What I Learned From Being a Volunteer Tourist Abroad

**SPOILER ALERT: THIS IS AN OPINION / LONG READ ARTICLE **

After having worked in the volunteer tourism industry in Ecuador and Cambodia, I realized that if I really wanted to make a meaningful difference, I should be writing about volunteer tourism and researching the phenomenon rather than to do the actual volunteer work. So I started to conduct research on the phenomenon in Cuba. For now, my own research is done (and compiled in some articles and a Masters’ thesis), but for some the research continues…

Recently I got contact by Julia Rommel, a student at ‘iba’ Internationale Berufsakademie Köln in Germany. She is currently conducting research for her own thesis on “Volunteer-Tourism as a form of travel in context of development cooperation – a critical analysis of assorted characteristics, development possibilities and effects of the view of the various involved participants”. She asked me if she could interview me about my own personal experiences. It turned out to be a very meaningful reflection for myself again, and I realize I should keep sharing what I have learned from volunteering abroad. 

So here’s to all who consider to volunteer abroad. Julia and I wanted to share the interview online so that we could raise awareness and open a public discussion. 

Continue reading if you want to know: 

  • How the involvement in the projects can be envisioned locally on the spot.
  • What exactly I did in Ecuador and Cambodia
  • Which impact volunteering abroad had on my personal life 
  • How I finance my trips abroad
  • What I think is the best way to organize a volunteer trip
  • How I really think about volunteer tourism

Please share your comments after reading. We love to hear from you and who knows… it can help Julia to collect more research data for her thesis!

1. What do you personally find fascinating about travelling?

I love to travel because it allows me to see different parts of the world and de-familiarize my own culture, habits, world views and so on. You can meet new people, discover new places, eat different foods, see other types of architectures and religions, and so on. Traveling is part of my personal development because it turns you into a different person after: in my case, traveling has made me feel more open-minded, conscious, knowledgeable, confident, adventurous, flexible, social, assertive and open towards a multi-cultural society.

Travel far enough, you meet yourself.

David Mitchell

I feel also that travel gave me more understanding of life outside my own bubble (village), but also about political and religious issues, such as climate change, female circumcision, prostitution and illiteracy. By experiencing things first-hand or witnessing situations you often learn a lot more than from reading it in books or hearing about it on tv or in the university. Simultaneously, you get to know yourself better because you obviously start to question your own life, conditions and ways of seeing or thinking. This is why I like traveling so much. 

Moreover, I love photography and writing so I love traveling because it is beautiful to go somewhere for photographic reasons or to write about places for my travel blog. On top of that, traveling allows you to learn languages and practices your language skills better than any course can do. I have learned basic Spanish at school, but it was only by studying in Spain, doing my internship in Ecuador, conducting research in Cuba and working in Mallorca that I could become so fluent in it.

Lastly, because travel is so adventurous and challenging at times, it gives you an adrenaline rush. Therefore, I would say that travel becomes an addiction. You always want to see more places, travel more often, do it again and again. For me, it is very hard to settle in a small Belgian village now that I have travelled to so many places and lived abroad for so many times and so long. I am so used to having stories to tell, to get inspired by the things I encounter along the way. I just love it!

2. Where do you currently work and live?

I currently live in Palma de Mallorca where I work for Thomas Cook in Destination Management. This is a temporary contract for the Summer Season from March until October. I chose this job because I wanted to live on a Spanish island in the sun under good working conditions (apartment, salary, insurance, …) but I am not sure yet if I will want to or can stay in the company. I am thinking of going on a Working Holiday Visa (WHV) to Australia before I get 30 (I’m 27 now) so that I can travel while working in Oceania as well, but the plan is not concretized yet.

3. How do you define „Volunteer Tourism“?

For me, volunteer tourism is the travel that includes some activities of volunteering. Ideally, it should represent a balance between a holiday (tourism) and volunteering (work), but often this is not the case. Usually, it tends to focus more on the touristic part of the trip. We must not forget that tourism is an economy (providing a product or service in return for money), whereas volunteering is usually associated with altruism (doing something good without expecting something in return for it). My thesis deals with the contradiction between profit-seeking activities and charitable generosity. Nowadays, any kind of touristic activity that includes volunteerism can be considered volunteer tourism.

For a detailed conceptualization of the term ‘volunteer tourism’ I refer to chapter 2.1 in my Master’s thesis (p.22) ‘Why Don’t You Give Me Some Love – An anthropological examination of the intimate relationship between volunteer tourism and jineterismo in Cuba’ and a paper I wrote ‘PLEASE MIND THE GAP! (In-) Consistency in Gap Year Volunteer Tourism’.  

4. From March until June and from June until August 2014 you worked as a project coordinator and group leader for volunteers in Cambodia and Ecuador. How can I envision the involvement in the projects locally on the spot?

What exactly did you do there? Were the projects comparable? Do they have something to do with Volunteer Tourism? Tell me about your experiences and about the volunteers that had applied for the voluntary work.

Yes, indeed. I worked in Ecuador and Cambodia as a volunteer group leader for a gap year company in the UK in 2014. I also participated in a volunteer brigade in Cuba for my Master’s thesis research in 2016.

Ecuador

I worked for the Yanapuma Foundation in Ecuador. This is a grassroots, self-sustaining NGO in Ecuador that works with a number of rural, indigenous and marginalized communities on sustainable development projects in the areas of health, education and agriculture. As part of its long-term goals to assist local communities adapt to an increasingly globalised world while promoting and preserving their culture, Yanapuma provides economic, material and human resources so that they may partake in social development projects within their communities.

An important aspect of my work at Yanapuma Foundation was the provision of international volunteers for both short and long-term periods (from one week to six months) to assist these communities with their goals. The NGO receive groups of volunteers from The Leap Gap Years Overseas between 18-22 years old from gap year programs several times per year, particularly for 6 to 10-week programs.

My responsibilities were to maintain in contact with the volunteer coordinator at the office to organize logistics and plan the project prior to their arrival. I had to receive the group upon arrival and be their leader through most of their time with Yanapuma in Ecuador. This included traveling with the group and living with them on site to participate in their project work and coordinate accommodation, food, and extra activities. I was serving as the principal English/Spanish translator between the group and local project coordinators. I also managed money for group expenses such as bus tickets and I made expense reports at the end of each phase. I was the point-of-contact between the group and the Yanapuma office in case of problems or concerns, and I was overseeing the health and wellbeing of the group, during their time with Yanapuma and react in case of emergency. I provided weekly updates describing group activities and/or any health issues.

As a Volunteer Group Leader I had to motivate, manage and lead these groups in different locations around Ecuador. Locations included Quito, Otavalo, indigenous communities, Baños, Quilotoa, and Riobamba. The programs included a mix of community volunteering and tourism. As a group leader, I lived with the group. In the indigenous communities, everyone lived in volunteer cabins, and while in Quito and traveling to other destinations we stayed in hostels.

Chilcapamba

Cambodia

In Cambodia, I was contracted by Indochina Adventures, Co. Ltd., a tour operator based in Siem Reap since 1999. I worked for them as a Volunteer Group Leader for similar volunteer groups as in Ecuador sent by The Leap Gap Years Overseas. Indochina Adventures is, in contrary to Yanapuma Foundation, not an NGO. It is a commercial tour operator specialized in cycling and trekking, but the company also offers bird watching, photography tours and volunteer programs.

Indochina Adventures is a local travel company that actively participates in country development and helps the Cambodian community as it strongly believes that local people are the people who should get the most income from tourism. The founders recommend tourists to sleep in home stays, to eat delicious local food such as Amok, to support the floating school at Tonle Sap lake by providing school kits, and so on. Indochina Adventures strongly believes that poor schoolchildren with better education will have a better future. In addition, it supports some of the NGOs to help the kids with HIV/AIDS, it also support the Trailblazer Foundation to provide water filter for ‘the poorfamilies’ (quoted from their website). 

Comparison – Difference in Projects

My job role in Cambodia was similar to that in Ecuador. The difference is probably most in the nature of the projects. Hereby a list of the various project I worked on:

Ecuador – Chilcapamba

The Chilcapamba Community is located near Otavalo in the Andes, two hours north of Quito. The region is a center of indigenous culture in Ecuador and continues today the production of world-renowned handicrafts. Many indigenous communities in the area still face economic hardship and erosion of their culture. The community of Chilcapamba is working hard to preserve their language and identity, whilst still participating in modern Ecuadorian life through education and the development of sustainable industries. There are approximately 100 families in the community and they are currently undertaking a range of projects in the areas of education, development, sustainable agriculture and the preservation of indigenous culture. 

In the mornings we were helping with a variety of projects. Activities included digging irrigation ditches, clearing rocks and planting trees. Volunteers also cleared weeds near future garden sites, helped to maintain existing gardens, worked on construction in the community centre or helped out in the local school. In the afternoons, volunteers had group Spanish classes for 2 hours in the community.

Ecuador – Tsachila Community

In the lowland jungle there was another volunteer project with the Tsachila community. Here we did a number of cultural activities and got to know the community. The volunteers have participated in expanding the cultural centre and the cacao cooperative. They have helped to reforest the area, maintained the botanical gardens and constructed additional tourist cabins and classrooms for the local school. 

Projects included planting hundreds of cocoa plants (3 days a week) and constructing small plant nurseries for a number of the families (the other 2 days of the week) so that they could easily care for the crops that they grow from the beginning. Volunteers also had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Tsachila culture with afternoon activities such as making artisan crafts, painting your hair bright red with achiote paste and learning how to play Marimba (typical instrument).

Ecuador – Hacienda Tranquila

In the Galapagos Islands, I took the volunteers to Hacienda Tranquila. The Hacienda is located in the highlands of the island, on a 50-hectare site, where there is still native vegetation. The main objective of the project was to develop the technology to reconstruct native habitat in the highlands on San Cristobal, and to serve as a centre for similar projects in the highlands of other populated islands in the Galapagos chain. We worked to reverse the negative effects of invasive or introduced species, restoring the native and endemic forests of San Cristobal. This means much of your time was spent cutting down invasive species such as blackberry bushes and in turn planting tree species native to the islands. Afternoons were spent working in the organic garden: watering plants, weeding, and caring for the baby plants in the nursery.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, special needs children from the community came to the Hacienda and the volunteers assisted them in a form of therapy in which the children ride horses. Finally, volunteers took care of the animals on the hacienda which include cows and chickens. 

Cambodia – Water Project

Despite its beautiful exterior, Siem Reap is one of the poorest regions in Cambodia, a town the difference between rich and poor is stark. The illegal slum settlements which perch on the polluted riverside are a stones throw from luxurious 5* hotels with their turquoise swimming pools and overflowing breakfast buffets. Communities of displaced people, army families, victims of landmines and sex-workers live in deep poverty with little access to education or basic amenities – tucked out of sight of the cities’ affluent tourists. It is estimated that only half the population have access to clean water and less than a quarter have access to a toilet. With the volunteers’ help, Indochina Adventures aimed to build functioning wells and flushing toilets to service these communities and, in the process, help to restore health and dignity to people too often overlooked by the authorities. 

The mornings were spent with a team of local construction workers, digging, mixing cement, helping to lay pipes and installing water pump kits.

Cambodia – Orphanage Project

In the afternoons volunteers joined forces with the Cambodia Development Organisation (CDO) who provide a home for orphaned and poor children. Founded by a local Cambodian in 2006 CDO provides children at risk with vital shelter, protection, food and education for people who need it most. The centre is situated 7km East of Siem Reap and comprises basic accommodation, classrooms, performance spaces and outside play areas for 30-40 children at a time. Volunteers assisted the centre with improvements to the buildings, interact with, feed and teach kids English whilst supporting CDO financially through the donation Indochina Adventures made on their behalf. 

Cambodia – Eco-Agriculture Project

Another morning project included the immersion in a rural farming community in Samrong village near Siem Reap, where subsistence rice farmers still live in wooden houses on stilts and children catch fish with simple wooden rods. Like many small, traditional agricultural communities the people of Samrong were, until recently, entirely dependent on the rice harvest for their livelihoods. The grain forms the basis of their diet and any additional rice left over after the community have used their share is sold for a small profit to purchase other foods, pay for education and health care. 

However, unpredictable weather conditions and the fluctuating value of rice on the market has left them vulnerable. Now with the help of local NGOs the village is working hard to diversify into other areas to have a more stable income and range of crops, increase their farming areas and productivity and have even built a communal rice store to make their harvest go further. Volunteers assisted the community with harvesting, infrastructure projects and a variety of income generating schemes, such as basket weaving and making incense sticks.

Cambodia – Teaching English

In the afternoons, volunteers worked with school children at a local school in Siem Reap while teaching English, which focused on education as a means of breaking the poverty cycle in the area. The school provided social care and aimed to improve access to education for around 1,500 disadvantaged children and young adults in their area and have a variety of incredible community projects that volunteers can get involved with. From sports coaching to painting or construction, helping out in organic farms or delivering English lessons – volunteers supported the work of the school and got to know the incredible young people they work with.

Cambodia – Children’s Painting Project ‘Let Us Create’

Let Us Create (LUC) is a day centre that provides nutritional food, clean drinking water, educational enrichment, and a creative outlet for over 100 registered children in Sihanoukville. This community group of children comes from very poor backgrounds, and many of them scavenge through garbage bins or sell souvenirs to tourists on the beach to help support their family. These identified children come to the LUC centre every day between the hours of 7:00am and 7:00pm, where they are provided breakfast, and lunch, and have the opportunity to attend educational enrichment classes. 

The project aims to provide a safe environment where the children can learn, play, be creative, challenge themselves, have fun and grow into happy, healthy young adults. In addition, LUC hopes to give them the skills and opportunities they need to become confident about and prepared for the future whilst having the tools to make educated decisions. Here, the volunteers assisted in the daily tasks of the staff members at LUC: cooking, teaching, playing, cleaning, painting, dancing and so on.

Cambodia – Elephant Valley Project (EVP)

Here I was working alongside local mahouts (elephant keepers) the volunteers were taking care at Elephant Valley Project for the rescued elephants, some of which have been abused or cruelly maimed by landmines. They spent many, magical sun-drenched hours escorting the elephants on its ambling adventures as it roamed free through jungle and grasslands, washing troubles away in the river and simply observing the largest mammal on Earth at incredible close-quarters in the wildest reaches of South East Asia.

Link between volunteering and tourism

During the weekends and between the phases of their volunteer trip, the volunteers could go on day trips or overnight trips to touristic places in the areas where they stayed. Sometimes, there were even ‘Adventurous Weeks’, ‘Island Trips’ or ‘Rutas del Sol’ included, for example. For the volunteers, the volunteer program was a way to stay longer in the country and to get a more in-depth immersion into the local culture, as compared to a usually shorter roundtrip or backpacking trip through Latin America or Southeast Asia. Moreover, it was a way for the them to make their travel not only beneficial to themselves, but also to the local communities they visited along the way.

My experience with the volunteer projects

When I started as a group leader in Ecuador, I had no experience in volunteering abroad. I was enthusiast and I really enjoyed the work. Each project had its own unique character and contribution to sustainable development. The projects seemed to be carefully selected by the local NGO which had a good reputation since many years in this sector. Of course, the volunteers were very young and not always as interested or motivated in the volunteer work itself, but with extra effort from our team we were able to lead them through the various phases of their program: despite them feeling homesick, sick, unmotivated or more interested in exploring the country or having a good party. 

When I later moved to Cambodia, I started to look different at things. The projects did not seem to be that well selected, I had the impression that the volunteer program was operated by a business rather than a community-based organization because the owner was a rich business man with many connections in the country. The owner let me stay in his boutique hotel for the whole Summer, where I was treated as a princess, which did not feel right to me. I felt that the volunteer business was for him part of a philanthropic effort while still making money out of it. Think of the Gates Foundation… There’s no such thing as a free gift. I started to learn slowly but steadily what volunteer tourism was about. The children in the orphanages seemed to be coming and going to the center whenever they wanted. I had to hand over hundreds of dollars to the school and orphanage directors without ever needing to ask what was happening with this money. The wife of my boss gave a television as her own birthday present to the school. There were no requirements for volunteers regarding minimum stay or teaching experience when going to teach in schools. The schools did not follow any learning plans (and neither did we offer to implement this) so the volunteers kept repeating the same basic stuff, and so on. 

I think I started to understand what was really going on (and what was really going wrong) when we were working on the water pump wells in Cambodia. While driving through the villages, I could see that many existing wells were broken or not operative. We drove further until we reached a village where there were no wells built yet. The plan was, according to my boss, to provide all villages with wells until everyone had water. It sounded great, but when I asked why we did not go to fix the broken ones or teach the village people how to use them better or how to repair them their selves, he said that was not in his business interest. Moreover, volunteers wanted to see instant result and he felt pressure to keep them happy with what they were doing. They needed to feel like they were making a difference. Here is when I realized that volunteer tourism is really a business which is not sustainable, and still mostly oriented towards the creation of profit for the volunteers and the organizers of it, rather than for the orphans, school children or village people.

Volunteer tourism is not a sustainable business.

– Julie Rausenberger

I decided not to continue my position after that contract (even though they offered to extend it) and I returned back to Belgium to start my Masters’ degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Leuven, where I wanted to research intimacy and the concept of gift-giving within the context of volunteer tourism, this time in Cuba. I never regret this decision to quit my job in the volunteer tourism industry because the volunteer program in Cambodia has been operating the same way it was since 2014, despite my constructive critique towards the company to be more careful in the selection of volunteer projects and their long-term implementation. 

My experience with the volunteers 

I worked with volunteer tourists from the United Kingdom who were mostly between 18-22 years old and who were currently on a gap year before starting their higher studies at the university. Most of them were dividing their year off between a few months of student work in the United Kingdom and traveling abroad to explore the world. The volunteers did the latter rather in organized and controlled ways because of different reasons: they felt too insecure to travel to far-away continents on their own, or were too unexperienced to go on a backpacking adventure on their own, or they did not have a travel mate, or they were not allowed by their parents to travel alone, or they did not know where to start, or they wanted to contribute to the world while traveling and volunteering, or they wanted to have a unique travel experience, or they were looking for a way to stay longer in one country without ‘just traveling’. They also gave the impression that they wanted to make a difference somehow this way, and that they were looking to ‘find their selves’ while seeking personal development in this year off. 

Some volunteers were even sent by their parents because their parents were convinced that this program abroad would broaden their horizon and would prepare themselves better for the ‘real world’. I had the impression that, in this case, the parents found their kids spoilt and wanted them to get out of their comfort zone by traveling in a basic but still organized and safe way (because of the guidance, group leader presence, follow up, weekly reports to parents, …). Also, the volunteer programs were very expensive and therefore obviously targeted towards a specific target group of richer families who sent their children on ‘an adventure of a lifetime’ in the hope that their children would learn not to take things for granted. Sometimes this led to paradoxical situations: the volunteers wanted to go back to basics and experience the ‘real Ecuador or Cambodia’ but in the same time they complained when their room was not ‘good enough’ or when they did not get cereals for breakfast or milk in their tea (knowing that milk and cereals are expensive in Cambodia).  

At times I was frustrated because the volunteers did not show as much interest and motivation in the volunteer work as I hoped for.

– Julie Rausenberger

A reason for this could be that they were sent by their parents, but also that they expected to see faster results. It was not motivational for them to be working on digging holes for water pipe lines in Chilcapamba, for example, for weeks. Rather, they seemed to be satisfied when they could see instant results such as when they were building a water well pump in Siem Reap: this only took a few days to be finished per well. I also noticed that they enjoyed it more to be surrounded by children or to be involved in social work in orphanages or schools. The fact that they never spoke the local language (Spanish or Khmer) withheld them from engaging more in-depth with the local community members they were working with, so the contact was again very limited and not reaching the level they had hoped for. With children, this seemed less problematic because playing did not need that much conversation. Interestingly, most of the volunteers did not make efforts before or while traveling in-country to learn the local language. This showed for me that they were only partially looking for a real engagement with the communities.

Last but not least, it speaks for itself that a large part of the trip was about fun, parties, adventures, activities and other things that are related to tourism for young travellers. The touristic aspect of the trip was very important to the volunteers, despite us – as organizers – trying constantly to put the voluntary work to the foreground. 

5. Which impacts did the work in these projects have to your personal life and to the other participants?

Impact on my personal life

At the very personal level, I think that the volunteering pushed me into the direction of my continued university studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology (after having studied Tourism and Leisure Management). I remember I met a French anthropologist, Richard Couedel, in the jungle in Ecuador. He was studying the community we were working with and eventually published a book “Yo me acuerdo, biografía de un líder Tsa’chila”about it a few years later. I was very inspired by his research and life in the community. A colleague of mine in Quito was also an anthropologist, so again, I felt that anthropology was a useful discipline to study if I wanted to continue a career in the non-profit sector. Most of all…

I realized after many personal experiences in the volunteer industry abroad, I could make a more meaningful difference by writing about volunteer tourism and researching the phenomenon than to do the actual volunteer work.

Julie Rausenberger

I also met very interesting people along the way while I worked within these organizations. For example, one of the volunteer coordinators in the UK became a friend and she now runs her own travel business in Tanzania and she has invited me to come over. Another colleague from Canada who worked in Ecuador with me is now living in New Zealand and working with another NGO, for example. It is these connections with other persons that I really value and that really had an impact on my life because they inspire me and make me believe that there are other life routes than a village life and a 9-to-5 job in Belgium.

Impact on the volunteers’ life

It is of course difficult to tell what the impacts of these volunteer programs were on the life of the volunteers because I did not keep in touch with all of them and I cannot know how they feel about it. However, from what I have seen, there are very varied scenarios: some people really opened up, I could see them becoming more confident, more assertive, more culturally aware and so on. Others could not deal with the out-of-the-comfort level of the volunteer programs. Some became very homesick or even wanted to go home (one volunteer really left home early despite us trying to cheer him up repeatedly). 

Others again saw this volunteer experience as the starting point and preparation for their independent travels. They went to travel afterwards on their own in Latin America of Southeast Asia. For some, this continuation of later travels – post-volunteering with our organization – turned out a great adventure, but for some it was a complete disaster: they were shocked how much they suddenly needed to plan and organize their selves without having the support and translation of our organization. 

On the long term, I kept in touch with some of the volunteers whom I saw growing from adolescents to young adults with a university degree and a full-time job nowadays. I do not have the impression that they became ambassadors for the volunteer work they did, or that they repeated a volunteer program ever again (not even in another country). They also did not become ‘world travellers’ or ‘frequent backpackers’, in most cases. Rather, I see them going back to a more traditional form of tourism (like package holidays or city trips within Europe) when I see and hear about their recent holidays on social media. 

One thing is for sure to me…

Volunteer programs have more impact on the personal development of the volunteers itself than that their personal effort has an impact on the volunteer projects

– Julie Rausenberger

6. What was the greatest experience during this time?

Without a doubt, I have the best memories from my time working as a volunteer group leader in Ecuador. Maybe because it was the first volunteer program I worked on, but I think it has to do with the professionalism of the NGO I worked for. The projects were very well selected and I was also very lucky to have a nice group of volunteers to lead. The most beautiful memory I have is from the Tsachila community in Ecuador because this was for me the most authentic experience. I slept in a wooden bungalow without electricity supply, there was only a natural toilet, and the shower was in the river in a lush forest. We ate bananas with fresh river fish in the morning and had no fridge. There was not even a phone signal and there was only one truck per day going to the nearest village one hour further from where I lived. The volunteer work was rewarding because we were planting small tree in bags to plant new forests to beat the deforestation in the area by American oil companies. I just knew how important this was for the local community and they were never able to build all of these trees ever again in this amount of time on top of their normal daily work. It was very humid and tough at times to work here, but because of the remote location and isolation of the community, we grew more closely together to the locals, even without knowing their language: Tsafiki.

I personally grew closer to the head of the community, who spoke Spanish, and for whom I translated everything to English to the volunteers. He was a shaman with a lot of natural wisdom who taught me to get closer connected to nature. He taught me about his spiritual life and the magic effects of ayahuasca (a traditional drink containing natural ingredients from the Amazon that causes shamans or healers to reach the expansion of their consciousness). For me, these are experiences and interactions that I will never forget. Also, the Yanapuma NGO worked together with him for many years in the battle against capitalism and the deforestation in the area, and they used the money for the conversation of this community. I really felt that the work we did, combined with the financial contribution of the volunteers, made a difference in their lives. 

7. How do you finance your trips?

I always had a both fortunate and unfortunate situation when I was a student: because I came from a rather disadvantaged family background, I managed to get scholarships more easily to finance my studies as well as my studies abroad. I got a scholarship for my internship in Ecuador and I was lucky that the NGO covered my daily expenses: Yanapuma provided food, accommodation, program related travel, and certain activities (such as white water rafting and mountain biking) while I was working as a group leader with my group. When the group was traveling to the Galapagos Islands, I had the option to stay on the mainland or to go with the group but then I had to pay my flight myself, but I still got accommodation and a few weeks off there. 

When I went to Cambodia, the company paid my flights and travel expenses, as well as housing and food. My personal expenses I covered with some saving money, which I gathered together from during student work in Belgium as a travel agent, social media manager, sales assistant, and many other student jobs that I combined with my studies. My parents have never supported my travels financially, but I always managed to budget my trips carefully. Gradually, I also became an expert in negotiating deals in destinations with local suppliers: for example, in Ecuador I would always take my volunteers to restaurants where I got good deals so that I could get something for free, or when I organized excursions for the groups in in Ecuador during their free time, I negotiated that I could join for free as their group leader. This way, I did not need much more additional pocket money to travel either.

8. In your opinion what is the best way to organise a volunteer trip?

I think the best way is to start with volunteering at home and to think about which values you are willing to represent and defend even before and after the volunteer trip.

– Julie Rausenberger

Especially now that we are living in a digital era, we can no longer find excuses to defend the values we stand for, whether these are civil rights in Ecuador or equal access to water in Cambodia. There are many social and political platforms where you can share your experiences, knowledge, where you can start campaigns, sign petitions, or you can become a member of an NGO in your country which defends your values. 

If you are then still feeling the need to go volunteering abroad, instead of empowering local communities in their own country, to defend their rights and develop their lands, then you should do a lot of research before you decide what you will do and where you will do and with whom you will do it. Nowadays, the internet is full of articles and papers about the pro’s and con’s regarding volunteer tourism. One good source I would recommend is: ‘Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad’, a book in which I contributed my experiences (anonymously) as well. On the website www.leaningservice.info you can find many useful tips and information on how to do ‘doing good’ well.

On a personal note: I found out about Learning Service through Daniela Papi. She was also working many years in the volunteer industry in Phnom Penh in Cambodia for PEPY Tours. When I first saw her TedX Talk on YoutubeI was mesmerized. In my opinion, she hit the nail on the haid. I started following her work and that’s how I started to understand better how to organize a volunteer trip.

Another good checklist on ethical volunteering trips abroad can be find on HostelWorld

9. What is your personal view on Volunteer Tourism? Do you have anything to criticize about that concept? (if yes, why and what?)

This is a very complex question to answer because I can give many arguments both pro and contra the phenomenon. As already mentioned, nowadays I support more the perspective of Service Learning, as developed on the website www.learningservice.info.

As mentioned before, I believe that people should not engage in volunteer tourism if they are not willing to OR engage in volunteering at home OR engage in defending the project at a long-term basis as ‘an ambassador for the good cause’ they are supporting during the trip. First of all, if you are willing to volunteer, there are plenty opportunities at home. If you are merely willing to do this because you can travel abroad, then maybe the intention is more self-centred / opportunistic than altruistic. I believe that the idea of volunteer tourism should still be to support local communities / projects / … primarily, your personal development should come second. So, basically, my greatest criticism would be that volunteer tourists tend to think more about how it will turn out for them personally, then for the ‘Other’ and this is a treat to the phenomenon. This is in line with critiques of volunteer tourists using their volunteer trip as an argument on their CV to show that they gained experiences in intercultural awareness etcetera. 

Also, I mentioned before that organizers of volunteer tourism should be engaging more with long-term goals and ways of working to improve the sustainability of projects and benefits for local communities. Think about the water pump wells in Cambodia example I gave. The problem that summarizes this tendency of ignorance is expertise. Both the organisations as the volunteers lack the expertise to be involved with volunteer tourism: the volunteers do not have the skills to be teaching English, for example, and the organizations do not have the means, tools or knowledge to be creating a sustainable project plan. 

What happens when there is a lack of awareness of expertise, is that volunteer tourism can do more harm than good.

– Julie Rausenberger

It is not good for children to get another teacher from another country every two weeks. The dynamic of volunteer tourism can also undermine local workers, who are put aside when a volunteer comes to take over the job.  

10.Meanwhile the combination of travel and voluntary work is developing into a profitable business. What do you think about tour operators that offer Volunteer Tourism? Is helping in this concept helpful for the locals?

First of all, we must recognise the difference between non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) offering volunteer programs and tour operators (commercial enterprises). 

To be honest, I think that tour operators are undoubtedly monetizing volunteerism into an industry. They are charging a lot of money for these programs, and most money goes into the organizational aspects of the volunteers’ trip as well as the support given to the volunteers. Many staff members are involved in a volunteer program: imagine that for my groups there was a travel agent involved in the UK, a webmaster, a marketing director, a volunteer coordinator, a group leader (or two in case there is a local group leader needed for translation or in case the groups are large) and a reservation agent for operational queries, just to name a few. The donations given to the projects are indeed also included in the expensive program prices, but I did not have the impression that the company cared about what is actually done with the money. For example, I remember that I had to donate money to an orphanage director who had the latest new smartphone and a nice motor cycle, and that I was promptly wondering whether it might have been that he bought those with the donation money (because we never got to see what he actually did with the donations). Also, in order to maintain a long-term collaboration with local projects, the projects need to remain ‘poor’ in order to be attractive in the ‘needy’ discourse that volunteer tourism organizations like to present to the tourists. This is such a pity. I think this is also the case with The Leap Gap Years Overseas, a company specializing in volunteer programs abroad for UK based travellers. 

In the case of NGOs, I think that the situation in much different. In Ecuador, for example, I worked with Yanapuma Foundation. This NGO has financial challenges to survive: they need to commercialize their projects through collaborations with volunteer companies such as The Leap Gap Years Overseas in order to earn an income to invest in their community project. They lack financial support by governments and depend on donations from volunteers. The money that they earn by collaborating with volunteer programs goes partially into the operational costs (such as housing, transport and staff salaries), but also to invest in the development of their projects. To give you an example, developing a website is very costly for an NGO and to finance this, they can also use the money they earn by their collaborations with tourists. You can also find the yearly reviews of NGOs online, or request them by email, which usually reflects their transparency. 

For the ‘locals’ involved in volunteer tourism, this is a business like another: whether you are selling a cooking workshop or a toilet construction project, it is basically the same. I had the impression that the locals saw it as a job and that they were nothing like ‘the needy’ persons that are often depicted in advertisements for volunteer tourism. They gave me the impression of participating in the game of tourism: you look authentic, poor, smile, be thankful, speak a little bit, show them a bit of what traditional skill you can, and in return they get paid for this. Maybe it is not always this straight forward: sometimes the organizers will come ‘for free’ and are ‘invited’ by local communities, but they are well aware that such a collaboration will help them to construct a new house or that they will leave them with a donation at the end, for example. In this regard, I am still very frustrated with the power dynamics going on in the First World Giver – Third World Receiver discourse that is deeply entangled in the tourism industry. I tried to write about this in my Masters’ thesis as well.

In summary, I think there is always an interest involved, whether financial or not, for all of the parties involved, and it is therefore much less about the actual help that local communities or projects need than about economic or personal development for the parties involved. 

If volunteer tourism organisations and volunteer tourists really wanted to help local communities, they would pass on their knowledge and skills to the local communities involved. 

– Julie Rausenberger

However, this does usually not happen because it would translate soon into a death end of the business, which it unfortunately remains. I questioned once too: why do we not invest the money that we spend on our volunteer program travels ourselves fully into a donation, if we would really want to help financially? Ah, because maybe the volunteer wants to travel more than he wants to support?!

11.Is a catalogue of requirements for tour operators or anyone who offers Volunteer Tourism in that business appropriate (as an entrance examination)?

The last decade there has been an increasing attention paid by NGOs and in academia to the volunteer tourism industry. Many articles are published in scientific journals and online to raise awareness about the issues with volunteer tourism. Simultaneously, the volunteer tourism industry is booming and Generation Y, or the Millenials, keep showing a significant interest in traveling ‘for a good cause’. 

Many organizations have been publishing guidelines and tips about ‘how to volunteer abroad ethically’ and ‘how to avoid the voluntourism gap’. Tour operators such as Gadventures nowadays promote such guidelines on their own websites by collaborating with Planeterra, for example. Together with the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Planeterra (a leading non-profit organisation dedicated to sustainable community development and environmental conversation through travel), has set up a set of criteria to help volunteer tourism organisers to offer, plan and manage their volunteer programs. 

A catalogue of requirements exists but there is no overarching international organization that is controlling their operations. There are organizations who try it, such as Fair Trade Tourism in Africa and beyond, but I think there is a need for more attention to be paid by the phenomenon ‘volunteer tourism’ at a global scale by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)The Code on Responsible Travel launched in 2017 was a good start. Hopefully it is the beginning of a continued trend.

12.Critics are particularly concerned that unskilled volunteers take a part in the children lives, especially short-time stays are under strong critique which do more harm than good. Do you agree?

Yes, as mentioned above, I believe that it is irresponsible to engage as a volunteer tourist for a short period of time in teaching English to children in schools or to engage in social work more generally. Orphanage tourism should be banned overall, regardless of volunteer activities being short term or long term because it is focusing too much on compassion and guilt. This again something that I tried to explain in my thesis ‘Why Don’t You Give Me Some Love?!’ in Section 4.3.4 on ‘Help, Consciousness or Guilt?’ (page 84).  

Orphanage tourism should be banned worldwide because it focuses on discourses of compassion and guilt.

– Julie Rausenberger

When I was working with orphans in Cambodia, I heard rumours that the children were bought from their own families to go and live in an orphanage. For their families this initially seemed an excellent opportunity: they got money which they otherwise never be able to earn and they were promised that their child would be educated, well fed and taken care of. However, the child was taken away from its family which could sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and detachment. Moreover, when the child got ill or misbehaved in front of tourists, orphanages tend to send back the child to its family. The family then ends up dealing with the problem and loses the money. These are situations that I believe often happen. The offer is, in most cases, too good to be true.

13.Local people get degraded to an aid recipient, volunteers presented as social workers or even heroes. The communication doesn’t seem to meet at eye level. How would it be possible to change the point of view in their heads?

*This question is hard to answer as it is not entirely clear to me. Volunteers are presented by who as social workers? Which communication are you referring to? Whose communication are you referring to when mentioning ‘the communication’? Whose heads are you referring to?* 

I assume that you are trying to ask how I suggest to change the mentality of volunteer tourists when it comes to their – what we call in academia – ‘White Savior Complex’. It refers to white people helping non-white people, which can be perceived as self-interested and which is typical to our times. I think that the book ‘The White Man’s Burden’by Rudyard Kipling is explaining very well what is going on, still today.

Communication of volunteer organisations is a matter of marketing, not anthropology, unfortunately. There is a lack of cultural relativism in volunteer tourism discourses as adapted by volunteer companies.The often-used expressions such as ‘Discover the real Africa’, ‘Help poor people now’, ‘give back to society’ and ‘go local’, are good examples of typical expressions that can be problematized from an anthropological perspective. Not enough attention is given to the agency – the capacity of persons to independently act and make their own decisions or choices – in the press or in marketing of such companies because they want to enforce the hegemonic discourse of need. In Ecuador, for example, I have personally witnessed that the local communities were acting as very powerful examples of sustainable development to other communities in their society. They were seen as creative entrepreneurs with an open-minded approach to development because they were having cross-cultural relationships with volunteers around the globe, learning foreign languages and because they were actively engaging in political struggles to defend their lands. 

Marketeers in the volunteer tourism industry still reinforce the hegemonic discourse of need in development cooperation.

Julie Rausenberger

Even more, sometimes – I would dare to say – communities were actively trying to ‘play’ the ‘impoverished’ role because it was in their economic advantage. This was especially the case in Cuba, where I have been participating in a volunteer brigade to express solidarity with the Cuban Revolution in 2016. We often neglect the agency of the communities we work with because we are made believe that they need our help. The first steps to change this would probably be education, ethically responsible marketing and communication and no misleading advertisement and press. 

14.Do you think a volunteer trip has more good impact on the local society than bad?

Like any other type of tourism, volunteer tourism has a strong effect on the development of a local society, village or community.There are always positive and negative consequences involved in this, depending on the parties involved and the perspective you have. Economically, volunteer tourism will be beneficial for those parties involved that work in the industry. For others, it might translate in a loss of jobs: think about English teachers in Thailand, for example. At the socio-cultural level, I do not believe that volunteer tourism is good: it reinforces unequal power relations in the world through a First World giver and Third World receiver discourse and it reinforces tourism as neo-colonialism through its indirect political control over developing countries. 

15.How can you improve Volunteer Tourism in regard to the critical points that it might has?

I often feel ashamed these days when I look back to my volunteer tourism activities and because I actively promoted the industry myself. I feel that I have been part of the neo-imperialistic machine that characterizes the capitalistic rather than altruistic trend in volunteer tourism. However, there is no way back and I cannot erase my past experiences. I can only turn my negative experiences into something positive: I have therefore transformed my attitude towards one of service learning (and this interview is part of this transformative attitude). 

I feel that I have been part of the neo-imperialistic machine that characterizes the capitalistic rather than altruistic trend in volunteer tourism.

– Julie Rausenberger

I learned to accept my ‘mistakes’ in the volunteer industry abroad by turning it into something positive these days back at home: because of my own experiences I also have the power to share why volunteer tourism is bad and now I try to encourage people to think twice before they book their volunteer trip, rather than to support them to ‘do more harm than good’. I believe that if all ex volunteer tourists who feel the same can unite and spread this message of a sustainable tourism and inspire other to engage in positive volunteer practices at home and abroad.

Interview conducted by Julia Rommel.

Interviewee: Julie Rausenberger

From Ecuador to Cambodia .with Love.

Quite a lot of things have changed since my last update from Ecuador. I am currently 18.500 km further, literally on the other side of the world, and a lot has happened in the last few weeks and days, wherefore I didn’t manage to structure some nice blog posts. So for all of the ones who cannot follow (I can’t follow myself sometimes anymore), here’s a short update of a long journey to a new life in Cambodia.

I returned from Quito (Ecuador) to Brussels (Belgium) the 20th of June, had a only a full 3 days there to meet up with my family and friends, and left again the 24th of June towards Bangkok (Thailand), from where I would take a long distance bus crossing the border to Siem Reap (Cambodia), my new hometown for the next two months. Taking The Leap again for the Summer Program was the most crazy and impulsive decision I’ve probably made in my entire life, as it meant I would be tour leading again for two months… I was also absolutely NOT prepared for this one (as it would be my first time in Asia!), but I switched OFF the ‘think’-button and ON the ‘do’-button. Trust was the new keyword in my life, after many crazy experiences, and I was sure this would be another great time abroad.

job

I decided to do this job for many reasons: first of all because it was LIVING THE DREAM, an amazing chance I had to take, and travelling for a long time abroad had done something with the person I was and the life I lived… I was questioning all aspects in life: my studies, my job, my home, my boyfriend, my friends, my lifestyle, … In Ecuador I had learned that gap years are all about finding yourself, but when you find yourself, the reality just does not make sense anymore. And I felt like I could use the time to overthink life some more and have a better perspective on things when I would return the end of August.

Every end is a new beginning, and all great changes are proceeded by chaos… With these new quotes I left for a 9 hours flight to Mumbai (India) where I had a stopover for my flight to Bangkok (Thailand). During that time in the airport and on the flight, I got to taste a little of the Indian culture and I can ensure you: this country is on my wishlist even more now: lovely people, a special culture and delicious food! Then I flew another 4 hours further, arriving in Bangkok (Thailand) where I would spend 1 night before crossing the border to Cambodia.

bangkok

Me hanging around the Buddhist temples of Bangkok

It was my first time in Asia, and I expected to have a serious culture shock again, but I guess I was getting used to travelling and getting lost in a new city. I was simply amazed by all the cultural differences: how a city can be so busy and chaotic from the ‘outside’, but as soon as you enter a temple (the ‘inside), you feel Buddha’s everlasting peacefulness… I also loved the fact that they all walked barefoot in temples 😛 Add up the amazing Thai food to that, and you’ll understand why I enjoyed Bangkok so much. Love at first sight, and definetely ready to return in August for another overnight stop before flying back to Belgium!

A few tuk tuk and Sky train rides, and 500 questions about finding my way later, I was on my way to Cambodia. The border crossing experience was “something else” (as Kevin Hart would say it), with the usual chaos and visa procedures, but I kept calm and arrived safe but sweaty in Siem Reap, a 9 hour bus route from Bangkok.

The first thing I noticed was the amazing hospitality of the Cambodian people, who seem to live to serve others. An amazing feeling that sometimes overwhelmes me too much, coming from a rough and tough culture in South America where hospitality is not even mentioned in the Spanish dictionnary… I also felt safe, very very safe, even in all this tuk tuk and motorcycle chaos.

I got a room in ‘Angkor Boutique Villa’, where I met my new boss upon arrival. He was the owner of the hotel and he told me I would stay in this place during my whole time with The Leap in Siem Reap. That ment: airconditioning, a mini-fridge, a hot shower and room cleaning service all the time. This was such a blessing!

Angkor Boutique Hotel

A room at Angkor Boutique Villa, this is HOME.

http://www.angkorboutiquevilla.com/

We also had a 4-course dinner with the group leading team. I felt like I was the only one talking on the table, which made me feel quite stupid. But I immediately realised: these people are just so ZEN and stress is a word that they didn’t seem to know. So frustrating, haha! Who am I going to share my dramaqueen-moments with now?? 😉 No, seriously, the people are shy, open to listen but they obviously think twice before they speak. They are so well mannered that sometimes it feels artificial and as if they studied what they supposed to say. I definetely have culture shock with that part, and have to get used to dealing with the locals in a proper way…

Also, the weather is hot and humid, more than anywhere in Ecuador and I had no idea how I would ever be able to work here. God bless the A/C in my room! The food is nice, less spicy than in Thailand and of course every day twice rice, but they use curries, basil and lemongrass a lot. Hmm, I love Khmer cuisine!

Khmer Amok

Khmer Amok – A typical curry dish

Friday was my first day of work, again it surprised me how relaxed everyone was working (barefoot) in the office. I felt welcomed and they already asked me to stay working after one day for a longer period. Guess they liked me!

I felt quite privileged having my boss, a busy man running 2 travel agencies and 1 hotel, all for myself on a few private tours, introducing me to the volunteer projects around Siem Reap. Honestly, it was all way too overwhelming and too much information to absorb in only two days, but I just went along with it and let it all happen to me. Trying not to stress out was definetely easier with calm people around me. God, I need to learn how to meditate…

It were also very emotional days, going directly to the poorest areas where hundreds of poor kids lived in bad conditions, and on the other hand realizing I really did it. I left Belgium again for 2 months and I started to realize it for real now! But luckily, there was not much time to think…

Siem Reap Projects Volunteer

Mother and child in a local community, Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Saturday evening I had a business dinner with the company I worked for (Indochina Adventures, the local agent for The Leap in Cambodia). I didn’t understand much of the Khmer conversations they were having (and it’s hopeless to start studying this difficult language). Also, I wasn’t prepared with my adventurous backpack clothes to participate in this ‘beau monde’ life. And I had difficulties being served with another 4-course dinner while the same day children on the street were begging me for money and food a few blocks away from that same restaurant. What a shocking contrast!

Siem Reap was one big tourist resort, in my eyes, where one can find every Western product wished for. Made in China, low prices and happy hours everywhere… I could see a Leap group having the time of their lives here soon… Whether I honestly liked it, is something else, because I lacked authenticity and I wasn’t used to having such a big offer in comfort food and products anymore, after living in Ecuador anymore. I missed my ‘back to basics’ life!!!

Early in the morning on Sunday, I left Siem Reap to Pnomh Penh and Sihanouk Ville to visit the volunteer projects there. They bought me first class VIP bus tickets and my gave me $100 cash to pay my hotel and eat 2 days. I felt treathed like a princess, being picked up at the hotel entrance and given a packed breakfast box for on the way. This was too much!! Such a big contrast from where I came from and I wondered why I was being treathed so well here. But I could find a reasonable answer and decided to believe I deserved all of this after 4 months in Ecuador and I would give the best of myself of work, that was the only thing I could do in return and a good motivation to start of with!

Sihanouk Ville

Sunset in Sihanouk Ville

It were 7,5 hours to Pnomh Penh (the capital city of Cambodia) and another 6 hours to Sihanouk Ville (beach alarm!), so it was too much time to think for me on the bus, and arriving in another tourism paradise like this on my own was hard and confrontating. I felt lonely and lost in this paradise, had too much time for myself – being here to work and “change the world” – not to enjoy really, but I kept strong thinking about the great times that would come once the group arrived and then I didn’t have to be lonely anymore, being able to start doing what I loved to do: group leading, volunteer coordinating, working hard on the projects and party even harder. (HELLO GOD? IS THERE A WAY TO SIGN A CONTRACT FOR LIFE TO DO THIS DREAM JOB?)

I just hated this random days before / between a new phase in life, when you don’t know what to do with yourself. You’re preparing and preparing, but in the same time you know you’ll never feel prepared enough, so sometimes in life (no, most of the times in life) you just have to stop thinking and start doing! And that’s exactly what I did when I decided to go from Ecuador to Cambodia, and the reason why good things happen!

Take The Leap, Take The Risk. Take The Chance.

It might be worth it! ❤

Julie

risk care dream expect

 

Ruta del Sol & a YOLO mistake

The last week of the 10 week program with The Leap was pretty intense. Not only did we do the Ruta del Sol (Itinerary of the Sun) – Guayaquil, Montañita, Puerto Lopez – and party hard every night of the week, we also came to the final moment in which we had to say goodbye to each other. Many tears flooded and emotions were strong. We’ve had a great team and nobody wanted this journey ever to end, I guess. Last but not least, I will reveal some YOLO story in this post… So keep reading and find it out!

montanita

The Ruta del Sol could better have been called Ruta del Alcohol, because to be honest we’ve seen more alcohol than sun that week. I do not really have much more to tell in this blog post then that we ate, slept, drank and partied. We started our itinerary in Quito, after returning from Mindo, and woke up at 3AM to catch a bus early in the morning towards Guayaquil.

With almost 4 million people, Guayaquil is the largest and most populous city in Ecuador. Located on the coast, it is as well the nation’s main port. The Malécon 2000 is the symbolic center of the city, with much green and many shops in the area. We only had a few looks from out of the bus, driving along the city to the bus terminal. So we did not spend much time there, just a quick hop to catch the next bus to Montañita, and had lunch in Mc Donalds!!! What a fancy bus terminal they had there!

guayaquil

Malecon 2000, Guayaquil (Ecuador)

We arrived around dinner time in Montañita and enjoyed our first night out partying as it should. Montañita is a small coastal town in the south coast of Ecuador. It is translated as ‘little hill’ because it became famous so slowly. It is a place for surfing and used to be a rustic fishermen town. In 1960, some hippies settled in Montañita and now it is a popular destination for surfers from around the world. Moreover, it is considered one of the best beaches in Ecuador, and it has a great nightlife! We enjoyed the sunset and left for our first party night out!

montanita sunset

Sunset in Montañita

Montañita is one of the few beaches in Ecuador where (European) women frequently go topless, according to Wikipedia. However, I am European but I did not do it… 😉 There was one night in which I wanted to go “skinny-dipping”, but eventually that did not happen. Guess we were not drunk enough… 😛

Another Wikipedia fact is that Montañita is the only place in Ecuador where marijuana is smoked freely. Marijuana is illegal in Ecuador, but you can smell and see it in the Streets every single day.

montanita party night 1

Montañita – Party Night N°1

It is very common to hear reggea and reggeaton music on street corners, to see banners of peace symbols and hippies who hang around. Gay travellers should also very comfortable here, as walking holding hands is freely accepted.

The Streets of Montañita are filled with international bars, restaurants and cafés. Our favourite street was ‘Cocktail Alley’ where cocktails were freshly blended for $4,00 a cup. A cheap and eficient way to get our nights started!

montanita party night 2

Montañita – Party Night N°2

The second day the other Leap group that was travelling through Ecuador in a different sequence, also arrived in this party town and joined our group for the daily celebrations. We had the whole hostel for ourselves, as we were 25 persons in total. The atmosphere was insane! ❤

montanita party night

Montañita – Party Night N°3

I was happy to have the other (Dutch) group leader around for the next days, as most of the group members spent the daytime sleeping… We usually went out with them to party, but came back at a more descent time (as we were still on duty here!! Remember… Group leading IS an actual JOB). So during daylight we enjoyed food, drinks and terraces (paid by the company) and wandered around town… And at night we joined the groups for dinner and pre-drinking games.

montanita last dinner

Montañita – Party Night N°4

The last night we planned a dinner with both groups together in the same restaurant and we bought some huge beertaps for all. Food and drinks were great, as usually here in Montañita, and we went out for a last – and of course even more crazy – night out. I think what happened in Montañita should definetely stay in Montañita, and that Montañita was a YOLO town more then any other place in Ecuador. We all had great fun, crazy memories and an incredible experience!

However, it was pretty hard to wake up all 23 group members to leave to the next ‘Ruta del Sol’ destination the day after. With some pretty sweet hangovers and a big lack of descent sleep, we left by public bus to Puerto Lopez. This is a a small fishing village set in an arched bay on the Pacific coast in the Ecuadorian Manabí Province.

On the streets near the beach you can find restaurants and beach bars with hammocks, while the other streets have some travel agencies where you can book a tour for whalewatching or fishing. Amberjack, dolphins, wahoos, marlins and tunas are many of the different species that you can see just off the coast. Of course, we only did the laid back activities and didn’t go whalewatching due to our time limit.

Puerto Lopez

Puerto Lopez – City views

After a night bus back to Quito, our final day had come. I held a global evaluation session with the group and they filled in a survey. It was an emotional moment, and the results of the questionnaire were amazing. I got to read amazing comments and Yanapuma was very happy with this final results. They gave me 94% for my internship! Some examples of comments:

“Julie was like a friend but also led us really well, always making me feel safe. Did not distance herself from us but joined in with everything we did while still being responsible”

“Julie was brilliant throughout, very laid back but was strict and purposeful in the situations where it was needed. Even though she was our leader, it still felt like she was one of us in the group and that´s definitely a good thing”

“Julie has been an excellent leader. I have absolutely no complaints. She was extremely approachable, and dealt brilliantly when she had to take people to the hospital, for example. Being so close to us in age was imperative”

julie group leader

Survey Result – Thank you, Leapers!!! 

After a very last goodbye dinner, goodbye speech and goodbye breakfast, it was time to say GOODBYE – which was really hard. Of course there were many tears, more then I expected, but after all… It were tears of gratitude. This had been one of the most life changing experiences for each and everyone of us. For me, this had been the biggest carreer jump so far, and even though I had not find myself yet in this whole wide world, I came so much closer to myself, to what I feel as where I am born for. I felt truly blessed for this opportunity, for having such a great group and seeing such a beautiful country. There were no words to describe the feeling!

despedida yanapuma the leap april ecuador

“La despedida” – Goodbye Picture Leap Group B

The YOLO Mistake….

I kept it a secret for quite a long time, but now it’s time to tell it…. Where do I start…

I ended up buying a T-shirt saying “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, Montañita – Ecuador”. The whole group laughed at my for that, but that was not the YOLO mistake I was planning to reveal. YOLO, in our case was You Only Leap Once. But that’s a mistake: I’m going to Leap twice!!! Yep, you hear it well, I am off this summer to be a Group Leader again. The Leap offered me a job in Cambodia, a country of which I did not even know the capital city before now. But I looked at the program, saw it was great, booked my tickets and gone am I again the end of June. I am super excited for this new experience and I feel this is a perfect kind of synchronity in my life, as I was feeling my life needed a change. Thanks for the opportunities to The Leap, one of the greatest companies I know, just because they believe in young people who are motivated to gain experience and discover new horizons in life! #feelingblessed!

yolo

Hello Cambodia July 2014 ‘Summer Program’ 

The Cloud Forest of Mindo

After working hard for two weeks in the Andes, we were rewarded by a free weekend to enjoy the cloud forest of Mindo. We travelled about half of the day, and arrived in the afternoon in the tiny but beautiful village of Mindo.

With its breathtaking settings surrounded by cloud forest on all sides, the small village of Mindo has become a backpackers favourite in Ecuador the latest years. It lives and breathes tourism, and it is conveniently located just off the main road between Quito and Esmeraldas.

Mindo is a paradise for birdwatchers, hikers and adventurers as there are loads of activities to do: butterfly farms, zip lines over the treetops, mountain-biking, tubing, orchid collections, and so on… Me and my group opted for a visit to the chocolate factory on Saturday, tubing on Sunday and a waterfall tour on Monday.

Mindo The Leap

Leap Team B in Mindo

Saturday 31/05/14: Chocolate Factory

Straight after our arrival in Mindo, we booked a tour to El Quetzal, the Chocolate Factory of Mindo. It has a wonderful laid-back coffee shop and the real reason to visit it is to try the locally famous brownie, the American owner’s proud specialty, according to Lonely Planet. And so we did!

We got a tour to see the whole chocolate making process, where they grew the cacao tree, how they roasted the beans, how they mixed the chocolate and so on. But the highlight of our tour was of course the tasting workshop, where we tried various types of chocolate (very pure and healthy) with sirops, herbs and spices. It was quite an experience, and the brownie was indeed unforgettably delicious!

Mindo Chocolate Factory

Brownies at El Quetzal

Saturday evening it was time to discover Mindo’s nightlife, and we ended up chilling in a treehouse bar zipping pinneaple daiquiris and other cocktails. It was a good night, hanging around as one big family team! 🙂

Sunday 01/06/14: Tubing

After quite an early breakfast, we had to postphone our tour of the day to the afternoon as it was raining. Not that it was a problem, because Sunday is usually a lazy day and nobody felt like moving. I wandered around in town, worked on the computer and in the afternoon the group went tubing. Tubing the rapids of Rio Mindo is a very popular activity, but can be also dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Therefor, it is always guided. Cost? $6. Not bad!

Mindo TubingTubing Activity

The evening was spend more relaxed and laid-back, having dinner at Biohostal and going to bed early for tomorrow’s trip.

Monday 02/06/14: Waterfall Tour

After an early breakfast we left for another tour, my favourite one in Mindo! The Tarabita, a unique hand-powered cable car, took us soaring across the lush river basin over the tick cloud forest to the Bosque Protector Mindo-Nambillo, where you can find lots of waterfalls along the hiking trail.

The perfectly safe wirte basked on steel cables glides 152m above the ground and, though certainly not for people who are afraid of heights, it is a superb way to get above the forest and enjoy incredible views!

Mindo TarabitaEnjoying the Tarabita views

Cascada Nambillo was the closest waterfall on our map and trail, and took us more or less 15 minutes walking to get there. It was a nice hike with impressive views along the way. In order to get to the waterfalls, we had to do a hell of a rock climb – which I was absolutely not planning to do – but took us to a magical place, where the boys found their paradise and encountered their inner Tarzans! 😛

They used the tubes, the water slide, the ropes, the rocks, the water, and everything else you can imagine to make some waterfall fun!

Mindo WaterfallsRock climbing at Cascada Nambillo

We headed back to Mindo town around lunch time, I bought bus tickets, made invoices, arranged a place for lunch and so on, and then we took the bus to Quito, where we arrived around dinner time. It was a nice and calm but still very enjoyable last weekend of our Leap program.

Next on schedule:

The Ruta del Sol, the last week of The Leap!

Oh my god… Time flies when you’re having fun!!!

x x x

Julie

Volunteering in The Andes + Otavalo Weekend

After a successful adventure week it was time to get back to work. Together with my group, I left Quito to Otavalo, and after some ‘camioneta’-rides later we arrived in Chilcapamba. Here we would stay 2 weeks to work on a community project, providing water to the local houses. The free weekend was spend discovering the markets of Otavalo and discovering Laguna de Cuicocha. Enjoy the story!

The Andes Otavalo The Leap

My Leap Group with Don Alfonso in Otavalo

It had been a shocking night and nobody felt really in the mood to leave to the next community, as we only had a few hours of sleep and a traumatic experience (see blog post Riobamba). But we survived a 5 hour trip from Quito to Otavalo to Quiroga to Chilcapamba, somewhere deep in the valleys of the Andes… The first day was spend dividing rooms, eating and doing siestas. We got a quick introduction by our project host Alfonso Morales, the leader of the Chilcapamba community and many others in the area. Quite early we went to sleep, preparing ourselves for some hard work the next weeks.

The Andes Chilcapamba Welcome

Welcome to Chilcapamba

Chilcapamba is one of Yanapuma’s sustainable community development projects in the Andes. Located in the north of Quito, near the famous market town of Otavalo, this population lives by farming and the production of various crafts. Our involvement with this community consisted in carrying out a water project, helping in the local school and other tasks related to agriculture. In the afternoon my Leapers enjoyed Spanish classes, which meant that I had some time off every day to relax or do some paperwork in the internet cafe. We lived in a volunteer house with an indigenous family, and explored the local environment and culture.

The first morning I enjoyed a hot shower around 6.30AM and woke the rest of the group up around 7.30AM. During breakfast we divided our daily tasks in a democratic way (everyday 2 persons helping in the school and 2 cleaning team + the rest worked on the project). We started our work after walking around 15 minutes to a road nearby, where two local men pointed us a place to start digging holes. The aim: finding the water pipe lines, opening them to put an extra segment to provide water to the houses nearby.

The Andes Chilcapamba

Water pipe line

This work we did every day from 8.30AM until 1PM. I can garantee you that I have discovered muscle parts in my body of which I did not know they excisted and it was quite a work out for all of us! But we were giving freedom to work at own pace, as the local men just dropped us at our work spots every day. We digged an average of 2 holes per 4 persons a day, so 4 holes a day. And that during a week. So our contribution as volunteers was giving 20 families in Chilcapamba water!

The Andes chilcapamba

One of my Leapers and I working hard 😛

In the afternoons I usually went to the internetcafe, which was a 20 minute walk up the hill from the volunteer house. I had a few hours free every day while my group members had their Spanish courses. Sometimes I just stayed home and did a siesta or read a book. But I loved the walk through the fields, admiring the surrounding mountains and corn fields. It had a very quiet atmosphere and made me feel closer to myself. Like a meditation walk…

 The Andes Fields

Views on my way to the internet café…

The evenings we spend playing card games, Maffia, having someone’s birthday party, playing ‘Would you rather…’ in the room, watching the stars on the rooftop terrace and playing football next door with the local kids. Days passed by quickly like this, even though it was a more boring experience living the farm life then the jungle life (Tsachila) or the island life (Galapagos)…

The food in the Andes was OK, but nothing more then that. And after a few days, your body is craving for proteins, which it doesn’t get a lot here. Breakfast was usually the best of the day, as they brought us fresh bread with jam and hot chocolate milk. The locals ate rice, eggs and beans. For lunch we always got a fresh juice and soup with potatoe and corn in it, followed by rice, some vegetables, beans and more rice. Dinner was the same. We hardly got any meat, which was no problem for me as I am almost vegetarian. But having only rice, two times a day for two weeks was a though diet. There were hardly fruits either, so it was not really a balanced diet either. But exactly that is one of the problems of the Kichwa people that live in this community. There is a lot of malnutrition, and people need to eat more carbohydrates because of the altitude.

food sierra

Typical dishes in the Andes (Sierra)

On Wednesday the Spanish courses were cancelled, and we got to finish work early because we were invited by the Ministerio del Ambiente (Ministry of Environment) to participate in a congress. We got a V.I.P. pick-up service (read: camioneta) from Chilcapamba to Otavalo, and were assisted by our project leader Don Alfonso the whole time. We saw him making a speech, signing a contract about God-knows-what, enjoyed some free-style Ecuadorian entertainment and sweet food afterwards during the reception. Although the group did not understand a word of what was going on (and I could impossibly translate because we had to be quiet the whole time), it was a great experience and I felt very thankful to be invited in this event. It was the first time that volunteers from abroad were recognised by the Ministry to participate in this kind of events, so it was really a valuable experience! Late in the evening we went back to the community for dinner by camioneta…

The Andes Ministerio del AMbiente

Ministerio del Ambiente – Pretty Building in Otavalo

 The next days were a little difficult on personal level. I had a fight with my boyfriend, things were all going so great here in Ecuador with my internship and The Leap, but at the homefront nothing seemed to be going well: bad communication, plans that did not work out, … I felt like I never wanted to return back home, and every day walking in the mountains to the internet cafe I was thinking more and more about how I would love to disappear and go somewhere else on this earth. I felt happy and in the same time lost. As if I was not the same person anymore and wanted to start a new life somewhere else in this world, gone from all negativity, continuing this positive vibe I was living here with my projects. And I wondered: am I just becoming a different person or is this place just a different world? I had no idea about who I was and what I wanted in life, and that was so funny, because all I every tried to convince my group from was ‘finding theirselves’ during their Gap Year. But to be honest: once you find yourself, you’re fucked up and more lost then ever because your whole life does not fit in the person that you have found there and then! Or maybe life was just perfect the way it was, but people are constantly looking for issues? I didn’t know, I just felt like something was about to change…

Anyway, before I knew it, it was Friday – yep, thank God it’s Friday! I participated in a fun Spanish class where the Leapers had to taste typical Ecuadorian fruits and had a lot of fun! And because we were leaving for the weekend in the afternoon, there was no MINGA (community work) planned for today, just the Spanish classes in the morning. I enjoyed the sun, the fruits, called some camionetas, made reservations, made sure the rooms were left clean before the weekend and then we left…

The Andes Spanish classes

Fruit games during Spanish classes in the Volunteer House 

When we arrived in Otavalo, checked in at the hostel (Flying Donkey, very recommendable BTW), we walked around in the shopping street and enjoyed a descent dinner together. I enjoyed my lasagna so much after a week of rice! 😉 You can imagine… After my favourite cocktail – Piña Colada – it was time to head to bed and prepare for  a sweet day…

Otavalo has hosted one of the most important markets in the Andes for hundreds of years, and is therefor one of the main tourist attractions in Ecuador. In the colorful open-air marketplace, vendors hawk everything from handmade traditional crafts to imported (table)clothes. Packs of tourists from around the globe hunt for bargains here, and go home with loads of souvenirs.

The Otavaleños are indigenous people who are known for their animal trading on the early morning markets, and their exquisite weavings. They are the wealthiest and most commercially successful indígena people in Ecuador, which makes that most of them live in more comfort than other Ecuadorians.

Saturday morning, I woke up at 6AM and managed to wake up not even half of my group to go to the animal market. There we have seen screaming piglets, bags of guinea pigs and many cows. The market is actually not nice at all seeing all this animals suffering, but the atmosphere is unbeatable and the chaos has something cool!

The Andes Animal Market

Feria de Animales, Otavalo

After the animal market, we woke the rest of the group up in the hostal and went for breakfast together. Then it was time for the other market: the crafts market! This market is located at Plaza de Ponchos, and this is where the real action happens every Saturday, because then the market swells into adjacent roads and around half of the town center is a sea of brightly dyed carpets, clothings and other trinkets then. You can buy so many things there: woolen goods such as rugs, tapestries, blankets, ponchos, sweaters, scarves, gloves and hats, as well as blouses, hammocks, carvings, beads, paintings, woven mats, jewelry and so on. I spent more or less 100 USD on souvenirs there, and I managed to bargain for another 100 USD. After one whole day you get to know the skills to do it!

The Andes Otavalo crafts market

Shopping at Otavalo’s Crafts Market

The afternoon was spent watching football by the boys, and I took the girls to the Cascadas de Peguche. We took a taxi just outside of town, and were dropped off near a trail leading to the waterfalls. These falls are sacred to the locals and are very impressive. Entrance is free so another reason more to visit!

The Andes Cascadas de Peguche

Cascadas de Peguche

In the evening we went out all together for pizza in Otavalo, and had some pre-drinking games in the hostal room before going out. I stayed in, tired from the busy day, and the others came back before I closed my eyes because they did not find a club. Lol, that was funny! 😛

Sunday morning we left after breakfast to drop off our luggage and many souvenirs in the volunteer house, and took the same camionetas to head further to La Laguna de Cuicocha, which was around 20 minutes from our community in Chilcapamba. It is a lagoon cradled in a collapsed volcanic crater some 3 km wide and 200m deep and it features two mounded islands that shot up in later eruptions. The islands look like the backs of two guinea pigs, hence the name “cuicocha” means ‘guinea pig lake’ in Kichwa.

The Andes Laguna de Cuicocha

Me and my boys!

We did not hike the trail nor did the boat trip because none of us felt like doing a lot of excercise, due to busy last days. In stead, we enjoyed the views from the view point and had a nice lunch in Restaurante El Mirador…

In the late afternoon we went back to Chilcapamba, where some of us did a siesta and I headed to the horse races in Quiroga to socialize with the locals. It was also a good walk, 20 minutes down and 30 minutes back up hill.

The Andes Horse races Quiroga

Horse Races in Quiroga

Monday it was back to work! Today I was on schedule to work with the kids and help out a hand in the kitchen, together with one of my boys. The others were picking corn in a field, to have some variation on the never ending digging water pipe holes. It was a good day! After I translated the instructions from one of the Kichwa women, we started to help in the kitchen making breads (donuts?) for the kids. Then afterwards, we got to bring them to the nursery of the community.

The Andes Kichwa woman

Helping a Kicha woman in the kitchen

In the nursery, we gave the kids hot banana milk, the donuts that we made and played with them. We teached them how to count and some letters of the alphabet. They all called us “TURISTA” which was a little bit discriminating I thought, but in the same time cute and sweet of them. They made some dances for us and we sang a song.

We went back to the kitchen to prepare lunch and went back to feed them. Then we played with them outside, and finally it was time for us too to have lunch with the other volunteers. A nice experience!

The Andes kids kichwa

Kichwa Kids

After lunch, the others had Spanish classes and I went to the internet cafe for my daily portion of walking in the nature and connecting with the World Wide Web. In the evening we enjoyed a quiz, organized by one of my group members and it was very difficult!! I blamed it on the fact that I was the only one not being from the U.K., but honestly… I really sucked hahaha. I ended up being last in the game. Grrrffhmmmgfhhhfd!!

The next days we worked further on digging our water holes, and closing some of them that were ready again. We also cleared the roads and equalized the levels. The afternoons were spend the same and I organized a story telling night and question round with Don Alfonso for my volunteers. That was probably one of the highlights of this week, as we got to know much more about his background, the history of the community, the importance of our volunteering and many more facts and figures.

The Andes Volunteering Chilcapamba

Digging holes as deep as my body!

The last days were spend equally and we got adapted to our routine just before we left again. After two heavy weeks with lots of work and lots of fun, lots of personal challenges and physical ones, it was time to head back to Quiroga, Otavalo and Quito. The next weekend was going to be spend in Mindo… I’ll post it in the next blog post.

goodbye alfonso morales chilcapamba

Goodbye, Don Alfonso!

Happy reading!

Julie

 

An Adventurous Week in Ecuador – Riobamba

10 May 2014 – 17 May 2014

The Adventure Week AKA Ruta de los Volcanes

The Leap promised its Leapers an “a week of adventure and expedition, taking the famous “Ruta de los Volcanes” (Volcanic Route), biking to waterfalls, white-water raft, climb Chimborazo volcano and kayak over Quilotoa crater lake”, but it was much more than that, exceeding all of our expectations. It was a crazy week, finally getting EVERYONE out of their comfort zone, with loads of unforgettable memories, and loads of work for me as a leader! Here follows a great story, enjoy the ride! (Part 3)

Adventure Week Chimborazo Cycling

RIOBAMBA

In the afternoon we left Baños for Riobamba, where I had to go to the hospital with some of my group straight after lunch. I ended up spending the whole afternoon in the emergency room and got back to the hostel to meet my other Leapers to have diner again. So I didn’t do anything special regarding sightseeing in the city, but it didn’t matter because I had been there before in March already.

Now, Riobamba means ‘river’ and ‘valley’ in Spanish and Kichwa, reffering to the topography of the area. On Saturdays there is a great indigenous market, but we were there during week days, and had other (read: more adventurous) plans!

Thanks to Riobamba’s proximity to the Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak, there are a lot of options to do excursions. We left on the next morning to do a one-day mountain-biking trip, where we did a downhill descent from the refuge of Chimborazo!

Adventure Week chimborazo

Road from Riobamba to Chimborazo

The CHIMBORAZO DOWNHILL day tour was awesome! We got to enjoy the beauty of Ecuador’s highest mountain in an active way and hiked from the first refuge to the second, reaching an altitude of 5000m. Well, to be honest, I did not make the second refuge due to altitude sickness. I had a terrible headache as if my brains were going to explode and my heart beat was so fast that I thought I would die. I did not feel sick at all, but I was worried enough to decide to go back to 4800m (first refuge). There I enjoyed a Coca Tea, which has medicinal effects for altitude sickness. And did I already mention it was freeeeezing cooooollddd up there!

Adventure Week Refuge 4800m

Drinking Coca Tea at 4800m

The distance between the Carrel refuge (4800m) and the Whymper refuge (5000m) was only 1 kilometer, but because of the thin air at this altitude, everyone had to walk slowly and it took almost an hour before they were back to have a hot coca-tea.

We prepared ourselves and our mountain bikes for descending from 4800m to the lower hut, where we had no visibility at all. That first part of 8 km on a dirt road was crazy! I decided to take it slowly and easy because it was very hard to control your bike having that much speech without being to see 5 m in front of you, passing to a lot of corners and bumps in the road. It was super cold and I passed some people who went to fast and crashed!

Adventure Week Downhill Ride

Start of the downhill ride from 4800m

After that first part on the dirt road, we checked our bikes and continued descending from 4800m to 2900 m altitude, over a distance of 37 km on an asphalted road. It definetely sounds harder then it was, because downhill means no need to put loads of effort in your biking as your bike takes you.

Adventure Week mountain bike

Me descending the Chimborazo

I had the feeling I was flying over the landscape, fast as I went. At certain moments I went so fast that I passed cars and it felt like 75 km/hour (which isn’t of course). After +/- 2 hours we arrived at San Juan village, where we met the staff at the church. It was pretty cool, because we were followed by the guides and supported by vehicles all the time. Like real cyclers, felt like ‘Tour de France’ but in Ecuador. 😛

Anyway, here’s a movie of our CHIMBORAZO DOWNHILL adventure, made by our travel agency guides:

The next day it was time to head back to Quito, spend some nights there and go to the next and last community to do some more volunteering in the Andes.

But that last weekend in Quito turned out to be at least as adventurous as the Adventure Week itself, because while we went out for someones Birthday dinner and a cocktail in the Irish Pub in the Mariscal, we got followed by strange people that tried to be “our friends”, but turned out to have other plans as they didn’t stop following us. I had to stop the police to make the situation come to an end, but the police did not do anything, and before we were able to ran away from them, they got us again and started to beat me up because I stopped the police for them… Horrible story and had to run for my life to a taxi while they were hitting on the car!

Later turned out that a friend of mine was robbed that very same night in the same area, by the same people. Guess we were lucky, and Thank God the hostal had some ice to put on my beaten up face… I have a good guardian angel ! ❤

Adventure Week Alpaca

Vicuñas (look-a-like llamas) in the Chimborazo Reserve

From Julie with Love

xxx

An Adventurous Week in Ecuador – Baños

10 May 2014 – 17 May 2014

The Adventure Week AKA Ruta de los Volcanes

The Leap promised its Leapers an “a week of adventure and expedition, taking the famous “Ruta de los Volcanes” (Volcanic Route), biking to waterfalls, white-water raft, climb Chimborazo volcano and kayak over Quilotoa crater lake”, but it was much more than that, exceeding all of our expectations. It was a crazy week, finally getting EVERYONE out of their comfort zone, with loads of unforgettable memories, and loads of work for me as a leader! Here follows a great story, enjoy the ride! (Part 2)

Banos white water rafting

BAÑOS

After exploring the lake of Quilotoa (see former blog post), it was time to head further to Baños. This was definetely one of the highlights on the program and everyone had a lot of adventurous expectations: white water rafting, bridge jumping, paragliding, the end of the world swing, canyoning, … It was all on the planning for Leap Group B!

Baños is an adrenaline junkie’s paradise caught between the Andes and the Amazon in a magical little valley complete with its own waterfall and numourous natural springs. It is also the most popular backpacker spot in the Central Highlands of Ecuador, so you’ll never really alone in Baños and tourists mean… Good food, good bars!

The afternoon we arrived was spend bridgejumping by the boys, enjoying the thermal pools by the girls and me exploring this new town. I had never been in Baños before and it was quite an interesting touristy place. I went for a coffee, checked out restaurants and enjoyed the views on the roof top terrace of our lovely Hostal Plantas y Blanco. In the evening we had dinner with all of us together, and by bedtime I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body for next days Rafting excursion!

Adventure Week banos hostal plantas y blanco

Rooftop terrace in Hostal Plantas y Blanco

Baños is a mixture of amazing settings such as waterfalls, lush forests and steaming thermal springs. The town itself is not so nice when it comes to architecture (as most Ecuadorian towns), but there are many tour operators, travel agencies, bars, restaurants and hostals who contribute to its backpacker-ghetto atmosphere.

Early in the morning we left to the Pastaza River where we would go white water rafting. After a 45 minute ride to that river, we (no, especially me) were nervous for the briefing and security check. I could not focus on what was said by our instructor/guide because of nerves, and honestly wanted to quit before I even was on this river. But I did not want to be the Pussy of the group and decided to hold on…

Rafting Banos

Strategically I placed myself in the middle of our raft, and with a lifejacket and a wetsuit I felt more ready to do it! There we went…. Only 1 hour of rafting, but so much fun… The first 30 minutes I was probably more screaming than paddling, but the further we got and the wilder it got, the more I started to enjoy the adventure!

My biggest fear was to fell out of the boat, or even worse: being pushed by another team member and fell out of the boat on purpose. Luckily, none of that happened to me, and straight after arrival I felt disappointed: was this it? Was this the reason why I had been so scared? Oh baby…. 😛

After we had lunch together with the team and our guides, we headed back to Baños where we were given some pictures of our tour. Great memories! Viva la aventura!

rafting pastaza river

While the rest of the group went to rent quad bikes in the afternoon, I decided to take it easy and slow. I went for another strawl around town, visited the thermal pools (baños) of Baños, and went to see the ‘holy’ waterfall from nearby. I went inside the impressive church, did some souvenir shopping, looked for a restaurant that night, and finally enjoyed a pinneaple juice on a terrace. The group came back pretty late from their quad bike trip, but we still enjoyed a good late night dinner together!

Oh yeah, and what is my job in the middle of this relaxed text: participating in activities, guiding the group from the one activity to another, arranging lunch and dinners in restaurants, buying bus tickets, helping to find and buy tours, … and being my lovely self enjoying it all with them! Life is good!

Adventure Week Banos waterfall

The waterfall in Baños

The next day I planned to go to La Casa del Arbol with some of my group members. The weather was not how we expected it to be that morning, but the clouds gave a mystical feeling to the experience. La Casa del Arbol means Tree House, and it is mostly famous for its “End of the world swing”. It is located about 20 minutes up the hill from Baños, and by good weather you can have a spectaculour view overlooking the town, the forest and the mountains.

Adventure Week Casa del Arbol

Me at the “End of the World Swing”, Casa del Arbol

Next it was time to go Puenting (think bungee jumping without the bounce). It crudely translates as ‘bridging’, but it’s really swinging, in this case along a rope tethered to two bridges. I’m not sure whether it was for budget reasons or fear, but I decided to skip this activity and just how the others having their adrenaline portion of the day!

Adventure Week puenting

One of my Team Members “Puenting” in Baños 

After lunch, the boys went for paragliding, an activity that I really wanted to do myself too, but it was expensive ($60) and all places were booked. So in stead, I went for a relaxing full body massage at Chakra, one of the massage spots in town, where I forgot all my worries for an hour… (And that was still wayyyy less expensive than the paragliding)!

paragliding banos

Impression of Paragliding in Baños

In the evening we were all ready for some descent Mexican food and chilled further until bedtime on the rooftop terrace. It was a lovely last night in Baños, and I guess we all achieved our goals in this thrill town, ready to leave for the next adventure…

Adventure Week banos

NEXT POST / STOP: RIOBAMBA

With love,

Julie

An Adventurous Week in Ecuador – Quilotoa

10 May 2014 – 17 May 2014

The Adventure Week AKA Ruta de los Volcanes

The Leap promised its Leapers an “a week of adventure and expedition, taking the famous “Ruta de los Volcanes” (Volcanic Route), biking to waterfalls, white-water raft, climb Chimborazo volcano and kayak over Quilotoa crater lake”, but it was much more than that, exceeding all of our expectations. It was a crazy week, finally getting EVERYONE out of their comfort zone, with loads of unforgettable memories, and loads of work for me as a leader! Here follows a great story, enjoy the ride!

Adventure Week Quilotoa The Leap Group

LAGUNA DE QUILOTOA

After having breakfast in Quito and giving my group an orientation about this week, we left by private bus to Quilotoa. It was a horrible temparature shock going straight from the warm Galapagos Islands to the cold Laguna de Quilotoa. I felt quite calm, although I knew I could expect a crazy week when it came to organizing, leading, transporting, arranging meals and making many many invoices in hotels, travel agencies and restaurants. But I was more ready then ever before and started to feel more and more comfortable with my job and the group.

The Quilotoa Loop is a bumpy, ring-shaped road that travels from the Panamericana far into the backcountry of Cotopaxi province. Along the way tourists encounter colorful indigenous markets, a crystal-blue lake that the locals believe has no bottom (!!!), and ancient trails that meander in the shadow of snowcapped volcanoes. The isolated location brought us in contact with Kichwa-speaking indigenous people and some lamas.

Adventure Week Quilotoa

After paying a 2$ entrance fee to Quilotoa, it was not hard to find our hostel as there were only a handful in town. We had a typical lunch, warmed up near the fire place where we met other travellers and watched how the clouds got ticker and ticker, until we could not see the end of the road anymore and finally watched how it started to rain. We felt quite stuck in the building, went to our room and collected wood for the fires at night. It got colder and colder, so freezing I had never felt before!

I went souvenir shopping in my raincoat with the girls as real fashionistas, we bought some drinks and food to keep us warm and strong, and spend the night making fire and more fire until we finally had de-frozen our fingers and toes, played “never have I ever” (my all-time favourite game!) and finally got to sleep. Some alone, some together… To keep each other “warm”?!

Well yeah, it was a lovely evening even though I was really disappointed in the fact that we did not managed to hike down the lake because of the weather. We agreed on having breakfast at 6h30 in order to leave for the hike early in the morning at 7h30 because usually it does not rain in the mornings.

And oh yeah, I woke up and the sky was bright blue and clear. We were very lucky and because there were no clouds, the reflection of the sun showed all kinds of colours of blue and green. We enjoyed the lookout on the top where we had stunning views of the mirror-green lake about 400m below and the snowcapped peaks of the Cotopaxi volcano in the distance.

Adventure Week Quilotoa

When you ask the locals how deep it is, they always say it has no bottom at all, they said in the Lonely Planet. So I did the test and asked some locals. Some could not even reply to my Spanish, because they only spoke Kichwa, and does who did speak Spanish confirmed: no bottom. Well, geologists say 250m…

After an hour going down, we rented kayaks to see more of the lakes surroundings. The alkaline lake water is not potable, and I assume it is too cold for swimming, even though it was clearly warmer near the lake then in the village during the day.

Adventure Week Quilotoa

With an altitude of 3914m, it is really hard to hike around the volcanic-crater lake of Laguna Quilotoa. You have no air in your longs, and it literally feels as if you had just smoked a package of cigarettes in 5 minutes. Impossible to walk back up, was what I said after giving it a try for 30 meters. I stopped a local, and continued by horse (or was it a donkey?!)

Adventure Week Quilotoa

I felt really sorry for my ‘animal’ which did not only suffer itself from the hike up carrying my weight, but apart from that he had some serious diarrhea and stopped every once in a while, refusing to walk further. Pobrecito,  I will never do that again but I have to admit it was way easier and enjoyable to get up like this.

Some of my group members took the challenge and hiked all the way up, arriving sweaty and tired, while I was already chilling up there for half an hour. Because of that, we were a little bit late for our private transfer to Baños, but it was definetely worth the delay and we had been so lucky with the weather after all.

If you ever plan on going to Ecuador, make sure you do not skip Quilotoa. Truly recommendable and one of the most beautiful places in the whole country, in my opinion.

Adventure Week quilotoa

Then it was time to head further to Baños, another 4 hours by bus away. Everybody slept as a baby during the transfer, preparing for “the thrill town” of Ecuador!! And every now and then I opened my eyes to enjoy the amazing views along the road. The Andes is fascinating!

Adventure Week the andes road

NEXT POST / STOP: BAÑOS

Hasta pronto,

Julie

My Galápagos Dream Journey – 7: San Cristobal

7: SAN CRISTOBAL

After taking a 2 hour boat ride from Isabela to Santa Cruz, and another one from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal, I had finally arrived back at the island where my Leap group was volunteering.

Islas de Galapagos san cristobal

View from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, capital of Galapagos

During my stopover in Santa Cruz, I had the best fruit bowl with granola for breakfast ever, and visited the Charles Darwin Research Center, as it is not so far walking from the peer and it is a must-see in the islands, I was told. However, it did not really impress me a lot. After the death of Lonesome George, I do not think that there is that much more to see in the station. Or at least not things you can’t see anywhere else on the islands, such as iguanas and tortoises.

Islas de Galapagos tortoise

Tortoises in Charles Darwin Research Center, Santa Cruz

So I walked back quite quickly, went to the internetcafe to do some work for school, had a salad for lunch (yes, a healthy day) and bought some last souvenirs on the avenue. Then it was time to board the next ferry, which would bring me in another two hours to San Cristobal.

I did not have a reservation or a fixed plan, but I was not planning to return to Hacienda Tranquila because I wanted my two last nights to be spent as a holiday. So when I arrived at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, I went to a hostel called Leon Dormido and asked if they had a room. They tried to sell it for $30 a night, but I got it down to $20, convincing them that I did not have more budget. I got a very nice room with airconditioning and hot water, and I had to walk 2 steps to be on the main street. And there was WiFi, even in the room. Perfect!

After putting my laundry in the shop, I met my group by coincidence in town. We had a drink together and decided to meet for dinner in a restaurant. It was really nice to spend that evening together with them again and I enjoyed a chicken burger. We watched the sea lions playing on the beach at night and then we headed back seperately to our accommodations.

Islas de Galapagos san cristbal sea lion

Sea lion in San Cristobal

Thursday 8th of May it was my last full day on the islands, and I had a free day to do whatever I felt like doing. I slept later then my usual 6 o`clock, had a good breakfast and was planning to go searching for `Fundacion Nueva Era` as Yanapuma was interested in a collaboration with them. It felt like a great coincidence, because while I was eating breakfast on a terrace, some poster crossed my eye and that was it! Right there was the foundation. So I went inside, explained myself and 5 minutes later I had an appointment with the boss for the next morning. Great because that ment work for today was done…

I went for a walk in town, bought some souvenir, had a freshly squeezed juice and did some reflection on my time in the Galapagos. It had definetely been a great journey so far. And to give myself some last sun rays before heading back to Quito, I headed to the beach. I walked via the coast to Playa Mann, which was surprisingly relaxed. There was a beach bar, again some sea lions and some trees to look for shadow when the sun is too hot.

Islas de Galapagos playa mann

Beach bar at Playa Mann, San Cristobal

I also visited the opposite Interpretaton Center of San Cristobal, which was the most interesting museum of the Galapagos Islands, to my opinion. After traveling a lot, I felt like all the pieces fell together and I got answers to questions I did not think about. It was free entrance and I have learned a lot of things about the history of the island and the income generation of tourism for example.

Islas de Galapagos interpretaton center san cristobal

The most interesting information of all… – Interpretation Center

After the cultural visit I went back to the beach and watched sunset. Enjoying to the fullest my very last moments here. I went to the hostel for a shower, and had something small for dinner. As the Galapagos came to an end, it means that another Phase with my Leap volunteers was coming soon. Tomorrow I would meet them at the airport to fly back to Quito and start the Adventure Week. I was definetely nervous for that, but come on up… Break a leg!

Islas de Galapagos sunset playa mann

Last Sunset on San Cristobal

Well, that was it. The end of my Galapagos Dream Journey. I had spend 3 weeks on the islands, felt like the luckiest girl on earth for having this amazing opportunity to visit the islands on a budget and was absolutely sure about never ever ever forgetting this in my life. I had seen the most amazing animals on earth, met great people, found new volunteer projects and did some volunteer work myself as well, was more tanned then ever before, spend too much money but oh so well spend so I could not care, I felt great because life was good and with loads of energy I was heading back to Ecuador`s mainland, ready to give the best of myself for another 4 weeks with The Leap.

Bless you all!

From Julie with Love

My Galápagos Dream Journey – 6: Isabela

6: ISABELA

The 3rd of May it was time to head further to the biggest island of the Galapagos archipelago. In order to survive the 2 hour ‘lancha’ boat trip, I took an anti-seasickness pill, as many other travellers adviced me to do so. It wasn’t that bad, too be honest. I enjoyed the sunrise and was warmly welcomed by my tour operator on the peer. As it was the first time in my life that anyone was waiting for me with a personal nametag, I was super excited! Lol 😛

Just some advice for any Galapagos backpacker reading this post: Isabela has no ATM so you have to take enough cash with you from either San Cristobal or Santa Cruz. Upon arrival at the peer you will be obligated to pay an additional $5 entrance fee to Isabela, helping the island’s conservation.

I felt like ‘a real tourist’ with my super cheap all-inclusive package deal, checked in at Hotel Coral Blanco, got meal coupons and excursion vouchers. I paid $185 for 4 nights in a single room (airco, wifi, hot water), 2 diners, 2 lunched and 2 breakfasts, a city/flamingo tour, the full-day trekking to Sierra Negra & Volcano Chico and an excursion to Las Tintoreras.

Islas de Galapagos isabela beach

However, the first day on the island I decided to take it easy and I headed to the beach for some tanning and sleep. Every once in a while a crab or marine iguana passed by next to my towel, but apart from that it was a very enjoyable morning at the beach.

After lunch I had a very short city and flamingo tour, which was not so impressive as Puerto Villamil is a tiny beach village with only unpaved roads and everything is in walking distance. But it was pretty cool to see the wild flamingos chilling in the lagoon.

Islas de Galapagos isabela flamingo

After the tour I wandered around some more but got quite bored soon as Puerto Villlamil is an undevelopped and tiny village of which you can count the bars and shops on one hand…

I did another nap (siesta) and went to the restaurant with my food coupon for dinner. I felt quite lonely and bored, so headed to the Iguana Bar on the peer in search for some new friends and cocktails. I chatted with the bartender, told him about my job and found out some adresses and contact persons for new volunteer projects for Yanapuma. Lovely how working, enjoying cocktails and watching pinguins can go all together here! This is the life!

Islas de Galapagos isabela iguana bar

The next morning I felt like a new person and totally ready for my day excursion to Sierra Negra & Volcano Chico. With a lunchbox and loads of water packed, I left for what turned out to be a SICK day! Apparently, they ‘forgot’ to inform us that the hike was 16km in 2 difficult phases: a muddy and rainy hike uptil the Caldera of Sierra Negra, and a climb over lava rocks to Volcano Chico. And that everything, the same road as we went to go back. It took our group 8 hours of non-stop struggling through very changing weather and landscape types.

Islas de Galapagos sierra negra isabela

After walking for 3 hours in the rain, mud and mist we finally reached the top of Sierra Negra. Here we could see the caldera partially, but it was still pretty impressive to see this black sea of lava floods.

Islas de Galapagos isabela caldera sierra negra

Then as we walked further the green and lush landscape changed into a dry desert of volcanic rocks…

Islas de Galapagos volcan chico

We reached volcano Chico and already left half of our group behind somewhere because they could not handle it. The hike was a real stuggle and adventure. I thought it was a good excercise if I would ever go climbing the Mount Everest, lol :-p

Islas de Galapagos volcan chico

Me, the guide and two other tourists climed all the way up to Volcano Chico, where we had the most spectacular views at +/- 1000 meter above sea level.

Islas de Galapagos isabela volcan chico

We took half an hour to eat our lunch box and then we headed back. On our way we put our hand in some lava rock and it was very hot, so that means – yes yes – that this volcano is active! I was told that the last eruption was in 2005.

On our way back I thought about ice cream and home, that way the time went faster and I tried to forget about the rainy part of the hike that was still coming. I ended up making jokes and good chats with the other tourists and by the time we all arrived, we were friends and could only smile about this insane day. We headed back completely soaked, full of mud and exhausted, ran in the sea with clothes and walking boots to get the mud off and had a good time.

Islas de Galapagos isabela

Later in the night, after a good shower, I went to see the sunset at the peer, felt a little bit lonely and had dinner. The next day I woke up early again for the next excursion, I really wanted to make the best out of my stay here and see as much as possible. So I went to visit Las Tintoreras.

First we went to take our snorkel gear and drove to the boat dock where we started our tour. Las Tintoreras is a small archipelago of volcanic islands near Puerto Villamil.

On your way to the islands, you can see sea lions chilling on boats, pinguins chilling on rocks and so on…

Islas de Galapagos isabela penguin

Once we got onto land, we walked around a little bit. We saw a colony of baby iguanas, which was very cute to see. They all sit on top of each other and it looks like some of them are hugging each other. Big love, babies!

Islas de Galapagos baby iguanas

Then we were on a beautiful beach were sea lions lived and played, which was absolutely paradise!

Islas de Galapagos las tintoreras

And after that we walked on some more volcanic rock material and enjoyed the views and the sun.

Islas de Galapagos las tintoreras isabela

We encountered another colony of marine iguanas, this time it were the mommies and the daddies I suppose… And last but not least, we found granddaddie, but I think he did not survive it …. 😉 RIP

Islas de Galapagos skelet iguana

We headed back to the boat and jumped in the water to cool off and enjoy some snorkeling. To my biggest surprise this was one of the best snorkel trips so far, as I saw gigantic sea turtles of over hundred years in the water. At least 7 of them!

galapagos turtle snorkel

There were also sea stars and other fish types that had not seen before so far on the Galapagos trip. Recommendable!

Islas de Galapagos snorkeling isabela

In the afternoon I went to visit the tortoise project on Isabela, in order to find out whether they can receive volunteers for Yanapuma. I decided to walk via the 20 minutes trail, which turned out to be a beautiful walk. I had to pass some crossing iguanas every now and then, but it was peaceful and quiet.

Islas de Galapagos turtle project

Upon my arrival at the project I registered and introduced myself to one of the guards. I got a private guided tour through the whole area and got to feed the turtles, which is normally strictly forbidden for tourists. The advantages of working in the industry, I guess!

Islas de Galapagos tortoise

It was a rehabilitation center for tortoises that were rescued from an eruption of a volcano on Isabela, and over 2 years they had already made over 200 baby tortoises. I can only say it was a very nice experience to feed the tortoises, but in order to get more information for Yanapuma I had to go back to the village to talk to the people of the Ministerio de Galapagos, which I managed to do, but with all these restrictions it was quite hard to get a deal out of it.

So I made another appointment in the evening to visit another project the next day, and finished my day at a bar with some cocktails and met some French volunteers from Hacienda Tranquila, with whome I turned out to have dinner with. We ended our night near a campfire and a bar, drank Tequila Sunrise and Piña Colada, felt like hippies and went to bed tipsy. Love life!

isabela camp fire

The last day in Isabela was fully booked with ambitious plans: snorkeling in Los Tuneles and project visit to Campo Duro… I noticed that waking up at 6 o’clock became the weirdest holiday habit ever, but I enjoyed it as I could make the most out of my days. Although I have to say I was also happy that it was the last day of doing excursions and snorkeling, because after 3 weeks of die-hard travelling, you really have enough of it. No matter how much paradise factor this place has.

Oh yeah, last night I dreamed that there was a volcano eruption which caused a tsunami wherefor I escaped on a zodiac and I had saved my photo camera in a mysterious way. I was one of the only persons that survived on earth and when I woke up, I did not realize it was not happening for real. Was it the alcohol? Or had I just been to much fascinated by the stories of the guides on this island? Lol 😛

The tour started, I met a Dutch woman on the boat, who became my buddy for the day and we sailed away… On our way we passed by Union Rock, which is full of Nazca Boobies! Sailed around it up to very close, and then went further.

Islas de Galapagos isabela union rock

It was difficult to sail between the tunnels of Los Tuneles, as they are all volcanic erosions in the water. But it was a beautiful walk with nice views.

Islas de Galapagos los tuneles

We could also see some tortoises swimming and later we had the chance to snorkel with them and literally chased some sharks out of their tunnels. It was pretty pretty adventurous, and I was exhausted from doing this excercise snorkel around under and through the tunnels.

Islas de Galapagos tuneles isabela

After two snorkel trips, a lunch on board and seeing some gigantic manta rays jumping out of the ocean, it was time to head back.

I called a taxi to go to Campo Duro, which was a fantastic project I found on the island. This ecolodge does not only offer camping sites, but has its own tortoise refuge and organic farm where they harvest food for the animals and the community. Their grounds are massive and I have never before seen the tortoises living so happily in natural surroundings.

I was warmly welcomed by the owner, Don Michui, in his restaurant. Again I was offered a guided tour, got the chance to ask a lot of questions and felt very professional, lol. No, I’m serious… I really enjoyed doing this visits and negotiations and I really hoped that Yanapuma would be able to work with them because I could see volunteers coming here…

Islas de Galapagos campo duro isabela

I took a taxi back to the hostal and met my French friends again for one last goodbye dinner and cocktail on the beach. The next day I would leave very early to take 2 ferries and having a long travel day…

Next stop: SAN CRISTOBAL (7) –> Keep following for the last destination of my Galapagos Dream Journey

From Julie with Love