Challenge yourself on this South America gap year program journeying through the incredible cultural and natural diversity of Peru, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands.
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, kayak, cycle, and snorkel through a range of environments from Andean peaks to the Amazon rainforest.
Students on this gap year program can develop meaningful connections with local people, gain knowledge of South America’s history, experience sustainable development, push personal boundaries, and develop their leadership skills. This experience combines immersive Spanish language study, hands-on volunteer projects, an Amazon rainforest expedition, rafting and snorkel excursions and tons of adventure travel!
This gap semester program is perfect for high school graduates, college graduates, and gap year students, ideally 17 to 22 years old. Optional transferable academic credit is available to all participants.
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 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.
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 (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 Wayna Picchu for a birds-eye views 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 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 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 homestay with local families for four nights, giving us plenty of 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 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.
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.
*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.
This gap year program is perfect for high school graduates, college students and graduates, and non-students, ideally 17-22 years old. You don’t need to previous experience with travel or any of the activities offered, but it is important you have a positive attitude and to be prepared for some physical work during the volunteer projects on the program. You need to be interested in engaging with local people, pursuing new experiences, pushing personal boundaries, and have an interest in learning Spanish - or at least be open to discovering this rich language. You do not need to be proficient in Spanish. This program is suitable for both beginner and experienced Spanish speakers.
The program is a shared group experience. Join this 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 lodges and camping with shared facilities, to hotels and guesthouses with private bathrooms. Laundry and Wi-Fi will be available frequently, except while at our volunteering 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. 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
*Note: Free visas-on-arrival are issued for Ecuador and Peru.