Adventures in the Amazon Jungle

“Local Living – Ecuador”: a G Adventures Tour

We left the cool and rainy spring weather of Quito early Saturday morning to head into the the Napo Province with an elevation drop of almost 1000 meters and a temperature increase of about 20 degrees for our stay in the Amazon rainforest at a hostel-type housing with a local family.

We were a group of 15- made up of four Canadians (myself and an Edmontonian named Jenna representing Alberta, two Ontarians: Faraneh and Siobhan), seven Americans (buddy travellers Angie and Adrianne, solo travellers Ryann, Mattie, and Laura, and mother/daughter duo Donna and Kat), Fiona from Switzerland, Enis from Turkey via Chicago, and Dacia and Adam -a couple on an incredible extended honeymoon- moving to Australia from the UK. Matti -from New Jersey- was my awesome roommate for two of the nights of the trip, and she brought a camera with a zoom lens practically the entire length of her suitcase with the goal of catching some good shots of wildlife in the jungle. We were one person short of a full group because Nydia, a friend of Angie and Adrienne, got sick upon arrival in Quito, so sadly she had to stay behind.

A long bus ride (6+ hours) and many stops & local salty snacks later (plantain chips, anyone?!), we pulled up to the end of a jungle walkway over a stream and surrounded by hanging vines and elephant ear-sized monstera leaves with a misty drizzle of rain.

We walked up the pathway to find ourselves at the wonderful Cabañas Pimpilala, the home of Delfin and Estella, their family, and staff of local workers who host multiple groups like us year round.

I was delightfully surprised to receive my own room with an incredible view above flowering bushes with jungle hills and misty mountains in the distance. 

From the Facebook page of Cabañas Pimpilala: our accommodations. My room was on the lower right.

The week was absolutely FULL of activities and adventures, all slightly dependant on the weather as we are in the shoulder season between the rainy season and dry season. (It rained every single day at some point, whether for a brief sun shower, an hour long torrential downpour, or a thunderstorm as we were heading to bed). The night rainstorms were the most common, and miraculously, the rain never negatively affected our daily plans!

The setting was exactly as I pictured for rustic jungle living with no electricity in our rooms, mosquito nets around the beds, the sounds of geckos calling at night and bugs chirping and buzzing, butterflies and humming birds everywhere, and colourful flowers on the nearby bushes and trees. I also loved how you never went too far without a small river or stream so the sound of water was the Amazon Rainforest underscore.

The first place I ever saw these beautiful ‘natural shampoo and bug repellent’ flowers was in Costa Rica.

there were a few small pineapple plants growing behind our building- have you ever seen how pineapples grow- in low plants on the ground?

cacao trees are plentiful around the property- they almost don’t look real!

The family was incredibly kind and welcoming to our group, and we felt very well taken care of. The food was generous and varied, and every lunch and dinner had two courses, always beginning with soup. The soup flavours ranges from broccoli to chicken to potato to vegetable and corn, and they were always filling and delicious, with the occasional milder soups that we would punch up with a little hot sauce or the fresh and spicy salsa they served at every meal. Often, a fresh bowl of toasty popcorn was served as the topping for the soup (but most of us just ate it by the handful). There was always rice or plantain or yucca or corn included in the main course (and sometimes: all of them!). We had fire-cooked tilapia, grilled chicken, stewed beef, and a variety of different seasonings and vegetables alongside. It was simple, local, good food.

A chicken and rice dinner with fresh avocado and tomatoes and roasted white cacao beans

A plantain pancake with papaya and banana, coffee and pinapple juice for our last breakfast

The family pets were friendly and with one cuddly cat and two sweet labradors, we felt even more at home.

The family also had a large coop of chickens with a couple of roosters that ensured none of us truly slept much past 3:45 in the morning, seemingly having a competition of who can be more impressive in their crowing.

Our generous host Delfin.

We went for small hikes and wandered through winding paths near the property, learning about many of the plants, some with healing properties like the “Dragon’s Blood” tree used for both skin irritations and injuries as well as ingested to help with certain illnesses. You can buy small bottles of this dark red sap all over the place in Ecuador, as well as other medicinal plant salves and waxes and balms.

On one of these walks we followed a small stream into a little alcove where our guide Miguel gave us all mud masks complete with decorative leaves, and we let them dry as we walked back home.

A local fruit’s seeds – “Olecho petito” – are used for a natural paint and it was used to paint symbols on our cheeks as we were taught about important symbols to the local indigenous communities. We were shown symbols like the circle of life, Pacha Mama (or Mother Earth), medicine bags, and the protectors and leaders of each community.

Delfin is the son of a traditional Shaman, and we were lucky to learn about the revered position of the shaman in the local communities and how someone trains from as young as age 5 and are not truly considered a shaman until the age of 45. We were told about the rituals of healing practices and medicine, preserving traditions, weddings and death practices. Delfin would enthusiastically share these stories and information in Spanish and our G Adventures CEO Alejandro would translate.

The first major highlight of the stay was the “Waterfall Climb” at the Cascadas Pimpilala. We were each given a helmet and a pair of rubber boots, and I was definitely skeptical as I have never thought of rubber boots as grippy, active footwear…

Led by the spry and always smiling Miguel and the Delphin’s son and constant comedian Rolando, we hiked up the nearby stream and I was surprised to discover how rough all the rocks were; even when they appeared to have lichen or moss on them, they were grippy and rough like large grit sandpaper. And Rolando’s sister Maria ended up joining us as our photographer!

Slowly but surely we climbed up the rocks on the side of some waterfalls, directly up the centre of others with water cascading over our shins and around our ankles, along logs with notches carved into them and ropes tied around large rocks or to nearby hooks and tree stumps. Occasionally we had to jump into the pools of water below before climbing up, and it was fun to cheer on and celebrate each person’s success as we worked our way up to the destination at the base of the huge, final waterfall.

It was an absolute blast and we were all happily drenched with our socks completely saturated and our rubber boots heavy with water, and many of us took the opportunity to take one final swim (sans boots and socks) in the pool built into the base of the river. The warmth of the late morning sunshine was the perfect end before we headed back home for lunch.

We took great advantage of the multiple hammocks around the property- I particularly loved the upper level of our accommodations which had an outdoor ‘living room’ of long fabric hammocks, hammock chairs, benches, and lounge chairs. We would also (very optimisitcally) hang our wet garments and towels all along the railings with the hope that we would get enough afternoon sun to dry them a bit, but as we were told only half-jokingly and we all learned it to be true: “nothing truly dries in the rainforest”.

One evening we helped make some chocolate from the fruit off the trees nearby, learning about the cacao plants that dotted the property, and getting to taste fresh cacao seeds (my favourite), watch them roast some sun-dried seeds over a fire (along with the banana leaf wrapped tilapia we would have for dinner that night) and then help shell the piping hot husks off before taking turns grinding them into a paste. For dessert that night we got to dip fresh strawberry and banana slices in the warm melted ‘fondue chocolate’ that was a combination of our melted cacao paste, sugar cane syrup, and milk. (Photos below by Ryann!)

The included activities of the next day were to visit a nearby lagoon and go swimming followed by a bike ride to the nearby school that Delfin and Estella started for the local kids.

The optional (aka additional cost) activity, was white water rafting down the Napo River with Rios Ecuador. 🤩

I had always wanted to go white water rafting but I had yet to actually ever try it, and I knew this would be an incredible day, hoping others would feel the same about the oppportunity. Luckily, five other people in our group wanted to go as well: Adam, Ryann, Fiona, Enis, and Kat. Of the six of us, Kat was the only experienced white water rafter -who had rafted levels four and five- while the rest of us were total newbies.

The river/rapids we went down were considered a level three and was comprised almost evenly of busy rapids and calmer ‘pool’ areas -so we would have the chance to both have some excitement and work and paddle hard for a bit and then we would get a break to enjoy the scenery, take pictures, and relax. This quickly became the second major ‘joy’ moment of the week, and definitely one of the most memorable days of my life.

We walked down the road from our home base to catch our pickup truck to the put in site, and the girls of the group got to sit in the bed of the truck- ‘like true Ecuadorians’ we were told- as we rode about fifteen minutes down the road.

Fiona -looking pretty cool as we sped down the road.

Gregory and Ryann modelling the latest whitewater rafting fashions
Gregory showing us how to hold on to the rescue kayak if we were to fall in the river and couldn’t get back to the boat.

Our guide Gregory (who also went by the nickname “Tuti”) went through all the info about what the river was going to be like and all the safety protocols and instructions we needed to follow, and we were getting familiar with our gear and proper terms and instructions he would give us, rescue/safety, etc) while another member of the staff was putting our raft down the chute into the water. Suddenly we heard a huge bang. We knew it probably wasn’t a good sign that Gregory and all the other staff members at the site immediately stopped what they were doing and all went to see what the noise was down the hill.

It was our raft splitting open along one major seam and deflating. 😳

We were assured there was nothing to worry about and it was an 11 year old raft that had lived a good rafting life, and that we would be getting a new one- a “younger” one for our trip today.

These bamboo poles were the “chute” for the put in location to get the rafts easily to the water.

As another larger group in their fully functioning raft took off ahead of us down the river, the crew that had been working on our boat left in the pickup truck to go get the other raft. We waited down on the shore and wandered along the mix of sand and rocks until our replacement, aka ‘stunt double’ raft arrived with our guides and we got on our way down the river.

Kat, our resident “pro” at white water.

There were seven of us in the raft, and then we had Emerson: our second guide travelling separately in his kayak.

Often, Emerson was down the river ahead of us, reading the water and communicating with Gregory with paddle signs for the safety of our route, and also I often caught him doing trick moves and spins as he waited for us or as he kayaked back upriver towards us. 

Gregory and Emerson and several of their co-workers at Rios Ecuador are among the top teams in world kayaking and rafting competitions and had travelled around the world to do so, so we knew we were in great hands.

We were able to jump out of the boat a couple of times and swim, and it just so happened to be another magically sunshiny day for this. All in all we travelled 27 km down the Napo river with one stop in the middle to have lunch and buy some local art and souvenirs, and we were on the water for over 5 hours!

One of my favourite things along the journey was the fact that after we made it through each set of rapids, we all high-fived our paddles above our heads in celebration. It must have happened a couple dozen times that day and I loved it.

I caught this moment entirely by luck as my camera flipped around while filming!

We were all given the option of taking turns “riding the bull”: you sit on the bow of the raft with your legs over the front and your ankles tucked under the front curve of the raft, holding onto the rope between your thighs at the centre, while the rest of us paddled through rapids. The goal was to hold on and tighten your legs against the raft in order to stay up and not fall back into the boat. Fiona, Ryann, Enis, and Adam all tried it, with some success, but it was always funny when a big wave bounced a person back into the boat, often still holding onto the rope but with feet sticking straight up into the air, and no ability to right themselves until we stopped paddling or were in calm water. 

The photos above (and any ‘first person/in boat action shots’ are actually all screenshots from the haphazard video my cell phone caught (set to record whatever it could as we bounced and flew through the water as I am not fancy enough to have a go pro and didn’t have time or hands to ever hold it up. This are all from the folks taking turns “Riding the Bull”, all with more success than these photos suggest.

Photo 1: Ryann, Photo 2: Fiona’s first attempt/fall, Photo 3: Ryann after a good fall, Photo 4: Adam really enjoying the reclined position after his fall back into the boat.

Each set of rapids was given names, and at one section called “the Widow Maker”, Adam, the only married man in our group, jokingly refused to sit on the front, so Enis volunteered. At the moment we hit one particular wave, Enis fell back into the boat with feet straight up in the air and as I looked down at him to make sure he was okay I noticed both Fiona and Ryann floating in the river and heading past our raft! In that one moment, there were only three paddlers and our guide still in original positions in the boat and we had to continue paddling until we could help Enis up and get the girls back into the boat. (No photo evidence as my camera shut off here.)

We safely got everyone into the boat and back into their positions all the while laughing at the sudden chaos that had just happened. Amongst the laughter, our guide told us he had never seen that combination of events happen at all once, and said that Emerson, our guide in the kayak caught it all on film (though we have yet to see this and cannot wait!).

Ryann explained that she felt herself falling out of the boat and started grabbing for anything she could to save her. Meanwhile: Fiona, who was sitting just in front of Ryann, had been grinning with pride that she hadn’t yet fell out of the raft on these bigger bumps when she suddenly felt a tug on the back of her life jacket and felt herself being yanked into the water.

We stopped about halfway for a delicious lunch of tortillas and multiple filling options like tomatoes and avocado, onions, beans, ground beef, cheese, chips, and hot sauce. There was the most mouth-watering thick pineapple chunks for dessert, cookies, and fresh juice and water. We played with some friendly and gentle local dogs, and bought a few bracelet mementos from the locals who set up tables of local chocolate, coffee, and handmade souvenirs- beaded and woven jewelry and keychains, and wood and coconut shell containers and bowls.

Ryann took this gorgeous shot of the lunch spot and souvenir stand.

It was a nice break and an amazing, filling lunch, and by the time we left, we had even dried off a little in the midday sunshine. Adam’s clothes seemed to be the most dried out of all of us… but it would not be for long.

Shortly after we got into the boat for the second half of our trip, we came across some rapids and Gregory asked us if we liked surfing, and a few of us answered with an enthusiastic “yes”. He helped us guide the raft back up the river a bit and to the base of a large boulder and a long shelf of curling water. I now know this spot would have been considered a “hydraulic” which is a small and less powerful “hole” where the water reverses back on itself and is not safe for smaller rafts -but for us it meant we would sort of spin in place and ‘surf’ there on the curl of the water, but I think all of us in the boat would describe it more like a wall of water dumping into the side of the raft closest to the downward current, filling the raft with water and slamming the full power of the rapids into the faces of whoever was on that side of the boat, particularly in the front. As the two people in the front, Adam and I can assure you there’s not much like the feeling of being practically waterboarded by a river. We all laughed and squealed with shock and amusement as we kept turning in that spot for what seemed like forever. And someone joked “Adam, did you say you were completely dry just a few minutes ago?” 

A lovely action shot of us “surfing” aka filling the front half of the boat with all the water of the river. I drank so much river water I think I’m now part Ecuadorian fish.

We finished the day by hauling our raft up onto the shore to the crew’s truck, and celebrated the end of the adventure with cold beer and sodas, realizing that we all got a lot of sun and unique tan lines…

The many exciting stories from the day were dramatically retold by yours truly (unanimously designated by our rafting team) over dinner that night with the rest of our group.

Another ‘bonus’ memento from the day was the completely unnecessary broken toe I got while getting back into the boat simply after a swim midway down the river and as I was getting in, kicking a rock. The rock won, needless to say, and I was a bit of a hobbler the rest of the trip as it tried to heal without any proper rest. 😬 I think that I finally have the motivation to invest in some good water shoes for the first time since I bought my very first pair of teevas for summer camp in 1997.

An evening in a hammock overlooking the jungle was the perfect way to end that day of course, and prepare for another highly anticipated part of the week- an animal sanctuary the following afternoon! (That, and a sheepish visit to Estella in the kitchen for some aloe vera application.)

First and foremost let it be said, squirrel monkeys are one of the cutest things on the planet. I hope you get to see one close up in real life someday. At the start of our activities the next morning we got to wander through a beautiful park with a plethora of squirrel monkeys and we were able to feed them slices of banana to entice them to come down from the treetops (where the teensy tiny baby monkeys stayed, but watched with curiosity). They patiently took turns climbing down the vines and branches to politely take the banana pieces from us with their hands – or on a couple occasions, very gently with their mouths – and then scamper up the trees to eat them.

We also wandered through an old site, overgrown and left unfinished with an ethereal tropical vibe. 

the bamboo here was some of the tallest I have ever seen.

A motorized canoe took us further down the Napo river that we had rafted the day before and we arrived at the Amazoonico Animal Wildlife refuge for the afternoon. This not-for-profit organization is run primarily by volunteers and relies on donations even though it is the biggest organization of its kind in Ecuador.

We got to watch a couple incredible rainbow-feathered macaw parrots wander around the ground -protected by the dogs on site who are apparently a little scared of the birds-, we were all delighted by a baby spider monkey just casually chilling with his mom (and when he got a little too exploratory his mom would grab his tail and pull him back to her side).

At one enclosure we were greeted enthusiastically by a beautiful female toucan -named Kevin- and many curious parakeets and parrots, a couple hanging upside down eating bananas, we got to peek at an anaconda called Esmeralda, catch sight of ‘pecari’ (similar to wild boar), and even come across wild tortoises lumbering along the forest floor.

Occasionally huge (wild) spider monkeys would swing across the branches above us, which encouraged us to move along quite quickly.

Most of the animals here have either been rescued from illegal trafficking, from being pets or even from labs or animal testing facilities, and there were some very sad stories about the cruelty of humans to these amazing creatures. The major goal of the refuge is rehabilitation of the animals so that can be released back into the wild, so they maintain a strong habit of minimizing direct interaction between humans and animals (particularly with birds and monkeys), but many animals are unable to go back into the wild either due to major injuries or having been kept by humans as pets for so long they have been become tame/habituated to humans and no longer able to survive on their own. It was an eye-opening experience and I was grateful to learn about this place. 

This was the muggiest, hottest day of the trip, reminding us all how truly in the Amazon Rainforest we were, and we all practically wanted to swim back to our starting point, definitely looking forward to the cold water showers back at our home base.

That night before dinner we got to try out firing blow darts at a watermelon bullseye, and with two attempts each, I think we all wanted to spend more time to hone our skills because it was fun and exciting to try! The hardest part that a few of us tried out was holding the blow gun ourselves without help. At 10 feet long, the long wood ‘pipe’ was quite heavy and tricky to hold while both aiming and preparing to quickly and forcefully blow the tiny bamboo-skewer type ‘dart’ towards our target. I think if I had a third try I could have hit the target (as the dart lands lower than you think it will) and both of mine shot deep into the stump just below the watermelon disc.

Of the entire group, Danica was the superstar/insta-pro, hitting the watermelon bulls-eye twice! She was honoured with a prize/gift from Delfin, a mysterious package of banana leaves tied with vine.

Danica’s worst fears were realized as she reluctantly undid the tie and opened the leaves to reveal a bit pile of squirming, crawling, yellow grubs.

Delfin prepared and fried up the grubs for everyone, and a small handful of the group tried them out, myself included. I think the hardest thing was the fact that once cooked, they pretty much looked the exact same as when they were alive, just not squirming… The cooked inner texture was like that of soft scrambled eggs and sort of had that flavour, along with almost a bacon and shrimp or scallops flavour mixed in. Another unique experience not to be forgotten.

That night after dinner we shared drinks with the family and staff at our home stay, and learned a local toast in both Spanish and Quechua- the local indigenous language. In Spanish: “Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’ dentro!” (Which means ‘Up, down, to the centre, inside!’) The video below has the Quechua version.

We had all felt so welcome here and we all hugged the family members before we left the next morning with huge gratitude for their welcoming and generous hospitality.

It’s encouraged to tip the local guides/hosts by G Adventures and we were all more than happy to give the family an envelope with great thanks for taking so much care of us all week, and I also was able to sketch and paint a postcard with my personal thanks to give Delfin and Estella.

Our travel back to Quito began early the next morning with a bittersweet departure from the jungle at 8am, a private van trip to Tena, a transfer to a huge public bus that included two Spanish-dubbed movies and several washroom stops, and a second transfer to another private van in Quito to get back to our hotel for 2pm. Many of the group then hired the same driver to go to the Centre of the Earth museum, and a handful of us stayed at the hotel and enjoyed our first hot shower in a week (and I was able to blow-dry my hair as well and had dry hair for the first time in 6 days!), and I think several people definitely went for naps.

Fiona and I walked over to the local artisan market to search out some fun souvenirs and see the local art offerings.

Honestly I have never been more tempted to buy sweaters on a hot day than after seeing what was available in terms of beautiful alpaca wool ponchos, sweaters, scarves, socks and hats for very reasonable prices.

But also I felt compelled to purchase a full herd of alpaca stuffed animals that were so soft I wanted to cuddle in a pile of them.

There were beautiful hand-painted bowls and artwork and collectibles/souvenirs of every size and style, plus lots of beautiful silver and stone jewelry.

One final dinner altogether with the group that night was both a celebration of the week we had spent together and a farewell, too, as we all would be going our separate ways the following day- some continuing on exciting journeys and some heading home. Did some people try the local delicacy of Guinea pig at dinner? Perhaps…

We all shared numbers to stay connected through WhatsApp and Fiona suggested Photo Circle to share all our photos and videos. If you haven’t heard of Photo Circle, it’s pretty brilliant: it keeps all the media in one place for you to access (in much higher quality than WhatsApp) and you can keep/download what you like! (And no I am not sponsored -lol)

Well, I think this post is freaking long enough so my last day-tour adventures to come next! 😎

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