Putney Student Travel: Community Service Ecuador & the Galapagos

Putney, VT

Overview

Live in Ecuador’s Andean highlands on this community service program for high school students. Join members of a local Quechua community in meaningful service projects. Travel from island to island, exploring the other-worldly landscapes and extraordinary wildlife of the Galápagos Islands.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Volunteer with Ecuadorian friends in a minga to refurbish a community building.
  • Celebrate the Inti-Raymi harvest festival with traditional Quechua costumes, song, and dance.
  • Climb to the equatorial glacier of Cotopaxi, the world’s largest active volcano.
  • Snorkel with playful sea lions in the clear water of a sheltered bay.
  • Observe marine iguanas, sea turtles, and Galápagos penguins in their natural habitat.

OVERVIEW

Village Life and Service

Experience life in a small village in the Andean highlands as you work with a traditional Quechua Indian community to complete a series of volunteer projects identified by the village council. In past years, we have volunteered with villagers to construct a community center, formed work groups (called mingas) to harvest crops of beans, barley, and wheat, run a summer camp for village children, and built a childcare center for children whose parents work long hours in the surrounding farms. This summer, continue in this tradition as you complete construction and agricultural projects, as well as teach English, health, and environmental topics to children and adults.

After the workday is finished, spend afternoons exploring the rugged beauty of the surrounding areas, playing pick-up soccer with Ecuadorian friends, practicing Spanish, or hiking into the hills surrounding your village. Students can expect to complete between 50 – 80 hours of community service on this program.

Independent projects

Choose an independent project and pursue an aspect of Ecuadorian culture of particular interest to you—learn to make empanadas with a local family, try milking a cow, or organize an opportunity for you and your friends to lend a hand in reforestation efforts.

Excursions

Stay overnight in Otavalo to explore its magnificent open air textile market. Take advantage of the spectacular natural beauty and diverse cultural traditions of Ecuador. Visit snow-capped Cotopaxi, one of the world’s largest volcanoes, hike to the mountain’s historic base camp, and trek to rare equatorial glaciers. Don traditional panchos and pants and ride horseback over the open páramo with your cowboy guides. Other activities may include short hikes to soak in hot springs, visits to local indigenous markets, and watching a parade or attending a dance during the Inti-Raymi festival.

Final Adventure

Then spend a full week traveling the Galápagos Islands, one of the most fascinating places on earth. Cut off from the rest of the world for millennia, the unique species that evolved and thrived in this desolate landscape were the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Once merely a stopping point for whalers who harvested the giant tortoises for meat, the Islands are now a living museum and the world’s premier destination for naturalists and conservationists. Located at the confluence of five major ocean currents, the Galápagos Islands boast nutrient rich, cool waters that encourage a diversity of marine life. Invasive species and overfishing continue to threaten the fragile ecosystem. As we explore the Islands with local guides and wildlife experts, we meet their residents and learn about the challenge of balancing development with conservation in this biodiversity hotspot.

We begin our Galápagos adventure on the island of Isabela, the largest and one of the youngest islands in the archipelago.  Isabela is home to the Islands’ largest population of wild tortoises. Five of the six volcanoes on Isabela are still active, making it one of the most volcanically active places on earth. We hike to the crater of the Sierra Negra volcano, which last erupted in 2005, where we experience a bird’s eye view of this magical landscape. While on Isabela, explore mangroves, beaches, and snorkel with penguins, sea turtles, and sea lions in the calm, clear-water bays.

Next, we board our boat and set off for the island of Santa Cruz where we meet one of the Galápagos’ most famous residents, a 100-year-old tortoise named Diego, who has helped repopulate an entire species of giant tortoises.  We visit Diego along with other tortoises and rarely-seen land iguanas at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Explore lava tunnels on a trip to the highlands and take in one last panoramic view of the Islands.  Relax on the brilliant, white sand beach of Tortuga Bay, where we observe marine iguanas and kayak through a mangrove forest.

Our final stop is the island of San Cristóbal, the easternmost and one of the oldest islands in the archipelago. A visit to the Interpretation Center provides an introduction to the biology, geology, and history of human impact on the Islands. We explore the coastal regions before heading up into the highlands to visit a giant tortoise rehabilitation center. Snorkeling off of Kicker Rock, the remains of an underwater volcano, offers us the chance to swim with manta rays, sea turtles, harmless Galápagos sharks, and an impressive array of colorful tropical fish. Get acquainted with playful sea lions during a swim at Isla de Lobos and hang out with marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies on the beach.  We return to Quito for the final night where we have a chance to reflect on the extraordinary encounters and opportunities we have had during our summer of community service in Ecuador and the Galápagos.

Accommodations

Group accommodations are carefully selected by Putney Student Travel to emphasize convenience, a positive group environment, and wholesome interaction with local people and fellow travelers. Our living accommodations in Ecuador are very simple.  We live in a community building or albergue, located near the center of town.  There are simple bathrooms with running water, flushing toilets, and a shower.  During excursions and in the Galápagos, we stay in simple, clean, eco-lodges, bungalows, and family-run inns where you sleep in beds, have hot showers, and share a room with other students in your group.

Physical Challenge Level

This program is physically active. Days are filled with movement — playing with local children, playing soccer, working on a community service project, or going on a hike. In the afternoons, students can play pick-up games of soccer, frisbee, or basketball.  You do not need to be at peak fitness to participate, but it is important that you have a desire to be physically active, and that you are excited about trying all activities. On excursions there will be opportunities to hike, bike, ride horseback, swim, kayak, and more.  This program visits high altitude destinations – Quito and the region around our project village (~9,000 feet), our hacienda in Cotopaxi National Park (11,800 feet), and makes a hike to the Refugio José Ribas on Cotopaxi Volcano(15,000 feet).  

A Typical Day

7 a.m. — Breakfast
8 a.m.–12 p.m. — Service projects
12 p.m.–2 p.m. — Lunch and rest
2 p.m.–4 p.m. — Service projects
4 p.m.–6 p.m. — Help prepare dinner, play soccer, relax
6 p.m. — Dinner
8 p.m. — Group Meeting and/or group activity

During the week, we wake up between 6 – 7am, eat breakfast together as a group, and then head to the work site from 8am – 12pm. Work may include mixing cement, painting, participating in a local harvest, or teaching local kids. We’ll break for a long lunch and rest time, then return to work for a few hours in the afternoon. After work, relax, play soccer with local friends, help cook dinner, or pursue independent research. After a group dinner together, students participate in a meeting to discuss the day, plan for upcoming excursions, or simply play a game together. Day trips and excursions are a time to explore. Hike to a nearby peak, explore an indigenous market, horseback with local guides, and more.

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