"I cannot recommend the Cloud Forest project more highly to volunteers"
Jessica Bavington, from the UK
I will always look back on my stay at the nature reserve with warmth, satisfaction and a smile on my face. It’s clear to me that the friendly, wonderful family (who own the reserve and live on site) are highly ecologically and socially minded, and have been entrepreneurial over many generations to nurture this very special place.
I was truly amazed to have accomplished so many things in such a short space of time! In only two weeks I felt I made a measurable difference: I planted 18 endangered trees, built a vegetable patch, made chocolate and coffee from the beans gathered at the ranch, fed and watered animals (goats, sheep, and a lovable lama), collected seeds from the cloud forest to assist the reforestation effort, made musical instruments from the forest, learnt how to use a machete to create paths and weed plantations, assisted in scientific data collection, and was welcomed warmly to participate in the family/staff Christmas party. I also took care of a tiny lamb who needed supplementary nurturing and feeding, which was a truly beautiful experience.
Alexandra was interested in what I wanted to gain from my stay and provided regular engaging educational presentations to help us to appreciate and understand more about our placement and the importance of the local ecology.
Whilst speaking mostly Spanish, the staff were all warm and full of laughter and made efforts to joke and communicate even though we may not share a verbal language. Elsa and Monica provided a varied and delicious menu for us and went out of their way to provide some special extras and comforts like a birthday cake and campfire chocolate bread that we cooked using bamboo sticks.
As a female traveling on my own, it is important to feel safe and I can reassure any women travellers that they can be confident travelling in Ecuador (with usual precautions), and especially at this project where there is much tranquility and volunteers are made to feel part of the extended family.
The working schedule worked really well for me, and provided just the right balance between work and leisure time, which also enabled me to see some of the terrific places nearby over the weekends. I found the place not only inspiring but can also see how for many the peace, being surrounded by such an abundance of biodiversity and gentle contribution would also be therapeutic and highly restful.
I cannot recommend the Cloud Forest project more highly to volunteers, individuals or groups of any age. I only wish I could stay longer, and whilst I got a lot from two weeks, I would personally recommend a month or more to get the best from the experience.
"The diversity of life in the hills at the equator is something you must experience to appreciate"
Landon Suggitt, from Canada
When I first pictured a cloud forest, I figured it might look like a forest with clouds, like in BC? The reserve you work and live at looks more like a rainforest. The diversity of life in the hills at the equator is something you must experience to appreciate. The perfect weather was a nice bonus, and most days settle at a comfy, but not too hot temperature (in the low 20s Celsius). Also, expect daily storms during the rainy season, some very exciting! Ecuador is beautiful: in its landscapes, people and culture. The cities are worth seeing, but can very dangerous for tourists lacking the proper precautions. I was luckily never robbed, but it was common story among people I ran into. Protect your valuables! Also, use the recommended hostel while staying in Quito: very cool and safe. Still, being out in the country is much safer, and it’s where you will spend most of your time.
From the city, La Hesperia is about a 3-hour bus ride across the amazing Andean countryside, and a 1-hour hike up from the road. You’re far from civilization, but the cell reception is still not too bad! The reserve is altogether a protected area, a (mostly) self-sustaining farm, a local school, and a great learning experience for aspiring international conservationists like you or I! The volunteer house was very comfortable and open, with views of pure nature that I still miss. After a hard working day and a cold refreshing shower, you will be overwhelmed by the sounds of the forest at night that leads to some intense and vivid dreaming.
The daytime work was varied and sometimes challenging. My tasks over the course of a month ranged from tree planting to trail maintenance and basic farm work including planting/harvesting crops (such as bananas, oranges, sugar cane, yucca, chocolate, coffee, etc.), weeding, and working with animals. Regardless of the job, a machete is the only tool you need! Also, at one point you have to take the daily milk down the mountain with the most stubborn donkey ever. There is electricity, but you hand wash your own clothes. Also, safe drinking water and meals are prepared by the staff (luxury!) Expect staples and fresh food that couldn’t be any more local.
That’s what volunteering and living are like, but of course, there’s plenty of time for fun and meeting people. The reserve itself is full of things to do including Spanish lessons, soccer games, hiking, horseback riding, swimming, and a communal chill area of the volunteer house with books, a guitar, games, etc. Still, weekends are better spent exploring more of the country. There’s lots to see, and you can get recommendations from other volunteers and locals. Me and a buddy I met on our first day spent one weekend biking down volcanoes through Inca ruins and indigenous villages, one living it up in an awesome adventure/party town called Banos, one taking in the history of Quito, and I made an excursion to the Galapagos for my final leg. All were great experiences that I still tell stories about. Produced some breathtaking pictures too!
I couldn’t recommend this volunteer experience more, even if Ecuador is not near the top of your list. It’s simply a better way to travel while contributing a little back to this amazing country you’re visiting. The work is satisfying and makes you feel like a part of the community rather than just a tourist. Plus, you can still have as much fun as you want. Meeting people comes naturally, and a trip like this is a great way to take a person out of their comfort zone in front of a screen or whatever, at least for enough time to appreciate what you have at home, and perhaps what’s missing. You may not “discover yourself”, but I can guarantee you will grow from it.
"I learned more about myself than I would have ever thought possible"
Robert Finlay, Film Producer and Director from the UK
I have arrived back safe and sound in the UK after my 9-week adventure. My time at La Hesperia was a joy. I learned more about myself than I would have ever thought possible in such a relatively short period of time. I now sound like one of those testimonials, which before I thought could only have been inflated by their authors or conjured by the organisation. I now know that in fact neither were the case.
Alexandra is doing amazing things against the odds and she is an inspiration to me. I hope that you and Working Abroad can keep supporting her to your full, as I understand you already do (unlike certain other organisations), especially during this difficult economic period, which is only just beginning to affect that part of the world, and will I fear have as of yet have unseen and far-reaching effects there.
I think the biggest thing I have taken away with me is how difficult tackling social development, economic & environmental sustainability really is from a grassroots level. Even when the people involved are willing or even pioneering these changes. It has made me want to look into working towards things from a level back here at home that could influence things more widely.