A review of volunteering in a sustainable conservation project in the cloud forest of Ecuador.
What did you think of the briefing, training and administration process before you departed?
Overall, I think the briefing, training and administration was very well organised and informative. It was very helpful to have a briefing before leaving for Ecuador. It put my mind at ease about what to expect from the country, culture, and experience. And it helped me prepare well for my time in Ecuador and the project.
Did you find the in-country coordinator supportive and helpful?
Monika is a wonderful and caring person who is enthusiastic and will do anything to help. She was very welcoming as soon as I arrived and I felt at home straight away in her home in Quito. She made sure that my first two weeks in Quito were enjoyable, and it was a great experience meeting and living with her family and different volunteers of different projects. Even when I left for my Cloud Forest Project, I felt I could contact her at any time if I needed some help or guidance. It is always good to know that there is someone to contact if there is an emergency, especially when you do not speak a good level of Spanish or would not know where to find help otherwise.
What did a typical day on the project involve?
The project is a conservation reserve area of the cloud forest open to tourists and visitors, and also a self-sustainable eco-farm. This meant that work varied from ongoing farm work such as gardening and maintaining the growing produce, or harvesting foods such as bananas, coffee or mandarins. We also did lots of work in the forest trails- keeping them from overgrowing and building fences.
A typical day in the Cloud Forest began by meeting for breakfast with the volunteer family. We would then start our work for the morning around 8.30 am. Our work for the day would often be led by one of the workers at La Hesperia. Despite the fact that there was sometimes a language barrier, the staff on the reserve were always fun to work with. It was great to learn so much about the life and ecosystem of the forest from them.
A typical morning work might consist of widening the path of a forest trail and cutting back some of the fast growing branches, or weeding and maintaining the vegetable or medicinal gardens.
Lunch would be from 12.30 until 2pm. Volunteers and workers would have a chance to eat and socialise together which was a good experience. The work task in the afternoon would often be something different, so there was variety in what we did.
One or two days a week we would learn how to make food from the produce of the reserve, or traditional Ecuadorian food. This included roasting and grinding coffee and making cacao into chocolate. Also making butter, yoghurt and cheese from milk from the cows, and making traditional snacks and dishes from plantain.
From 4pm we would have some free time – there was time to use internet to contact family and friends or a chance to explore some of the area by ourselves. At 6pm we met up for eat dinner. Something I always enjoyed because we were able to try lots of different Ecuadorian foods and ways of cooking. It was always great to eat whilst looking out into the forest, when the sun went down, and watch and listen to the nocturnal forest come to life.
Did you feel that you made a positive contribution to your project?
As I only volunteered for four weeks, I felt as if I did not contribute massively to any particular part of the project. However, it was good to contribute to all tasks that I did. As a farm and reserve, all work is ongoing, there are always things to mend, build and harvest. There are a handful of paid workers but volunteers are always necessary to make the upkeep and progression of the project possible. And so in that way I still feel like I have made an important contribution.
What will be your fondest memory?
The one thing I will remember about my time in the cloud forest is working and bonding as a team with the other volunteers. I made some great friends and it was good to share the same experiences with people who have the same mindset. In a way, I enjoyed being away from all city lights, distractions such as TV and computers. In the evenings it was fun just to chat and play cards, and have the opportunity to stop and look at the nature around us.
Did you have any negative experiences?
The few negative experiences I had were still learning experiences for me. Sometimes it was difficult to stay positive when the water would cut off fairly frequently during my time there. Missing home comforts like a hot shower just made me appreciate running water from a tap a lot more.
During my time volunteering I did injure my foot, meaning I was unable to walk far for the last week or two of the project. This meant I could not join in tasks and activities or go on hikes and enjoy the surroundings as much as I would have liked to. However, one of my favourite memories is when one of the workers went and collected an abundance of medicinal plants from the forest so that I could then boil them down and soak my foot in the natural herbal infusion.
During my time at La Hesperia I really realised how important life and the ecosystem is important to our resources. It made me realise how important it is to understand where our food, medicine and essential resources come from. Resources that we use in day to day life that may not immediately seem natural, but everything started at first as something that is.
How did you find your accommodation and meals?
As expected, the accommodation was basic, but still comfortable. The highlight was of course the location! The size of the rooms in the volunteer house were big. Mostly there were two of us sharing one room and there was still plenty of room.
Meals were Ok, there was a good variety of meals. Sometimes I wished there were more vegetables but I think that maybe to do with Ecuadorian food culture. Three good meals per day. Sometimes when there were lots of us eating together there was less food to go around, but it never got to the point where anyone was left hungry.
Do you have any particular comments that you feel future volunteers working on your project should be made aware of?
Work can sometimes be physical and repetitive. I think this is something you have to expect from working on a farming, outdoors environment.
The location really is in the middle of nowhere. You need to be prepared for the idea that most shops and ATMs are about an hour or two away by bus. You will have an amazing experience if you love nature, hiking, being outdoors.
The forest life, from the plants, insects and the animals are beautiful and fascinating. I would also warn that you will come across lots of unwanted visitors in the showers and in your rooms (Ed. ‘bugs’). But this is something that I found easier to get used to over time!
Would you recommend this experience to others?
Yes, I think it is a rewarding experience that I’d recommend to others. It is a really peaceful and interesting place to spend time, where I learned so much about the landscape and the culture.
For full information on this project visit Cloud Forest Conservation