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The Virgin of El Cisne

Located some 70km (43 miles) northwest of Loja, El Cisne is one of Ecuador's major religious-pilgrimage sites. The impressive Basílica del Cisne (El Cisne Basilica) here is home to a famous sculpture of the Virgin Mary carved by Diego de Robles in the 16th century. Locals call the sculpture La Churona, which translates roughly as "the curly headed girl." The first church to house this holy figure was begun in 1594; the current basilica was finished in 1934, and is impressive in size and in the amount of detailed craftsmanship. The beautiful church sits on a high hillside in a remote rural area. The main celebrations for the Virgin del Cisne occur on August 15. Two days later, carried by thousands of devotees, she begins a 3-day trek to Loja, where she will stay for the next couple of months. Based out of the main cathedral in Loja, during this period, the statue is taken to various churches in the region. In Loja, the main celebration for the Virgin del Cisne occurs on September 8, a celebration that was officially decreed by Simón Bolívar himself on a visit to Loja in 1822. On November 1, the Virgin and her followers begin their return pilgrimage to El Cisne.

Podocarpus National Park

Naturalists and bird-watchers covet this little-visited national park. Podocarpus National Park begins just south of Loja and covers a vast area that descends down toward the Amazon basin. The park runs from a high of 3,700m (12,139 ft.) down to some 1,000m (3,281 ft.), and contains ecosystems that range from high paramo (moor) to cloud forest and rainforest -- with a total area of 146,280 hectares (361,466 acres). The sheer size and variety of ecosystems in Podocarpus make this an incredibly rich park in terms of biodiversity. Over 600 species of birds have been identified here. The park is named after several endemic species of the Podocarpus genus. Other park residents include the spectacled bear, jaguar, sloth, and tapir. Camping is allowed at several campsites in the park, and there are a few rustic cabins located near each of the entrance ranger stations. For more information on these, contact the park office (tel. 07/2571-534 or 07/2577-125) in Loja.

Several well-marked and -maintained trails leave from the Cajanuma park-ranger station. The terrain is mostly moist cloud forest and high-altitude paramo, and rain is common throughout much of the year. A short loop trail leads through the cloud forest to a beautiful lookout point. Longer hikes, which require overnight camping, bring you to a series of stunning small mountain lakes. I recommend that you visit with a guide. In Loja, contact Biotours (tel. 07/2579-387), Podocarpus Travel (tel. 07/2588-010), or Vilcatur (tel. 07/2571-443). In Vilcabamba, contact Jorge Luis at Caminatas Andes Sureños (tel. 07/2673-147; jorgeluis222@latinmail.com). A full-day tour of the park, with transportation, lunch, and naturalist guide, should run around $30 to $45 (£20-£30) per person.

Mining firms and loggers covet this park as much as naturalists and bird-watchers do. Much of the park has been ceded to mining interests, and mining activities and illegal logging pose a major threat to the delicate ecosystems here. Both the Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org) and the Ecuadorean Fundación Ecológica Arcoiris (www.arcoiris.org.ec) are working to protect the park. Contact either of these organizations for more information, or if you are interested in volunteering in the park.

Getting There & Visiting the Park -- The principal entrance to the park is the Cajanuma entrance, some 14km (8 2/3 miles) south of Loja, on the road to Vilcabamba. From the highway turnoff, a rugged road leads another 8km (5 miles) to the park-ranger station. A taxi from Loja all the way to the ranger station should cost around $6 to $9 (£4-£6) each way. If you want to arrange a round-trip ride, set a pick-up time with a driver you trust. Alternatively, any of the many buses running the Loja-to-Vilcabamba route will drop you off and pick you up near the exit to the park entrance. There's a bit of a hike into the park from where you'll be dropped off. Admission is $10 (£6.65) per person per day. Camping costs an additional $3 (£2) per person in a tent, and $5 (£3.35) for a bunk in one of the cabins.

On to Peru

Loja is often used as a land-based jumping-off point for onward travel to Peru. The border crossing here is less commonly used than that at Huaquillas. From Loja, the Pan-American Highway heads first west, then south, to the Ecuadorean border town of Macará. The Peruvian town on the other side of the border is La Tina. Both of these towns are tiny and of little interest to travelers. In fact, the first Peruvian city that most travelers head to is Piura, several hours south of the border. A half-dozen buses or more leave daily from Loja's main bus terminal to Macará. The ride takes around 5 hours, and the fare is $4.50 (£3). In addition, Transportes Loja (tel. 07/2570-505) has three daily direct buses to Piura, Peru. I highly recommend you book one of these, as the bus will wait for you to complete immigration formalities (otherwise you'll have to take two different buses). The entire ride takes 8 to 9 hours, and the fare is around $9 (£6).

If you decide to head first to Macará, the border formalities are relatively straightforward and painless, and the entire scene is mellower than at Huaquillas. The Ecuadorean immigration office is just before the bridge over the river that separates the two countries. There's a Peruvian checkpoint on the other side of the bridge, but you will have to take care of formal Peruvian immigration procedures in Sullana, 130km (81 miles) to the south. There is plenty of taxi and onward bus service between Macará and La Tina, and from La Tina on to Sullana and Piura.

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.