July 2009 issue

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Ecuador’s wide appeal

Volcanoes and volunteering, rainforest and beaches, the Andes and indigenous culture: Ecuador is quintessential Latin America for most Westerners, offering a kaleidoscope of opportunity to meet and get to know its people and wonderful landscape. Jane Vernon Smith reports.

Ecuador, in the northwest of the South American continent, is a country of contrasts. “The most amazing thing about the country,” according to Andy Kirby, Executive Director of Yanapuma Foundation and Spanish School in Quito, “is that within a few hours of the capital, you can be rafting down a river in the Amazon rainforest, lounging on a beach on the shores of the Pacific, spotting hummingbirds in the cloud-forest or trudging up a snow-capped volcano.”

“For me, the most impressive thing is Ecuador’s great variety, and how colourful the country is,” ventures Diego del Corral of Quito-based Academia LatinoAmericana de Español. “Here,” he adds, “you get everything very close together, and in most areas, it’s easy to travel overland by bus.”

With good access to all that the country offers, the majority of language schools are to be found in and around the capital, which is 2,850 metres above sea level. “[Quito’s] setting is incomparable,” enthuses del Corral. “The city is located in a valley and surrounded by the Andes [mountain range], offering fantastic views of green mountains all around, snow-peaked volcanoes and a crystal blue sky.” Moreover, it still feels approachable, he notes, despite being a city of more than one million inhabitants. Many places of interest can be reached on foot, and the local public transport system is well developed.

“Quito has to be one of the best places to study Spanish,” asserts Kirby, “not only because the Spanish spoken here is particularly clear, but [also because] it is a cultural gem, with a beautiful and well preserved historic centre, and there is a great deal of culture and art - much of it free. In addition, the Mariscal (main tourist area) is a vibrant and well developed area with plenty of nightlife, good restaurants and a very cosmopolitan feel.”

Yanapuma Spanish School is located on the top floor “in one of the most stunning colonial-style buildings in Quito”, according to Kirby. Situated on the edge of the main tourist area, it has a large, open, café-style teaching space, with plenty of natural light, two outdoor terraces and a mature garden, both used for classes. The stylish appearance goes hand-in-hand with a family atmosphere, which the school works hard to create, says Kirby, with plenty of opportunities for socialising, including traditional Ecuadorian cooking classes and salsa.

A non-profit organisation, Yanapuma Spanish School exists to support the work of the Yanapuma Foundation, which works in marginalised communities to promote sustainable development. As such, it runs a volunteering programme, Volunteer Ecuador, which can be undertaken either separately or in combination with language classes. Outside of school, students are guaranteed a full itinerary during their stay. Among Kirby’s personal highlights are the Telefériqo, “a cable car that rises up the side of the Pichincha volcano to reveal fantastic views of the city and other surrounding snow-capped volcanoes” and the museums on the equator, which runs just north of Quito itself.

Meanwhile, Academia LatinoAmericana is located in “an ancient colonial mansion, which gives a welcoming feeling of a real home”, and its student residence is conveniently situated next door. “I’ve been really impressed at the very high and personalised standard of treatment and service our students get, and which I got myself when I studied here,” attests del Corral. Moreover, with a sister school in Cloud Forest, approximately 90 kilometres from Quito, students can take the chance to sample another facet of Ecuador first-hand.

Evelyn Guerrero of Bipo & Toni’s Modern Language & Literature Centre in Quito agrees that the Ecuadorian welcome is what students like best about this school too. “We always make the students feel at home,” she says. “We are worried about their well-being in our country.”

Other aspects of Ecuador that students enjoy discovering include Otavalo Market, the largest indigenous market in the whole of South America, which can be reached in three hours from Quito. The market offers traditional handicrafts, hand-made jewellery, bags, sweaters and souvenirs, plus an animal market. “It’s really impressive what you can buy in Otovalo,” says del Corral, “and for anyone coming from outside South America, you just can’t imagine the size of it!”

One of the favourite excursion destinations of Sofia Navas from the South American Language Center in Quito is Papallacta, where you can relax in the hot springs. Also on her list of typical activities are the various local festivals. She explains that as part of the heritage of 300 years of Spanish rule, many Indian traditions were disguised as Catholic festivals to allow them to continue unhindered. One such festival that continues to this day is San Pedro y San Pablo, otherwise known as Inti Raymi, which means Sun Festival in native Quichua, and is a celebration of nature. No festival is complete without its food, and, during Holy Week, students can try fanesca, a strong soup containing 12 grains, while the 1st November is the traditional day to drink colada morada (purple punch) with guaguas de pan (bread babies).

Located centrally between the historic, colonial area and the modern city with its shopping malls and entertainment, the South American Language Center’s student accommodation is also close by. Here, says Navas, students “live life as Ecuadorians do”.

For those who wish to sample the charms of a variety of locations across the country, Andean Global Studies Spanish School offers four contrasting settings: in Quito, in the southern city of Cuenca, also 2500 metres above sea level, and the beach resorts of Montañita and Manta. One of the best ways to discover the treasures and culture of Quito, according to Director, Agustin Núñez, is to be there for the Month of Arts in August. At this time, the entire city is given over to theatre, outdoor concerts, exhibitions, traditional food festivals and more. Manta, the country’s second largest port, is a busy town that sweeps round a bustling bay, offering a complete change from city life in the Andes. Meanwhile, Montañita – widely regarded as Ecuador’s capital of surf – also boasts a vibrant nightlife and, as such is perfect for young travellers. “In all [locations], our school has comfortable infrastructures, wi-fi, adequate classrooms, a caféteria and [additional] services and activities, such as salsa lessons, cooking classes and other cultural activities,” says Núñez.

The Simon Bolivar Spanish School has campuses in both Quito and Cuenca, the third largest city in the country after Guayaquil and Quito. And both cities are the best starting points to travel round the country, according to Student Coordinator, Sofia Valdivieso. Additionally, both schools are located in the tourist area of their city, and, in both, “students can enjoy our varied and colourful Andean culture.” In particular, she highlights the craft markets and indigenous festivals, where students can “approach the culture and learn more about customs and also buy the typical hand-made crafts to take home.”

Also located in Cuenca, just 10 minutes’ walk from the city centre, is Estudio Sampere. “When you first arrive [at] Sampere school, crossing the small Tomebanba River, and going up La Escalinata until you reach our early 20th century orange brick building, detached over the Barranco area, your heart will be beating with excitement,” declares Director, Juan Manuel Sampere. “When you enter the school’s premises, walking over old cobbled stones, you will discover the building’s special charm.”

The city of Cuenca has World Heritage status and, with its two cathedrals, colourful popular markets, multiplicity of small craft stores and beautiful mid-19th century houses, it offers the visitor a unique experience. Sampere affirms. “Cuenca is a place where tradition and modernity go hand in hand, and where you can experience the warmth and friendliness of people that keep traditions [that have] long vanished in other parts of the world,” he adds.

Agent viewpoint

 “Ecuador seems to be more exotic and different than most other countries in Latin America, especially the well preserved Indian culture. Once you arrive in Quito, you find a big, interesting city with a nice and extremely well preserved old town, and a new town with a lot to offer for international language students. During weekends, many enjoy bicycling or trekking in the mountains. Our clients give most comments on the one-week [excursion to] the jungle, which is a very special and interesting experience.”
Ingvar Dyrseth, Språkreisebyrået, Norway

 “Students travelling to Ecuador to learn Spanish are looking for an exotic experience. This Latin American country is attractive to many for its unique history and culture. Students are fascinated by the diversity and colourfulness of its people. After they arrive, it’s still surprising to them [that] all that they had thought and read about falls short of what they really encounter. This vast country and its diverse landscape amazes them from the Pacific coast to the National parks and the Andes, from the indigenous culture to the Galapagos Island.”
David Gundlach, Language School Worldwide, Germany

 “Ecuador, though small, offers a fantastic range of tourist attractions and activities; the Galapagos Islands, mountaineering, white water rafting, thermal hot baths, indigenous markets, volcanic lagoons, volcanoes and lakes, historic colonial architecture, scenic panoramas, lush rainforest, the list goes on.”
Carol Carlile, Gap and Career Breaks, UK

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The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Language Travel Magazine. If you would like more information on any of these advertisers, tick the relevant boxes, fill out your details and send.





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