This experience combines immersive Spanish language study, hands-on service learning projects, and adventure travel.
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 incredible Galapagos Islands. You will trek, raft, cycle, and snorkel through a range of environments from Andean peaks to the Amazon rainforest.
The program has an experiential focus and reflective educational approach. Students have opportunities for meaningful connections with local people, gain knowledge of South America’s history, societies and environments, experience sustainable development, push personal boundaries, and develop their leadership skills.
Facilitated by our supportive and experienced Program Instructors, this is an excellent gap year or study abroad option for students wanting to develop personal and leadership skills and be immersed in cultures different to their own.
The program is open to high school graduates, university students and graduates, ideally 18 – 24 years. Optional transferable academic credit is available to all students.
This program can be combined with Summer, Fall, or Spring program options in other regions of the world (Central America; Southeast Asia; New Zealand & Australia; the Himalayas) for an in-depth and enriching global experience.
“Working with concepts of sustainability, being immersed in stunning outdoor environments and opening minds and hearts to diverse people and opinions have made an observable difference in the girls. They have grown in maturity, perspective, acceptance, and there is a new sense of assurance that pervades them.”
Jennifer Thomas, Mother of Mary and Emily
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 commence with an in-depth orientation where we focus on getting to know each other and creating a positive and reflective group culture to support us in realizing our program goals.
We then dive into our first service 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.
During this week, we will also take 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 to Machu Picchu on the Inca Jungle Trail. With bike riding, zip-lining, 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 Wayna Picchu for a birds-eye views of the ruins.
The week concludes with a free day in Cusco to rest, do laundry, catch up on email, and regroup.
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 pairs, you will stay in homestays with welcoming local families with whom you’ll enjoy most meals.
During the mornings, we will have Spanish language instruction at the San Blas Spanish School, a contemporary language school located in the heart of Cusco’s historic quarter. Each morning, we have 4-hours of 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 an arid moonscape 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 homestay with local families for four nights, giving us ample time to participate in daily life, 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.
From Quito, 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. Your homestay there is an authentic and immersive experience where you have the privilege of learning from a tight-knit community who generously open their homes to our groups.
In Agato, we will work alongside our host families on a community-initiated development project while planning fun activities (art/craft/sport etc.) with the children in the afternoon. 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 at the excellent Marco Polo Language School. The level will be appropriate to your proficiency.
When not immersing ourselves in Spanish and enjoying time with our host families, we will try some of the adventure activities on offer - canyoning, rock climbing, hiking and biking. We homestay with local families screened and approved by the language school, who are experienced in hosting international students. Meals are eaten with the homestay family. Your evenings will be dedicated to spending time with your host families where you can put your new language skills to use.
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 inundated forests and spot wildlife (including freshwater pink and grey dolphins) from both motor-canoe and paddle-canoe.
Immersing ourselves in this incredible environment 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 birdwatching tower, and from this vantage point above the canopy see breathtaking views of the surrounding rainforest.
After a couple days in Quito to recharge, we take a morning flight to San Cristobal Island - the first island Darwin visited in the Galapagos Archipelago. Over the next eight days, we visit sites of ecological significance and incredible biodiversity on four different islands. You’ll swim, kayak and have close encounters with amazing wildlife.
One of the highlights of any visit to the Galapagos is the incredible snorkeling opportunities available. From Kicker Rock and Los Tuneles, you’ll spot sea lions, harmless reef sharks, rays, turtles and other diverse marine life. We also swim and snorkel at La Loberia beach, a stretch of coastline home to sea lions, yellow warblers, frigates, various species of finches and large Galapagos marine iguanas.
We visit Floreana Island where you learn about the fascinating cultural history of the island. Then to Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago and home to penguins, tortoises, flightless cormorants pelicans and Sally Lightfoot crabs, as well as several unique bird species. It is the only island with the equator dissecting it, and the only place in the world where a penguin can be in its natural habitat in the Northern Hemisphere. We hike to the summit of Sierra Negra, the oldest volcano in the Galapagos. Its southern and eastern sides are fertile and covered with lush tropical vegetation. The higher reaches are more barren with scrubby bushes and grasses. The northern side of the volcano is almost entirely devoid of vegetation due to lava flows.
We will wrap up the program on our fourth island with time for celebration, more snorkeling and reflection on our learning and growth throughout the program. The group will fly together to Guayaquil City on the Ecuador mainland to connect with international departures.
Note: Each week there will be some designated free time in a town or city so that you can catch up on email and laundry, rest, and have your own independent experiences with others in the group.
Open to students, graduates and non-students, ideally 18-24 years. This program is suitable for anyone of average fitness with an enthusiasm for conservation, humanitarian work, new experiences and different cultures. It is an excellent option for students and graduates wanting to be exposed to and immersed in cultures different to their own. You need to be open-minded, committed to, and prepared for some physical work whilst on the volunteer component of the program. You do not need to be proficient in Spanish. This program is suitable for both beginner and experienced Spanish speakers. No prior travel, trekking or experience with activities is required.
The program is a shared group experience. We expect you to join the program with an open mind and a willingness to work together with your group mates to make the program an amazing experience for the whole group. Additionally, the program will be as much about the inner journey of personal growth and learning about yourself as it is about what you will experience in the outer physical journey. We expect you to be open to learning and challenging your ideas and assumptions.
Our accommodation will vary from welcoming homestays, lodges and camping with shared facilities, to hotels and guesthouses with private bathrooms. Laundry and WiFi will be available frequently, except while at our service learning projects, trekking trips and community stays. 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. 100% of meals are included in the program cost.
*Note: Free visas-on-arrival are issued for Ecuador and Peru.
The Pacific Discovery South America Semester is an inspiring 9-week educational travel program through Peru, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands’ incredible cultural and environmental diversity. It combines immersive Spanish language study, hands-on service learning projects and amazing educational adventure travel.