Experiencing exotic wildlife including sea lions, penguins and marine iguanas was just one of the highlights of our students’ trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos this summer. The iconic islands were just one of the destinations of the once-in-a-lifetime trip that also included the Ecuadorian capital Quito. Students also undertook two treks, including one to the summit of a volcano plus a community project building a traditional hut for the indigenous Shuar people. The 13 students were accompanied by Mr Houghton, Miss Dunn and a representative from travel company Outlook Expeditions for the month-long adventure.
Mr Houghton said: ‘We first spent two nights in Quito to get acclimatised to the altitude as it is close to 3,000m above sea level so you can feel the lack of oxygen. As we were leaving the airport there were police lining the streets as Pope Francis was there for a tour so transport was cancelled and the city was jam-packed. We went to Otavalo which is famous for its markets with traditional Andean produce like ponchos and bags so the students bought plenty of souvenirs.
‘Then we did our first mini-trek, around Laguna Cuicocha, which is Guinea Pig Lake. Then we went to Laguna Quilotoa for our main trek. This was up to the top of a volcano, which was just under 4,000m. It was a three-day trek and we had camped for two nights. When we got to the top of the volcano there was a village, Guyama, so we stayed in a hostel there. As there was no light pollution some of the students stayed up late watching the stars.
That trek was hard because we had to carry all the tents so the backpacks were full and which slowed us up a bit. We got to pick our finish point so we got a bus from the top and returned to Quito where we had internet access and could buy food.
‘We then went off to our rainforest project. This involved working with the Shuar, Ecuador’s indigenous people. Like a lot of indigenous people they haven’t got many land rights and with the westernisation that is taking place they are losing their cultural past. For about six days we built a traditional hut at the village school out of bamboo and leaves with guidance from one of the teachers and a man who runs the project. The last day was a cultural day so the students had their faces painted and one of the shamans came and did some dancing. Then we back to Quito and flew to the Galapagos. We visited three of the main islands and travelled between them by boat. The wildlife is not scared of visitors and the animals just stay where they are, sometimes within touching distance. We saw marine iguanas, sea lions and crabs on the beach. We were snorkelling over an underwater crevasse and, because it was warm, the sharks stopped there to rest and breed, so we were swimming above eight sharks that were between three and four-foot long!
‘As soon as we arrived on the last island there were sea lions and penguins in the water. The blue-footed boobies were probably one of the main highlights, they were really comical and when you got close to them they just stood there looking at you. You could be lying on the beach and a sea lion could be lying just four or five feet away. People would fillet the freshly caught fish on tables by the harbour and there were two sea lions and five or six pelicans sitting waiting for the scraps, it was hilarious. For me the highlight was getting so close to the animals and the trek was really good as well. As soon as you got to the top of the volcano there was a crater lake that was extraordinary.
‘Some of the students were forced to go out of their comfort zone. Every student had to do two days of leading the group so they had to make the decisions on what time we’d get up, where we would go and how we would get there. We had other people who would also book the transport and accommodation so it ranged from working as part of a group, leading a group, communication and just managing difficult situations. There were only two or three who were really good at Spanish, all the others had to do their jobs and communicate with locals. I think we will be planning another trip there in 2017 as it was easy to travel around, there wasn’t a lot of bugs, mosquitos or cockroaches and the weather wasn’t too humid and hot.’