In 2011 we explored the old Inca — and probably even pre-Inca — route from Amaluza to Palanda, crossing the Cordillera de Sabanilla. After the tour we talked to some of the locals in Palanda about our adventure and, as we were obviously crazy enough to do it, people told us about an expedition to the lost city of Loyola, which lies seemingly hidden in the rainforest on the lower end of the eastern Andean ridges, roughly south east of Podocarpus National Park. Although we were too tired to start another adventure right away, our interest was stirred. Soon after our return to Quito we started gathering information on the Lost City, trying to figure out if it really exists and if so, where to look for it.
During our research we found out that, most importantly, the city indeed does exist has been registered by the INPC (Instituto Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural). Nevertheless, hardly any information about the city itself exists or at least hardly any information was available. The little information we found was not recognized and could not be verified. Nevertheless, it seems that a pre-Hispanic city called Cumbinama existed in this location before it was taken by the Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century who founded the City of Loyola in its place. Around the year 1700 the last inhabitants left the city and moved towards the west, higher up the Andean slopes. Since then, the city had basically been regarded as lost. This was not the whole truth, as the people of the Shuar tribes living in this area always knew about it. When colonists, bit by bit, started settling in the valleys of the south-eastern cordillera they came in contact with the Shuar, and, by exchanging goods, they also exchanged information about the area and thus people became aware once again of the existence of the City of Loyola….as did we!
It took us until March 2013 to organize our tour to the Lost City of Loyola. First we flew from Quito to Catamayo where Loja airport is located. Here we were picked up by a 4×4 and drove south to Loja, passing through Malacatus, Vilcabamba, Yangana and Valladolid to Palanda. After a short stop we left the main road and continued on a dusty road to the east, driving down the cordillera into the cloud forest. Passing San Francisco de Vergel we finally reached the small village of La Canela in the late afternoon. It took us the rest of the day to organize a local guide for the next day, a pick-up truck to drop us off at the end of the road (we left our car in the village) and a nice dinner with a cold beer (the last for a number of days). Fortunately, we were invited to stay at a local home as there are no hotels in the village. The next morning we left the village at 6:00am and drove for about an hour further east, mainly following Rio Vergel until the road ended. Here we shouldered our back-packs and started a very long day of hiking on small (or non-existant) paths down the cloud forest which changed into tropical forest along the way. It was raining most of the time and the path was extremely muddy and slippery, making it very difficult hiking with the heavy backpacks. Finally, at sundown, we reached the last finca (local farm) at the end of the farming area. On the other side of River Vergel the Shuar Territory starts, and in there the lost city was waiting for us. Well, it had to wait for quite some time as it kept raining for several days and the river was swelled, making it impossible for us to cross. We waited for three days with nothing more to do but watch the river grow even more instead of its waters going down. So, on the morning of the fourth day, we decided, with heavy hearts, to return to La Canela and give it another try in the dry season.
It was one and a half years later, in November 2014, when we finally managed to coordinate our second attempt at reaching the lost city. Again we flew in from Quito and drove down to La Canela, which we reached again in the afternoon. This time we didn´t want to run the risk of not having enough time to reach our goal, so we continued right away. We were dropped off at the end of the road and started our hike with our local guide who had been informed of our arrival, reaching the farm area just around sunset. We stayed at one of the local farms for the night — people here are amazingly friendly, welcoming visitors with a big smile and an even bigger meal. The next morning we continued, reaching the last finca in the early afternoon. To our great relief the waters of the river were low enough to be crossed. Still, it was too late to continue to the lost city the same day and we didn´t want to risk having to find our way through the jungle in the middle of the night. This time we were lucky, and even though it rained a bit during the night, we crossed the river the next morning without any problems. Our local guide did not only know the route through the dense jungle (it would have taken much longer to figure out the route without him) but, as he knew the local Shuar community well, he had their permission to enter their territory — he strongly emphasized the importance of not entering their territory without their permission or at least someone who does have it. It took us nearly 4 hours of cutting our way through the thicket to finally reach the Shuar Center Nayump.
From here it was a short 15 minute walk until we found the walls of the Lost City of Loyola — we had finally made it! Excited, we started to explore the city and its walls in the pouring rain (this is what they call dry season in the rainforest!). There seemed to be different types of walls; some ramparts forming mainly the outer walls while others looked more like wall barriers used either for buildings or for forming terraces. The vegetation was extremely dense, making it very hard to get a clear picture of the structures, their form and use. Nevertheless, we formed a rough drawing of the city, as far as we could identify it (with great help from our guide!):
In the afternoon, we decided not to stay in the community house but to return to the finca, as it soon became obvious that we would not be able to do better investigate the ruins the next day. To do more intense research of the site, and get a better view of the ruins and their structure, it would need to be cleared of the vegetation covering basically everything, something we had neither the permission nor the means to do. So we headed back, still excited about having reached the lost city and about its huge size: it covers about 2–3 hectares, with most of the walls still clearly visible, being between 1–1.5 meters high. No wonder we enthusiastically talked the whole way back about the city, reaching the finca after only 2 hours — we had been practically running back without even noticing!
We stayed two more days with our friendly host at his finca, exploring the area nearby and even panning for some gold, or at least trying to. As we learned the hard way, the rivers here do not provide much gold; still, it was quite an adventurous afternoon by the river. Due to the lack of gold in the surrounding rivers we assumed that the main function of Loyola had probably not been a center for gold panning or mining but as a trade post between the rainforest and the Andes, for example for cinnamon (which, in Spanish, is called Canela, the name of the little village higher up). Finally, it was time for us to say goodbye and take on the hike back to La Canela. It took us a long day to make it back, but hey, we finally caught a day without rain! All in all, a great adventure to the no longer lost City of Loyola!
Here is some information for anyone interested in visiting Loyola:
We took the route from the Andes down to the rainforest, but we learned you can also hike up from the lower rainforest. In this case you need to travel from Loja via Zamora, Zumbi, Guayzimi and Zurmi to Puerto Las Orquídeas, where the road ends and you have to take a boat (canoe) upriver to “Las Mariposas” (sometimes people use different names for the same place; ask around) and hike up from here through the Shuar territory. We only saw the trail in the upper part (in the area of the City of Loyola and the Shuar Center Nayump), where it was easy to follow. Nevertheless, for any route we strongly recommend getting a local guide and making sure you (or your guide) have permission to enter the Shuar territory.
For the trip down the Andes we can warmly recommend Don Maximo Luzuriaga and Pedro Ordoñez as local guides to the finca area; both can be contacted in La Canela. As a guide for the last part to Loyola, we went with Rolando Castillo, who owns one of the last fincas before the Shuar territory and who is an excellent guide and the best guarantee that you will not get lost during your adventure! Besides knowing the whole area like the back of his hand, he is a great cook and a very welcoming host too. Good luck!