The 50 Best Places to Travel in 2020: Quito and Costa Rica

According to Travel and Leisure

Yes, the experts have spoken.  Both Costa Rica and Quito, Ecuador have made the list.  According to Travel and Leisure, Costa Rica is among the favorites.  “Several just-opened eco-retreats are offering more ways to unwind in Costa Rica.”  Check out why Travel and Leisure says that Costa Rica is one of the best vacation destinations in the world.

 But not only did Costa Rica make the list!  Our beloved Quito is also in the top 50. “Now, the long-awaited 2020 opening of Quito’s first-ever underground railway line, running 14 miles north-south, promises to truly transform Ecuador’s mountain city, putting once-inaccessible neighborhoods within reach and bringing locals downtown. The city’s skyline is changing, as the likes of Moishe Safdie and Jean Nouvel are enlisted for major new buildings in town. And after last year’s protests caused damage in the area, a community restoration effort has brought the Spanish Colonial Centro Historico back to its former glory,”  explains the article. Read here what Travel and Leisure’s, David Amsden has to say about Quito.

Be sure to check out our Ecuador destinations to plan your next trip.

Guatemala, Brought to you by GATA

I first traveled to Guatemala 14 years ago as a teenager with my parents on a trip to provide dental services to rural communities.  It was my first experience traveling in the developing world, and it was…rough. It was a no frills service trip fueled by beans, tortillas, and water we sucked out of plastic bags.  The imagery that has stuck with me from that trip is of dust, blood, and vomit–not the type of sensory experience most people would intentionally seek out. Seeing the life of travels I have pursued since that trip, it must have made a pretty big impression on me, but my memory of Guatemala has always been a bit cringeworthy.  Needless to say, my excitement over the opportunity to return to Guatemala this past November was flavored with a good dose of apprehension … bordering on reluctance.  

But return I did, and wow!  I was blown away. I spent 5 days visiting with a new community that GATA is partnering with in the village of Tzununá  on the shore of Lake Atitlán. It was spectacular. It was so different from my first experience in Guatemala and so far above any expectations that I had.  I’m excited to be able to share this special place with you and to offer it as a GATA destination! Here’s a little more about the “new” Guatemala…

First of all, it is breathtakingly beautiful.  I arrived at Lake Atitlán at night, taking a boat from Panajachel to the small village of Tzununá in the dark.  Upon arriving at the dock of Tzununá, I took a tuk tuk up the mountain to where I was staying, the Bambu Guesthouse.  It is always both disorienting and a little exciting arriving somewhere new at night, because you don’t really know what you’re going to wake up to.  Well, I woke up to a jaw dropping view of the sun dazzling on the blue waters of Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes, and framed by lush green flora, with a crisp, clear, cloudless blue sky overhead.  I have been a lot of beautiful places and seen a lot of things in this world, and there are not many landscapes that I classify in this upper echelon of “wow-worthiness” in which I would categorize the spectacle of Lake Atitlán as seen from Tzununá.  

My initial impression was only enhanced by the setting of the Bambu Guesthouse.  A beautifully crafted 3 story eco lodge built into the mountainside, the Bambu is a zero waste facility serving farm to table organic food that has balconies with hammocks in every room, an open air dining area with a million dollar view, and large open spaces for yoga or group activities.  Sparkling clean, and beautifully designed, the Guesthouse is a gem in and of itself.  

After breakfast, I walked farther up the mountain to meet Shad, founder of Atitlán Organics, and tour the permaculture farm he has run for the past 10 years.  Atitlán Organics is a super cool organization with really interesting initiatives in permaculture and sustainable agriculture. Shad’s team of local Guatemalans is an excellent educational resource, and we are very excited to offer this experiential education opportunities to our students.  I also met with the leaders of the Tzununá Youth Organization, a group of 17-27 year olds who have taken the initiative to organize themselves and improve their community. The enthusiasm and dedication of the group leaders was inspiring and just chatting with them and touring the area with them got me revved up and ready to get to work supporting their projects, which include creating gardens for families to address food scarcity; working on water treatment, waste removal, and basic sanitation; and renovating homes for the poorest members of the community.  I can’t wait to lend GATA forces to support their mission!  

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by my visit to Guatemala.  It was not at all how I remembered it, and I was blown away by its beauty, culture, and educational value.  The food was outstanding, the people were welcoming and kind–even though many of the locals only speak their native Mayan languages, never having learned Spanish.  That element alone gave the trip an extra “cool” factor. I felt very safe, with reliable transportation and clean accommodation. It was so different and so much better than what I (and I think most people) expected, and I am very excited that we are now offering it as a GATA destination.   There is so much potential for learning and growth, and I am eager and energized to be working with the Tzununá Youth Organization that is already doing so much to support and improve their own community.  

Guatemala, Brought to you by GATAStay tuned for more information about our Guatemala itineraries and opportunities!  

Cuba Debunked

Since President Trump took office in 2017, many North Americans have been under the impression that they are no longer able to visit Cuba.  This is not true. People from the United States can indeed safely and legally travel to Cuba. While American Cruise ships no longer make port in Cuba and trade is restricted, travel is not only possible it is fairly easy!  Here’s what you need to know: 

The most important part of planning a trip to Cuba is knowing that you will need a visa.  Luckily, the Cuban visa process is actually easier than most. There are a multitude of companies that you can pay to have a blank visa mailed to you, or some airlines offer the visa as part of the flight.  The visa costs $50. An expedited shipping service may cost up to $35 extra. When applying for the visa, if working with a third party company, simply state your reason for travel as “In support of the Cuban People”.  You will receive a blank quarter-page document in the mail–be aware: this blank slip of paper is your visa and you need it in order to enter Cuba. You fill in the document with your own information–Name, DOB, Passport Number, dates of travel.  Voilà, you have your visa! 

The second thing you will need in order to travel to Cuba is mandatory health insurance.  This is even easier than the visa because you don’t need to plan ahead at all–they sell it at the airport upon arrival!  You simply go to the booth in the airport upon arrival, tell them how long you will be in Cuba, and they sell you the standard government health insurance for about $3/day.  All set!  

Lastly, you need a flight (obviously).  Despite what you may have heard, there are flights from the United States to Cuba every day.  It’s not unheard of to get a flight from Florida to Havana for less than $200! Last week it was announced that US airlines will no longer be operating flights to several Cuban cities–but all flights are continuing as normal to Havana.  

So that’s all it takes–an easy to obtain visa for $50, health insurance that you can buy upon arrival, and a flight!  Next stop, Havana!

Why investing in our children’s travel abroad programs will prevent international crisis

Students just arriving to Quito, Ecuador

If you have been following the news in Latin America, you probably know about the protests we had in Ecuador a few weeks ago.  The unrest was sparked when Ecuador’s long standing fuel subsidy program was abruptly eliminated as part of a complex smorgasbord of austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund as a condition of a controversial loan agreement.  In short, Ecuador took a loan from the IMF, but, in order to receive the IMF money, they had to cut subsidies, increase privatization and eliminate government jobs and benefits. And so, as fuel prices rose dramatically overnight, so too did the Ecuadorian people.  

I know that the image of a rowdy protest in which tear gas is deployed and riot gear is used may seem alarming to many in the “developed world”–I know my own parents tend to find it alarming.  But the truth is that for those of us living in the developing world, protests are sort of an accepted part of how government works–or a reaction to when it doesn’t work, and not an uncommon occurrence.  Most of the time these demonstrations do not impact day to day life and never make the news. The protests earlier this month, however, were disruptive and did make the news. That being said, even this dramatic display of civil displeasure lasted less than 2 weeks; and, upon resolution, Ecuador went back to being completely normal as if nothing had happened, literally, overnight.  

Some may see the news in Ecuador, and think, “yikes!  I’m not going to travel or send my kid to travel in Ecuador….it’s unstable!  There is unrest! Unruly, non-English speaking brown people shouting in the streets–abandon ship!” etc. etc.  And maybe as a business, GATA should not be highlighting this particular event–not bring attention to the less palatable aspects of our homes and destinations.  Instead, we want to make the case for why the honest fact that Latin America faces real challenges and is not simply a paradise vacation resort makes it even more important to support the work that GATA does and to visit our host communities.  Hear me out…

First of all, we are not asking you to send your children into a conflict zone.  Our first priority always, always, ALWAYS is safety. Regardless of our bottom line, GATA will not ever risk the safety of any of our travelers.  We do not budge when it comes to our standards of safety–but that is a different conversation. What we are talking about is traveling with us when there is not an active period of unrest or security threat.  

What we do at GATA is connect people.  We give people from different cultures and different ways of life the chance to create relationships with each other.  Our travelers have the unique opportunity to experience the life of an Ecuadorian farmer or indigenous community member or local child by suspending their own reality for a week or two and living the life of their Ecuadorian hosts alongside them.  GATA travelers are not tourists, we are active participants immersed and invested in a place and its people. We are not here to be served but to serve and to learn and to exchange whatever it is we have to offer, as equals.  There are many lessons that our travelers return home having learned, but perhaps most important of all is the humanization of what was once foreign–transforming the faces of national geographic photographs from exotic snapshots into portraits that mirror the friends we have made around the world, the families we have worked with, eaten with, and laughed with.  

What does this have to do with civil unrest?  Our children are the leaders of tomorrow (especially the kids who go on GATA trips who participate in our comprehensive global leadership program).  Imagine if we raise a generation of leaders who, the next time some far flung developing nation is experiencing conflict or tyranny or unrest, instead of saying “unruly brown people–abandon ship!”, they see the faces of their friends and equals in those news stories.  What if our future leaders understand the complex and fragile balance of life that allows a family to survive on small scale, sustainable agriculture in the mountains of Ecuador. Instead of thinking that protests were just a bunch of rowdy hooligans in some “backwards” nation, they might understand that the elimination of fuel subsidies can have a devastating impact on a family, a community, a country.  It can mean the difference between barely learning to read and getting a college education. It can mean the difference between life and death when giving birth. It can mean the difference between having a home and way of life, and being hungry and begging on the streets.  

We recently concluded two trips with an international school in Quito.  We took 6th and 8th graders to two different sustainable communities in Ecuador.  These students are the sons and daughters of both foreign diplomats and Ecuador’s most powerful and wealthy families.  They will most likely grow up to occupy some of the most influential positions in Ecuadorian government and society. By traveling with GATA, they will take the experience they have had in our small communities with them into those positions of power.  In 20 years, we are hopeful that we may have leaders who are able to see their countrymen on the other side of the negotiating table (or on the other side of the riot shields) as equals, and understand the impact that policies have on working families or indigenous groups or farmers.  

We are hopeful for this future because of the work we do with GATA in connecting people.  We have the same hope for travelers who come from the United States–that they will take their experience traveling with us in Ecuador or Colombia or Nepal and use it as a lens through which to see the world for the rest of their lives and as a catalyst to take action and do whatever they can to make the world a little better, a little safer, and a little kinder.  

And so, our argument is this: don’t abandon a place just because you see turbulence in the news–embrace it.  Isolation only breeds further misunderstanding, conflict, and inequality. Obviously, we always want you to be safe, and to not travel recklessly–but if there isn’t an active threat to personal safety, consider a trip with GATA as a small investment in building a better, more peaceful future for all of us. 

GATA’s new initiative: Empowering Women

Supporting and empowering women has been one of GATA’s driving forces since our inception.  While we have always considered the impact all of our trips have on both local women and our female travelers, we are very excited to launch a new project that has been years in the making–an all-female trekking trip in Nepal.  

GATA has partnered with Empowering Women of Nepal (EWN) to offer an incredible experience for women of all ages designed to empower not only our travelers, but also an entire network of local women in Nepal.  EWN does amazing work training women in Nepal to enter careers historically occupied only by men, not the least of which is mountain guiding. These brave women are working to break through societal gender norms and structural barriers in order to create a better life for themselves and their families and to change the sometimes oppressive culture in the communities where they live.  They are pioneers working fearlessly to forge new paths of opportunity for women in Nepal and becoming leaders in their own rights along the way.  

We were so inspired by EWN’s mission and work that we decided to create an all female trekking trip using EWN trained female trekking guides and porters.  GATA believes not only in the importance of fostering female leadership, but also in the value of women supporting women. On our new adventure, female Nepalese guides will be leading a group of intrepid women as we connect with and support each other along trek through the mighty Himalayas.  Not only is this a trekking adventure, but an excursion designed to equip women with the tools to be able to make and execute decisions in their personal and professional lives that will help them navigate in a society that systematically challenges women.  

Women of all ages and walks of life are welcome to join us for our inaugural Empowering Women’s Adventure on April 1st of 2020.  This 12 day adventure will take you from the bustling metropolis of Kathmandu teeming with history and culture, to the quiet, lake-side town of Pokhara,  and up into the tiny mountain villages and wild landscapes of the Himalayas. We will also offer a later date beginning on November 18th – November 30th for those who will not be available in April.  Whether traveling in a group or solo, this adventure is sure to change the way you see the world and yourself. For more information, visit the following link:

Offering women’s trips has been a dream of ours since the beginning and is at the very heart of our mission.  We are honored to be working with the amazing women of Nepal, and can’t wait to embark on this new adventure of connecting and empowering women.  We hope you will join us!  

Back to School and the top 5 reasons why schools are including international travel programs

Yesterday I saw the first leaves of autumn shimmering a golden reddish hue in the afternoon light.  The smell of the dry, hot concrete and the feel of the cool breeze of September air gave me the familiar thrill of “back to school.”  Although I haven’t gone “back to school” for many years, the excitement of this time of year always takes over my senses. Students are buying new notebooks, colorful pens and markers, while teachers are busy with new curricula.

In the past few years, many schools have been working hard to include an international travel component for their students.  Not only universities, but high schools and middle schools understand the importance of a global travel program. Why are schools pushing parents to spend a bit extra for their children to travel internationally?  Here are the top 5 reasons according to research done by NAFSA, Association of International Educators. 

1. Improves GPA

Studies have shown that students who have studied abroad have a higher GPA than those who have stayed on campus.  This impact is even more pronounced with minority or at risk student population

2. Improves Language Learning

“ According to the Pew Research Center only 25 percent of American adults can speak a language other than English and only 7 percent of those adults learned that language in school rather than in their childhood homes. Compared to the 90% of European high school students who are learning English, U.S. students are woefully underprepared to meaningfully interact with colleagues and competitors from around the world. Studies have shown that students who study abroad made greater gains in language proficiency than students who studied the same language domestically.”

3.Fosters Intercultural Understanding and Provides a Global Context

“Studying abroad is a unique and transformational learning experience. Students who have studied abroad are better able to work with people from other countries, understand the complexity of global issues, and have greater intercultural learning. One study found that students returned from their study abroad experiences more tolerant and less fearful of other countries, but with a greater sense of positive feelings about their home—a phenomenon they called “enlightened nationalism.””

4. Increases University Acceptance Rates,  Employability, and Career Skills

Many universities value a global experience on applications and although it is hard for any study to definitively state that one experience leads to a better job or higher income, multiple surveys have shown that the skills gained while studying abroad are the same skills that employers value and that employers recognize the importance of cross-cultural understanding in an increasingly global economic environment.

5. In Universities, studying abroad improves completion, retention, and transfer rates

“Far from the fears that studying abroad will delay a student’s graduation, multiple large-scale studies have found that students who study abroad, especially underrepresented or “at-risk” students, are more likely to complete their degrees or certificate programs than students who did not study abroad. Community college students were more likely to transfer to a 4-year institution than students who did not study abroad. First and second year retention rates for those students who study abroad are also considerably higher.”

An Update from the Frontlines

After my article “Battle of la Carolina” was posted, I was really excited and motivated by the response that we got from readers.  I even shared the article with one of my male Ecuadorian soccer friends who I met while playing in la Carolina. In response, he wrote me a short text that made my heart swell to the point of exploding that said: “Alex, I would rather play soccer with you than any man.”  And before you even think about raining on my parade, NO….it’s not like “that”. We are straight up talking about the enjoyability of playing soccer and companionship on the field here–nothing more.  

That response, combined with now being chosen before my male counterparts whenever teams are being chosen had me walking pretty tall…until last week.  Last week I came the closest I ever have to inciting physical violence. Here’s what happened….

Having recently returned from a 6 week visit to the States, I was eager to return to “la cancha” (the field).  Despite being woefully unprepared for physical exertion at high altitude, I ventured to my battlefield (soccer fields in la Carolina park) last week to play with a group of university professors who play on Thursday nights.  The guys were all excited to have me back, and I was feeling good about my warm welcome “home” and my companions’ excitement to have me back on the field. 

 About halfway through our first hour of play, this random guy wearing jeans and a red sweatshirt sauntered onto the field.  He entered the field on the far end from me, and I could see him talking to a couple of my companions, or talking at them rather, and gesticulating in an argumentative manner.  Play stopped and after a minute or so, I became impatient and walked toward the intruder. All the guys who play soccer with me call me “la princesa” –the princess– because they have all learned the very important lesson that I am the Boss.  So since this guy was holding up my game, I started to cross the field to lay down the law and tell him to beat it.  

When I got within hearing range, I stopped dead in my tracks.  At first I thought that I was misunderstanding the words I heard–he couldn’t have been saying what I thought he was saying.  I took a few more steps to listen better–heart hammering now. By the time I arrived alongside my companions who had been arguing with the man, the intruder had started to cross the field and walk away, but not before looking back at me, making eye contact, and spitting on the ground in my direction.  That was when I knew my ears hadn’t betrayed me, that I hadn’t made an error in translation–he really had said what I thought I had heard.  

He had come onto our field and stopped our game to say that I had to leave.  He said that no women were allowed to play and demanded that I exit the field immediately.  He remained on the field arguing with my friends, stating that he would not leave until I was off the field because it is “against the rules” that women play–that it is “prohibited”.  He was adamant–hence why it took so long to get him to leave. When it finally hit me that I really was hearing him correctly, that it wasn’t a misunderstanding, he was already walking off the other side of the field.  I tasted blood in my mouth and moved to go after him. It was a primal rage. I never understood why people fight–it always seemed so barbaric and immature to me, but in that moment, that was my instinct. Henry, my friend who had led the argument against the intruder, caught me as I moved toward the man and spoke calmly to me to let it go.  I didn’t need to say anything–he knew what I was thinking, even if he couldn’t imagine the depth and heat of what I was feeling. My other friends had their eyes on me and almost seemed to be holding their breath, waiting to see what would happen.  

Henry didn’t actually have to physically restrain me–it was more of an avuncular embrace meant to soothe; and I didn’t really try to pursue the man, it was just a flash of instinct.  Within a second (or maybe 2), my logic and rationale kicked in, overpowering that initial primal surge of emotion. I remembered who I am, what my values are (violence not being one of them), and the wise words of my bestie, Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high.”  I was better than the brawling men I so often rolled my eyes at who felt the need to physically prove their masculinity and physical dominance. No, that wasn’t, isn’t, me. I realized that my best defence and most powerful weapon was to keep playing–day after day after day; to continue to stake my claim on the field.  

So the game restarted, I promptly scored 2 goals in quick succession, and I came back the next night to play again, and the night after that–daring anyone to try to tell me again that it’s not my place.  

Just writing this got my hackles up again, anger pounding through my veins.  So I have to remind myself to go back and reread the beginning of this post and remember that, slowly but surely, I am indeed winning both battles and respect in my ongoing war on machismo.  La Princesa de la cancha triunfarà.

Only Love

Posted on January 24, 2019by thelinkschool

by Emily Oubre , The Link School

It feels fitting and timely that Colombia seems to perfectly embody MLK’s quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Over and over, I have seen examples of Colombians who – after years of hatred and darkness – have chosen to respond with light and love.

Rafa is the perfect example.

Rafa was one of those guys who chuckled when he greeted you. He said, “Hola, Emily” with a gleeful amusement that made me feel like just my presence brought him excitement. I wasn’t sure what it was about my “Buenos dias” or my “Hola, Rafa” that made him laugh every time—maybe my smile looked funny—but it sure made me happy to greet him.

In fact, Rafa chuckled just about every minute. His quickness to laugh made it seem like he had never had a care in the world. He was the one guide who did not speak any English, but he looked at everyone and smiled, anyway. He just seemed to be daring you to give him a reason to smile. Actually, he seemed to just know you would. I remember when we got stopped and searched by the police, he was just looking at each of us the whole time, smiling, almost laughing – wanting us to know it was okay and also waiting for us to make him laugh. He had a knack for making light of any situation.


He also was the best climber of them all. One night, I was sitting outside our hotel, recovering from a rough bus ride through the mountain roads, and Rafa came over and sat next to me with that playful sparkle in his eye and crooked smile. He didn’t say anything or expect anything from me. He was just happy to smile and sit next to me. I knew he had to have a story, as he was probably close to my age, which meant he lived through the violent years in Colombia, and I knew this was my chance.

I asked him how he found climbing. He chuckled, paused, and told me it was a good question. For the next 20 minutes, I sat in awe, as he told me how climbing had transformed his life.

He told me he used to work for the paramilitary, hiding and transporting drugs and weapons. He shared a few details of the risky work he did, all within blocks of where we were sitting. He knew he could be killed at any second, so his life did not seem to be of much value. In his free time, he just partied and numbed himself. He didn’t feel much worth.

Then, a friend took him climbing. As he was climbing, he was scared, realizing that only that rope was keeping him alive. This fear for his life seemed to open him up to the idea that he did, in fact, value his life. He was also part of a healthy community, where every person truly mattered – not for their ability to deceive or kill or conform to what was being asked, but for what they had to offer, just as they were. Gradually, he started associating less and less with the para-militarists and more and more with his climbing friends. The problem was that the para-militarists threatened to kill him if he left because he knew too much.

Still, the people in that group saw how much climbing meant to him and started encouraging him to go more and more. Eventually, they decided they trusted him, and he was able to leave the group with their blessing. As he started climbing more, he said, he started thinking more about what his grandparents had taught him about valuing the land, building houses, and building community.


Now, he has built and opened his own “refugio” – a little hostel for climbers—where he meets interesting people from all over the world. He has biked from Bogota to Quito, he built his own house where he grows coffee, and he dreams of visiting Yosemite. He smiles and laughs every minute of every day – genuine smiles and laughter – not induced by mind-altering drugs.

Climbing saved his life.

It has been weeks since I met Rafa, but my mind keeps going back to him. I don’t think this is an uncommon story, but it meant a lot to me that he was willing to share it with me after knowing me for just a couple of hours.

His willingness to be vulnerable and trust me with his story is something I will never forget. In fact, it had an impact the very next day, when we went climbing. Lately, I have felt extremely vulnerable with climbing, since I have one leg that is not really working. I have not been willing to climb much at all, knowing I would inconvenience others by taking a long time, I would not look very good, and I would be at risk of getting hurt more. But when we were climbing the next day, Rafa was belaying, and he looked over and offered to belay me. In the past, I would have contemplated the offer for 10 minutes before saying, “No thanks.” Before I knew it, though, when Rafa offered, I had said yes and was tying in to his rope. I realized that his willingness to be vulnerable with me the night before had made me so much more open with climbing that day. This is the power of vulnerability. If he could share that story, I could look like a fool at the crag. I struggled through the climb, with Rafa shouting carefree encouragement the whole time. When I got back down, I thanked him and told him he had a lot of patience. He laughed, like he always did, and said if he didn’t love it, he wouldn’t be there.

After everything he had experienced, having to belay a little longer really probably was no big deal.


I am so grateful for this lesson in vulnerability. I have spent most of my life trying (and of course failing miserably) to appear perfect. I have avoided vulnerability and been hesitant to show my real self or true, messy insides. Being willing to climb with Rafa was a very minor thing, but for me, it represented a big change. I have seen the power of vulnerability – the way it connects people, opens people up, puts them at ease, makes them okay with their own imperfections. Vulnerability makes our interactions less calculated. It builds community by showing trust. It allows us all to be seen and heard, just for who we are. It seems to me, now, that the rewards of vulnerability far outweigh the risks.

Rafa seemed so free, and he was so lovable and easy to be around. I realized that if he could be so open, I, too, could let go of being stifled by the image I’m trying to present and just be me. Next time I’m trying to hide my mistakes or my shortcomings, I will remember how grateful I was that Rafa shared his so openly and joyfully.

I will remember how he responded to darkness with light; how he responded to hatred with love; how he allowed himself to be softened and opened by hardship, rather than hardened and closed off.

Thank you, Rafa.

A Letter Home from Ecuador

Tsachila friends playing music

To mom from Catcher

Hi mother, it’s Catcher.  I knew you wanted me to call you and say I love you but what I have to say is I’m having the time of my life!

The Tsachila community is most definitely a culture shock.  The people here are really nice and they respect our own beliefs. They take really good care of us. The food is traditional but also non-traditional. A mix of both. We built houses (1 bathroom). It’s no done yet but we are making progress.

The leader of the Tsachila community (Alfonso) is super nice and caring. He told us many stories of his community and how it started. It was very inspirational. I have learned to embrace the fun and not watch my watch. The hard work will be over soon enough.

Madonna’s Medellin

Song Medellin by Madonna

Madonna’s recent song “Medellin” is not so far off from the truth with videos of horse riding.  Medellin, Colombia’s 2nd largest city after the capital of Bogota is in the department of Antioquia which is well known for the Paso Fino horse.  After living here for one year, I continually find myself surprised when we are driving to a near-by town and a very well dressed Colombian cowboy passes us by on a horse that looks as if it is dancing in place. 

These famous Colombian horses are the pride and joy of many ranch owners in Antioquia, Colombia.   According to Equisearch, an online magazine for people who love horses, these horses made their way to Latin America from Europe on Columbus’ ship.  Several breads evolved and mated in Latin America to become different breeds of horses that have incredible stamina, chrisma and elegance and a smooth gait.  These horses are today known as “Paso Fino”.  

When my Colombian boyfriend’s aunt told me about the recent Madonna song, I promptly watched the video and felt as if I were in the country-side of Antioquia.  The fact that she named the song, “Medellin”, a very bustling city in the valley of the great Andean mountains, perplexed me. The video did not show Medellin nor did the lyrics elude to the city.  However, the countryside of the horses did feel very Anitioquia-like.  

To Madonna I say, please come join us in Antioquia and experience the authentic life of these people.  She seems to be interested in Medellin, and for good reason.

Battle of the Carolina

This is the story of a war…of one woman’s war against sexism and machismo culture.  The woman is me; the battlefield: Carolina Park, Quito Ecuador.

I cross the street from my apartment and make the 10 minute trek to the North East corner of “La Carolina”, Quito’s Central Park, almost every day.  My mission: play soccer. I am happy to play soccer with anyone, anytime, anywhere, and there is no better place to get in on a casual game of pick up soccer than one of the dozens of fields in La Carolina.  Correction: there is no better place to get in on a casual game of pick up soccer than one of the dozens of fields in La Carolina….if you are a man.  

Now, I have been playing soccer since I could walk, and can reasonably claim to have been good at the sport when I was in my prime.  Granted, my prime was about 15 years ago; however, I am still able to hold my own on the field and am by no means the “weakest link” on any team.  Thank you to Title IX and having awesome, supportive, and active parents.  

Ecuador, like all of latin America and most of the developing world, does not have Title IX.  Instead we have a long history of “machismo” culture where it is reinforced throughout society that men are strong and women are pretty.  That is, of course, a generalization, and there are exceptions–but this is a noticeable cultural difference between the United States, where we still have a LONG way to go, but at least make an effort to promote gender equality, and here in Ecuador.  Thus, my personal war.  

This is how it goes.  Every day around 4pm I start mentally preparing myself up to do battle.  I turn on some pump up music–usually including some Beyonce (“Who run the world?  GIRLS!”), fill up my water bottle, lace up my shoes, grab my ball and head to the battlefield.  I arrive at the soccer portion of the park to find 20 fields (not full size) full of men playing the world’s greatest game.   I walk by each field and count how many players they have. If they have an odd number–perfect, that’s my in, as they should obviously welcome the arrival of a single player to even out their teams….right?  

Wrong.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been waiting to jump into a game when the players have called out to the spectators “we need one more player!  Anyone want to join?”, and when I immediately jump up to volunteer flat out and to my face say “no, not you.”, and then continue calling out for players.  Rage. I feel rage–there is no other word for it. Just writing this I have steam starting to billow from my ears.  

I can’t force them to play with me and I’m not about to pick a fight with a dozen grown men, so I move on–their loss.  There are, of course, some kind and reasonable men in this country who will allow me to join their teams. When they do, I am proud to report, they are unanimously surprised by my ability to play and glad that they let me on their team.  That is when I win–usually the game I’m playing in, but also a battle. When I go to play, get on a field, and prove myself and my sex worthy. On nights that this happens I always end up exchanging contact information and have invitations to play again.  #winning.  

On nights that no one lets me on a team, I look for an open field, which are not easy to come by, and I juggle my soccer ball (with my feet–duh).  I juggle and shoot and work on my footwork. Sometimes this results in some guys taking notice and we end up with enough people to start a game. Another win.  Sometimes, I spend 3 hours in the park and no one wants to play with me. Sometimes I am rejected by 30 teams in one night. Rejection sucks, and I go home feeling defeated and very very angry.  

My partner, A, hears a lot about my nightly warfare.  He usually listens to my angry tirades with a slight rolling of his eyes and not much commentary.  One night, I convinced A to go to the fields with me to play. He hates soccer, but agreed for my sake.  Most of the fields were full, but there was one group trying to get enough players to start a game. I approached the field and asked if they needed players, tall, muscular A at my side.  They said yes, so A and I walked onto the field. That’s when they said, “no, not you, just him”. My inner Mount Doom of Fury started erupting immediately, but A stepped in smoothly and said, “no, both of us.  She’s the soccer player, I’m just along for company.”. The guys insisted that they only wanted A, and I was not welcome. A persisted and eventually I was allowed to play. 

I scored 2 goals that night–not anything to write home about, but the immense satisfaction I get when I hear the men that refused to play with a girl shout at each other “Hey, mark the girl, she knows how to play!” is what keeps me coming back night after night, despite the rejection, fury, and frustration.  And each night I go to the park, there’s one more guy that recognizes me, one more that will vouch for me, and one more opportunity to prove that girls are not just here to be delicate and pretty, that we are strong and capable and equal as teammates and as human beings.

Charles Participant Testimonial


Rating: 10/10

Yes, I recommend this program

Connect and Explore

Jun 27, 2018

My experience in the village we stayed in was so moving and fulfilling. The ability to see new things, meet new people, practice a new language, all the while making a difference was really special. The staff were very professional, informative, and attuned to the needs of our group. This made for a great experience for our school group, and had many of the participants looking to return to this community to be of more service in the future. I think the best part of the whole experience were the connections that were made with the local people we met. I would certainly do it again!

What would you improve about this program?

More awesome downhill biking experiences:)