By: Óscar Molina | Photos: Martín Jaramillo
It is time for lunch and a clutch men return to the village clasping their fishing rods and buckets with the river’s offerings: fleshy and silvery gualajos (a local fish). Others return with their machetes belted to their waists, with a bunch of overflowing plantains slung over their shoulders or with bags bulging with harvested cacao pods. Others still hunt and or work in mines close-by.
The women, on the other hand, amble back with buckets of freshly washed clothes or with concave wooden bateas, used for panning gold, perhaps empty, perhaps with a few grams of sparkly dust. Sometimes, when they have time and the weather is calm, they go down to ‘playar’ (look for gold) on the nearby banks of the Santiago river. This, briefly, summarizes the daily life and livelihood of the inhabitants of Playa de Oro.
Playa de Oro is a community of 10,400 hectares, located in the Eloy Alfaro canton, a one-hour boat ride from Playa Rica. It is a small town of wooden houses, with an illuminated and always-occupied football field, and a pier to which boys and girls go down to bathe, in the light of the night. Due to its exceptional location adjacent to the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve, the outdoors is its main attraction, its green and geological splendor apparent to all.
All you have to do is, like us, motor an entire morning and afternoon along the impetuous River Santiago to become convinced of its hidden majesty.
On the way to El Salto – the rocky border behind which the Santiago becomes torrential and more difficult to navigate – upstream from Playa de Oro, we find landscapes so pure they make us feel like the first people ever to explore them. Half-way to our destination, we make out rock formations that look like a cathedral, a whale or a mermaid. The game, in fact, consists in guessing each silhouette, and our gratitude is so great that, in the middle of the river, we toast “the beauty of nature” with what we have at hand… glasses of water.
We also spot, in the treetops, a monkey with long arms swaying from branch to branch, and a scared toucan that flies off to camouflage itself in the thickness of the tropical forest. Playa de Oro, in fact, is a suitable destination for bird watching. It is home to 330 endemic species. To come across at least a couple of these is always a lucky coincidence. Thirty minutes from the village, in fact, is the El Tigrillo inn, where ornithologists from the United States, Canada and Europe usually stay. We are welcomed with segments of sugar cane freshly cut from the plots by the entrance. To chew it all is, as Don Julio Arroyo, in charge of the complex, says “a good work out for the jaw”.
The following morning, after having rested in the comfortable cabins of the village and after having tasted Doña Neura Arroyo’s unique plantain omelets, we continue to the San Juan Waterfall. To get to its diaphanous and thundering fall, we walk half an hour in the forest, equipped with boots and a swimsuit in our bags.
It’s a trail for the curious. With each step, new textures, new figures and even new sizes of logs, ants and frogs are revealed.
We return at twilight and, in the village, await singers with their motley costumes and haunting voices, ready to remind us, to the rhythm of a lull, what we had observed in the day: “the Santiago river is very beautiful, has many beautiful forests and waterfalls”. As we bid them farewell, we stay until midnight chatting with Don David Ayoví, one of the oldest men in town, who transports us to other times in this long evening, as long as his life and his vigor…