May 1, 2023
Greetings parents and friends!
It is crazy to think that we are already several weeks into the trip! Student shout-outs and check-ins seem to reflect a similar shock mixed with a genuine gratitude and excitement. The 4th day with host families in Yunguilla, the students have consistently impressed Emily and I by just how willing they are to engage with their families and the community. Early Sunday morning, Oliver made his thoughts about Yunguilla very clear, “I wish we could stay here for another week!” Slightly different than the rest of the week, students spent the entire day with their families. Most ventured to family farms and gardens. Leo, Julian W, and Sebbie walked a particularly treacherous path to their family’s fish pond and helped feed close to 2,000 fish!
Even though it’s very much in the middle of the rainy season, Monday proved to be an absolutely gorgeous day. Finally free of the lingering clouds, the peaks surrounding Yunguilla were visible. Homestay groups trickled down to the central little store – la tienda – and we loaded up for a quick drive followed by a quick hike. Herman, one of the 10 brothers who have helped transform Yunguilla into a tourist community, led us up a steep muddy trail to a lookout point. From this high peak we were treated with views of the community, its surroundings, and multiple volcanoes. The views, aided by the clear weather, were spectacular. Off to the west, the ocean could barely be made out as the mountains disappeared. Herman said a few words and thanked SMS and Human Nature Expeditions for their contributions to the community. This heartfelt moment was promptly followed by Herman inviting the group to roll down a nearby hill. It was hard to tell who giggled more, Herman or the kids…
From the lookout, or mirador, we returned to the trucks and drove a little further down the community built road to a particularly special trail. The Culunco Guantopungo – Culunco meaning trail used for trade – predates the Inca and has been used for over a millennia. Once used for trade between the Andes and the coast, the trail also saw use as smugglers undermined Ecuador’s prohibition. The students displayed impressive footwork as they walked the muddy single track that was enclosed with vegetation. Thank goodness it wasn’t raining. Following the morning’s hikes, the group was treated to lunch at Yunguilla’s community restaurant. Students were then invited to make Prestiños – a donut-like treat. Sawyer’s attention to detail produced some of the most perfectly symmetrical Prestiños. We feasted as we did some journaling and asked the kids to reflect on the homestay experience. While Macy was very excited to report that, “I ate Guinea pig for lunch and I loved it!,” Riley was slightly less enthused… To cap off the day’s activities, we all met up for our now customary 4pm soccer match. The kids have gotten much better! Rex continued to be a menace in goal and Sebbie, somehow, always managed to end up the muddiest. After another sweaty, hard fought soccer game students drifted off to ensure they were on time for their respective dinners.
On our final full day in Yunguilla, we woke up early Tuesday morning to milk some cows! We met at la tienda and walked down the road to Doniello’s farm. We were invited to a small flat section of his hillside property and proceeded to each have a chance at milking one of his cows. Macy, encouraged by her adventurous appetite, was the only one brave enough to drink milk directly from the cow… As the clouds once again rolled in, the 15 of us managed about 4 liters in almost 40 mins. Doniello let us know that he can milk all of his cows in less than an hour. We clearly need some practice.
Following a quick breakfast at our homes we returned to Miguel de Santiago school to hang out with the kids from Yunguilla. We broke up into groups and worked on teaching the young children how to introduce themselves in English. Riley and Anna did a great job engaging with the 10 year olds.
After yet another delicious lunch – and for some of us, a quick nap – we made our way back to the community garden located near the restaurant. Rex and Kit had an interesting conversation about films and WWII while wrestling with weeds. Everyone was excited to return to the volleyball and soccer field to play one last time in Yunguilla. It was clear to everyone that the entire group improved significantly. For the first time ever the ball flew over the walls only a few times.
At 8pm, after everyone’s dinners, we met back up at the soccer enclosure with our host families for a farewell ceremony. Herman lit a fire, once again thanked each of us for our stay and then opened the floor up to the students. Anna was the first to express her gratitude. Leo, aided by his host siblings, managed a very pleasant thank you in Spanish. Marshmallows for s’mores and lemongrass tea were handed out to everyone as local guitarists played traditional music. It was clear that the students understood the importance of the moment.
After our last night in Yunguilla the group said their final farewells and met Xavier and his trusty bus for the 2 hour, incredibly windy, journey to the bottom of Pululahua Crater. We were greeted at the Pululahua Hostel. Turns out, our host, Renatta, spent 15 years in the US and actually learned how to ski in Steamboat in the late 70s! A lunch served at the hostel was followed by horseback riding. What an adventure! The group was divided into two and, luckily, seemed to be sorted by skill/horseback riding experience. The first group to go had the opportunity to actually gallop on the trails surrounded by the remnants of the extinct volcano. Sawyer, Anna, and Julian B excitedly recounted their adventures upon their return. While the second group was riding the first group availed themselves to the hostel’s hot springs, relaxed, and played cards. At that night’s campfire chat many of the students stated that horseback riding was one of the trip’s highlights.
The following day, we woke up quite early to be on Xavier’s bus at 5 am. Anna and Riley took advantage of every opportunity to play bananagrams on the airport floor while Emma crushed her 7th book of the trip. We arrived in Coca, the gateway to the Amazon, and all hopped in a large motorized canoe. The beautiful day was quickly interrupted by torrential rain that was further propelled by the speed of the boat. Ponchos, provided by Sani Lodge, were quickly and efficiently (for some…) put on and the group weathered the 2.5 hour journey. We made it to a nondescript dock on the side of the river and were greeted by Sani lodge guides. They walked us to a canoe and paddled us to an incredibly beautiful lodge truly in the middle of nowhere. Thatched roofs, similar to the style of the Tsachila, dotted the river bank. As we disembarked the smaller canoes the guides pointed out Lucy- the resident Cayman crocodile… It became immediately clear that we were in the jungle. Walking up from the dock we entered the meeting area and we’re shocked to see two tables full of snacks. Bacon wrapped dates, chicken wings, fried plantains, and fruit salads. We might be in the jungle but our accommodations are top notch. After going over a few safety concerns roommates were assigned and we all went to our respective cabanas. A long travel day was topped off with a night hike through the surrounding rainforest as guides pointed out giant spiders, frogs, monkeys, and ants.
Hi Mom and Dad,
Things are going well and we are in the rainforest. I had a great and super nice homestay family and went horseback riding. I miss you both so much and can’t wait to see you soon. –Sawyer
Hello incredible family,
I hope all is well. We just got done with homestays and they were amazing. I got to learn so much about the culture. Say hi to the dog. –Oliver
Hello from Ecuador! Because that’s where I am! I am currently in Ecuador. Shoutout to the cat. –Camden
Good day family,
I hope you all are well. I’ve been doing some cool stuff in Ecuador, like a homestay in a small town in Yunguilla. I hope all is good at home and I’ll see you soon. –Julian Wright
We finished our stay in Yunguilla. It was very nice and I promised to return sometime in the future (that’s your heads up). Say hi to Toofy and Goldie for ne. I hope you guys are doing well! –Love, Rex
Hi guys! I just finished up my homestay and I am having an amazing time! My family was so nice and we got to ride horses. I’m missing you guys lots but I am headed to the Amazon so I will be back before you know it! –Anna
Dearest parents and Charlotte,
My homestay could not have gone better! I can’t wait to come home and share my experiences through stories and recipes. I love you all! –Macy Holland McKnight
I just finished the homestay and I’m in the Amazon. I hope you all had fun with your trips, and I can’t wait to see you! I love you lots. –XOXO Sebbie
Hi! Guess what, I survived the homestay. It was really fun and I wish it was longer. I think my Spanish got a lot better. I can’t believe I come home soon! I got you presents. –Emma
I am having a great time and I miss you a lot. –Riley
I learned more espanol, be proud of me or else! –Leonardo
Having so much fun. We went horseback riding today and it was insane. Say hello to the dog. Miss you guys. –Love, Julian Bamberger
April 24, 2023
With only one full day in Mindo, we were able to pack in an impressive amount of activities. First we went on a waterfall hike complete with a scenic cable car ride to the other side of the canyon. The fitting was slippery and steep, but we were rewarded with four different waterfalls “cascadas” and the biodiversity of the cloud forest. Sawyer, Julian B., Sebbie and Anna joyfully swam in two of the four waterfalls. After the hike we headed to a butterfly sanctuary. So many sights to behold, including a chrysalis that was metallic silver in order to blend in as a water droplet, and butterflies of every size and color. Lunch was another chance for the students to explore Mindo in groups on their own. Sebbie came back with only a giant box of Ferrero Rocher and ate the whole box in one sitting. The afternoon presented another opportunity for mass chocolate consumption as we learned how cocoa is processed and made into chocolate (dark chocolate). With homestays coming up the next day, we discussed commitment and how we grow when we are out of our comfort zones at the end of the evening campfire. All the students were eager to jump in even though some nerves were still at play. It has been wonderful to hear how much they are growing and learning already from this experience, not only about Ecuador, but about themselves. We’ve got some wise freshmen out here.
Afterwards we drove to Yunguilla, the location of our homestay portion of the trip. It is in the cloud forest near Quito, and is such a tranquil place. After lunch we toured the community and learned how they have reforested the land around them. Then the students were introduced to their respective host families and off they went! An emotional moment for us leaders to let them go. Camden was psyched to go with his host family and said he was staying forever. As we toured all of the homestay families in the evening, we found all of the students content and excited. Anna and Emma had made blackberry marmalade. Oli, Cam and Rex were hard at work peeling beans. Sawyer and Julian B were making empanadas that strangely resembled pigs in a blanket. Leo, Sebbie and Julian W were learning a Spanish card game. Riley and Macy had a major snuggle session with their host dog Escot.
On our first full morning in Yunguilla, the morning was filled with chats about the students’ first nights in their home stays. Lots of good food, some awkward moments talking in different languages, and appreciation for their host families. We began our day at the local school where many of our host ninos y ninas go to school. The morning was filled with games outside and english classes inside. It was fun to see our students become the teachers and work together to hold the classes’ attention and convey the new words in English. Julian B introduced the game of sharks and minnows and gained a victory for his team. Emma and Riley took on the difficult task of teaching the 4 year olds, and thankfully knew the word for dinosaur. And Kit was renamed “el caballo” for his piggy back rides. After our time at the school, we all went home to our host families for lunch. Everyone raved about their meals upon their return. Props to Macy for being an adventurous eater on this trip and always trying something new!
After lunch we split into two groups, one made necklaces and bracelets in one of the crafting huts. Emma and Rex created some particularly beautiful necklaces. The other half learned how to make marmalade using the local fruit “chigualcan.” A slow, methodical process that takes a lot of patience and even more sugar. Next we joined a few local kids for an intense futbol match. Sebbie holds the record for most muddy participant, and Julian W holds the prize for sneakiest player, somehow he was always appearing out of nowhere by the goal. Our guide Jorge has the fastest footwork, kit has the best commentary, and Emily is the most competitive, obviously. After soccer the students ran home in the rain to delicious dinners with their host families.
We worked in the morning at the community farm, weeding and planting. The farm supplies food for the restaurant and others in the community. We also weeded and prepared native plants to help reforest the area and continue Yunguilla’s work in improving the ecosystems around them. After lunch we learned more about the animals in the area, and the positive impact the conservation and reforestation work is already having. Animals include the spectacled bear, puma, and a local species similar to a jaguar. In the afternoon we continued our tradition of visiting the shop for lots of snacks and playing soccer. Macy has become a dedicated knitter with her host family. Shout out to Riley for being a diligent farm worker in the morning and also a diligent defensive player during our two hour soccer match. And props to Anna who scored a hat trick in our game. Rex is the ultimate goalie and is surprisingly spry playing in either chacos or rain boots depending on the day. The kids ran home one again in the pouring rain to commence another evening of delicious food and teaching each other card games (congrats to Riley and Macy for successfully teaching their host family how to play new card games in Spanish.)
Hi Mummy, Daddy, and Xav. I am having a great time in Ecuador. I miss you all very much! Say hi to Bobby and Korra for me, and give them lots of tickles. I know before the trip I said I wanted to take the bus back to Steamboat but can you pick me up please? I understand if you can’t. I hope you are all well.
Lots of love, Sebbie
Hi guys! I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to write here but I am having a wonderful time and I hope that Archie is doing great!! Anna
Hi family! So far the trip has been great. Lots of dogs and interesting experiences. I hope Nate is having fun in Spain and Morocco. Love you, Riley
GS has been better than amazing, I think that I haven’t been as happy as I am in years. Even though it’s only been a week or so, I still haven’t been able to wipe the smile off my face. I love you guys, Macy Holland McKnight
Hey Mom and Dad,
Miss you guys so much. Having the best time. Hope Sebby and the dogs are doing great. I’m having a blast here. Love, Julian S Bamberger
Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m having a great time in Ecuador and making some new friends. I am enjoying every minute of my time. I have had a few altering experiences with different people in a very good way but I miss you so much and I hope you have had some fun days. Can’t wait to see you! PS hope you get the shoes. Sawyer
Dear parental units,
I hope you all are doing well. So far the school trip has been spectacular. Thanks again for subsidizing and supporting this trip. I greatly appreciate it. I hope all is well back home. Please make sure to tell my siblings I say hi. I wish you all the best. Julian
Hi Mom and Dad! It’s been really fun so far. I’ve gotten you presents. I can’t wait to tell you about it. Emma
I am having an AMAZING time! I only have a few sentences to write so I am wasting it saying this but I love you! Oliver
I’m still alive! Love you, Rex
Tell the dogs Bowie, Skid, and Nene that I am doing fine. Hope NeNe is still alive and biting! Love, Leo
I don’t know how everyone is doing so I assume everyone’s fine but if someone isn’t that’s pretty interesting too I guess 🙂 say hi to The Cat for me. Camden
April 20, 2023
Hello to parents and friends! Ecuador has been spectacular. Our accommodations in the town of Mindo, northwest of Quito are a combination of a tree house and the Weasley house from Harry Potter. Students have spent time bird watching along a roaring river, resting, or playing bananagrams, all in our backyard. In the evening they had the opportunity to explore Mindo in groups of 2-3 for a few hours and choose their own dinners.
After Mindo, we traveled to the small town of Isinlivi. We arrived at the beautiful LluLluLlamma Lodge. An incredible wooden building with a series of unattached suites overlooking the green mountains of Ecuador. Upon arrival, students eagerly raided the board games and immediately started in on a variety of games. As Leo and Oliver created an astonishingly intricate hybrid of Risk and Catan other students settled in with books, playing cards, simply enjoying the incredible view. After lunch, the kids were excited to settle into their rooms. Then our guides, Rayna, Jorge, and Benny led us all up to the top of a nearby hill and we spent some time going over our expected behavior as leaders and reviewing risk management. Mornings at the Lodge were spent practicing yoga, sipping tea, and working to identify the new animal noises heard throughout the night.
From there, we hiked with our local guide, Oswaldo, 7.5 miles on a small dirt trail to Mama Hilda’s Hotel in the town of Chugchilan. Here, students had a chance to shower and clean up. Kit brought a cribbage board and is working on teaching the students. Anna, already an established cribbage professional, has won several games. Leo, Riley, and Emily occupied the terrace with intense games of bananagrams and Emma is on her 1200th book of the trip. Leaders and guides have been consistently impressed with the thoughtful responses to challenging questions regarding our role as travelers/guests in a foreign country and as global citizens.
Upon arrival to Shino Pi Bolon, a Tsachila community just outside of Santo Domingo, Alfonso, the community leader, greeted and welcomed us to his home. Once settled, Alfonso explained some of the Tsachila history and the meaning of this incredible community. Perhaps wary at first, the kids over the next few days and three nights would grow to cherish the community – the bamboo rooms, thatched roofs, and even the pit toilets. Dinner was delicious and the students, without a second thought, broke up into crews and started on the dishes. Dinner was followed by an incredible happy birthday cake and a rousing rendition of Feliz Cumpleanos to Julian.
Alfonso and his right hand man, Felipe introduced us to our service project. Someone from the community had dropped off a truckload of giant leaves and we were instructed to twist and snap the leaves into suitable roof-building supplies. Following lunch and an intense soccer game, students and leaders alike were eager for a jump in the river. The current provided a lovely lazy river and an amazing refresher after a morning of hardwork in the Ecuadorian humidity.
We spent the afternoon into the evening learning about local fruits and traditional planting methods. The highlight was learning about the achiote plant that provides the red dye for the traditional hair style and coloring. The group was then treated to a tale told by Felipe and Alfonso explaining the origins of Tsachila’s emphasis on sharing and community.
Our final evening in Tsachila, around a smoldering fire, we shared gratitudes. Macy, like many of the students, explained to us just how happy she is here, in Ecuador. A large part of that happiness, according to her, is the peaceful departure from technology.
We reluctantly packed our bags as we prepared to leave the Tsachila. In addition to their identifying red hairstyles, the Tsachila use a particular plant, the Wintuk, to paint black lines over those bodies. Alfonso and Felipe showed us the process by which this product transforms from a plant to a paint and then showed us how to apply it. The group was then encouraged to apply this TEMPORARY dye to themselves and, if asked, others. This proved to be a highlight to many as students tapped into their creative sides. Following a quick refreshing dip in the river and a delicious lunch, the Tsachila bid us farewell and presented us each with a necklace. As we loaded the bus to leave, it was clear that our stay with the Tsachila had affected the students and leaders. Now, we have a couple of days in Mindo to relax and do some (much needed) laundry as we prepare for our next adventure to Yunguilla and our home stays!
April 17, 2023
All is well in Ecuador, and the group is happy, healthy, and they have already accomplished so much in their first week!
The Ecuador group has been on the move and covering new territory since arriving in Quito. First, they traveled west to the famous dormant volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes, Quilotoa. Adjusting to their new (and beautiful…) surroundings, they spent several days trekking towards the remarkable crater lake at the top of the volcano.
After concluding their trek, the group headed down to the Santo Domingo region of Ecuador, and the home of the Tsachila indigenous community. The Tsachilas are most known for their colorful culture and rich history in this region of Ecuador. The group is currently wrapping up their time with the Tsachilas, and will then head to the quaint mountain town of Mindo before traveling to Yunguilla, where they will begin their extended homestay. Once they head to Yunguilla, we will have a more lengthy update of their first week to share with families!