As a senior in industrial engineering, I figured it was time to jump out of my comfort zone and travel internationally for the first time. So, on a whim, I signed up for the Alternative Spring Break trip to Ecuador. I did not really care where the destination was. I was ready to see something new or experience something I had never experienced before. I was especially drawn to the idea of combining my engineering skills through a service project with a travel experience. My expectations for the trip were next to nothing as this would be my first time for many things.
Traveling with a group and through a travel provider can change one’s trip significantly. Luckily, this trip handed me a great group of people and incredible provider. This trip’s group consisted of six people, which created a good dynamic in that we were able to get to know each other better. Being in the similar disciplines of engineering made the bonding that much easier. As for the organizer of the trip, United Planet, they provided us with a detailed yet flexible itinerary of all the best activities, a remarkable tour guide named David, and a personal “chauffeur” named Miguel. David led us around throughout the week offering interesting information. He acted as our singular translator and provided his charisma along the way for entertainment. Our main accommodation, Hotel La Casa Sol, was a very nice stay located in Quito, within walking distance of several eating locations and shops. The hotel staff was great, the rooms where nice, and daily breakfast was highly appreciated.
While jumping into the activities planned for the trip, we found that each day involved something new and exciting. We covered a lot of ground throughout the week. Quito is a stunning city located in a tall valley with buildings flooding up the surrounding hills. Many of the buildings are infused with Spanish and French inspired Colonial architecture, giving it a unique feel. The buildings, adjunct city structure, and surrounding green mountains make Quito an extremely picturesque location from any direction. For this reason, the car rides through both developed and indigenous parts of the country were one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Covering a lot of distance when traveling through foreign country, to me, seemed like a great way to witness many unique scenes and ways of life. One simply cannot visit Ecuador without taking a trip to the equator. Physically being at the center of the world is an interesting experience and quite the brag. Our tour of the equator involved a surprising amount of engaging Ecuadorian history and equator/hemisphere “magic.”
On our Quito city tour, we visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional, an amazing, gothic Roman Catholic Church. We were able to walk through and climb to the steeple yielding an incredible view of Quito and the Virgen del Panecillo statue. Just walking around in the Old Town of Quito and through downtown Quito provides two perspectives. The people, food, and social activities are each different in their own way. Outside of Quito, our venture to the Otavalo market was quite the experience.
The market gave us a chance to interact with the locals and purchase beautiful handmade goods. This reminds me of the trip’s language barrier which turned out to be a much smaller problem than I anticipated. My high school Spanish knowledge combined with the surprising number of Ecuadorians who spoke a bit of English made for an easy transition. Riding the TelefériQo up the side of Pichincha Volcano was another fun activity. This was a cable car, which travels to a cityscape vantage point. Of course, we picked a terribly foggy day to ride up as the view was completely clouded over. Nevertheless, we continued up the volcano along the incredibly steep hiking trail. Nearly suffocating from altitude exhaustion, we chose to stop at a solid 13,500 ft and were able to see a grand, partially foggy, mountainous view.
Now for the focus of the trip, which involved a service project for an indigenous community. The charming, rustic family house of San Clemente was our place of stay. The family that lived in the house and the surrounding community were all extremely nice to us and made sure we felt welcomed, even with the language barrier between us. As a group, we spent most of our time hanging out, playing cards, learning to embroider, and working; but we also learned how to cook, played some soccer, hiked through the forest, and tried many new foods.
The service project itself ended up turning into several smaller projects according to the needs of the surrounding community. We built a bench, leveled the ground for shed access, planted trees, and transferred grass patches to a barren area of a nearby school’s grounds. I was relieved that none of these projects felt like a chore. Yes, they were hard work, but since we were working with a group of friends and local community members who are helpful and encouraging, we felt like our actions were meaningful.
In the end, taking a trip to Ecuador on a whim turned out to be a great way to spend my spring break. Everything from the diverse culture to the picturesque views made for a great experience. The trip exceeded my expectations and was exactly what I wanted from an international experience. I am definitely more inspired to travel now than I was before. My time spent on the Alternative Spring Break program has been fantastic travel and service opportunity, and I would most definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a unique cultural experience, new perspective, or simply an enjoyable adventure.