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Vacations in Ecuador

Combine Language Immersion with Ecotourism

In our last issue Clay Risen wrote that "Quito may be the best city in the world for Spanish language study" and emphasized that Ecuador offers some of the best ecotourism in the Western Hemisphere. With a few days on our hands and other reasons to take us in this direction, my wife and I investigated for ourselves the opportunities to combine the two—language study and ecotourism—in one vacation. On our first day we found ourselves happily lost in a rainforest, attempting to speak Spanish, and already planning a return trip.

We found—not to our surprise—that combining language learning and adventure is a remarkably inexpensive and richly rewarding way to spend a vacation. And it’s also a great deal of fun. Many of the more than 60 language schools in Quito include, as part of their program, outings to the mountains, jungles, and rainforests that surround the city.

Language immersion in Quito means living with a host family whose members can (or will) speak only Spanish, spending from four to seven hours a day with your own tutor, learning at your own pace, developing the vocabulary that’s important to you, and making periodic excursions—in most schools with your own tutor and always speaking Spanish—to local places of interest.

Our host family welcomed us like long-lost relatives, made us feel at home, and gave us a key to the door so we could come and go as we pleased. Because of our limited time, we selected only one school for an extended visit, the Academia Latinoamericano. The atmosphere at the Academia is that of a warm and close-knit family. Hours of individualized study are from 8 a.m.-12:30 or 1:15 p.m. with a short break when students place their orders for lunch, send money out to be changed, etc. The school provides a variety of services so that student are free to concentrate on learning Spanish.

We were amazed by the personal attention that every student receives. Each member of the del Coral family—the parents; the children, Sandra, Patty, and Diego; and Sandra’s and Patty’s small children—are at the school throughout the day and take often part in the twice-weekly excursions. At least one family member meets every student at the airport when they arrive, regardless of the time. Diego and Patty were both Rotary Foundation exchange students in the U.S. They say they know what it’s like to arrive in a strange country for the first time, and they want every student to feel secure and relaxed from the moment they step off the plane.

The school is in a large and elegant home inside a walled garden in a green and affluent neighborhood. Amenities include a heated indoor swimming pool, sauna, hot tub, lounges with a TV-VCR system and a stock of educational and travel tapes, and a large eat-in kitchen where students can join the family for lunch.

As at other schools we visited, activities are organized at the Acadamia Latinoamericano according to the interests of the students—dancing lessons, cooking lessons, etc. You can even take lessons with a professional golfer while you learn Spanish.

Students themselves decide where to go on optional twice-weekly outings, always accompanied by their tutors and always speaking only Spanish. On the day we arrived, the destination was Aldea Salamandra, a spectacular nature reserve in the lush tropical rainforest on the western slopes of Pichincha, 140 km northwest of Quito. We spent the day trekking with Darwin, a 15-year-old local guide, who not only introduced us to the flora and fauna of the rainforest but took us to his home and showed us how he and his family lived off the forest’s products.

Another group at the school was bound for a week in the Galapagos Islands. Afterwards, they would return to the Academia for a week of intensive Spanish instruction before going down to the Amazon basin for yet another week of ecotouring. Here, as at other schools we visited, schedules are flexible and can be customized for groups as well as for individuals.

Diego del Coral arranged transportation to an ecolodge above Otavalo—just two hours to the north—where we spent the weekend hiking around the Mojanda lakes at a breathtaking altitude high above the town. In the evenings we were entertained by, and provided entertainment for, the local villagers who came to the Casa Mojanda. The men played their handmade instruments and the young women coaxed us to join them in their dance.

Amazon Trips

Visitors to Ecuador who want to combine a week-long adventure in the rainforest with professional Spanish instruction can enroll in the Academia de Espanol Quito, the first language school in Quito, founded in 1982.

The curriculum includes four hours of tutoring each day and a daily excursion accompanied by the language teacher and a group of native guides. Students stay in Cabanas Anaconda on Anaconda Island in the Amazon basin. Excursions from base camp include a trip by motorized canoe up the Arajuno River to learn about medicinal plants, a trip to a native village, a rafting trip on the Napo or Arajuno River on a raft built by the students themselves using native techniques, and a gold-panning expedition led by indigenous people.

The program is organized in cooperation with the Fundacion Jatun Sacha, a nonprofit Ecuadorian organization that supports biological conservation, research, and education. (JS also offers volunteer opportunities.) Some knowledge of Spanish is essential for the Anaconda program.

Academia de Espanol also offers intensive one-on-one instruction—in its own six-story building (with roof terrace bar) near the business center of Quito—for either four or seven hours per day. Students who choose the half-day option (Espanol Activa) can join daily afternoon excursions with teachers acting as guides. Group courses with seven students or less.

Galapagos Islands trips are discounted approximately 30% for students at Academia de Espanol Quito. Several schools offer similar ecotour packages.

Other language schools we visited in Quito—all of which have been consistently praised by South American Explorers Club members for teachers’ competence and enthusiasm, quality of facilities, location, extracurricular activities, and other services—include: Bipo & Toni’s Spanish Language School in  Ecuador. Dancing lessons, cooking lessons. Free e-mail service. Weekly excursions. Bipo & Toni’s is involved in a development project for the poor in Pomasqui, on the outskirts of Quito, and a reforestation project on the extinct volcano Casitahua. Volunteer workers are needed. Instituto Superior de Espanol. Excursions and group cooking organized every week. Can arrange voluntary work. Simon Bolivar. The school has an in-house travel agency. It offers salsa lessons and excursions every weekend.

All schools in Quito can place you with a family.

Quito Travel Info

Independent travelers to Quito are fortunate to have available the services of the nonprofit South American Explorer’s Club. At its clubhouses in Quito, Cusco, and Lima, Peru and Buenos Aires, the club collects and makes available to its members volumes of up-to-date travel information on Central and South America.

For a beginning membership fee of $60 per year ($90 for couples) members have access to the club’s knowledgeable staff and trip reports on just about every subject: language schools, volunteering, local tour operators, visiting the Galápagos, etc.

Eco-lodges in Ecuador

Black Sheep Inn, P.O. Box 05-01-240, Chugchilán, Cotopaxi, Ecuador, South America; Tel: (593) 3 - 270-8077. An ecologically friendly inn located at 10,000 feet on the furthest west edge of the western cordillera of the Ecuadorian Andes overlooking Rio Toachi Canyon, the “Grand Canyon” of Ecuador, it provides a comfortable base for hiking and visiting indigenous markets. For volunteer work opportunities at Black Sheep Inn see the website for more info.

Casa Mojanda is an ecologically oriented inn located three miles from Otavalo in the Andes of northern Ecuador overlooking the sacred father and mother mountains, Imbabura and Cotacachi. Guests stay in adobe cottages with spectacular mountain views. The owners, who built the inn and moved from New York to run it two years ago, are exploring ways for environmentally and socially aware travelers to interact with local communities in positive ways. Volunteers are needed to assist in environmental protection and community development projects.

Fundacion Jatan Sacha offers volunteer opportunities in a variety of conservation projects under the supervision of resident researchers, environmental education instructors, and administrators at each of their three reserves. Volunteers live with families or in cabins with other volunteers.

Yachana Lodge. Part of the Funedesin Foundation Mondaña Project—which is helping 30 indigenous communities build schools and a medical clinic, install running water, and more—the lodge provides a beautiful and comfortable setting for visitors to experience the Amazon and learn about the endangered ecosystem. Located two hours by motorized canoe from Misahualli. Nonvolunteer visitors pay per day for lodging, meals, and guide.