It’s been about seven and a half months since I touched down on Ecuadorian soil. For such a long time, Ecuador was only an idea for me, not a real experience; something to come months in the future. How strange it is to be looking back now, months after the fact, on those three months spent in Cuenca, Ecuador. How strange it is to be back in school here at Mankato, yet how familiar. How strange and how familiar. And how wonderful.
As I planned my study abroad experience, the thought of being away from the regular routine sounded so exciting to me. Ironically, for months I’ve been itching to be back. And now that I am back in the swing of classes, friends, being involved in the Catholic Newman Center, and writing articles for the Reporter, I want to recount – however incompletely or imperfectly – my experience last spring. My hope is that I can share something valuable with you through my story. Whether it be an interest in the country of Ecuador, a desire to travel or study abroad, or a piece of wisdom that I’ve learned along the way.
I was in the South American country of Ecuador, which borders Colombia to the north and Peru to the south, from early January to mid-April working to finish my Spanish major at Estudio Sampere in the city of Cuenca. Though it is among the smallest countries on the continent, it is certainly not lacking in natural and cultural wonder. It is composed of four distinct geographical regions: the hot, wet Pacific coast; the cool, majestic Andes mountains running down the center of the country from north to south (the “sierra”); the richly diverse and wild Amazon rainforest; and the world-famous Galapagos Islands, which need no introduction.
The sierra and the coast are by far the most populated regions and are very distinct culturally. The sierra-coast divide is analogous to the north-south cultural divide in the United States. Ecuador belongs in the wide spectrum of Hispanic Latin-American culture, but has retained a strong cultural presence of the indigenous peoples descended from the Ancient Incans. I found the people of Ecuador, in general, to be friendly and proud of their country.
I came to the conclusion that Cuenca is the nicest city in all of Ecuador. Its history dates back centuries and the beautiful architecture attests to that. The city’s atmosphere made it a wonderful place to live: it was safe, pretty, full of public parks and squares, and had lots of good food (though I can’t say I enjoyed guinea pig.) The city has actually become somewhat of a global retirement destination, drawing a very visible community of thousands of retired expatriates, largely from the United States.
I enjoyed spending free time walking down the city streets, visiting the parks, eating at the restaurants, praying in the Cathedral, and strolling along the Tomebamba River. There was so much to take in and something new to be discovered each day.
The school where I studied, Estudio Sampere, was located on one floor of a building – one floor above a German restaurant and bar – near the center of the city. My experience was different from that of international students who come for exchange programs at MSU because I was at a Spanish language school as opposed to one of the local universities. Though this made it more difficult to meet locals, I did manage to do so in other ways and the atmosphere in the school was great.
The total student population never reached much beyond ten. In half of my classes, I was the only student. Students come at various points of the year, some staying for as little as a week, others coming for as much as half a year. Most come from the United States, Germany, and Switzerland, with few exceptions. Ask any former student about the teachers, and they will immediately begin recounting all the fond memories they have of them.
In addition to classes on the Spanish language, I took history and literature classes too, all taught completely in Spanish.
Estudio Sampere wasn’t just a great atmosphere for learning Spanish, but also for making friends and experiencing Ecuadorian culture. Every week, there were activities offered at the school, including film showings, dance classes, cooking lessons, and museum tours. As a group, we took day trips to the Incan ruins of Ingapirca, the lake-covered El Cajas National Park high in the Andes, the foggy waterfall of Girón, and an ancient battlefield and fortress in the historic Sigsig region dating back to the era of the Cañar civilization. I can certainly recommend Cuenca to any student of Spanish looking for a study abroad experience.
I stayed with a host family in a big house about twenty minutes walking distance from the school. It was an older couple, but their daughters and grandchildren came over often. They were eager to involve me, show me their city, and help me with travel plans and other logistics of living in a foreign country. By chance, a neighbor from back home in Saint Paul who I’ve known almost all my life grew up in Cuenca. Her family became like a second host family for me during my time in Ecuador.
Improving my Spanish fluency was my primary motivation for going to Ecuador. Though I wasn’t perfect in keeping to my rule, I made a point of reducing my use of English to a bare minimum, going as far as to unfollow nearly all English-language pages I’ve liked on Facebook. Needless to say, between school, home, interacting with locals, and being out in public, I was thoroughly immersed in the Spanish language.
For over a year prior, I had banked on the hope that a study abroad experience would be the key to attaining fluency. Though my expectation was set too high, I know that my Spanish improved. Wondering whether my Spanish was improving as much as it should – or even at all – caused me anxiety during the trip. Though I’m not at a native speaker level as I had hoped, I am more confident in my Spanish abilities than I was before I left.
Studying abroad in Ecuador also gave me an incredible opportunity to travel. By two weeks into my three months abroad, I had already set the record for longest amount of time I had ever been away from Minnesota. Though I had done a fair amount of world travel prior to this year, I had never travelled alone before. While school was in session, I took weekend trips around the country.
My first trip was to the town of Baños de Ambato to celebrate Carnaval, where the tradition is that everyone runs around the streets spraying each other with cans of foam. I also took a hectic trip to the city of Machala, the highlight (sort of) of which was noticing a spider the size of my hand on a rock a few feet away from me as I walked barefoot up a stream in the forest. Over Holy Week I was able to stay at my grade school Spanish teacher’s family’s home in the coastal city of Santa Elena. I soon became somewhat of an expert in navigating Ecuador’s (very affordable) bus system.
I also planned in two weeks of travel, just me and my backpack, once my semester in Cuenca ended. It was an incredible and incredibly exhausting adventure. I first went south to the town of Vilcabamba, nestled in the mountains. I spent a day hiking from desktop-worthy view to desktop-worthy view in Podocarpus National Park, visited the famous “Virgen del Cisne” shrine, and tried some typical food in the city of Loja.
After, I took the overnight bus to northern Peru, which unlike green Ecuador, is a desert. I ran into some security scares there, but also came away some of my best stories to bring back home. From there I headed back up through Machala and Guayaquil. In the town of San Pedro de Alausí, I took the world’s only train that does switchbacks up and down the face of a mountain.
After that, I spent three nights at cabin in the rainforest east of Puyo. The first morning a colorful parrot flew onto the windowsill and I walked up to it and petted it. There was a massive snake right in front of us on the path during a night hike. And in one of the indigenous communities I visited, there was a little resident monkey that climbed all over everybody. After that I explored Quito, the capital city, for a day.
I took off from the Quito airport a little before midnight on April 15. The next morning a major earthquake struck Ecuador. It was very surprising to return to the United States and see nothing but Ecuador on the news.
I don’t just recommend that you travel to Ecuador or study abroad in Cuenca – though I do highly recommend both those things –, I recommend that, in general, you study abroad at least once. The opportunity to experience a foreign culture and perhaps learn a foreign language all while receiving an education is too good to pass up. Being in another part of the world, especially for an extended period of time, is such a valuable experience.
I must say, though, that while I can recommend study abroad, I cannot guarantee that you will have a perfectly wonderful experience. Life is full of risks and doubt and we as humans must coexist with that. While you may get the impression from listening to former study abroad students talking about their experiences that it is completely amazing every step of the way, that is not the case.
There are struggles adapting to a new culture and language. You will miss loved ones and will miss out on a lot of great things happening back home. You may get used to the daily grind of life abroad and wonder if it’s really worth it. What I put in my blog, posted on Facebook, and wrote in this article were, for the most part, the positives: the fun, exciting, and joyful experiences. Understand that there is struggle involved with studying abroad.
That said, more and more I’ve come to the unfortunate and beautiful realization that the great things in life, the ones that bring us the most joy, require suffering. Whether it’s love, athletic or academic achievement, or adventure, some sacrifice is necessarily involved. I don’t recommend that you study abroad because you will have the perfect experience, but because I believe that it will be worth it.
To learn more about the study abroad options offered here at MSU, stop into the International Center located in CSU 250. Also feel free to email me at email@example.com to know more about Ecuador what study abroad is like. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts and questions.