Elsa Brenner - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I decided to go abroad so I could experience something completely new. As beautiful and diverse as I know the world is, I had only seen a sliver of what it had to offer; by traveling to a new hemisphere, a new continent, a new country, and new ecosystems, I knew I could maximize my exposure, while also learning and becoming more culturally aware. I wanted to see how other people live and get a glimpse of the planet with their worldviews, so I could feel a stronger connection with the world.

Most importantly, I wanted to make new friends and meet new people who shared my interests. Growing up in a small town, the chances of meeting individuals with the same unique interests are slim. But a selected program, with people from all over the world who travel with the same intent as you, allows you to create lifelong friendships and connections that will carry over to the next stage in your life, whatever that may be.

Blue-footed boobies on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador
Blue Footed Boobies (two adults and a chick), San Cristobal, Galápagos Islands

Why did you choose Broadreach?

After months of research, I decided to go on Broadreach's Ecuador and Galápagos Biodiversity program. Primarily, I was drawn to the location. Biology had been my favorite high school science, and of course the Galápagos had always been on my bucket list though. Broadreach was the only adventure travel program that went to the Galápagos, but also supplemented it with the Amazon basin and the Andes Cloud Forest, two ecosystems I knew nothing about.

The program offered hands-on experience and there were no negative reviews, so how could I possibly have chosen anything else? Broadreach also offered me the chance to experience everything, while gaining academic college credit that I will be able to transfer over to my university education. This was an aspect that was not only extremely beneficial for me, but mandatory for my parents; it also kept all students engaged and made our travels meaningful, rather than simply being tourism.

What was your favorite part about Ecuador?

I couldn't possibly pick a single favorite part of Ecuador, but if I had to narrow it down, I would say the nature and the people were my favorites. As amazed as I was to see how similar the rainforest was to the deciduous forests I live in, I cannot adequately describe how surreal it is to be in the jungle. I swam with pink river dolphins, saw a tapir, identified multiple different types of primates, and saw ocelot and jaguar tracks. It's one thing to see photos and videos of those animals, but it is completely different to walk the trails they have and brush against the same leaves. It also makes the necessity to conserve the planet so much more urgent, after you have shared a connection with the local flora and fauna.

Additionally, on the anthropological side, every single person I met, from the mountains to the cities to the jungle and islands, was welcoming and nice. Each individual was genuinely happy to meet you, and willing to help with everything. Never once did I feel unsafe or unwelcome, and as an outsider in their home country, I was honored to be treated so kindly.

Cloud Forest, Alto Coca, Ecuador
Hiking in the Cloud Forest, Alto Coca

What made your experience abroad unique?

Each person enters their travels with a distinctly unique history and set of expectations, and depending on how you experience traveling, you walk away with a new outlook on life and more experience and memories moving forward.

For me, I can say that Ecuador made me want to see more of the world, and it also made me more empathetic to other parts of the world, as I have now experienced a new culture and new people. It also allowed me to decrease the amount of stress and drama in my life, as everything was put in perspective. Petty disagreements with school friends no longer mattered because I knew, and will always know, that wherever I go there will always be people open to friendship, as long as you treat them with mutual kindness and respect. For me, this realization was eye-opening, and by far the most important lesson I've ever learned.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

The local staff, at every stop our program, were helpful and enthusiastic. Each individual was committed to our safety and helping us learn. Even despite language barriers in many situations, neither staff nor student failed to persist and engage with each other. As someone who had not spoken a word of Spanish in my life before Ecuador, I can now communicate effectively, at least when it comes to pointing to jungle animals, ordering food, and asking for directions.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

There is nothing I would have changed about the program itself, but I wish I had taken the time to learn Spanish before traveling and I wish I had packed a bit differently. Tip for the cloud forest: no, trekking poles are not optional, and pack athletic leggings in lieu of hiking pants.

Do you have any other packing tips for teens headed to Ecuador?

If you're going to Ecuador, make sure to pack as light as possible. Especially in the rain forest, you do not want to be lugging unnecessary items around. If you are hiking, replace the hiking pants with leggings or dry-fit tights. They dry much faster, and you can simply peel the mud off. Make sure to bring lots of socks, preferably smartwool or another synthetic blend hiking sock.  Layers are also necessary, rain chills you to the core. I would also suggest placing everything you bring--even toiletries and clothes--in plastic bags, because I promise you, it is inevitable that your bag will get wet.

If you're in the Cloud Forest of the Amazon Basin, make sure you bring, or are provided with, rubber boots, trekking poles, and hiking gloves; the mud makes every hike much more difficult. If you're in the Galápagos, lots of coral safe sunblock is a must. The harsh equatorial makes it much easier to get sunburnt. In general, just pack as light as you possibly can, and make sure everything you have can dry quickly.

Glass frog in Alto Coca, Ecuador
Glass Frog, Alto Coca

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

Our accommodations differed greatly from location to location. In Alto Coca, we stayed in a minimalist cabin with an outdoor dining area and an outhouse. Though the most primitive accommodations, that is where I felt the greatest connection with nature. In Tiputini, we stayed in a scientific research center. Groups of four stayed in modern cabins that had electricity twice a day. There was an air-conditioned library for academics and an outdoor dining pavilion. In the Galápagos, we stayed in a local hostel and dined in local restaurants. While traveling from location to location, we stayed in Eco Lodges and hostels, all in pristine condition.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

There was no typical day; we changed locations too often. But, I guess, in Alto Coca (the cloud forest) we would wake up for breakfast before 7:00 a.m., do some academics in the morning before a late afternoon hike, with lunch on the trail. We'd arrive back at camp in time for more food and a warm fire before dinner, followed by a night hike and then stories around the fire before bed.

In Tiputini (the Amazon basin), we would wake up to shower at 5:30 a.m. before breakfast at 6:00 a.m. Then a guide would lead us on a hike before lunch at 12:00 p.m. After lunch we would go to the library for games and academics before dinner at 6:30 p.m., followed by more games and studying, then stargazing and bed.

In San Cristobal (Galápagos), breakfast was at 7:30 a.m., before a day long excursion that usually consisted of snorkeling and hiking. We'd have lunch out on the day trip. Before dinner we had classes and study time at the university, and then had dinner in town followed by games and bed.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Between our packed agenda and studying, we didn't have much free time. I personally spent a lot of time journaling, so I wouldn't forget one minute of the adventure. In addition, we played a bunch of games; at one point we had a 75 game mancala tournament. At night we made a habit of star gazing in pristine locations without light pollution. In Alto Coca, we would sit and take bets on when the volcano would erupt. In the Galápagos, my favorite thing to do was to take a stroll over to the beach and swim with the sea lions or search for other wildlife, like crabs and marine iguanas, hiding in the rocks.

What surprised you most about Ecuador?

The aspect of Ecuador that surprised me the most was how vibrant and dynamic the landscape was. If you look at Ecuador solely on a map, you see a small country the size of Oregon, and simply assume all the images you see online are magnificent due to the talent of the photographer. However, from the second you step into the country, everything is saturated with life  and color. The air is rich and earthy, and the flora and fauna cannot be contained.

At night, the stars glitter with all the magic you see in NASA and National Geographic photos, and you can sit for hours with your head tilted back watching the Milky Way cross the sky, littered with shooting stars.

Ecuador flawlessly showcases the beauty and power of the natural world, giving you a deeper respect for the planet.
Sea lion in the Galapagos, Ecuador
Sea Lion, San Cristobal, Galápagos Islands

How difficult was it to communicate with locals?

For someone who had never spoken a work of Spanish in my life, communication was fairly easy. I have a background in French, which made picking up the language a bit easier, and I was very fortunate to have incredibly helpful bilingual guides and travel companions who helped me pick up a few necessities. In more rural areas, you are hard-pressed to find a local that speaks fluent English, and some sort of language aid, I believe, would be vital. In Quito and the Galápagos, many people speak incredible English, and you will have no problem communicating.

Even if you struggle, as long as you give the language a try, Ecuadorians will be more than willing to help you, and they really appreciate attempts to speak the local language. Even if unable to communicate by speaking, it is incredible how much you can communicate with body language and facial expressions, something you pick up on very quickly.

If you're willing to commit yourself to Spanish, you will be able to speak the basics in no time. By the end of three weeks, I was able to get by in the nature reserves by pointing to animals and providing their Spanish name, ordering food in Spanish, and the phrase "I am sorry, I don't speak Spanish. One moment, please.” (Lo siento, no hablo español. Un momento por favor). All in all, communication can be difficult due to the language barrier, but it you make the effort to try, it can be overcome.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Let all your fears go and just have a great time. Seriously, you're going to be put in some pretty exciting situations--out in the jungle, crawling under spider webs, eating ants, a grueling eight hour hike up a mountain, swimming in a river with anacondas and a bunch of crazy fish--but it will be freaky for everyone and this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Don't hold back anything, just go for it. Trust me, it's worth it.

If you're nervous, so is everyone else. Your guides and trip leaders are there to help and totally understand, so try not to let too much hold you back, let every ounce of determination you've got shine.

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

Most directly, Ecuador helped me decide on a college major and where to apply. But more broadly, it helped me connect with the planet and its inhabitants on a much more intimate level.

Would you recommend Broadreach to others? Why?

I think it goes without saying that I would recommend Broadreach to anyone. This program in particular was incredible, but I am sure that would carry over to any of their other programs as well. Everyone was so kind and welcoming and our entire group had the time of their lives. There is no doubt in my mind that if we could all do it again, we would--without needing to change anything.