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Cuenca v. Loja

In the time that we have been running Abundant Living Ecuador people want to know just as much about who we are and how we got here as what we know.

One of those questions that comes up fairly often is why is Loja better than Cuenca (or something to that effect).

And my answer to that is it depends on what you are looking for.

Cuenca is home to some of Ecuador’s most stunning architecture – along with the Capital Quito, is one of the country’s UNESCO world heritage sites. The city has a metropolitan feel to it.

Coming from the United States, Cuenca was much more in line with my expectations for what a city should be. Boasting Ecuador’s largest expat community, a variety of contemporary restaurants and coffee shops, craft breweries, shopping malls, and a happening nightlife, Cuenca has it all.

Although it is one of Ecuador’s larger cities, Cuenca is fairly easy to get around. With an extensive bus system, taxi’s, bike lanes on many major streets, and the soon to be completed tram, its a place you can live without a car unlike Quito, or the country’s largest city Guayaquil.

A beautiful river walk separates the historic center from the more modern section of the city. On the weekends, you see people from all over the world out for a walk, a run, or a bike ride.

As much as Cuenca has to offer, at times people like to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Cajas national park offers that opportunity. Located just 30 kilometers outside of Cuenca, Cajas is home to some of the regions most spectacular panoramic views, majestic mountain peaks, and endemic plant and animal life.

With four universities, a number or museums, a professional soccer team, a jazz society that regularly hosts live concerts, and an international film festival, Cuenca really met my expectations in terms of what one would expect coming from a major city in the North America or Europe.

Loja on the other hand did not, and in many ways, that is where its charm lies.

Population wise, Loja is not small by Ecuadorian standards. Although it is the 9th largest city it has the feel of a small town where everyone knows each other. In fact, I can’t leave my apartment or office without running into several people I know.

However you would never describe Loja as metropolitan – it does not t have the colonial charm of Cuenca and there are no world-class restaurants.

The city has a small town charm that I find really appealing. One of the things I really enjoy about Loja is the pace. Parents have and take the time to drop their kids off at school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. Families eat lunch at home together and neighbors say good morning to one another. Although I don’t have kids of my own yet, I feel it’s a vibe that permeates and something I very much look forward to.

Loja is a close-knit community – close friends are like family and people share everything; information, time, even Ice Cream cones! The Expat community is virtually non-existent; as such people are welcoming to foreigners and view them as just another member of the community. With a core that is roughly ten blocks long by eight blocks wide, Loja is an extremely walk-able city. Anywhere that is out of walking distance can be reached by bus or by taxi for a pittance.

Loja boasts three universities, two private and one public. For children, there are several private and alternative primary and secondary school options, and a wide variety of high quality extracurricular activities available.

Although Loja falls short of matching Cuenca in this aspect, it does have several choices for shopping and entertainment. Theatro Bolivar also known as “Cudic” is a traditional theater for performing arts that regularly hosts plays, musical guests, and dance performances.

There is also a six-screen movie theater and a professional soccer team. Shopping options include; large open-air markets, boutique shops and several modern shopping centers.

As great as the city is, it’s really when you get out of it that Loja shines. The largest province (land area) of the Andean region of Ecuador, home to Podocarpus and Yacurí national parks, and a variety of terrain and micro climates just hours away, Loja is a nature lover’s dream.

Like most major cities, Cuenca has issues with traffic, congestion, and air quality, in the city center.

Air quality and traffic are noticeably better in Loja and due to its size, one does not need to travel as far to get out of the city.

Climate wise, the weather in Cuenca is colder on average with slightly more rainfall.

With respect to safety, I would consider both cities safe with an important distinction. When I am in Loja, I feel comfortable walking down any street day or night. I have done the same in Cuenca with the same results, however in Cuenca, you get the sense that something bad COULD happen. I have never felt that way in Loja.

As far as cities go, Cuenca has it all and I am of the opinion that it casts a wider net as it offers more traditional amenities, activities, and creature comforts that most of us in the western world have grown accustom to.

On the other hand, if you enjoy being surrounded by nature at every turn, a small town lifestyle with the conveniences of a city, and are comfortable living abroad in the absence of a well-established Expat community, Loja could be the place for you.

Both places have so much to enjoy. That said, from my personal experience having lived in Loja for more than two years, I feel my quality of life as measured by the friends I have made and relationships I have built is richer as a result of the adjustments I had to make to the culture and lifestyle here. Adjustments that I would not have made had I lived in a place a place like Cuenca.

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