El Chontal is a community or village that is a part of the parish of Garcia Moreno in the province of Imbabura. There are about 250 people at the lower level that you can see in the picture. There is a mid-level village and further up the mountain there is another settlement. Altogether there are about 500 people.
It is located on the edge of a cloud-forest region on the western side of the province, a protected region known for tourism for biodiversity. The location is between the coast and sierra, and since it's in a valley, it usually reaches about 80 degrees F every day, though there is always a breeze as well. Not too far away, the mountains rise up very steeply, and in the evenings in the mountains, the fog comes in and overlays them with a beautiful blanket.
The area has breathtaking natural beauty, including waterfalls, mountains, and pure rivers for bathing. Farm life includes animals like cattle and poultry. It's not unusual to encounter someone leading their donkey down the mountain when you're on a path. Like all of Ecuador, there are two seasons: rainy and dry, and daily temperature ranges do not change too much throughout the year, at least for a Bostonian's sensitivity!
The work is agricultural and poor, with fruits being the main source of income. The people are hoping to be more involved in tourism as well. Because the area is a bit isolated (within the past 5 years bridges were built to bring in construction materials, and it's only been about 10 years since electricity arrived), often the youth will move away after their high school years, unless they want to continue with the same agricultural life as their parents and relatives. The people are very friendly, and many are related from the earlier settlers that started the settlement in the mid-20th century. The fiestas each year are a special event for the whole village.
I first came to El Chontal because I had helped to fund the construction of a church there, San Miguel del Chontal, through a donation to the Franciscan Missions and through a special grace from my mother following her death. At first I made the donation without considering following up. But when it became clear to me that this was a shared gift from my mother and me, and that her presence was there with the church, I sensed a real love in my heart for the people of Chontal and Ecuador.
This church was finished in 2010, and it was then that I came with the Franciscan Mission team to share in the first Mass and blessing of the church. I also decided that this was the beginning of a relationship that I intended to follow through with.
I returned several times afterwards to join with the parish priest Padre Julián Delgado and come to know the people. Even with my limited Spanish, Padre Julián gladly took me along in his ministry, and I got to visit many places nearby and come to know better the people and the way of life. This included visiting many villages and homes, many Masses, many fiestas, and sharing in ministry like catechesis or teaching English in schools. The church itself has been used for first communions, weddings, and many Masses and confessions.
El Chontal continues to be my first stopping point on crossing the bridge to Ecuador. It is always a high priority to visit, and I'm hoping in the future, after my time in Puerto Quito and beyond, that I'll be better prepared to spend more time there.