19th-24th August 2018
The first thing I noticed about Loja was how religious it was. I arrived there on a Sunday and almost everything was closed, apart from the churches which were so cram-packed there were people spilling out from the doorways. One of the only places I could find open was an ice-cream parlour, so I had cake for lunch.
The following day the shops and restaurants opened their doors again but, for reasons which remain unclear, the museums were still closed. Perhaps it had something to do with the Fiesta de la Virgen del Cisne event going on that night; the real reason I had come to this place.
The Virgen del Cisne is a local cult figure whose physical representation has several different homes across Ecuador. Each year, on the 20th of August, she is returned to Loja, and it is marked by a huge festival.
While I waited for this event, I did some sightseeing and spent the morning wandering around Loja’s churches and the castle gate.
And later on, I caught a taxi to the Jardín Botánico just outside of town, which had over eight hundred different species and was also a good place to spot birds.
Just over the road there was a park owned by the University. I kind of strolled on in casually, believing its trail would be a breeze, and instead found myself climbing up a steep slope and then having to grit my teeth (fear of heights, my old friend) as I made my way down a knife-point ridge to get to the bottom again. There were some wonderful panoramas along the way.
Later on, I assembled outside the castle gate with hundreds of others to await the Virgen del Cisne.
During all the waiting, there was some entertainment. A band was playing and there was also some traditional dancing. I couldn’t see much of it though because there were some rather selfish people at the front holding up umbrellas (even though it wasn’t really raining, just a slight drizzle which wasn’t strong enough to damage my camera). I held my camera up high and caught a few videos, including this one you can watch here.
Eventually one of the musicians began to narrate, as he could tell people were getting impatient. He kept telling us the Virgen del Cisne was coming soon. After half an hour of this, she finally did. We could see her in the distance, being carried across the bridge. We all cheered…
And then… she was carried to the side somewhere and vanished from view. The man began to narrate again to keep the crowd from getting impatient while preparations were made. A brass band needed to assemble nearby… a man went to inspect the perch she was due to be placed upon and made adjustments. None of these were things which could have been done sometime during the two hours we had all been stood waiting, of course…
It began to get dark. The narrator told us to all to wave in greeting, because the Virgen del Cisne was coming soon… but nothing happened. He told us to do it again a few minutes later, but it was a false alarm… just some men with flags.
By the time she actually did come, I was so jaded by all the false alarms I almost missed it. A firework display commenced the moment she was placed on the perch, which was quite spectacular. You can see a video here.
She was then carried through the town, and I rushed towards the central park outside the cathedral, where she finished her journey. I have uploaded a series of videos from the rest of the festival which can be found here.
Overall, I was glad I went to see this as it was interesting and I had never seen anything quite like it before, but all the latin faff was a little frustrating.
The next day I caught a bus to Vilcabamba, where I would spend my last few days in Ecuador in a nature reserve called Rumi Wilco. I finally got to use my new tent.
I had the campsite to myself a couple of the nights I was there and enjoyed the isolation. Every evening, close to the place I would sit with my laptop (editing photos and writing), a pair of birds kept appearing, and one of them – which I guessed to be the male – always made a display to the other. I caught a video of it once (click here).
I also did some hiking. Rumi Wilco is owned by an Argentinean man called Orlando who lives there with his family. He is always very willing to help with information (or even just chat) and has created a great variety of trails around his reserve, all of which are marked and have information displays. One of the routes goes high up the mountain, where you can catch a great view of the surrounding valley.
I also went to Cascada el Palto, which took several hours but seeing more of Vilcabamba’s stunning scenery made the journey worthwhile (as well as having a dip in the waters to cool myself down before I made my way back).
I also made a few trips into Vilcabamba town itself, a place which has been taken over by baby-boomer expats who have retired here and now have the run of the place, spending their days languidly sat in cafes drinking wine and talking. There is some great food to be eaten in Vilcabamba if you have been on the road for a while and are beginning to miss first-world treats such as cheesecake and falafel but, be warned, whilst waiting for your food you may be subject to overhearing conversations about David Icke books, the dangers of gluten, the latest conspiracy documentary about aliens, a novel someone has been writing for over ten years and still not finished, and some new yoga class someone has just started.
The rest of my time in the area I spent chilling out at the campsite, where I caught up with friends and my blog. I also reflected upon my time in Ecuador, a place I have spent almost three months now and grown rather fond of.
Tomorrow I am crossing over the border into Peru, where I begin the next chapter of my journey.