Coming soon: The Return to Ecuador

I’ve been craving humitas lately – those soft, cheesy, sweet cornmeal cakes steamed in a corn husk. I miss eating popcorn and tostado (corn nuts) with my soup. The popcorn here in the States – even the stuff I buy at the Farmer’s Market – just can’t compare with Ecuadorian popcorn. And I’d love to have a chirimoya. I saw them in Whole Foods market one day, shipped from somewhere in the tropics. I would have to shell out about $8 for a taste – as it should be – you pay for every bit of petroleum used to get that thing up here, to a place where no one has heard of a chirimoya. I wonder if Whole Foods made any profit on those. (Aren’t you tempted to google ‘chirimoya’ now?)

It’s been nearly two years since I returned home from Ecuador. Maybe it’s time for a visit?


Humita, wrapped in a corn husk, and an Ecuadorian tamale – usually served with coffee or hot chocolate.

Last fall, my Earth Science colleague, Steve, and I attended a seminar on faculty-led study abroad programs and got the hair-brained idea to take a class to Ecuador. (You can check out Steve’s travel/science/adventure/everything blog here: Volcano Steve). I always thought people who led college students on international trips were a little bit crazy. Well, you can number me in that bunch now.

I really did not expect to pull this off. From September through March, there was a lot of paper pushing to get this set up, to make sure we could schedule the class, to write syllabi, etc., not to mention figuring out how we would get there, and what would happen once we were there, from logistical AND educational perspectives.

I contacted True Ecuador Travel, which partially funds the Yanapuma Foundation , a non-profit GMO aiming to promote sustainability and social justice through collaboration with communities, universities, government entities and volunteers. They also run the Yanapuma Spanish School, where I studied Spanish while I was living in Cuenca. Given that they specialize in educational and socially responsible travel, and have worked with a lot of college-aged people, they set up a great itinerary for us.

I didn’t think it would be easy to get our students to shell out a lot of money, so we did everything we could to keep costs low. We focused our itinerary in northern Ecuador, so we could use Quito as a base to explore several different environments. We asked our agent to book us in low-budget hotels and hostels, and we didn’t arrange any group meals for a part of the trip. This means students will have some opportunity to explore different places to eat – and have some different experiences!

In the end, we managed to get the price down to less than $2500 per person for the 12-day trip, including most in-country costs, airfare, and UNC course and administrative fees.

We were finally able to open the trip for student applications in mid-March (if you’re reading this in 2017, you can probably still access our public page, with info about our itinerary at UNC’s Study Abroad page). The response was so slow initially, and I wondered if enough people would sign on. There were certainly a lot of students who expressed interest, but actually committing  is a big step. As the school year started wrapping up in late April, we decided to give the trip another big promotional push, with a photo-filled informational session (not to mention free pizza for attending) – and voila!

We have 17 students signed on! I’m not sure I’ve ever been so excited about teaching a course. The trip is themed around global environmental change, and what’s happening in Ecuador right now. Generally, this refers to human-environment interactions, use of resources, and contributions and responses to climate change. But Ecuador is also a good place to study impacts of natural disasters – risk and management, basic geology (SO many volcanoes), meteorology (SO much rain), and biodiversity. I expect each student, given their diverse interests, will get something a bit different out of the trip. My job is to give them whatever tools I can and arrange whatever experiences I can to help them learn – and, hopefully, see the world in a new light.

I also hope that these students will develop a strong sense of global citizenship, a better understanding of life outside the US and the role of the US in the world. That sort of understanding is so desperately needed in the US population right now.

When I was an undergrad, faculty-led study abroad courses didn’t exist. If they had, I would have been one of the first to sign on. I actually looked into studying abroad, but I would have had to sign on for 6 months to a year. It would also have disrupted my course schedule sufficiently to delay my graduation. Most study abroad programs focused on the humanities – history, art, language – no one I knew went abroad to study science. And because I was studying a very specialized science, it would have been that much harder to find a program that would align with the courses I needed. Looking back, delaying graduation by a year doesn’t seem like a big deal…but it IS a big deal when you’re 22 years old and feeling stressed out about what you will do with your life. One year feels much longer at that age.

Faculty led study abroad courses have become VERY popular in the past few years. These courses offer students an opportunity to have an international experience without having to commit 6 months to a year of their lives (and a lot more money). UNC now offers a number of these courses around the world and most of them fill up. Opportunities for science-related study abroad courses are also expanding.

We will be heading off to Ecuador in about a month, and we’ve been working over the summer to prepare our students. For a number of them, this will be their first international travel experience. I’m requiring them to write blog posts about the trip – those will not be posted here, but I will link to them from this blog – so you will have an opportunity to hear all about it when we get home!

Quito, here we come!

(Perdoname – mis amigos Cuencanos!! Lástima, no puedo visitarles en este viaje! Ojalá la próxima vez – me gustaría mostrar a mis estudiantes la Universidad, la ciudad de Cuenca y el sur de Ecuador!)


A view of central Quito from El Panecillo.


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