Join us to gain insight into the lives of indigenous Andean and Amazon communities while significantly improving your conversational Spanish ability. Participate in worthwhile community-initiated volunteer projects, wander the ancient streets of Quito and Cuzco, and be astounded by Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and the Galapagos Islands. You will trek, kayak, cycle, and snorkel through a range of environments from Andean peaks and an Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos beaches.
Students on this gap year program will develop meaningful connections with local people through homestays, gain knowledge of South America’s history, push personal boundaries, and develop their leadership skills. You will truly make a difference while you're here by volunteering with an indigenous community in the Andes, learning about sustainable living from social enterprises, and helping on issues of plastic pollution and reforestation of endemic plant species in the Galapagos Islands.
✓ Want to experience homestays in a small Andean village
✓ Are interested in learning a new language
✓ Love activities like biking, snorkeling, kayaking and rafting
✓ Are enthusiastic about conservation and sustainability
✓ Would like to visit Machu Picchu and learn about indigenous culture
My Pacific Discovery journey through South America exceeded all of my expectations, and the lessons I learned and memories I made will stick with me for the rest of my life. While the trip was challenging at times, it was in those moments where I lived outside of my comfort zone that I really learned the most about myself. Because the program encourages everyone to be open to trying new things, I was able to try an array of new foods and activities that I ended up loving, as well as being able to discover new passions of mine that I didn't know I had. This program was the perfect balance of cultural immersion, service, and adventure, and day by day, I discovered how amazing and beautiful life can truly be..”
- Taylor Steggerda
Our Program Quiz can help you find your perfect Program match! Or get the full Program run-down in our catalogue. This catalogue provides information about Pacific Discovery's values and program design, as well as program descriptions and testimonials!
**This is a guide to what you can expect to do on Program. The order in which the activities occur might vary**
On arrival in Lima, Peru, you’ll meet your Program Instructors at the airport and fly together to Cusco, the former capital and heart of the Incan Empire. From Cusco, we travel to Urubamba in the Sacred Valley for an introduction to Peruvian culture. We’ll start with an in-depth orientation where we focus on getting to know each other and creating a positive and reflective group culture.
We then dive into our first volunteer project based from the cozy Llama Pack Hostel with Alejandra and Jorge - the project founders - and the resident llamas. We will spend our time contributing to the Llama Pack Project’s mission to recover traditional uses and breeding of carrier llamas. They work with local communities in environmental education and sustainable rural development, and in the conservation of Andean mountain ecosystems in the Sacred Valley highlands. Our project focus will be helping with the construction of Llama Park – a social enterprise replicating a traditional Andean village for local and international visitors to learn about Andean ways of life. We will also do a fun day-trek with llamas to immerse ourselves in the environment and meet the communities that this project supports.
We then embark on a 4-day journey towards Machu Picchu on the Inca Jungle Trail. With bike riding, zip-lining (optional), natural hot springs, and river traverses, this trail is a diverse and adventurous approach to Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu. Once in Aguas Calientes, we’ll hike up to Machu Picchu for sunrise and a breathtaking start to the day. After an informative tour of the sacred city, we’ll have plenty of time to explore independently, and climb Huayna Picchu for a birds-eye view of the ruins.
Nestled in the Sacred Valley, Cusco has the feel of an enchanting European city with narrow cobbled streets, orange-tiled adobe homes, and a majestic cathedral.
In the mornings, we have fun and conversational Spanish lessons, in small groups at a level appropriate to your proficiency (beginner to advanced Spanish speakers are catered for). Afternoon excursions enable us to practice what we’ve learnt in the morning, and to develop our confidence communicating with native Spanish speakers while soaking in the ambience of this charming city.
The road to Lake Titicaca stretches across a landscape of mountains, lakes, clusters of earthen homes and scattered herds of llama. Our destination, the Capachica Peninsula, has a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Its tranquility and simple subsistence lifestyle is alluring. We participate in the daily life of the community here, explore the terraced slopes and significant hilltop ruins, swim in the highest lake on earth, and boat out to Taquile Island. This peninsula is remote and largely untouched in terms of the typical tourist trail, giving us an authentic insight into traditional Peruvian culture.
We then say farewell to Peru and fly to Quito, Ecuador. Quito is a sprawling city nestled high in the Andes and flanked by volcanic peaks. Its location and sights are spectacular. We have a day in Quito to explore the historic center and have an introduction to Ecuadorian and Kichwa culture in preparation for our community stay.
We take a morning flight to San Cristobal Island - the first island Darwin visited in the Galapagos Archipelago.
Over the next two weeks, we visit sites of ecological significance and incredible biodiversity on four different islands. You’ll swim, snorkel and have close encounters with amazing wildlife.
We will travel to the highlands where we get stuck into our first project. This project focuses on reforestation and we will help get rid of invasive plants. We will stay here for a couple of days and really start understanding the processes that go hand in hand with this project to help restore native and endemic forests, hoping to contribute to the natural harmony and tranquility of the island.
After completing our first project on the island, we take some time out to explore the area, go snorkeling in the magical waters that surround these islands. After all, the Galapagos are known for their incredible marine life! These days will be nothing short of magical while we submerge ourselves in the local beauty of the landscape and the diverse wildlife that inhabits it.
One of the best spots for snorkeling, Kicker Rock or Leon Dormido is an amazing rock formation near San Cristobal Island. This amazing landmark, Kicker Rock is a remnant of a vertical tuff cone formation, rising almost 153 meters (500 feet) from the ocean. The erosion has given the rock its characteristic shape, which some see as a shoe, hence the name Kicker Rock. Others see it as a sleeping sea lion or Leon Dormido in Spanish.
While we snorkel around Kicker Rock we can spot sea turtles, marine iguanas, rays, Galapagos sharks, tropical fish and if luck is on our side we can even see hammerhead sharks. Besides enjoying the underwater view, we can usually see frigatebirds on the cliffs as well as sea lions along the shore.
We'll head to the captivating Isabela Island to enjoy a scenic boat ride, surrounded by the tranquil beauty of the ocean. Embark on an invigorating bike ride to the Wetlands to connect with nature in a unique way.
Trek through the magnificent highlands of Isabela, conquering the Sierra Negra and Chico volcanoes. A challenging yet rewarding 16-kilometer hike sets us up nicely for a satisfying lunch in the highlands. Dive into the underwater world with a boat tour to the enchanting tunnels of Cabo Rosa. The shimmering waters and vibrant marine life reveal the magic of the Galapagos.
Return to Santa Cruz Island, and seize the opportunity for souvenir shopping and basking on the sun-drenched beaches. As the sun sets, gather for a memorable farewell dinner, a toast to the experiences shared and memories created in the Galapagos Islands
Back to Quito, where we travel into the northern highlands to a small Andean village, Agato. The people of Agato are Kichwa and proudly maintain a very traditional life, rich in a culture and lifestyle that highly values connection with the earth. The community gets their livelihood from farming and the production of various handicrafts.
In Agato, we will work alongside local families on a community-initiated development project while planning fun activities (art/craft/sport etc.) with the children in the afternoon and immersing ourselves in their culture during homestays. You will also participate in daily community life such as food preparation and harvesting quinoa and corn. In all of this, you will build strong relationships with the families of Agato while experiencing a completely different way of life.
Spectacular crater lakes, volcanoes, glacial peaks and lush valleys studded with rural villages are a feature of Ecuador’s central highlands. Leaving Agato, we stop at Otavalo, world-famous for its craft market with hundreds of stalls selling textiles, jewelry, musical instruments, art and leather goods. After trawling the market, we continue upwards to Quilotoa, a tiny community of artisans in an area famous for its breathtaking crater lake. We stay in a guesthouse run by a local artist couple and enjoy hiking in and around the crater.
Baños – a charming town nestled on the flanks of the impressive Tungurahua mountain – is our next destination. Our time in Baños is busy, as there is much to experience between its cloud forest, hot springs, waterfalls and rivers. In the mornings we have Spanish language instruction. The level will be appropriate to your proficiency. When not immersing ourselves in Spanish, we will try some of the adventure activities on offer.
The focus of our time in the Amazon Basin is to learn about the rainforest and the lives of the indigenous communities who live in this unique environment. Beginning in Tena, we take a safe, though adventurous rafting expedition down the Jatunyacu River.
The river takes us to Misuahilli, a small town on the edge of the jungle. We get to stay at the Sinchi Warmi Center, an inspiring indigenous women’s ecotourism initiative. Sustainability is at the heart of this inspiring center; while our patronage helps sustain the communities’ livelihood, we learn more sustainable means of production and consumption. The women will teach us many things about their way of life, including how artisanal chocolate is produced – and we’ll get to try the process ourselves, from cacao bean through to chocolate.
Leaving Misahualli, we embark on a journey into the unique Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. This is the second largest national park in Ecuador and a spectacular tract of rainforest, lakes and rivers. Based from a lodge in the rainforest, we will navigate forests and spot wildlife (including freshwater pink and grey dolphins) from both motor-canoe and paddle-canoe.
We will wrap up the program immersing ourselves in this incredible environment where we learn about the unique flora, fauna, indigenous communities and current issues facing these communities in the rainforest. Our native guide shares his wealth of knowledge, showing us the medicinal and practical uses of the flora and fauna that his ancestors relied upon. In the evenings, we venture out on a night excursion to search for caiman and nocturnal birds. And finally, we visit a bird watching tower, and from this vantage point above the canopy see breathtaking views of the surrounding rainforest.
The group will fly together to Quito on the Ecuador mainland to connect with international departures.
*Each week there will be some designated free time so that you can catch up on email, laundry, rest, and explore independently with others in the group.
**Pacific Discovery reserves the right to alter and/or change the order of the itinerary, the focus of the projects or the activities themselves due to dates, availability, and safety precautions.
✓ All in-program travel and transport, excluding flights
✓ All accommodation
✓ All meals
✓ All expeditions, activities, excursions, volunteer projects and entry fees as described in the itinerary
✓ Experienced Program Instructors and local guides
✓ Informal lectures from resident experts on conservation and eco-tourism
✓ Experiential core curriculum that pushes students to reflect and ask questions of themselves
✓ Certificate of Program Completion
High Activity Level: Anyone with an average to advanced fitness level and an enthusiasm for the outdoors and new experiences will have a great time on this gap semester! You will need to be prepared for a multi-day hike towards Machu Picchu and for some physical work during the volunteer projects on the program, like trail building or the removal of invasive plants.
Low Camping Level: You won't be camping on this program. You will spend your nights on this mini semester program in comfortable guesthouses and modern hotels.
High Service Learning Level: You will be able to make a big difference to the local community during your stay. Be prepared to get your hands dirty and do some hands-on learning about local issues.
Our accommodation will vary from welcoming lodges, homestays, community stays and camping with shared facilities, to hotels and guesthouses with private bathrooms. Laundry will be available some times. Wifi is very limited due to remote areas. Accommodation is diverse, comfortable and carefully chosen to fit our needs.
Meals are fresh, tasty, healthy and varied. Special dietary requirements and vegetarians are catered for. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the program cost. Any snacks are at an additional cost, which we recommend budgeting around $10 per day for.
Meals are a mixture of eating out at restaurants and food preparation shared by students. An average day on program would consist of the following:
Camping meals will be adjusted to the cooking equipment at hand
To make things easy for you, we partner with a full service travel agency that can arrange flights, appropriate travel insurance and post program arrangements for our students.
They have access to a "Cancel For Any Reason" or CFAR travel insurance for US citizens in participating states. This optional travel insurance product allows travelers to cancel for any reason whatsoever up to two days prior to departure and still receive a significant refund. This allows you to keep planning for the future while avoiding the stress and the financial worry of canceling a program if you need to.
Our program locations and itineraries have been carefully selected and modified to minimize risk of exposure to anyone outside the group with most being located in rural areas. This allows for a more focused learning environment, as well as a safe haven from the stress of our modern world.
We've been working hard and watching closely to any CDC recommendations about group sizes and testing requirements to come up with options that will allow you to have a safe, healthy, and stress-free Gap Year experience. We do the hard work so you can come and enjoy the fresh air, adventures, and new friends!
We have been running successful international gap year programs in Spring, Summer and Fall 2021. The students shared their experiences in testimonials and wrote their stories down in blog posts - feel free to have a look.
Check out the information on our COVID-19 page to find out more about our Covid-19 policies, procedures and updates.