TENA, ECUADOR - Civilization, at least as we know it, gradually vanishes as our little pickup takes us deeper into the Ecuadoran jungle. The small truck bounces from one pothole to another along a slippery trail that’s barely as wide as the vehicle.
It begins to rain, a torrent that forces our driver to stop because the trail has become unsafe.
We’re told that we have to strap on our packs and hike to our destination — a Quichua family residence deep in the lush rainforest. We cross streams and struggle up slopes, all the while wondering what might be lurking in the thick bush as we slowly make our way to the house.
When we finally arrive, we’re greeted by Delfin, the head of the family and a well-known shaman (spiritual leader).
The Quichua are an indigenous people whose history in Ecuador goes back 3,000 years. Delfin’s dark, chiseled face reflects the hard life he’s endured in primitive conditions.
After introductions, during which Delfin dons a mud mask during a traditional ceremony that welcomes us to “Mother Earth,” Delfin takes us to a lookout for a spectacular view of the Rio Jatun-Yacu, which means “Big Water” in the Quichua language. The river is fed by mountain springs and is said to be the purest water in Ecuador.
We’re tempted to jump into the water to wash away the grime from our trek, but hunger prevails and we enthusiastically dig into the dishes of plantain, rice and chicken that Delfin’s family offers us.
As it gets dark, we retreat to our bamboo hut, slip under the mosquito netting and listen to the sounds of the jungle. Unseen creatures make menacing noises, while birds serenade us and bugs buzz around the netting. I go looking for some insect repellent and when I switch on my flashlight, I’m startled by the sight of a large black scorpion.
Left: The forests of Ecuador are full of exotic and lovely creatures. Middle: Delfin shows his visitors how his family survives in this rugged outpost. Right: Spending some reflective time on the banks of an Ecuadorean river.
“As long as the scorpion is not orange or red, it’s not deadly,” Delfin reassures me when I relate the experience to him the next day.
Daylight brings its own challenges in the jungle, such as red ants which nip chunks of flesh from my neck, and trying to recognize which of the creatures we come across are poisonous. Delfin reminds us to stay away from the ones with vivid colours.
But amid the dangers, beauty is all around: giant butterflies, some the size of my hand, come in every shade of blue, red and yellow; huge caterpillars cling to giant leaves, and lovely hummingbirds flit from flower to flower, sipping the sweet nectar.
During our visit we visit an animal rescue centre, where jungle beasts victimized by poachers — ocelots, monkeys and snakes, among them — are rehabilitated.
Our daily routine at Delfin’s home includes exhilarating walks. Rubber boots are a must since it rains four to six times a day in the jungle.
We learn to grind cocoa beans and make chichi, a liquor made from fermented yucca that packs a power punch.
Left: The happy rain forest children always have time for a game of soccer. Right: Accommodation is basic but clean and the people are welcoming.
During a visit to a local school, we listen as the sweet young students sing songs. We do crafts with them and play soccer together in another heavy downpour. One of the children asks me to sing Canada’s national anthem. I sing O Canada, and I’m overcome with pride and emotion as the children try to sing along.
A few days later, caught in a traffic jam on the clogged streets of Ecuador’s capital Quito, the precious, tranquil moments spent in Delfin’s jungle home come rushing back. I feel his grandson’s tiny hand gripping mine as he attempts to take his first steps and smile at the memory of Delfin and his son Jose playing their drums for me — memories that will last a lifetime.