Adventure and education collide during our three-month journey through the lush jungles, dizzying heights and breathtaking coasts of Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru. ARCC’s nearly 20 year history of exploration and service in Latin America opens doors unimagined by the casual traveler. Tucked away in a remote mountain village in Costa Rica, we discover the simplicity of “pura vida” working alongside our generous hosts to improve the village’s infrastructure. Flying through the forest canopy on ziplines, the vibrancy of life in the jungle beckons to us in the calls of toucans and howler monkeys. Partnering with local biologists on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, we witness the impact of human populations on the natural world. Navigate Ecuador’s Amazon jungle by canoe and partner with an NGO to provide clean water to indigenous communities. Treading in the footsteps of the Inca, we gain insight into an ancient culture as we explore the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. The abundance of life around us underscores the rich and unforgettable experiences of Gap Latin America.
“Taking a gap year with ARCC and getting a chance to work hands-on with the community gave me a sense of hope and made me feel like I was actually doing something to help. ”
— Morgan Y., Dedham, MA
Orientation, Whitewater Rafting and Pacuare River Reforestation Project
We begin our semester in Miami and fly together to San Jose, Costa Rica to start our orientation. We spend a day getting to know one another, mapping out our itinerary, introducing our curriculum, and discovering the sights of the city. We then head to the world-renowned Pacuare River for five days of exploring the rainforest, working on service projects, and navigating the river’s famous whitewater. The Pacuare winds through some of the most pristine landscapes in Costa Rica. Making our home at a river lodge set back amongst the huge leaves of the Sombrilla de Pobre (“Poor Man’s Umbrella”), we use this area as a base to explore and adventure. Riding ziplines through the forest canopy, discovering hidden waterfalls and natural rock slides, we bond as a group. We also get our hands dirty working on the Pacuare River Reforestation Project, contributing our time planting trees and working alongside the local community. We have the opportunity to visit the local school, Escuela de El Tigre, and interact with the schoolchildren, helping them practice some basic English.
Language School in the Costa Rican Cloud Forest
We make our way to Monteverde, nestled in the Costa Rican cloud forest. For the next week we sharpen our Spanish skills, which will come in handy for the rest of the semester, taking classes taught by native speakers and practicing what we learn during our homestay with local families. Here we continue to come together as a traveling community, setting both individual and group goals for the duration of the program. Our preparation includes further discussion of our curriculum, including identifying where each of our five essential themes that we will focus on throughout the semester will occur, and brainstorming ideas for our individual capstone projects.
Las Baulas National Park Sea Turtle Conservation Project & Surfing
From Monteverde we travel to the western Nicoya Peninsula, delving into the theme of Environment and Conservation through our work with the Las Baulas National Park near Playa Grande. Here we find one of the world’s few remaining sites for significant leatherback turtle nesting. The number of these giant marine reptiles is declining worldwide, and we partner with the Leatherback Trust and park guards to help them in their conservation efforts.
During this section of our trip, we make time to check out one of Costa Rica’s amazing surf breaks, featured in the classic movie “Endless Summer II.” After a few lessons with local surf instructors, we feel confident catching wave after wave. At the conclusion of our time here, we travel to Quepos, the jumping off spot for our next adventure.
Village Infrastructure Project and Economic Development
Deep in the mountains, we are honored to be welcomed into a community that ARCC has been working with since 1994. Here we meet with village leaders to determine the essential needs of the community and work hand-in-hand to improve the village infrastructure. In addition, we promote economic development in the community by helping with projects designed to bring revenue to the village, such as working on a tilapia farm to raise and sell fish. We have ample opportunity for service learning and cultural exchange, helping out with chores on the family farms, working in the organic garden, and cooking meals with our local hosts. We also explore the rich rainforest surrounding the village and spend time with our new friends, playing soccer, sharing laughs, and forging bonds that will last a lifetime.
After saying goodbye to our wonderful new friends, we return to San Jose for a final night in Costa Rica as we prepare for our next adventure in Ecuador!
Volcano Study in Quito and Cotopaxi
Located on the northwest corner of South America, Ecuador is a gem of diverse geography, rich cultural history and unique wildlife. Through our travels, we quickly learn why Ecuador stands out as an environmental leader in the international community, but also discover that there is still much to be done. Upon landing in Quito, we are greeted by our Ecuadorian friends who give us a brief orientation and tour of the spectacular capital city, located over 9,000 feet above sea level and ringed by volcanoes. We enjoy panoramic views of the city before heading out to explore one of the highest volcanoes in the world and Ecuador’s second highest mountain summit. Cotopaxi is a symbol of pride for the country and we have a chance to explore the glacier and learn about its preservation.
Baños and Introduction to Life as an Amazon Cacao Grower
We travel south from the high-altitude of the Andes down into the cloud forest where we soak in the natural hot springs of a relaxing eco-village called Baños. Feeling rejuvenated, we make our way further south to the Amazon rainforest. We settle into our jungle bungalows that we will call home for the next several days as we begin an in-depth anthropological study of cacao growers in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Ecuador makes some of the richest, most delicious artisan chocolate on the market. We learn how exporting chocolate upholds the local economy in the Amazon, as well as the controversy between farmers and oil workers over using land. We investigate the benefits of the government’s socio bosque program, which supports cacao growers in preserving their land from industrial oil projects, noting the complex interplay between economics and conservation.
Amazon Clear Water Project & Cuyabeno Jungle Lodge
We traverse to the eastern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon where we further investigate the intersection of modern day economics and environmental policy. We arrive in the town of Coca and join with Groundwork Opportunities (GO), a non-profit that has partnered with local leaders of indigenous tribes affected by oil contamination, to help provide clean water to their communities. First, we have a toxi-tour of the contamination areas led by our hosts. We see the impact of heavy machinery, oil wells, and deforestation due to oil exploration, one of the principle environmental threats to the rainforest today. We then dive into a service project, helping facilitate the installment of rainwater catchment systems, which provide safe drinking water to the local people. Alongside the indigenous leaders and GO volunteers, we help collect GPS data through mapping, conduct interviews with local families, help facilitate community capacity trainings for the catchment systems and we investigate the future of the Ecuadorian rainforest as it sits precariously at the crossroads of preservation and destruction. We contemplate the political, economic, environmental and cultural factors at play as we spend our days living amongst indigenous tribes of the Amazon.
Upon completion of our service project, we travel by canoe to a remote jungle lodge where we compare the vibrancy of a region that boasts one of the highest rates of biodiversity on the planet to the contaminated parts of the Amazon we witnessed. We learn about medicinal plants, Ceibo trees, wild caiman, tarantula, and river dolphins, among many other endemic species of animal and plant life in the region. We have the chance to relax at this beautiful oasis, swimming in the river, enjoying time to reflect as a group and learning from our native hosts.
Imbabura Village Stay
We depart the jungle lodge on a wooden canoe, traveling along a tributary of the Amazon River en route to our next destination. Trading the jungle for the mountains, we head north to the province of Imbabura where we are welcomed by our hosts into their remote village. The hills around Imbabura volcano are rich in fertile soil that is used for farming. Maize, sugarcane and beans are arranged in agricultural terraces, forming beautiful patchwork designs on the hillsides. We learn what life is like on the farm, helping our hosts with daily chores and other projects in the village. On our way to the village we visit Cuicocha Lake, a pristine lake in the crater of Cotacachi Volcano. We hike around the crater wall of this volcano and take in spectacular views of the emerald-green lake below. After the hike we make our way to our new home, stopping at the stunning Peguche Waterfall. During our time in the village, we offer a hand with a construction project and teach English to school children and villagers. In the afternoons we have a chance to interview senior citizens and single mothers to analyze social programs in rural communities. During down time we play soccer with our hosts, shop at the world-renowned Otavalo market, and explore the beautiful landscape of the surrounding area.
After a farewell ceremony, we return to Quito for our last day in Ecuador. Together as a group, we decide how we want to spend our last day. We may visit the beautiful Parque Metropolitano, ride the gondola up Pichincha volcano, or take some down time to rest. We prepare for our journey to Peru and enjoy our last equatorial sunset with a final feast.
Introduction to Peru and Machu Picchu Volunteer Expedition
We spend our first day in the city of Cusco, exploring colorful plazas and markets, cobblestone streets and the Incan ruins of Sacsayhuaman scattered atop the hillside overlooking the city. Our volunteer expedition begins with an orientation and training session in Cusco. We travel to the sacred city of Machu Picchu by bus, train and foot, hiking the final section of the Inca trail to arrive at the “Gate of the Sun.” After spending a night in the town of Aguas Calientes, we enjoy a tour of the sacred temples, plazas and ceremonial baths of Machu Picchu. We hike up Huayna Picchu (Young Peak) to catch a birds-eye view of Machu Picchu, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. We spend the next five days working alongside Peru's National Service for Protected Area Management (SERNANP). We help with various tasks such as trail maintenance along ancient Incan trails, planting trees, collecting native plant seeds for restoration projects, and monitoring restoration plots. We teach English in a local village and immerse ourselves in cultural customs of the native communities in the area surrounding Machu Picchu.
Whitewater Rafting the Urubamba River & Teaching English at a Pre-School in Cusco
We return to Cusco to rest before our rafting adventure the next day. Our group gets outfitted with all of the necessary safety gear and receives a safety briefing from the river guides before we board the rafts. We raft down the Class III and IV rapids of the Urubamba River, an exciting day of play in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We have lunch at a scenic spot along the river and explore the surrounding land. After our day on the river our group returns to our hostel in Cusco.
During the next three days, we join in a community effort to educate underprivileged children in Cusco. We volunteer our time at a school for poor children and their families to take refuge, knowing that opportunity awaits in this haven of supportive teachers and educators. We become mentors to the children as we engage in different activities, such as teaching English, helping maintain the school garden that supplies a healthy lunch to the students, or getting our hands dirty in a construction project to help improve the school. We become part of a movement to help guide the children to a more positive future. We are sad to say goodbye when our time here ends but we know that we are leaving the children in good hands.
Sacred Valley Village Stay and “Clean Stove” Service Project
We travel to the heart of the Sacred Valley to a small rural community located on the plains of the Pampa de Anta region. Surrounded by awe-inspiring, glacier-capped mountains, the village is home to 50 Quechua families who live off the land, dedicating themselves to farming, sheep and cattle herding, and cultivating native crops. We roll up our sleeves to help community members build new stoves for cooking in their homes. We work directly with families to improve their health and air quality by building stoves that reduce smoke pollution caused by cook-fires, typically the only way these villagers can cook or heat their homes. Additionally, this greatly reduces the consumption of the native trees that are rapidly decreasing in number. We also spend time bonding with our gracious hosts and new-found friends as we swim in the lake and teach informal English lessons.
Lake Titicaca Floating Islands Homestay
The last section of our trip takes us to Lake Titicaca, the largest high-altitude lake in the world. We take a boat-ride out to the floating islands, home to the pre-Incan Uros people. The Uros have made their homes on forty-two floating islands, maintained using bundles of dried totora reeds. Floating on to Amantaní Island, we are welcomed by our host families. We spend our days there constructing and landscaping new playgrounds for the children. Each day we spend time working with the villagers and then spend time exploring the sites, and of course playing soccer with the local children.
We travel back to Cusco to spend our last days together as a group and complete our capstone projects. Sharing our new perspectives with the group, there is no question that our experiences during these three months will stay with us for the rest of our lives. As we savor our remaining time together, we are excited to head home to share our newly gained knowledge and insights from our firsthand look at the global issues facing Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.