Ecuador 2004

We went on this largely because they were raising a young ocelot to soft-release into the local jungle, so we got to spend time with him (Mishi) roaming the local area. Below is the trip description:

The May trip dates are May 30 - June 8, 2004. The tour includes 3 nights hotel in Quito at the charming bed and breakfast La Casa Sol (includes breakfast), 6 nights and 5 days at the reserve (all meals included), private transportation between Quito and the reserve, a visit to the famous Otavala market (the largest Indian crafts market in all of South America) and a tour guide.


* May 30: Arrive in Quito by evening.

* May 31: Explore Quito (high in the Andes, great for walking, lots of interesting markets) This allows time for any delayed flights from the night before to get in, and any missing luggage to come in before we leave for the reserve.

* June 1: Travel to Reserve, 6 hours by van through the Andean Mountains, then 2 hours by dugout canoe, arriving mid-afternoon to the reserve, tour the village.

* June 2-6: At the reserve, in the rainforest

* June 7: Return trip, visit Otavala Market the largest Indian handmade crafts market in South America, continue to Quito * June 8: Fly home

Things that people will get to do while at the reserve are:

* pan for gold with the local villagers in the river.

* fishing, basic gear is provided.

* hiking and exploring in the rain forest with a guide as you want.

* touring the local village.

* spend quiet time in a tree observation tower to observe wildlife in the jungle.

* bird, butterfly, and animal observation right from the lodge porch.

* swimming in the cool waters of the river, which is free of nasties such as piranha, crocodiles, or other scary creatures.

* we'll take people on an hour long hike through the jungle to a beautiful large waterfall and swimming area.

* we will take the group upriver to explore La Cathedral, an unusual rock formation and to a large rocky beach to explore.

* the local village children and marimba band will sing and dance for our group.

* Or you can just enjoy hammock time in the jungle.

Although the reserve sits right on the equator, the weather is pretty pleasant and stays pretty much the same all year long. Temperatures run a steady 85 degrees during the day, and 75 degrees at night. Humidity is always high, around the 90% mark. It rains almost every day, mostly during the afternoons or at night. March and April are the heaviest rain seasons, so November and January are very nice months to visit because the rains are not as frequent or as heavy. The insects are not really as bad as you might expect, but you do need to keep bug spray on while outside. Weather in Quito is extremely nice because it sits up in the Andean Mountains at a high altitude. Day time temps run between 60 degrees to no more than 70 degrees, while getting chilly at night to around 40 degrees. The political climate in Ecuador has remained stable for a few years, and there are no current controversies going on there, so we don't foresee any problems of this nature in the near future. The area we stay in Quito is a safe clean area where many international tourists stay, and the businesses all cater to tourists and most speak English. Ecuador uses US currency, so no money is needed to exchange for your trip.

The PLAYA DE ORO RESERVA DE TIGRILLOS is located in El Choco, the coastal rainforest of northwest Ecuador. To locate the reserve on a South American map, go to the place where Ecuador, Columbia, and the Pacific Ocean come together. Draw a wiggly line from there, southeast, for about 40 km. That would be Rio Santiago. Playa de Oro is the furthest community in on that river. The community holds title to 10,000 hectares of virgin rainforest, which runs for miles along both sides of the river. In a (so far successful) effort to fend off logging and mining operations, they have designated the entire territory as a rainforest reserve. How this community came to be is almost as interesting as what it is doing now.

The ancestors of the people of Playa de Oro were brought to this place (from Africa via Columbia) by a Spainard who set them to work panning for gold in Rio Santiago. I don't think they minded the gold panning, because they still do a fair amount of it. But they didn't care much for slavery, and so, in secret, they built a cannon from a very hard black wood. One day when the slave master came paddling up in his canoe to collect the day's nuggets, they blasted him with the cannon, and that was the end of him. (They say the cannon is now in a museum in Guayaquil). Having no way back to Africa, the rebel slaves and their descendants remained there at Playa de Oro (Beach of Gold). As the furthest community in on Rio Santiago, they had only occasional contacts with the outside world.

The British came in the early 20th century, cleaned out most of the gold, and left. The Ecuadorian military came in the 1970s, built a big barracks, and spent awhile looking for any gold the British had overlooked. There wasn't enough to bother with, so they left. They donated their barracks to the community, but as the barracks was a two-hour walk from the village, the community had no use for it, and it was abandoned. In the 1990's, multinational logging companies came to Ecuador's El Choco. They began buying and/or stealing, then clearcutting forests downriver from Playa de Oro. In 1992, US AID showed up with offers to help Playa de Oro get title to its ancestral forests if the community would permit the development of a "sustainable" timbering project. This would require the constructionof a rod to Playa de Oro, and would give US compaines access to their timber. The community accepted US AID's aid only in getting title to 10,000 hectares of their ancestral forests. Then it asked the agency to leave, and refused to allow a road to be built to their village. Thus Playa de Oro remains as it always has been, the furthest community up Rio Santiago, and accessible only by boat.

I arrived there in 1995, looking for a land base to establish a jungle cat reserve, and we struck a deal. They would designate their territory as a safe haven for all species of indigenous jungle cats (jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, oncilla, and jaguarundi), and through Earthways Foundation, I would raise the funds needed for them to transform that abandoned barracks into a lodge which they could use to attract researchers and eco-tourists, thereby creating a small source of income for the community.

The lodge opened in 2000 and is completely under their control. They did the renovation work, built the boat for needed for access, built the furniture, planted the fruit trees, rice, and other food needed to make the place somewhat self-sufficient. The community provides the motorists, the guides, the cooks, and the management. The director - one of the few locals who is literate - went to Quito and learned to use e-mail so we can be in contact on a monthly basis. In truth, the Playa de Orans are pretty special. Not that I would expect a visitor to notice it, since they live in huts and look like a lot of poor black folks in ragged clothes with big smiles. But they're one of the few jungle communities I've ever seen which had the courage and the smarts to stand up to all the modern world reps who came motoring up their river to "help" them by stealing their gold, their forest, and now their eco-tourist potential. Some Quito tour agencies have tried to cut deals with them - you know, the kind where the tour agency charges clients $500 for 3 nights in the jungle, and the community which provides the food, lodging, boat transport, and guide service gets $50 per person. Community leaders rejected that, too, being of the opinion that they are better off dealing with independent travelers. I have never been consulted on this - after all, I am an outsider - but I think they've done the right thing, as independent travelers trickling in have less of an impact on both the environment and the community.

The modern world has brought a few changes to their way of life. Last year each house (hut on stilts) got water, in the form of a tap in the yard. But still no indoor plumbing or electricity. A couple of their dugouts, and the ones we use at the reserve, now have motors, and with motors on the boats, they are able to travel downriver more often, to towns like Borbon and San Lorenzo. From there they can bus to Esmeraldas and even Quito and Guayaquil. But on the whole they live off the land and the river pretty much as they always have. The community is made up of 52 families, or about 350 people. Most of them are nominally Catholic, but when a local man died recently, the stories which swirled around just under the surface made it clear that there's a lot of Old Africa in what they believe about the demons that walk among us. However, there's not much of Africa in daily village life. The one thing visitors might be lucky enough to see (if they're willing to give the school a donation of $25 or so), is a performance of traditional Afro-Latino dances done by the children to cadences of drums and a homemade miramba.

The PLAYA DE ORO RESERVA DE TIGRILLOS is 10,000 hectares of jungle -- all the land which the community of Playa de Oro owns. It is accessible only by boat. The lodge sits back about 100 yards from the river, and is totally surrounded by rainforest. This lodge is rustic (meaning, built of rough-hewen wood), but is as comfortable as anything you will find anywhere in the Ecuadorian rainforest. It is an L-shaped two-story building with verandas running full length, upstairs and down, and a view to the river about 100 yards away. One wing has four guest rooms, two up and two down, and bathrooms, one up, one down. The other wing has three staff rooms and two dorm rooms. In the downstairs corner of the L is the kitchen and dining room. Upstairs the big corner rooms are the library and the hammock lounge. Out back, adjacent to the lodge, are enclosures where we keep jungle cats which have been confiscated from hunters and illegal exotic animal traders, caring for them (the cats, not the wildlife traffickers) until they are old enough or healthy enough to return to the wild. Each private room one has a mosquito-netted double bed, a table, a stool, and shelves for clothes and things. There has never been a case of malaria in Playa de Oro, neither in the village nor at the reserve. But because there is malaria on the coast (30km or so away), as a precaution, rooms are screened and the beds are mosquito-netted.

The bathrooms have flush toilets and cold-water showers. However, the river is so pleasant that almost everyone prefers to bathe there. Rio Santiago has no crocodiles, electric eels, piranah, or disease-carrying snails, and as there is no human habitation further upriver beyond the lodge, there is no human waste in the river here either. Water comes from a spring on a hill above the lodge and is boiled before being used in the kitchen. Visitors always find a bottle of boiled water in their room when they arrive, and afterwards can get their own in the dining room, from a despenser which filters the already-boiled water. Everyone drinks this except Mauro (the project director) who doesn't like the taste of boiled water. He calls it "dead water." I tell him that as far as I'm concerned, the deader my water the better! Food served at the lodge is almost all locally-grown or taken from the river. The men go out fishing just about every day, and whatever they catch is served at the next meal. The women often catch freshwater shrimp from the river, too. Sometime they travel to a town with a market, two hours downriver, and buy a chicken. They make a trip to the village of Playa de Oro every week, and there get fresh eggs.

The staff insists on plantains and rice every single meal, but I have convinced the cook that foreigners appreciate more variety. So, although there WILL be plantains and rice on the table every meal (because that's what the men who work there want), there will also be eggs or pancakes for visitors at breakfast, and for lunch and dinner, soup and salad to go with the main course of fish, shrimp, or chicken, plus whatever tropical fruits are in season. I think pineapples ripen in February, and there are others I'm not sure about, but they have papayas, bananas, and coconuts all year around. Breakfast is usually served around 8 am. Depending on whether you are a coffee, tea, herb tea, or cocoa drinker, there will be a hot thermos of that on the table earlier. The herb tea will be either mint or lemon grass, because that's what's grown in the kitchen garden. Lemonade, made from native sour orange trees at the reserve, is usually served with lunch and dinner, although sometimes they serve juice made from naranjilla, maracuaba, or whatever other local fruit might be in season. If mixed with water, the water of course will be boiled.

There is no electricity at the lodge. Kerosene lanterns are lighted at dusk and lined up on the dining table. Whenever people are ready to go up to their room, they just pick up a lantern and take it with them. If you are a read-in-bed person, you defiitely should bring a battery-operated reading light - you know, the kind you clip on a book so you can read in bed once you're tucked in under the mosquito net. The temperature is fairly pleasant, only reaching the low 90s in the heat of the afternoon (siesta or hang-out-down-by-the-river time), and that only on days when there is full sun. Most days there is cloud cover or rain in the afternoon. Nights are very pleasant, mid-70s. April is the rainiest month. May and June are the best months for butterflies. December is the best month for birds. There are no "planned" activities as such; the staff just takes its cues from the visitors. If you are into birdwatching, and want to be out at first light, you'll let them know that and also let them know when you want breakfast - whether before daybreak or later, after you've been out a couple hours. The guides will take you on jungle hikes whenever you like, for as long as you like. You'll most definitely want to take "la sendera a la cascada", an hour-in, hour-out hike to a waterfall which feeds a tropical-paradise pool, marvelous for swimming and for imagining what it would be like to permanently "return to nature" in such a pristine place.

Most hikes are in the morning, lasting from one to four hours, so that you are back at the lodge in time for lunch. That's because afternoons tend to be either very hot or rainy, which makes that a better time to hang out in the hammock lounge with a book, or mess around down at the river. The men go out net fishing almost every afternoon, and the women, if you ask, will delightedly show you how to pan for gold in the way they have done for centuries. (Don't expect to get rich, but you'll definitely end up with a bit of gold dust, and perhaps a flake or two.) Although their activities are gender-defined, they don't mind if visitors cross over, female guests going out with the guys to fish and male guests going with the women to pan for gold or catch shrimp. The staff consists of the reserve's director, Mauro Caicedo, his wife Enma, who is administrator of domestic services (ie, the lodge), the two motorists, Julio and Isaiah; Mercedes the cook (a 40ish widow whose husband died of cancer two years ago), and a helper woman from the village. (The helper women rotate by the week, so all the women who want to work at the lodge have an opportunity to do so. The Playa de Oro experience is like living with a family, only better. Because the lodge is big (an abandoned military barracks coverted into a lodge by the locals), there is more privacy and more comfort (indoor flush toilets, for example), than you'd have in a village home. It is an authentic experience as opposed to a touristy one.

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In