The Road Less Traveled: Ecuador Summer Programs

Milo at Rio Muchacho Photo
The road less traveled in this case leads to Rio Muchacho, where a friendly dog keeps an eye on the few passersby

We’ve been making the rounds lately. There’s something of a “camp fair” circuit here in the New York metro area. It starts right after Thanksgiving with events at Scarsdale and Roslyn High Schools and, with the exception of a bit of break around the Christmas holidays, continues through until early March or so with at least a couple of events each month. Camp and summer opportunities fairs (for those who don’t know) are events for parents and students to meet program directors and learn about different summer options, very similar in concept to the vendor hall at a conference or trade show. We certainly welcome the opportunity to speak face-to-face with parents and students, and to differentiate Sustainable Summer from other summer program offerings. I am reminded when I go to these events of how many different options are available to today’s students. It is simply staggering. Practically every geographic location, academic discipline, and hobby is represented in some form or another.

Sustainable Summer is the only summer program that offers high school students a focused curriculum that combines environmental education with adventure travel and cultural immersion. We’re certainly very proud of the academic backbone and experiential aspects of our curriculum. But something that I take for granted is how unique our itinerary is from a traveler’s perspective. We are far from the only summer program operating in Ecuador, but we are definitely charting a less traveled path.

It seems to me that the basic structure of the majority of other summer programs in Ecuador goes something like this:

  • Quito: orientation and tour of the old town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Otavalo: experience an authentic indigenous market, one of the largest in the world
  • Amazon jungle lodge: experience the magic of the Amazon jungle and learn the ancient ways of Quichua
  • Homestay and community service: live with an Ecuadorian family and build a classroom/community center/playground
  • Galapagos: follow in Darwin’s footsteps and experience one of the nature’s most remarkable places

I looked at close to a dozen different summer programs in Ecuador in the last week or two and almost every one of them includes all five of these components (ours includes about 1.5 depending on how you’re counting). From an itinerary point of view, these programs follow the classic Ecuador tour by the book: Quito, Otavalo, Galapagos. Listen, I’m glad I’m not a parent trying to parse out the difference between one community service program in Ecuador and the next. How is one to choose between these different programs? Price? Reputation of the organization? Group size and composition? The number of community service credits? I’m sure very one of the organizations running these trips has their “unique selling points,” just as we have ours. But I’m at least a little surprised that there isn’t some more variation in the trip itineraries. Or actually, to be more precise, I’m surprised that there is so much alignment around the “standard” tourist itinerary from programs whose marketing materials drip with inspirational content about “developing mutual understanding of our diverse cultures” and “helping the global community flourish” and similar language.

I can’t speak to the decisions of these other programs, but I will provide you an explanation of why our itinerary is different with respect to the following destinations:


We largely avoid Quito. Why? It’s an interesting city, to be sure, but unless your high school student has a deep interest in colonial era architecture and art, I don’t think they’re going to find it all that educational. I think many programs end up visiting the “Old Town” as a way to fill an afternoon during orientation or at the end of a program before flying home. However, with the new Quito airport (opens Feb 2013), it’s going to be even more pragmatic to simply skip Quito entirely, so maybe the Quito sight-seeing day will fade from itineraries. For reference, we run our orientation out of a beautiful guesthouse on the outskirts of Quito, 25 minutes from the new airport. It works great for us.


Otavalo is the biggest market, but it’s not the best and it’s far from authentic. Due to it’s popularity, there is an entire tourist industry that has largely devoided it of any real authenticity – unless you’re looking to purchase some livestock, in which case, head to the non-touristy section of the market and pick out a nice steer. There are many, many opportunities to visit local markets throughout Ecuador. Most regional hubs have at least one “market day” per week.

The Amazon

I love the Amazon basin (or the “Oriente” as they call it in Ecuador). It’s my favorite part of the country and is often skipped over by tourists who do the big 3 – Quito, Otavalo, Galapagos. So, go to the Amazon! Stay in a jungle lodge. Visit with an indigenous tribe. I guess I don’t really have an issue with this aspect of the “standard” summer program itinerary, except that I find there are more interesting “questions” that can be explored through experiential learning in the Amazon than those commonly broached through community service and volunteer activities. Here are just a few of the topics we tackle in our Amazon segment: Human uses of water and the ecological importance of rivers. The extractive industries in Ecuador, including oil, timber, and minerals, their role in natural resource depletion, and the importance of the Amazon as a ‘global commons.’ And micro-enterprises, sustainable development, and the role international businesses and NGOs in opening global markets. These are complex subjects with no clear answer. The Amazon is ground zero for sustainable development issues and to experience such a remarkable place through this lens adds tremendous educational value. This is why you travel! You can do a world of good through community service without having to leave your hometown. I’m sure the Kichwa indians will really appreciate your help, but do you really need to travel all the way to the Amazon to do community service?

Homestays and Community Service

Homestays provide a valuable cultural immersion experience. I’m all for the idea. It’s just not a focus of our program and we feel that we can accomplish a unique, cultural immersion experience without them (although we do have a 2-night homestay in one of our Amazon programs, due primarily to logistical reasons associated with complexities of working with the local indigenous community on that segment of the program). For my thoughts on community service as a focal point of educational travel, see my above comments on The Amazon section of this blog post.

The Galapagos

For some reason, almost every person I’ve met from the US associates Ecuador with the Galapagos. It’s like the rest of the country doesn’t even exist. But go to Ecuador, spend even a couple of days in the country, and you will think differently. They are really two entirely different countries. The Galapagos are lovely and interesting in their own right, but I fail to understand why they have to be a stop on every single summer program for high school students (or practically every tour group itinerary). It’s like folks are worried they’re going to come back from their trip, get inundated with the question, “Oh Ecuador. Did you go to the Galapagos?” and their response of “no” will be construed as a personal failure. Be strong, I say. Counter your interrogator with one of these well-informed responses:

A. “No. We really wanted to maximize our time in mainland Ecuador, which is just so rich in culture and bio-diversity that it seemed unnecessary to squeeze in the Galapagos on this trip.”

B. “You know, I’m glad that the Ecuadorian government tightly regulates the tourism industry in the Galapagos, because it’s definitely an environmentally sensitive area, but it has really pushed the prices up and I just didn’t see the value in visiting, especially not during the summer ‘high season.'”

C. “We went to Isla de la Plata instead. It’s significantly more accessible and less expensive since it’s just a boat ride from the mainland instead of a flight, and quite similar ecologically. I don’t feel that we really missed much, except the crowds of retirees and high prices.”

(For the record, we offer a Galapagos Extension program, because we really feel that making the Galapagos a mandatory component of Ecuador summer programs is a bad practice for a variety of reasons. See our Galapagos Extension page for more info.)

Alright, clearly I have a little disdain for tour groups that shuffle from place to place checking off a to do list of guidebook highlights and snapping pictures on the way. But you know what, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to travel a lot, and even though it’s a cliche, Frost got it right with the “Road Not Taken.” I encourage all travelers to take “the road less traveled.” It does make all the difference.

If you’re a high school student or the parent of a high school student, check out the roads less traveled that we take on Sustainable Summer.