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! 

You Know You’re In Ecuador When…

At about two months into our time in Ecuador, we’ve finally hit the sweet spot between being fresh arrivals and being more experienced residents. While we are by no means experts yet, we have certainly been able to discover many of this country’s secrets, surprises and differences from the United States. 
With input and many chuckles from the other Program Directors, I’ve compiled a list of signs to help confirm that you are in Ecuador (in case your plane ticket wasn’t evidence enough).  I hope it allows our friends and family back home to better understand Ecuadorian life and laugh with us at some of the funnier daily occurrences we encounter.

1.     Milk is sold in bags.  Seems trendy, until you try pouring it into your cereal.

2.     You can’t find any shoes larger than a women’s size 7.  ‘Tis the land of dainty feet.

3.     You never really need a watch because there are so many daily indicators of the time.  See the following list:

  • Roosters begin crowing at 3:00 AM (and usually continue on throughout the afternoon).
  • The gas truck comes around at 7:15 AM sharp (see number 7 for further details).
  • The Cotopaxi safety tones go off throughout town at 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM (Cotopaxi is an active volcano).
  • It gets dark at exactly 6:30 PM every evening.
  • Even if you wanted to wear a watch, the country runs on Ecuadorian time (which according to my precise mathematical calculations means add 7 to 11 minutes to any proposed starting time).

4.    The standard paper size is 8.3x11.7.  Maybe you think this is trivial, but you don’t realize how accustomed you are to 8.5x11 until you don’t have it anymore!

5.     Hole punchers only have 2 holes.  See number 4 for rationale as to why this is noteworthy.

6.     You can rarely pay with a $20 bill.  Stores would almost rather you don’t pay when faced with giving $18 in change.

7.     Natural gas for kitchen stoves is sold on a truck that circulates the neighborhoods every morning at 7:15 AM sharp, playing a loud recording on endless repeat that literally translates to “the gas, the gas, the blue tanks of gas, the gas, to be delivered, the gas, the blue tanks of gas.” I wish I were kidding about this one.

8.     You can buy upwards of $20 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables for under $8. This is by far one of our favorite parts of Ecuador.  Who said eating healthy couldn’t be affordable??

9.     Your face can (and will) be shoved in a cake on your birthday.  I celebrated my 21st here on the day after I arrived.  I can attest to this one!

10.    Every restaurant has some derivative of the word “chicken” in its name. Super Pollo, Texas Chicken, The Chicken House, Pollo Campeón (champion)… I’ve seen them all.  And if you were curious, KFC is very popular here too.  Almost all the locations managed to get the name right, but one location in Quito believes the K stands for “Kennedy” instead of Kentucky, and spent a lot of money on its large signage.

11.    Everyone is terrified of the sun.  My host mom puts sunscreen on her kids for long car rides in case they fall asleep too close to the window.

12.    You see your fair share of animals, some with more pleasant fates than others:

  • You almost always pass a field of grazing cows or horses on your way somewhere.
  • There are adorable puppies walking around on every street.
  • Hornado, or a full roast pig on a large platter, is a delicacy in Ecuador and is often displayed in restaurant windows…leaving very little to the imagination (and even less innocence for a vegetarian like myself).
  • Guinea pigs (cuy) are also served up on platters or skewers here.  And no, these aren’t the tiny guys you took home for the weekend from your first grade classroom; these guys are big.  We’re talking major leagues here.

13.    Mothers have extremely creative ways of carrying children. Most children are tied in a cloth wrap to their mom’s backs, so that they are completely covered from the sun. To better appreciate the knot tying skills of Ecuadorian mothers who ride the buses, see number #14 for an explanation on the “safety” of the public transportation systems.

14.    You will never get on or off a bus that isn’t still moving.  It’s remains a mystery to me as to why a country that’s so relaxed has such a rushed bus system, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. Now I welcome the opportunity to hone my moving-vehicle-embarkation/disembarkation skills. It makes me feel like James Bond.

15.    All taxi drivers swerve to the sides of speed bumps to “avoid” them. I think this is an attempt at making the ride smoother, but in reality, half a car going over a speed bump is way bumpier than the full car going over a speed bump…

16.    Every corner store sells practically the same goods.  And quite a variety of those goods, may I add: everything from ice cream bars to empanadas to boxed wine.  Basically a one-stop-shop for your next party.

17.    The national pride is overwhelming.  Rightfully so. Ecuador is ever developing, naturally beautiful and so culturally and historically rich that there is a ton to be proud of.  Even small setbacks such as the fact none of Ecuador’s soccer teams have won in quite some time and its national beer (Pilsener) leaves little to be desired by the taste buds, aren’t enough to stop Ecuadorians from proudly rocking their jerseys and drinking Pilsener on game days… and every other day, really!

18.    Everything is a diminutive. One of our favorite phrases is: “Un favorcito, dame un vasito de aguito?” which literally translates to: a small/cute favor, can you give me a small/cute glass of small/cute water?

19.    The natural views of the mountains and Cotopaxi are stunning.  It’s like seeing Russia from your window, but better. 

20.    You always feel at home.  Everyone in Ecuador is so warm and willing to help; since arriving, we’ve never felt anything but supported and welcomed.  I can certainly say that our transition into life in Ecuador was so seamless because of the positivity of everyone around us, and we couldn’t be more grateful to be accepted so kindly into our community.

Want to experience Ecuador for yourself?

Gender Inequality in Ecuador: An Interview with Sociologist Sheyla Ibarra Dávila

Gender inequality is a very serious issue in Ecuador today that affects women of all socioeconomic backgrounds, including those who live in the communities Manna Project International (MPI) serves. At MPI Ecuador, we are very fortunate to have developed a strong relationship with Sheyla Ibarra Dávila, a resident of Sangolqui and also a sociologist who has closely studied the culture of machismo, gender violence, and the state of women's rights in Ecuador. Although Sheyla is busy pursuing her Master's degree in sociology and completing her thesis on International Development Cooperation in Ecuador, she always makes time to share her knowledge with Program Directors and help them to better understand the gender inequalities that exist in Ecuador. The following is an interview Sheyla that highlights some of her research and opinions on the subject. 

An Interview with Sheyla Ibarra Dávila

What interests you about sociology? 

I’ve always loved the social sciences and being able to work with people.  I’m a very curious person and ask questions almost everywhere I go.  Sociology is the perfect field for someone who wants to constantly be investigating, researching and learning.

Why is women’s studies your favorite subject of study?

Women’s Studies is incredible to me because women are involved in all aspects of life, but are not valued for it.  Although the patriarchal, nuclear family is valued very highly in Ecuadorian society, women are the sturdy, yet voiceless, backbone of every family.  Women are intelligent, nurturing, loving and strong individuals and should be recognized and appreciated way more than they are today.  I’m very interested in the cultural roots in the devaluing of such important members of our society.



Can you define machismo for those who are unfamiliar with the term?

Machismo is the exercise of power of man over women.  It can manifest in physical violence but also in attitude and psychological aggressions.  In Ecuador, 53% of women experience this psychological abuse from men, 33% experience physical abuse from men, and 22% experience sexual abuse. 

What is life like for the typical Ecuadorian woman?

As I mentioned, Ecuadorian society values the patriarchal, nuclear family with delineated gender roles.  In most families, women are not allowed to work and completely depend on their husbands financially.  Most men dictate what women can and cannot do, which tends to include the expectation that women should stay at home, tend to the housework and raise children. Even young women who receive an education usually leave their studies or jobs after marriage.  Furthermore, because home roles are not taken seriously, women who have outside jobs are given no extra help from their spouses in taking care of house duties.

Can you speak about gender violence in Ecuador?

Gender violence is a difficult subject because it is exacerbated by Ecuadorian cultural norms.  For example, 90% of Ecuadorian women who experience violence do not want to take action against their perpetrator because family problems are considered private matters. Some women are worried about what others will think if they come out with accusations against their partners, and others fear more abuse if they speak up.  [Most] Ecuadorian women are not taught to have dreams or be independent and because of this, are extremely unlikely to stand on their own in abusive situations.  It has been proven that there is a higher risk of violence for married women and that 45-60 years is the age category experiencing the most abuse because that is the age that women are considered to be most “useless” to society. The racial breakdown of women experiencing gender violence is also interesting: 59% of mestizo women, 76% of afro-Ecuadorian women and 77% of indigenous women experience some form of gender violence.

Has there been legislation passed to combat these problems?

Before the 1970s, women [in Ecuador] had almost no rights as individuals.  The 1970s and 1980s were filled with equal rights activism work, and in 1994 a law was enacted that allowed women to take legal action against abusive men.  In 2008, women were finally given equal civil, political, social and economic rights as men, including the rights to decide freely on their sexual and reproductive health decisions.  While huge amounts of money were put towards social programs to support the legislation, the fundamental problem of machismo is ultural problem.  Legislation can only do so much to break social limitations.

Do you feel the effects of machismo in the field of sociology?

Absolutely. It’s difficult enough that many people do not take sociology seriously because it is somewhat of an abstract science, and Ecuadorians like concrete concepts.  But on top of that, being a female in the field poses its own set of challenges.  Most female sociologists are encouraged to study “softer” subjects such as women, children and the elderly, rather than subjects like the environment or politics, which are typically male-dominated fields.  Women don’t have problems learning in the classroom, but when they finally leave the classroom to conduct investigations in communities, it is very common for people to not respect them or to prefer to talk to a male sociologist. For this reason, 99% of female sociologists do not practice applied sociology.

What do you feel are the solutions to the issues of machismo and gender violence?

That’s a great question.  First, I think it’s important to note that machismo is a widespread problem in Ecuador and doesn’t just exist in one region.  Gender violence occurs at about the same rate in large cities as it does in rural areas.  Secondly, machismo also exists at all stages of life: early on in schools, in family life and in the work place.  While we need to work with men young and old to change opinions and attitudes, we also need to convey to women that actions as large as physical violence and as small as catcalling cannot be naturalized.  Neither those actions, nor any in between, should be tolerated by women.

Sangolqui community member and sociologist, Sheyla

Sangolqui community member and sociologist, Sheyla

While the legislation of 2008 is a step in the right direction, machismo is truly a cultural problem.  I think we are all waiting for the younger generation to make a difference.  More and more young Ecuadorian women are receiving higher education and hold more progressive values than their family members. Seventy percent of uneducated women experience abuse, but this statistic drops to 50% among educated women. Although a 50% rate of abuse is still alarmingly high, it shows a trend of decreased abuse with education and instills hope for an even lower rate in the future. Finally, in today’s day and age, no country lives in its own bubble.  As Ecuador becomes more and more globalized, it will be inspired by the progressive ideas of women who are fighting against violence and machismo all over the world.  As stories and experiences are shared, women can be influenced to encourage major perspective changes to society and mold their reality into a safer and more equal one for all people.

Thank you, Sheyla!



Ecuador Team Retreat in Latacunga

Last weekend, MPI Ecuador’s team embarked on its first quarterly retreat of the year to the Cotopaxi Volcano in Latacunga.  Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s second highest peak, standing at an impressive 19,347 feet.  We spent the weekend at the cozy Secret Garden Hostel and were treated to endless fireplace fires and warm banana bread (both of which were welcome; the altitude difference of the volcano made for a chillier weekend than we are used to)!  

Typically, Program Directors have retreats every three months and use the time to get to know each another, ourselves, and reflect on recent experiences and improve our teamwork skills. Our retreat was perfectly timed because it allowed us to get to know Carolyn, our new Country Director, much better (through a ton of silly rounds of charades)!

The weekend also gave us the opportunity to discuss our individual goals for our time with Manna Project, agree on our shared goals as a group, address conflict resolution skills and enjoy each other’s company in an environment completely different from the one in which we live.

This last part was probably the most impactful for us; at times we can get so caught up in scheduling, program planning, teaching at our community center and maintaining our house that we forget that outside our community of Sangolqui there are so many incredibly beautiful natural sights in Ecuador.  

Personally, the diversity in Ecuador’s geography was one of the many pulls that brought me here in the first place.  As the nature nut that I am, it always amazes me that one country can have the mountains, the coast, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands and only occupy the tiniest portion of South America.

It was breathtaking to wake up to a full view of Cotopaxi in the morning, especially because it is usually hidden by clouds for the majority of the day. Undoubtedly my favorite part of the retreat was that our hostel had no Wi-Fi (blasphemous, right??).  We were truly able to enjoy each other and our surroundings without being disturbed by texts or emails, which almost never happens today.

I think we were all grateful for the chance to step away from our packed days and escape to Cotopaxi. As a team of only five Program Directors, we work full schedules and juggle many programs throughout the week, but this much-needed break was exactly what we needed to relax and rejuvenate before the start of our English classes.


Want to join the team? Learn more here. Apply by October 1st.

An Interview with Ecuador Country Director Carolyn Engel

Welcome to the team, Carolyn! We are so happy to have you on board.  Can you tell us a little about your background and experience with nonprofits in South America?

Carolyn Engle, MPI Ecuador country director

Carolyn Engle, MPI Ecuador country director

I’m from Evansville, Indiana and went to Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts.  After graduating college, I moved to Trujillo, Peru and taught English there for a year.  I then moved to Olmué, Chile and worked on a farm as part of the World Organization of Organic Farming for a few months.  Shortly after I began working for The Experiment in International Living, leading high school study abroad trips to Spain and Peru.  I moved to back to the states to Washington to work on the sister farm of the farm I had worked on in Chile, before I realized that I really wanted to move back to South America. 

With that in mind, I came to Ecuador and lived in Palta Cocha, deep in the jungle.  I taught English and Spanish in a Kichwa community with an organization called Selva Kids. In addition to teaching languages, I also worked on community development projects, including a women’s jewelry cooperative. We were able to take the money earned from the jewelry cooperative to develop a community bank that gave out micro loans.  After my time with Selva Kids, I moved to Tena, Ecuador to work for Runa, a social enterprise that focuses on exporting Guayusa tea, an Amazonian tree leaf.  

At Runa, I managed fair trade certifications and relationships with farmers, as well as all of Runa’s volunteers, interns and investor visits. By 2014, I was ready to act on my long-time dream of starting my own business, so I opened my own restaurant, The Guayusa Lounge, in Tena.  

Through the Lounge, I hoped to create a culture shift in Tena, because at the time there was nothing like it in the community. I wanted an open and comfortable space for the expat community of Tena to hang out. We’ve had tango dancers and a bluegrass band perform, photographers hang their art, and travelers paint the walls.

It’s truly an international space, and I’m really happy I was able to follow through with it.  Now I’m starting a new chapter with Manna Project!

What aspects of your background have prepared you to lead the Ecuador team?

First of all, I really love Ecuador! I connect well with everyone I meet, which is why serving this community is right up my alley. I have a lot of experience with volunteers and interns and all the facets of international and intercultural exchange. Owning a restaurant has given me invaluable knowledge about managing a business in Ecuador and handling things like banking, permits, taxes, budgets and finances. I’ve spent a lot of time working with nonprofits in South America, and definitely understand the cultural aspects that come along with community development. Though my background is unique and varied, it has prepared me to lead an international team through the ins-and-outs of development work in Ecuador! 

What excites you about Manna Project? 

I was most interested in MPI’s community center in Sangolqui and its strong commitment to the community. I like that our community center is a mix of our own programs and those of partner organizations, serving community members of all ages. In the United States, we have centers such as the YMCA, but it’s very unique to find a center like this in Ecuador.

What visions do you have for the future of Manna Project Ecuador? 

I’d like to create more community engagement at our center and would love to see more older students and adults utilizing the space. I hope to hold events such as workshops, conferences, community meetings, and anything else that would strengthen the community in general. I’m also very passionate about E-GAP, our entrepreneurial program, because of my own experience in owning a business.

Tell us about your first few weeks on site

My first few weeks have been great! I’m thrilled to be working in nonprofits again, because I know that’s really where my heart lies. I’ve been learning a lot in a short amount of time, but I appreciate the good vibes from the Program Directors and am eager to develop more programs and improve our existing ones.  

Tell us some fun things about you!

To start, I have an obsession with big earrings. You’ll rarely ever see me without a pair on. Because of my time in Tena, I’ve also grown to love Amazonian river swimming and jungle hiking. Finally, I’m an avid horseback rider. I rode horses as a child, but picked it back up since moving back to Ecuador and it’s now one of my favorite hobbies. 

Welcome, Carolyn!