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For most visitors, the first sight to catch their eye is the Puerta de la Ciudad (Door to the City), a castlelike clock tower that actually forms a bridge over the main road into town. The tower, which features a couple of side turrets, displays a re-creation of the coat of arms granted the city by King Phillip II of Spain in 1571. It was from here that expeditions were to be launched to conquer the Amazon and to seek the mythical city of El Dorado. Inside this structure you'll find a few shops and galleries, as well as a simple little second-floor cafe. The top of the tower provides a nice lookout point from which to take in the lay of the land.

Public parks and plazas abound in Loja. The Parque Central is a classic colonial-era construction with the city's Catholic church on the eastern side, and the Palacio Municipal (Municipal Palace) on its north side. The Catedral, which has an ornately painted interior, is worth a visit. This is one of the largest churches in Ecuador, and it received a major overhaul and restoration in 2004. In mid-August, the famous statue of the Virgin of El Cisne is brought to the cathedral for the celebrations in her honor. On the south side of the central plaza is the Museo del Banco Central (tel. 07/2963-004), which has a collection of archaeological relics and displays illustrating local historical events. This museum has seven rooms, with sections dedicated to the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations, colonial-era art, natural history, and significant Loja citizens. The museum is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm and Saturday from 9am to 1pm. Admission is $2 (£1.35).

About 5 blocks south of Parque Central is the Plaza San Sebastián, also known as the Plaza de la Independencia (Independence Square). It was here, on November 18, 1820, that the local populace gathered to declare independence from Spain. At the center of the plaza stands a towering 32m-tall (105-ft.) clock tower. Around the plaza, colonial-era buildings have been lovingly restored, and on the south side of the plaza stand the pretty blue-and-white Iglesia de San Sebastián and its attached convent. Both are beautifully maintained.

Another notable little city park, the Plaza San Francisco, gets its name from the neighboring San Francisco church and convent. At the center of this plaza is a large sculpture of Alonso de Mercadillo, the city's founder, mounted on a marvelous steed.

Perhaps Loja's most striking church is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, located at Plaza Santo Domingo. Dating to 1557, this church features interior paintings and frescos by Fray Enrique Mideros, who also painted the churches in Ibarra, Latacunga, and Baños.

Much of Loja's colonial architecture has been destroyed by earthquakes, fire, and the passage of time, so you absolutely must take a stroll up Calle Lourdes, which has a picturesque row of well-restored and -maintained colonial homes and buildings with ornate plaster facades, carved wood window frames and doors, cobblestone streets, and stone-and-tile sidewalks. Antique street lamps and fresh paint complete the picture. Scattered among the residential homes, you'll find art galleries and other shops. Calle Lourdes is south of the center of town; the best section is between avenidas Bolívar and 18 de Noviembre.

There are excellent hiking and bird-watching opportunities all around the mountains and forests outside Loja. The primary destination for these activities is Podocarpus National Park . If you want to do any serious hiking, bird-watching, or any other adventure activity in the area, I recommend that you contact Biotours (tel. 07/2579-387), Podocarpus Travel (tel. 07/2588-010), or Vilcatur (tel. 07/2571-443). All have trained bilingual guides and a wide range of possible tour options.

Loja isn't a particularly great shopping town, but if you want to browse some excellent local arts, handicrafts, and handmade clothing, head to Arte Sano, on Calle Lourdes, between Sucre and Bolívar (tel. 07/2574-242).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.