Volcanoes and volunteering, rainforest and beaches, the Andes and indigenous culture: Ecuador is quintessential Latin America for most Westerners, offering a kaleidoscope of opportunity to meet and get to know its people and wonderful landscape.
Ecuador, in the northwest of the South American continent, is a country of contrasts. The most amazing thing about the country is that within a few hours of the capital, you can be rafting down a river in the Amazon rainforest, lounging on a beach on the shores of the Pacific, spotting hummingbirds in the cloud-forest or trudging up a snow-capped volcano.
Another impressive thing is Ecuador’s great variety, and how colourful the country is. You get everything very close together, and in most areas, it’s easy to travel overland by bys. With good access to all that the country offers, the majority of language schools are to be found in and around the capital, which is 2850 metres above sea level. Quito’s setting is incomparable: the city is located in a valley and surrounded by the Andes mountain range, offering fantastic views of green mountains all around, snow-peaked volcanoes and a crystal blue sky. Despite being a city of more than one million inhabitants, Quito still feels approachable. Many places of interest can be reached on foot, and the local public transport system is well developed.
Quito is one of the best places to study Spanish, not only because the Spanish spoken here is particularly clear, but also because it is a cultural gem, with a beautiful and well preserved historic centre, and there is a great deal of culture and art – much of it free. In addition, the Mariscal (main tourist area) is a vibrant and well developed area with plenty of nightlife, good restaurants and a very cosmopolitan feel.
Some of the highlights of Quito are the Telefériqo, a cable car that rises up the side of the Pichincha volcano to reveal fantastic views of the city and other surrounding snow-capped volcanoes, and the equator, which runs just north of Quito itself.
The Academia Latinoamericana is located in an ancient colonial mansion, which gives a welcoming feeling of a real home, and its student residence is conveniently situated next door. “I’ve been really impressed at the very high and personalised standard of treatment and service I got when I studied here” attests a former student from Switzerland. Moreover, with a sister school in Cloud Forest, approximately 90 kilometres from Quito, students can take the chance to sample another facet of Ecuador first-hand.
Other aspects of Ecuador that students enjoy discovering include Otavalo Market, the largest indigenous market in the whole of South America, which can be reached in three hours from Quito. The market offers traditional handicrafts, hand-made jewellery, bags, sweaters and souvenirs, plus an animal market. It’s really impressive what you can buy in Otavalo, and for anyone coming from outside South America, you just can’t imagine the size of it!
One of the favourite excursion destinations of many students is Papallacta, where you can relax in the hot springs. Also typical activities are the various local festivals. As part of the heritage of 300 years of Spanish rule, many Indian traditions were disguised as Catholic festivals to allow them to continue unhindered. One such festival that continues to this day is San Pedro y San Pablo, otherwise known as Indi Raymi, which means Sun Festival in native Quichua, and is a celebration of nature. No festival is complete without its food, and, during Holy Week, students can try fanesca, a strong soup containing 12 grains, while, the 1st November is the traditional day to drink colada morada (purple punch) with guaguas de pan (bread babies).
One of the best months to discover the treasures and culture of Quito is to be there for the Month of Arts in August. At this time, the entire city is given over to theatre, outdoor concerts, exhibitions, traditional food festivals and more. Manta, the country’s second largest port, is a busy town that sweeps round a bustling bay, offering a complete change from city life in the Andes. Meanwhile, Montañita – widely regarded as Ecuador’s capital of surf – also boasts a vibrant nightlife and, as such is perfect for young travellers.
Cuenca, the third largest city in the country after Guayaquil and Quito, boasts highlights such as crafts markets and indigenous festivals, where students can approach the culture and learn more about customs and also buy the typical hand-made crafts to take home. The city of Cuenca has World Heritage status and, with its two cathedrals, colourful popular markets, multiplicity of small craft stores and beautiful mid-19-th century houses, it offers the visitor a unique experience. Cuenca is a place where tradition and modernity go hand in hand, and where you can experience the warmth and friendliness of people which keeps traditions long vanished in other parts of the world.