Sands of Gold

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Playa de Oro Tigrillos Reserve Lodge

Flag of Ecuador  , Esmeraldas,
Sunday, July 11, 2010

We have just arrived back from a 3 day trip into the wilds of Esmeraldas province in the far north of Ecuador. During the journey from Quito the scenery changed dramatically from barren mountains and volcanoes to cloud forest and down to the steamy lowlands. We caught the 5am bus from Quito to Otavalo where we met Ramiro, a driver we had hired for the outward journey to Selve Alegra, a small community on the Rio Santiago. This culture of this area is Afro-Ecuadorian, the people descended from slaves brought here to pan for gold over 500 years ago, and it certainly felt more African than Ecuadorian. At Selve Alegra we met Julio, one of our hosts for our stay, who took us upriver for a couple of hours in motorized canoe. For the first 40 minutes or so we passed small villages and gold mines. Unfortunately this area has changed a lot in the last 15 years due to gold mining activity. Small villages have disappeared to be replaced by giant sandpits and piles of gravel, and the water has suffered from cyanide and arsenic poisoning. So far, the Playa de Oro community has resisted offers from gold mining and lumber companies to buy their land. Instead they have chosen to protect their land and generate income through eco-tourism. We hope that this may long continue as the Tigrillos reserve is a magnificent, remote, roadless wilderness of 10,000 hectares that protects many wild cats including jaguars, cougars, ocelots, margays, oncillas and jaguarundi.

For the last hour of the canoe journey we were in the reserve itself and the river was surrounded by dense primary rainforest. Julio was obviously a very skilled boatman as the river is supposedly only navigable by a few people and he expertly manoevred us through the rapids and over the shallow bits. We stayed at the Tigrillos lodge, a short distance upriver from the Playa de Oro community. We were the only guests at the lodge and were looked after by Julio, Isaiah and Mercedes the cook, who produced delicious meals of fish caught by Isaiah, rice and locally grown vegetables, and juices made from local fruits like naranjilla and maracuaba. The lodge itself is set back from the river and surrounded by jungle. It is rustic and simple with no electricity but perfectly comfortable. We even had bats roosting on the ceiling which would return in the early morning and wake us with their squeaks!

It rained non-stop for the whole of our first day, so we spent the time swinging in hammocks on the verandah, reading, doing some Spanish and drinking Clos, our new found friend (very cheap and tasty Chilean red wine which comes in 1.5 litre cartons!). On the second day we went for a walk in the jungle with Isaiah, a stern-faced man who we found a little scary at first but who is actually very nice and provided me with a strong arm whenever it came to crossing rivers or getting in and out of the canoe! The start of the walk was all uphill so we were soon dripping from the humidity. When we reached a waterfall, Tom went for a swim but I was put off by the large scorpion scrambling around on the rocks where we were going to leave our clothes!

On the third day, we went further up into the reserve by motorized canoe. The Rio Santiago is a beautiful fast-flowing river, with steep jungle clad sides and waterfalls tumbling into it. We stopped off at a few sandy spots where Julio and Isiah panned for gold. The sand here is literally awash with tiny specks of gold! Isaiah also caught us three fish for that night's dinner.

We were sad when we said our goodbyes on the morning of the fourth day. Like Santa Lucia, we have been drawn in by the beauty of this place and will always leave a little bit of ourselves here. Julio and Isaiah took us back downstream to Selve Alegra where we discovered the bus had broken down. Fortunately, Julio managed to negotiate us a lift in the back of a pick-up which took us to San Lorenzo, a town near the Columbian border with a raw and edgy feel where the majority of the buildings were only half-finished or falling down, we couldn't tell which. We didn't linger for long and caught the next bus south to Ibarra. The journey took about four hours with no toilet stops and the bus was crammed full for pretty much the whole way. At Ibarra, we hopped on another bus for the short ride to Otavalo, an Andean market town, where toilets, a comfy bed and Clos awaited us!

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