647km (402 miles) S of Quito; 415km (258 miles) SE of Guayaquil; 205km (127 miles) S of Cuenca

Off the beaten track and not on most traditional tourist itineraries, Loja is the capital city of the southern province of the same name. This small burg is little-visited, and serves predominantly as a gateway to the more popular and even more remote village of Vilcabamba. That said, Loja is a clean, quiet, and pleasant city nestled between two rivers. In addition to a colonial-era vibe, there's a whimsical side to Loja: At the entrance to the city, you'll see a castlelike bridge and clock tower, which show both medieval and Tudor architectural influences and feature various public murals.

Founded in the beautiful Cuxibamba Valley in 1548 by Alonso de Mercadillo, Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador. It was also the country's first to be wired for electricity, in 1896, using electricity generated by a nearby hydroelectric dam. As you enter the city, a large sign over the main road in proclaims Loja THE MUSICAL CAPITAL OF ECUADOR, owing to the fact that the city has produced its share of popular artists.