Although there is no “golden beach” at Playa de Oro, it is an impressive highlight of northern Ecuador . This remote community was named for the abundance of gold found in the Río Santiago soon after the conquest.
There’s little gold left these days—the main attractions are the hunter-gatherer community that lives here and the surrounding 10,000 hectares of primary rainforest adjacent to the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve . Outside the Oriente, this is probably the farthest you can get from modern civilization in Ecuador, and a visit to this tight-knit community is an ideal way to combine a rainforest experience with the chance to support a unique, fragile culture.
Playa de Oro is one of the few protected areas of the biologically rich Chocó that used to stretch uninterrupted all the way to Panama. It’s also the only reserve in the world that protects small wildcats.
The community’s ancestors were brought here as slaves by the Spanish to pan for gold in the 16th century. One day, according to local legend, they decided to build a wooden cannon, blasted their master into oblivion, and lived for years as an autonomous community.
The British plundered most of the gold in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the community lived as hunter-gatherers. In 1992 the U.S. charity Earthways provided funding to build a lodge and soon reached an agreement with the villagers to establish an ecotourism project in return for designation of the territory as a reserve for wildcats, giving birth to Playa de Oro Reserva de Tigrillos.
The community has withstood pressures from mining companies, many of which have been working illegally in areas downriver. All fees from visits go directly to the community, and the residents of Playa de Oro run every aspect of their community, with a voting age of 14.
There are several excellent trails, ranging 1–4 hours, into the forest past a succession of waterfalls. Bird-watchers can spot up to 330 species, and with luck, larger animals such as deer, sloths, anteaters, and monkeys can occasionally be seen. The six species of wildcats—jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, oncillas, and jaguarundis—are usually elusive, but their tracks are frequently visible, and you can sometimes hear the grunting of ocelots close to the lodge at night. To go farther into the rainforest, you can rent a boat with a guide for a small fee. It’s refreshing to take a dip in the river at the end of a long hike.
In the village of Playa de Oro, there are plenty of activities to get involved in with the locals—from fishing to gold panning (there are small deposits remaining). There are also wooden carvings and drums for sale, which help to supplement the local income.
Visiting Playa de Oro requires advance arrangements, ideally with two weeks’ notice. Do not turn up unannounced at Selva Alegre hoping to hitch a ride, because the boat transfer must also be prearranged. The cost of the two-hour boat ride ($50 one-way, $100 round-trip) is shared among the group. The lodge ($50 pp per night) includes all meals, guides, and activities, except additional boat trips. There is also a $10 reserve entrance fee.
There is no electricity, hot water, phones, or Internet—a small price to pay for a few days of complete isolation—but there are toilets and cold showers in the lodge. You can also choose to stay in the village, but the lodge is recommended.
It takes six hours by private vehicle to get to Selva Alegre from Quito  via Otavalo , and another two hours by boat to the reserve. In Otavalo, Ramiro Buitrón, owner of the Hostel Amanecer del Valle (Roca and Quiroga, Otavalo, tel. 6/292-0990 or 9/960-6918, www.hostalvalledelamanecer.com ), operates private transfers to Selva Alegre in a van ($100); split among the passengers, depending on group size, it can cost as little as $15–20 pp.
The alternative is to take a bus to Borbón ($8). There is a 9 p.m. bus from Quito arriving at Borbón at 5 a.m., and then a bus to Selva Alegre at 7 a.m. You can also get an early bus from Esmeraldas to Borbón and transfer there. You must travel in the morning because the boat only makes the trip to Playa de Oro until 3 p.m.
Note that Borbón has a reputation for crime, so be alert; the private transfer from Otavalo is certainly the preferable option.
For reservations and further information, visit www.touchthejungle.org  or contact Tracy Wilson (tracy [at] touchthejungle [dot] org) or Ramiro Buitrón at Hostel Amanecer del Valle (Roca and Quiroga, Otavalo, tel. 6/292-0990 or 9/960-6918, www.hostalvalledelamanecer.com ).