Meet Sergio Arboleda. Sergio first learned that his son Andres had Downs Syndrome three days after his birth. Never having heard of this condition he set out to learn about what this diagnosis meant for his son and his family. With the help of some foreigners who worked as special needs teachers he began to come to terms with the news. They gave him a book about the syndrome which he proudly still has. He started taking Andres to a specialized clinic in Loja which helped them with various therapies.
Now aged 11 Andres helps his mother and father make handicrafts which they make to sell to passing tourists. A low interest loan from FACES has helped the family grow their own home business which ensures that someone from the family is always at home with Andres to take care of him. Andres was smiling broadly when I met him and was visibly thrilled as his father took up one of his home made musical instruments and started to play. My attempt was not met with the same delight!
I met Sergio and Andres working for the Grameen Foundation. I was assigned to spend a week on the ground with FACES, a micro-finance institution based in Loja, Ecuador. FACES is a small organization which offer loans to low income Ecuadorians without access to credit. They link their products to a strong social mission to reduce poverty by supporting employment opportunities for their clients.
I have long been interested in micro-finance and became a member of Grameen Foundation’s Bankers without Borders PPI reserve corps nine months ago, desperate to see its work on the ground. Recent news flow around the micro-finance industry questioning its ability to meaningfully reduce poverty only made me more impatient. The issues around micro-finance and poverty reduction are the cutting edge of the industry which is something I am proud to be a part of. This project in Ecuador was my perfect match. First it was in Spanish and I had also been to Ecuador once before and knew I would feel at home among the Ecuadorians.
I was not wrong. Loja is known in Ecuador for its warm atmosphere and friendly people, a reputation it lived up to. It is a small, narrow, town of about 200,000 inhabitants, running north to south and flanked by rising green hills on all sides. It is split between two rivers which provide a pleasant spot of greenery in the city center. The town is old, one of the first to be settled in Ecuador in 1548. It is home to a number of attractive squares framed by pastel colored churches and colonial columned houses.
There are two recreation areas, one to the north (parque Jipiro) and another to the south (parque Lineal). Both are well worth a visit. The first has a collection of model buildings representing every continent and the latter is more tranquil and acts as the city’s exercise ground. There are a few good city viewing points to the east and west which allow a wide view of the valley. The surrounding valleys only get more remote and are even more beautiful with their soft rolling hills.
I stayed at the pleasant though nondescript Hotel San Sebastian which was clean and good value. Although not famous for its cuisine I ate very well in Loja. Most eateries serve ‘almuerzo’ which is a set lunch menu usually including a soup, choice of a chicken or pork dish and topped off with something sweet. For $2-3 these are the best deals in town. For a more upscale dinner option Mar y Cuba comes highly recommended, serving delicious ceviche and fish dishes. Finish the evening at the Viejo Minero – a gem of a bar. It has a relaxed atmosphere, good music and with Chilean red at $1.50 a glass it can be hard to leave! The same goes for Ecuador.
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This article is also available in Spanish.