For some people, traveling is for leisure. For others, traveling is for adventure. Me? I’ve always been a leisure traveler: strolling through museums, going on walking-tours, and partaking in all boring historical stuff.
When given the chance to go abroad for J-Term, a little piece of me had the urge to do something wild. Never in my life had I considered Latin America as a region I wanted to visit, yet there I was, circling the Ecuador option on my study abroad application. If there is one thing I learned here at Maryville College, it’s how to jump out of my comfort zone, so that’s exactly what I decided to do.
The day after New Year’s, 12 of us left for Ecuador and arrived at midnight in the capital, Quito. We were greeted by our travel guide, Ivan – a native of Quito. He informed us of everything we would be doing and what we would have the option to do throughout our 18 day trip. Activities ranged from horseback riding through the mountains to scaling waterfalls in the Amazon, from hiking volcanoes to ziplining through canyons. Yes, I felt completely out of my comfort zone.
The first part of the week involved actually living in the Amazon Rainforest with the group that was indigenous to that region. The Quichua of the Amazon treated us like part of their family – making us delicious meals, guiding “hikes” through the dense jungle and demonstrating some of their ancient traditions. Alongside sleeping under a mosquito net and showering outside in freezing cold water, I found myself enjoying the life on the outside of my comfort zone. As we left the family after three days with them, tears fell from each of us in the group.
The next couple days were spent in cities ranging from small to large and some in between. Baños offered us more adventurous experiences, including ziplining, rock climbing, canyoning and of course, the “Swing at the End of the World.” Alausí had us dancing with another group of indigenous people and riding the riveting Nariz del Diablo train along the edge of mountains.
We arrived in Guayaquil after one week in Ecuador. This port city is 400 million people strong and deemed as the largest city of the country. Our first experience in Guayaquil was dodging iguanas in a park in the middle of downtown. Yes, iguanas…dozens of them. That night, an alum from MC who lives in Guayaquil met up with us to show us his town from up above; 444 steps up, to be exact.
The second week went by too quickly. Ivan led the group up the coast to Puerto Lopez, known for its beautiful beaches, the Isla de la Plata (Poor Man’s Galapagos) and its early-morning fish market. Our hotel was right on the beach with numerous local restaurants around us. Being there for four days didn’t keep away the sunburn, but it certainly kept away the stress. We snorkeled around enormous coral reefs, learned how to dive and spotted the rare Blue-Footed Boobie bird.
The end of the week had us in the San Clemente Community, home to an indigenous group known as the Quichua of the Andes. The group split up into three houses with three different families. We were fed meals made from food harvested from their own land. Half of the group branched out and tried Ecuador’s delicacy: guinea pig. It tasted like chicken. The hospitality of the families in San Clemente made these days incredibly memorable and impactful.
Finally, we finished out our time in Ecuador with a visit to Otavalo and wrapping up in Quito. Otavalo is famous for not only the Cotopaxi volcano and the crater lake of Cuicocha below it but also for having the largest artisan market of Latin America. If I had to guess, I’d say our group contributed heavily to the economy during our visit to this market.
The city of Quito had us hooked. We saw breathtaking cathedrals, ate to-die-for empanadas and stood straddling the equator line. We departed for the U.S. on our 18th night with tears streaming down our faces.
This trip had done exactly what I had hoped it would by pushing my limits and stretching my comfort zone. But I found that it did so much more than that. The theme of the course and trip was sustainable tourism. I went into this adventure not really knowing or caring about what that was. However, I am returning with more knowledge and passion for sustainable tourism than I ever expected.
I also found that the connections I made in Ecuador impacted me in many ways. Ivan was not only our guide, but our humor, our rock, and, most importantly, our main connection to the country we grew to fall in love with. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have known all of the special qualities Ecuador holds and has to offer. His guidance led the sure dedication to return to Ecuador again someday. And this trip as a whole led me to truly understand the concept of “ama la vida.” Love life.