Climbing Guagua Pichincha

Where do I even begin to explain the day I decided to climb a 4781m mountain-volcano-crater combo? Let’s start with its name, shall we? Aside from its alliteration and rhyme scheme being on point, it’s also a chance for you to pick up some Ecuadorian slang, so pay close attention! The mountain we climbed is called Guagua Pichincha; guagua is a word for baby (although the mountain was anything but a baby).  The name stems from some riveting folklore (that I’ve already forgotten because my guide explained it to me when I was thousands of feet in the air and completely out of breath) involving alien abduction, a worried father, and some drama with the surrounding sibling mountains. Guambrita, or guambra, is another Andean term used to describe a “youthful” person. So, to translate: American Youth Takes on Baby Mountain Volcano Thing. Now that that’s cleared up, we can dive into the actual events of the day.  

To start, let me share a little bit about me.  I’m athletically challenged, I have a slight fear of heights and I hate the outdoors. Given these characteristics, it is questionable as to why I decided to put on a helmet and harness and wrap myself in ropes to risk my little life scaling rocks for hours. I actually had no idea what I was signed up for until morning of when I decided (unfortunately) to google what the mountain actually was.  That’s when I found out that good ol’ Guagua Pichincha was actually an active volcano (but that I shouldn’t worry because its last eruption was all the way back in 1999).  A Wikipedia page had never freaked me out so much. 

Despite that “minor” concern, we were certainly given the best conditions for the climb.  We left at about 7am to begin the 2-hour drive through Quito to the reserve at the base of the mountain. It was quite possibly the clearest day I have ever seen ever in Ecuador. We were able to see every mountain and volcano across the horizon, including Chimborazo (the highest volcano in Ecuador and hardest to climb). There are almost no words to explain how incredible that view was; photos can barely do it justice.  

Upon reaching the reserve we were met by a team of mountain guides training for their International Guide certification. They handed us all of our (somewhat terrifying) equipment and we began almost immediately with the rock-scaling.  It was uphill for hours.  We were attached to our guides by ropes; they would go ahead up a rock face and after being given the “all clear” we would follow.  I was lucky enough to have Diego, one of the best rock climbers, as my mountain guide.  He was extremely patient with my lack of rock climbing grace, especially when I was expected to take bigger steps than my tiny legs could reach.  Every now and then we’d stop to eat a quick snack, grab some water and take in the views.  The higher up we climbed, the colder it got and the harder it was to breathe.  Great combination, I know.

Everything was a first for me that day. Everything. From the incredibly unstylish orange helmet to the act of wearing a harness to the rock climbing itself to the REPELLING DOWN THE SIDE OF A CLIFF. Yup, you read that right.  My life was completely in Diego’s hands every time I had to repel. 

Aside from a few scrapes and bruises and an unbelievably sore body, I made it out on top – literally. We climbed three different summits that day, and each one was more incredible than the previous one.  None of my friends or family could believe that I actually climbed a mountain when I told them.  I do know one thing though – I’d DEFINITELY do it all over again. All of it: the repelling, the tripping down the mountain during the descent (even with walking poles) and the seeing my life flash before my eyes every 30 seconds.  I’ve never been more proud of myself than I was that day. I highly recommend climbing something, anything, while in Ecuador, especially if it’s out of your comfort zone.  I promise it will change your life.  

See yourself climbing mountains in Ecuador? Apply now! 

A Beginner’s Guide to Riding the Bus in Ecuador

The bus is definitely the most widely used form of public transportation in Ecuador. What’s it like to ride the buses of Ecuador? Fantastic question. Wonder no longer, I have the inside scoop for you.  What follows is an in-depth breakdown of what to expect on a bus ride, from embarkation to disembarkation, including the key characters you’ll encounter along your journey.

Let’s start with getting on the bus. Most bus routes have established bus stops, but know that you can pretty much make any spot on the street your own personal bus stop.  Here, we “hail” buses the same way we hail cabs: raise your hand out in the street, and the bus driver will know to stop.  I use the term “stop” lightly because the buses of Ecuador never truly stop.  You will never get on or off a bus that isn’t still moving.  While we’re on the subject, allow me to introduce you to your first character in the comedy of errors that is your bus ride: The Driver.

The Driver

His main responsibilities include driving the bus and opening the front and back doors. Usually, he is good about doing the latter because there are buttons passengers can press to alert him to open the door.  Sometimes though, passengers just yell “Gracias!” to get his attention, and he eventually opens the door.  The driver is also (apparently) responsible for never truly stopping, for speeding up right before speed bumps and for cutting every turn REALLY close, especially when passing other buses.

At night, most of the buses have unnecessarily flashy colorful lights on the outside and inside (which I assume is controlled by the driver), and on long bus rides, many buses play movies with obnoxiously loud volume (which I also assume is controlled by the driver… who probably just selfishly wants to hear what’s happening).  You will have almost no contact with the driver along your Ecuadorian Bus Journey, but I figured he was worth mentioning in case you had any curiosity about who the man behind the wheel was.

In reality, the driver is merely a figurehead.  The true person running the show is our next character, The Ayudante.

The Ayudante

The driver’s right-hand man.  Responsible for collecting the bus fare (or pasajes) from every passenger (an extremely difficult job if you remember that they have to walk on a moving (and often really crowded) bus with a handful of coins to collect fare and give change.  Of course, the ayudante (the Spanish word for helper) expertly holds two stacks of coins in his palm and folds either a $20 bill or a $10 and keeps it weaved in his fingers.  Ayudantes are usually seen repping their respective buses by wearing polos with the bus name embroidered on them.  Although I’ve been using the pronoun “he”, every now and then you will be pleasantly surprised by a female ayudante (who usually accessorizes her uniform with a jacket and fanny pack).


Other responsibilities of the ayudante include wiping off the fog from the windshield and doors of the bus, yelling to the driver when he should stop/can keep driving and yelling at passengers to get on or off the bus.  Upon waving a bus down, the first person to hop off the bus will be the ayudante who will say the following, repeating phrases in rapid fire Spanish: “Suba! Suba! Suba! Siga no mas!”, which both essentially mean “climb up/get on.”  This is always particularly comical to me because this is partially what makes the Ecuadorian bus experience seem like such a rushed affair.  Of course I’m going to get on the bus! What else did you think I was going to do?? Sit here and ponder whether or not to get on?? Just give me a second, gosh!

It is, of course, worth mentioning that despite the average height of this country being well under 5’6”, the stairs on the buses are HUGE steps, making it quite impossible to “suba” as quickly as the ayudantes order you to.  It is also worth mentioning that the ayudantes are responsible for grabbing toddlers that are trying to get on and off the bus and helping them.  None of the parents seem to mind that a total stranger is grabbing their children and helping them on or off a vehicle that is still moving, so I guess it is a welcomed service.

So you’ve ascended the stairs. You grab onto the handlebars attached to the ceiling while the bus wildly swings left and right.  If you’re unlucky, the bus is packed and you’re crammed against some of the characters I’m about to mention.  If you have things in your hand, you simultaneously juggle them while finding your change to give the ayudante when he or she circles around and asks for it. If you’re lucky, the bus is not too crowded and you’re able to stumble to your seat and more comfortably look for your pasaje in your wallet.  The main question is- where do you sit?

The front is not ideal for a variety of reasons.  If you are claustrophobic, it can seem crowded in the front when people are waiting to get off.  If you are a nervous person, you probably don’t want to see how close the driver always comes to almost hitting other buses. If you are an impatient person, you don’t want to be directly behind the driver’s seat because there is usually a wall there that blocks your view.  Finally, if you are an easily frustrated person, you probably don’t want to read the signs that encourage you to wear your seat belt (because there aren’t any) or the signs that discourage you from getting on or off a moving bus (because you have no choice in this matter).  So the front is out.

The back is also not ideal for a variety of reasons.  To start, it’s treacherous to walk on a moving Ecuadorian bus.  Unless you’re an ayudante, you should try to minimize your time spent walking in the aisle. Next, in the same way the front gets crowded, the back does as well because there’s a back door.  At times, the driver forgets to close the back door so you will often be subjected to the elements (rain and wind). Finally, the back of the bus is the least smooth ride out of all the seating options.

This leaves us to pull a Goldilocks and sit right in the middle. This gives you the vantage point you need, the space you want and the perfect amount of life or death time spent walking in the aisle.

Now you’re sitting in your seat. Different buses have different seat cushions and window decoration combos. (Trust me, you’ll KNOW if your bus is a fancy new one with leather seats, or if it’s been in circulation for a while and needs a tune up.) You pay the ayudante and now have time to people-watch until you have to get up and get off.  Who’s around you?

The Sleeping Old Guy 

Does exactly as his name suggests. No surprise there. Usually is wearing a felt fedora and a sweater vest.  Generally not problematic unless he stops leaning against the window and starts leaning on your shoulder in his sleep.  I mean, who wants to push a sleeping old guy off their shoulder? It just seems cruel.

The Lady with the Huge Sacks Stuff

This lady doesn’t usually sit, because of her huge bags (of vegetables, of blankets, of fruits, of plants).  If she’s an older woman, most people will help her out with carrying her things and offer her their seat. This woman is usually harmless, unless in her huge bags she has other contents, bringing me to our next character…

The Lady with the Live Chickens

Oh yes, she exists. You don’t know what’s in the bags until they move… or make noise…or both.

The Guy with the Adorably Small Animals

One of my favorite frequent flyers.  Bonus points if the guy is cute.  Typically carries tiny puppies, but sometimes these guys also have little kittens.

The Students

These troublemakers come in waves based on the time of day.  If school just let out or is about to start, prepare yourself for an influx of students in matching uniforms popping gum, laughing and listening to music. They’re generally mellower in the morning before school.  But if you’re on the bus in the afternoon, forget it.

The Salesperson

Can be any age and any gender.  Typically gets on the bus from the front entrance and gives a schpeel on what they’re selling and why.  Merchandise ranges from fruit to candy to gum to pencils to highlighters to homemade ice cream. After the schpeel, the salesperson will walk up and down the aisles offering his products to the passengers. At times, the passengers take the products, and when the salesperson returns they either pay him for it or just give it back.

The Entertainer

My personal favorite.  Has a boombox and sings or raps over music.  At times brings a guitar.  After the performance, he walks down the aisle to collect donations from passengers.

Finally, thanks to the ayudante (who yells every single stop as you approach it) you realize your stop is the next one.  If you’re sitting in the aisle seat, it’s easy to get up.  If you’re sitting in the window seat you essentially climb over the person in the aisle seat (because they usually don’t get up for you).  I didn’t specifically profile this person, but I’d call them The Jerk if I were going to make such a profile. The Jerk is the umbrella term for anyone who sits in the aisle seat and won’t simply move into the window seat for you to sit next to them. Conversely, this person does not get up when you need to leave, either.

Anyways, you’re almost there. You climb over The Jerk and stumble into the aisle.  You keep stumbling down the stairs and hop off the bus that’s still moving.  Pro tip: walk off the bus with your right foot so that the bus doesn’t catch it while it’s moving forward.

And there you have it.  You just survived your first trip (and every succeeding trip because they are all the same) on an Ecuadorian bus.  Although this was a painstaking amount of detail, for further explanation, check out this video I’ve spliced together for your viewing pleasure.  

Climbing Cotopaxi

On Monday, July 20, 2015, MPI Program Directors Evan Quinnell, Michael Weiner and Allegra Mangione climbed the summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Just weeks later, Cotopaxi, an active stratovolcano, began to rumble. Evan reflects on the experience of a lifetime!

Climbing Cotopaxi

By Evan Quinnell

Looking back now, it’s hard to fathom that we actually summited Cotopaxi.
We’d built this day up in our minds for over six months. First as an idea, and then through a number of months preparing for the climb; we practiced by climbing six nearby peaks at lower altitudes.

In June, we began receiving notification from the U.S. State Department regarding the volcanic activity coming from Cotopaxi. As amateur climbers, we were a little concerned that we may have to postpone our climb, but we kept hope and continued our training, summiting nearby Ruminahui and Illiniza Norte in June and July. 
Less than one week before climbing Cotopaxi, Mike and I were working with English students at the local university in the Chillos valley, ESPE. The English professor, Sonia, explained to us that the Ecuadorian geophysic institute had just raised the volcanic alert level that week and that ESPE was convening university leaders and students for refuge planning in case of extreme emergency. Sonia was convinced there was no way we could climb!
Then, just two days before the summit, our professional guides assured us that the reports for that weekend were safe. Some of the concern for Cotopaxi at times can be exaggerated, but it is with great caution. If the volcano is to fully erupt, the nearby towns and valleys could experience volcanic ash, glacial melt, and mudslides. The most recent major eruption, in 1877 before there were warning systems in place, destroyed the nearby city of Latacunga.
We may have been crazy to climb Cotopaxi when we did, but I feel extremely fortunate to have made it to the top with Michael and Allegra.
From the beginning, Michael, Allegra, and I were determined we would do everything in our power to reach the summit. During our time in Ecuador, we had met people who had to turn back before the summit due to extreme wind and ice storm conditions. We were hopeful that would not be us. 
On July 18th we took the bus into Quito to meet up with our guides. At the shop we were outfitted with all the necessary snow pants and jackets, harnesses, helmets, crampons, and ice picks. From there, we rode just over two hours into Cotopaxi National Park. We arrived near the foot of the volcano where a number of tourists were reveling in the beauty of the beast of Cotopaxi. 

Group Outfitted at the bottom of Cotopaxi.jpg

From the parking area, we needed to haul our gear up slope for about 45 minutes to the climbers' refuge. At this point in the day, we were optimistic as the weather seemed relatively clear and stable. 

Arriving to the refuge at about 3:00 pm, we had time to relax, acclimatize, fuel up in the small dining hall, and get a brief training on Ice pick and crampon use. Although harness, ice picks, and crampons are necessary to summit Cotopaxi, the climb is more of an endurance and altitude test rather than an extremely technical one. 

At 6:00 pm we had a dinner prepared by the refuge crew of pasta, pork chops, cole slaw and tea. At this point the climb became real. In just six hours, we would be off for the summit. Following dinner we had time for a quick five hour rest before it was time to get our gear in order.

Laying in the cold and bare refuge bunks, we attempted get some sleep before we would leave to begin climbing at midnight. Through the wood-paneled walls I could hear the wind howling outside of the refuge. We were legitimately worried, that we would encounter less-than-desired conditions. Thankfully, when we got outside at midnight, our fears retreated. There was a sense of calm I have rarely, if ever, experienced. In the pitch black night, Mike, Allegra, our new friend Benji, and our two guides made our way 30 minutes to the glacier line. We paused to attach our crampons and connect by rope line to our respective guides in groups of three. Slowly but surely, guided by the headlamps attached to our helmets, we made our way up the snow and ice. 

We were fortunate to have good conditions the entirety of our climb. One of the highlights of climbing in the night/early morning was the ability to see Quito and the surrounding city lights far off in the distance. Not to mention the spectacular star show. 

There were a few moments when we struggled with the altitude, but we kept pressing on. With very few breaks for water and chocolate, the climb seemed to never end...and finally, as the sun began to rise shortly after 6:00 am, we were in the final stretch. 

Cotopaxi glacier climb.jpg

We passed a few fellow climbers who were on their way back down. "Ten more minutes, you'll be to the top," they said. Ten minutes was more like thirty minutes, but at approximately 6:30 am we reached the summit having reached 19, 347 feet.

It was a surreal feeling. We had made it. After six months of dreaming and with a few significant obstacles to overcome, we were above the clouds and could see to what seemed like infinity. The mountains and volcanoes we had climbed in the previous six months were off in the distance, along with others we had yet to attempt.

Quito, the Chillos Valley, and nearby cities like Latacunga were below. What was probably the most incredible was to look down into the volcanic crater. The vast opening of nothingness made it clear: we were at the peak of Cotopaxi. 

Our guides had told us the night before that two years from now, significant eruptions would likely render it impossible to climb Cotopaxi as we know it again. Little did we now that only a month later, eruptions would begin to occur, spewing ash and putting the country on serious alert. 

It is hard to believe that for quite some time we will be some of the last people to have summited the worlds tallest active volcano. 

I have no regrets and am fortunate to carry this experience with me for the rest of my life. 

Want to experience your own unforgettable adventures?
Join MPI as a Program Director in Ecuador or Nicaragua.

Applications due April 5th. 

Summer Camp and Cotopaxi

Saludos from Ecuador! This week, we celebrate one month in this country with Manna Project. And what an action-packed last few weeks it has been.

We’ve just finished the transition period between this past year’s Program Directors and our new group. It’s been great sharing time with them as we learned the ins and outs of how to get around, what to do, where to go, and how our life with Manna Project will be this coming year. 

In true Ecuadorian bienvenida/despedida fashion, our friendly volcanic neighbor Cotopaxi reminded us of its presence by erupting! As this is an exciting yet potentially dangerous event, we are safe and sound in Sangolqui, and only had a few days of light ash fall. We have taken the necessary safety precautions and are prepared for any future incidents. Friends and family, fret not - all is well and should any future eruptions occur, we will certainly be in touch.

In other news, our summer camp is in full swing! We’ve opened the library each morning from 9:00 to 12:00 and have prepared activities for the kids ranging from cooking lessons and soccer to art and dance! We even took a field trip to the Yaku Water Museum in Quito, and spent a morning relaxing by the pool in the valley. 

Before our own camp began, we spent a week volunteering at a summer camp run by the local municipality of Ruminahui. This provided us an opportunity to meet and connect with students in the community from the university we partner with, la Universidad Escuela Politécnica del Ejercito (ESPE), as well as get our name out more with the many kids who attended that camp session. 


We’re currently in the process of having program meetings with each other and our country director, Nancy! We’re setting goals and objectives for each of the programs we run at the library, as well as the organizational roles we are each in charge of throughout the year. While our Manna-specific clubs are up and running (Library, Environmental Club, Art Club, Teen Center, Kid’s and Adult  Nutrition, Diabetes Club, Preventative Health Club), we are eagerly awaiting the back-to-school season to begin a new year working with our partner organizations! These include collaborating with students from ESPE, the United Nations Peacekeepers, the local AM radio station, and the neighborhood preschool and elementary school. 

Most anticipated of all are our English classes, which begin on September 8th. Our inscriptions day was a huge success, as community members completely filled every spot for each level of English (levels basic through advanced) for both kids and adults. 

We’re all so excited to share our journey with you, and will continue to keep everyone updated on our progress, activities, and life with Manna Project in Ecuador!