Group of students enjoying a breathtaking mountain view during their Ecuador Junior Journey trip.
Feb 15, 2018
Signing up for the Ecuador Junior Journey was initially one of my most spontaneous decisions to date and resulted in being one of the most irreplaceable experiences of my life. Prior to Ecuador, I had done little international travel and had not really ever immersed myself within another world of culture. Before departing for the trip, I had no expectations. I knew little of Ecuador or South America for that matter and had no idea what to anticipate on the 10-day adventure to the middle of the world. To my surprise, this trip exceeded my expectations in ways that I would have never envisioned. And to make it even better, it cost me nothing.
From our first few moments waiting outside the airport in Quito, you could already feel the warmth that the culture extends visitors by the way.
On my first full day, I had awoken to the sounds of stray dogs barking and the feeling of the strong sun rays shining into our room. I would come to find that stray dogs and strong sun are two things to expect in daily life in Ecuador. We had the morning free to explore and get our first tastes of Quito on our own. Finally seeing Quito in daylight, we were able to take in its beauty. Surrounded by mountains, with roads lined in palm trees and a sea of buildings with, Quito is like a beautiful collision of multiple different environments all in one. We roamed around a large park in the heart of Quito filled with fields where we saw numerous groups playing futbol. It was interesting to see such an enriching community of locals. We also browsed around a small Christmas market where locals were showcasing their marvelous handmade crafts.
After an orientation session, our group hit the road to our first excursion, the charming city of Otavalo. On the way, we first stopped at a flower farm and got a tour of the property, which was harvesting lots of baby breath at the time. This tour was my first encounter with the pesky mosquitos —I definitely learned my lesson to remember to put bug spray on the rest of the week. Our second stop was at a cozy coffee shop nestled in the Andes Mountains. I wanted to try something new and opted for a Coca tea, a tea made with cocoa leaves. Finally, we made it to our hotel in Otavalo for dinner and then enjoyed our first group outing roaming around Otavalo.
Our next morning was spent shopping at the extravagant outdoor market that took up many of the previously empty streets we walked around the night before. The phrase “Cuanto cuesta?” (“How much?”) was thrown around all morning as we tried to bargain with the artisanal craft makers to take home our little tokens of Ecuador for ourselves, friends and family. After our time spent shopping, we went to our next destination, Puerto Lago, an inn and resort right on San Pablo Lake beneath the mountains with breathtaking looks wherever you looked. The resort was home to a few alpacas, so it was nice to have a few temporary native pets. Among the various traditional foods we tried, the fritada plate most of us got at lunch this day was amongst my favorites. A colorful dish of pork bites, hominy, and plantains it was a recommended dish I’m glad I tried. After more free time to enjoy the views, we took a group pontoon ride on the lake just before sunset.
Unable to let the panoramic views surrounding me go to waste, I and a few others woke up early the next morning to enjoy the sunrise at 6 AM, which was just a few steps away from my front door. It was refreshing to take in the stillness and beauty that Ecuador offered us that morning. Mid-morning we headed to a bird sanctuary where we got to see many of the rescued birds take flight. A group favorite was definitely a bald-eagle that coined himself the name Gringo. We then returned to our resort for one last beauty surrounded meal and headed back to Quito for the night.
Day 4 marked our first morning of Spanish classes. After refreshing ourselves with terms and phrases, we were taken for a tour of Old Town Quito. Old Town Quito, the first city ever recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a small area full of character. With Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone roads and narrow streets it was easy to be enchanted by its charm. It is rich with history and home to many extravagant cathedrals. One of our stops was the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus, one of the most ornate buildings in Ecuador as the entire interior is plated in gold and wood carvings. This was definitely one of the most awe-striking things. Being able to just walk the streets of a town with such a different feel than that of all the American cities I’ve experienced was incredible. We also enjoyed a quaint lunch outside in the heart of the town accompanied by live music from a multi-instrument playing local.
The next day was a special day for many reasons. We were going to the Equator monument and park! Upon arriving, I already began to feel the effects of the gravitational pulls. We carried out a few experiments to show the differences between being on each hemisphere, and being directly on the equatorial line. We saw how water drained down to opposite sides on each side of the hemisphere, but drains perfectly straight down on the equator line. Being able to see the equator and feel its effects was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As for another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a majority of our group had the chance to try guinea pig for lunch, a traditional Ecuadorian dish. That night, our guide Norma took us out for a night of salsa dancing.
For our last full day in Quito, we received a talk on culture. This was a very impactful talk as our speaker put emphasis on how ‘different’ is not always weird. It is important to keep an open mind when spending time immersing yourself in a world different from the one you reside in. The things that you see as odd is someone else’s normal and being mindful of that will help enhance your time in a different culture. After our talk, the group split into two groups; one went to tour a hospital while my group stayed and had a chance to interact with those at Grupo Macro. I was able to interview a woman who worked in an area similar to Human Resources. We discussed differences between the ways America conducts business and how Ecuador conducts business. A major difference that I realized is the emphasis Ecuador puts on having a relationship with those they do business with, while America is mostly focused on the task on hand. While managers in America may just walk in the office and not acknowledge all their workers, Ecuadorian managers will go out of their way to interact with each co-worker. This really alludes to the fact that the Ecuadorian culture is so warm and friendly.
In the afternoon, we went to a little downtown area called Plaza Foch which contained a multitude of restaurants. We had lunch as a group before walking to a local market, where we would all do even more shopping and bargaining. Some of us explored the area further which was full of murals. We even discovered a coffee shop that dueled as a movie theater.
Our morning was spent spending time celebrating Christmas at a school for kids ages 2-5. We played with them outside and I spent a good portion of my time taking turns pushing kids on the swing. We played musical chairs, painted faces, and some of the kids danced for us. One of our group members dressed up as Santa and gave the kids candy bags. It was a humbling experience. It was sad saying goodbye to the kids as many of them had taken a strong liking to some of us, as we had with them as well. From there, we said our goodbyes to the kids and to Quito and went on our way to our last stop of the trip, Mindo.
Mindo is a cloud-forest town situated in the Andes, which meant we had a long, windy bus ride up. Mindo is known to many as a main chocolate hub in Ecuador, which we got to experience for ourselves by stopping for a chocolate tour before heading to our hotel. We went on a tour of the property to see where cocoa beans grow, and the areas in which it’s processed. We tried an assortment of chocolate products from pure cocoa sauce to seven different kinds of processed dark chocolate bars, one containing chilies.
Finally, we arrived at our hotel for one of the greatest surprises of them all; our home for the night was a tree house within the forest. Walking up the steep flight of stairs in the middle of the cloud forest we were a little bit spooked, but our views in the morning made up for any apprehension we had. Our entire tree house was covered with windows, so we could not wait to see what was in store for us in the morning. We woke up surrounded by lush, green trees and sunlight peeking in, the sound of the river flowing in the distance. We laid in our beds to bird watch, something Mindo is known for. It was an unforgettable way to wake up.
It was then time to head to our first adventure of the day- rafting down the river. This was definitely one of the most exhilarating moments of our trip. We had 3 groups of rafts and we all splashed around and held on for our lives together. The rapids were pretty fast, and we hit rocks often. But luckily, none of us on any 3 of the rafts fell off. We may as well have though as we were drenched by the time we got back to land. We took a break to enjoy the hot tub, pool and steam room before we had lunch and went off for our final adventure of the day, zip lining. This was a first for me, so I was pretty nervous. By the second zip line, the adrenaline had hit me and I was feeling more adventurous and even went upside down on one of the lines. Exhausted from our action-packed day, we made our way to our last group dinner before heading to the airport for a long night of travel.
My time spent in Ecuador was filled with more excitement and memories than I ever could have asked for or imagined. I was able to undergo so many firsts for myself and subject myself to a culture different than my own. Seeing another culture helped to deepen my awareness of the world. Another great part of the trip is that I went into it knowing only a few of the members, and left with 19 new friends to recognize around campus that I probably would have never had the chance to meet otherwise. I also know that I have people from a great organization to seek out may I ever find myself in Quito again. This trip left an imprint on me that nothing can replace. I not only have new perspectives, but I definitely have a bad case of the travel bug. Ecuador has made me anxious to experience even more countries around the world!
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