My summer abroad was the most exhilarating, intellectually challenging, and adventure-filled time of my life as I learned about the unique environmental ecosystems that existed within mainland Ecuador, its famed Galapagos islands, and the policies that protected them. My trip began in the bustling Andean city of Quito where we took classes in Spanish and Ecuadorian ecosystems for two weeks along with various excursions throughout the country. The first of which was a visit to the Equator or la mitad del mundo, where they conducted several interesting experiments to show the changes that exist between the northern and southern hemispheres. The most intense trip throughout the program was our hike up a portion of one of the highest active volcanoes on earth, Cotopaxi. The surrounding area is referred to as the paramo ecosystem where very few things can survive due to its high altitude and harsh frosts during the winter. Starting from the base, there was less and less vegetation up the volcano, until eventually it looked like the surface of Mars. Although our hike up to a checkpoint at nearly 5,000 meters was not that far from the parking lot area, it was extremely difficult as the strong winds occasionally threw us off our feet and blew sand into our faces. Perhaps my favorite excursion was our five-day journey deep into the Amazon rain forest to learn at Tiputini Biodiversity Station. Each day we hiked through one of the most bio-diverse places on earth to see the magnificent plant and animal life that dominated the region. We saw several species of monkeys, macaws, an electric eel, many different frogs, tarantulas, caimans, a couple of different bat species, and so much more. We even swam in the Tiputini river that was apparently infested by piranhas and different snake species. The last major excursion on Ecuador’s mainland was to Maquipucuna in Ecuador’s cloud forest. The cloud forest was similar to the Amazon except that it received more rainfall and therefore had more vegetation on the ground level which results in very lush and dense vegetation. We once again hiked through the jungle, and saw some incredible waterfalls.
The second major part of the trip was taking classes and exploring the Galapagos islands. We stayed on San Cristobal, one of the oldest islands, where we took a class on the policies surrounding the Galapagos which governed the activities of the tourism industry, fishermen, and the national park. The Galapagos islands were such an interesting economic bubble that always has conflicts between the desires of the local population who were typically fishing or engaging in tourism activities, versus the efforts of conserving the endemic plant and animal life that flourished there. On San Cristobal we had several snorkeling trips to see different sea turtle species, varieties of fish, and sea snakes. Later we traveled to the highland portion of the island to see the endangered tortoise breeding program, where tortoises were protected so they could be put back into the wild to increase their population. Most days after class were spent on the beach directly across the street from the university were sea lions love to play and marine iguanas frequently swim. A couple of my fellow students and I even learned how to scuba dive and went out to a popular diving site called Kicker Rock where we saw black-tipped sharks, sea turtles, eagle rays, and so much more. After completing our course, we spent another week island-hopping as we visited Santa Cruz, North Seymour, and Isabela. Isabela was my favorite island as we were able to see so many penguins, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions all together. On each island we had snorkeling tours and spent time relaxing on the beautiful beaches.
I had the most incredible time this summer as I met so many incredible people and got to experience a wide range of ecosystems that each harbored their own unique flora and fauna. I would highly encourage any other students to study in Ecuador if they have a chance. The wildlife I was able to see was unlike anything I have ever seen before, and the rich Latin culture was so different to our own in the United States. It was also a wonderful opportunity to improve my Spanish language skills as I felt I improved everyday while speaking with my host families and friends.