times of festivities (the feria/local fair, Independence Day celebrations, and other occasions). There are a few that I’ve only had prepared in the homes of close friends. And yes, I probably missed/forgot about some very traditional things to eat or drink in Loja, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.
Traditional foods to eat in Loja:
Repe lojano: Repe is a creamy soup made with green bananas (or green plantains in some cases, but green bananas are the preferred choice), milk, cheese and cilantro.
Arverjas con guineo or split pea and green banana soup: Arvejas con guineo is almost the same as repe, but it also has split peas. Both of these soups are usually served with avocado slices.
Cecina de chancho: I love this pork dish, it’s one of my favorites and can be found in many restaurants, but one of the best places to eat it is in Catamayo/Latoma. It consists of thinly cut pork steaks that are marinated with cumin and garlic, then dried in the sun and either grilled or fried. Cecina is served with the must have sides of boiled yucca (cassava), tomato and onion curtido, rice, and aji hot sauce.
Pollos a la brasa: You will see pollos a la brasa or whole chicken grilled over charcoal in many cities, but you will see that downtown Loja is full of pollo a la brasa places. In fact, one of the smells that reminds of the city is the smell of roasted chicken. I remember taking the bus (taxi ruta these days) and getting off near Mercadillo street, and as soon as you get into that area you are immersed in the smell coming from the restaurants making pollos a la brasa. I remember buying a “quarto de pollo” or a quarter of the roasted chicken, and getting it in plastic bag to go, with the rice/salad all mixed in with chicken (it might not sound good, but it was amazing!).
Tamales lojanos con aji de pepa: Loja is famous for its amazing tamales, these tamales are filled with either chicken or pork, and are wrapped in achira leaves. Achira is known as arrowroot in English. The tamales lojanos are served with a must try mild hot sauce called aji de pepa, it’s a thick green sauce made with pepas or squash seeds blended with cilantro, hot peppers, and spices. Tamales are usually served for breakfast or with the afternoon coffee.
Humitas or fresh corn tamales: Humitas, sometimes called humas for short in Loja, are savory steamed fresh corn cakes made from a mixture of freshly ground corn, cheese, eggs, and cream, which is placed inside corn husks and steamed. Same as tamales, they are served for breakfast or as an afternoon snack, and usually the same restaurants will offer both humitas and tamales. Humitas are best accompanied by aji de tomate de arbol or tree tomato/tamarillo hot sauce….
My favorite coffee is the one that my mom grows on our farm in Vilcabamba. It’s not a large farm, but there are enough coffee plants that we get enough coffee for family and friends. I am by no means a coffee expert or connoisseur, and to a coffee snob this might not be the best coffee. However, for me personally the coffee from Vilcabamba is the best, it’s the coffee that as soon as I smell or taste it, it brings back memories. I love that it’s very smooth and hasn’t been over-roasted (like most coffee you get in the US). This doesn’t mean it isn’t strong or is lacking in caffeine – completely the opposite, it will definitely get you caffeinated….
Today’s photo is from one of my favorite viewpoints in Quito. Itchimbía is a park on the top of hill in downtown (Old Town) Quito, you’ll have one of the best views in the city from this park – especially because the view include the other famous hill, El Panecillo. There are a few restaurants and bars in this area, which makes it a great place to get a good night view of the city. This night view of Quito’s Historic Center and the Panecillo was taken from a restaurant/bar called Cafe Mosaico.
The region around Baños de Agua Santa in the province of Tungurahua in Ecuador is known for its many beautiful waterfalls. There’s even a route called “ruta de las cascadas” or route of the waterfalls. One of these impressive waterfalls, which is very visible as you drive on the road in this area, is called Manto de la Novia, this translates as the Bride’s Veil. Manto de la Novia consists of two waterfalls that are side by side. You can get a close up view by riding a cable car, there’s one that goes to the top of the waterfalls and another that goes to the bottom part.
Eating fritada in Ecuador is a popular weekend activity, especially for those living or visiting the Sierra or Andean Highlands. It’s a common practice for people living in the cities to go for a paseo or getaway to the smaller villages (pueblos). Some people have weekend fincas (small farms) or second homes in these country side pueblos; while others just go for the day. In these small towns, and on the way, you will find many restaurants and food stands that sell a variety of traditional food (comida típica). One of the most popular weekend dishes is fritada de chancho, a pork dish made by cooking chunks of pork in large pans with water until the water has been consumed and the pork is left to cook itself in its own fat. The results are delicious pieces of pork that are crispy and golden on the outside while juicy and tender inside.
Vilcabamba is a small valley in Southern Ecuador. Vilcabamba, from the quechua Huilcopamba means Valley of the Huilcos – after the huilco trees that are very common in this valley, is well known for its longevos or centenarians. Vilcabamba is also called the Valley of the Eternal Youth or the Valley of Longevity. It is a resort like town that has a great warm spring like climate year-round, but can also have a brutal rainy season. This small town is part of the province of Loja and is about a 45 minute drive away from the city of Loja. Vilcabamba, and nearby towns of San Pedro, Malacatos and Landangui, has always been a weekend getaway for people living in Loja, most wealthy lojanos have fincas or vacations homes in these small towns. Vilcabamba is also a popular gringo or foreigner destination. It used to be that most foreigners were backpackers passing through on their way to Peru and only a few would end up of staying as long term residents. But as the years have gone by, more and more foreigners are finding it a great place to retire or settle down….
Cajas National Park, also known as El Cajas, was recently added to the list of protected biospheres by the Unesco. This natural reserve is located about an hour away from the city of Cuenca and covers close to one million hectares (2.47 million acres). The designation as a World Environment Biosphere Reserve includes the entire Massif of El Cajas, which includes marine farmland from the Gulf of Guayaquil, Cajas National Park, and the area of Quimsacocha. The entire park spans across four provinces: Azuay, Cañar, Guayas and El Oro. El Cajas becomes the 5th protected biosphere that Ecuador has; the other four are the Galapagos Islands, Yasuní, Sumaco and Podocarpus-El Condor.