Mitzvah Corps Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands

Alongside members of a local Quechua community in Ecuador's Andean highlands, learn about cultural and language preservation efforts and clean water initiatives. Savor rich Ecuadorian coffee. Learn Spanish from interactions with local Ecuadorians. Visit local markets. Learn about local spiritual traditions. Travel south to a working hacienda (ranch) at the base of Cotopaxi volcano. Explore Cotopaxi National Park by foot and on horseback.

Discover the other-worldly landscapes and extraordinary wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, home to giant tortoises, lava tunnels, equatorial penguins, marine iguanas, and blue footed boobies. Travel by boat from island to island amidst unmatched geographic and biological diversity. Hike the crater of an active volcano. Bike from the highlands of San Cristobal Island down to the coast. Body surf in Tortuga Bay. Snorkel with sea turtles and manta rays.

Issue Focus: Clean Water & Indigenous Heritage

With both a rich indigenous history and the influence of Spanish colonization, Ecuador is a country of contrasts. The snow-covered peaks of the Andean highlands descend into lush Amazon rainforests and colonial architecture gleams at the center of urban sprawl. Many of its people live in stark poverty with limited opportunities, but Ecuadorians are proud of the traditions that connect them to their communities and to their indigenous heritage. Mitzvah Corps Ecuador & the Galápagos participants join members of a local Quechua community in Ecuador’s Andean highlands to learn about cultural and language preservation efforts and clean water initiatives. 

Known as the "birthplace of evolution," the Galapagos Island archipelago is the world's premier biological hotspot, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, with over 97% of the land area designated as a national park, and a marine reserve second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Islands are home to many unusual species. In the Galápagos Islands, Mitzvah Corps participants learn about the delicate balance between nature and development.

In Partnership With: Putney Student Travel

Mitzvah Corps Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands, run in partnership with Putney Student Travel, combines Putney's extensive experience and networks in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with Mitzvah Corps' deeply rooted Reform Jewish values and commitment to engaging participants in meaningful, relevant Jewish experiences. 

Social Justice

Mitzvah Corps is committed to providing sustainable support; all of the direct service projects are initiated by local community members, and relevant context is thoroughly discussed. While specific projects vary, as we work in response to the evolving needs of the community, they typically include:

  • Volunteer with villagers to help with clean water initiatives
  • Form work groups to harvest crops of beans, barley, and wheat
  • Work at a summer camp for village children
  • Help with improvement projects at a local childcare center
  • Teach English, health, and environmental topics to children and adults

Ecuadorian Living 

From the capital city of Quito to a small village in Imbabura, participants will experience a range of Ecuadorian living. Plenty of time is spent getting to know the culture and people:

  • Touring the colonial Old City of Quito
  • Playing pick-up soccer with Ecuadorian peers
  • Exploring the rugged beauty of the surrounding areas
  • Boating around the Laguna de Cuicocha, a crater lake with spiritual significance 
  • Visiting Cotopaxi, the world's largest strato-volcano
  • Staying on a working hacienda (ranch) to eat delicious food and relax by the fire
  • Riding horses over the paramo (moor) with cowboy guides

Galapagos Islands Exploration

For the final week of the program, the group will fly from Quito to Baltra Island in the Galapagos, and visit the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. This breathtaking week will include:

  • Snorkeling with penguins, sea turtles, sea lions, and manta rays
  • Visiting the breeding center of the giant tortoise
  • Spending time at the Charles Darwin Research Station, learning what scientists are doing to bring species back from extinction and reintroduce them to the wild
  • Body surfing in Tortuga Bay with marine iguanas
  • Biking from the highlands down to the coast
  • Enjoying Isla Lobos, a sea lion and blue-footed booby colony

Below is our preliminary itinerary. We refine the schedule as we approach each summer to respond to the evolving needs, and take advantage of the most current opportunities, in the local communities. Shabbat will be observed in the local community on Friday evening and Saturday morning, and Havdallah is celebrated on Saturday evening.

Days 1-2 - Travel to Quito, Ecuador
The program will commence in Miami, where they'll begin building their community by getting to know one another, and framing the experience they're about to have. Along with their staff, the group will fly together from Miami to Quito, Ecuador. Once there, the group spends their first days exploring Ecuador's capital city, Quito, beginning with a comprehensive orientation on Ecuador's history, geography, and culture. They'll tour the colonial Old City, ride the teleferico (cable car), savor rich Ecuadorian coffee in an outdoor cafe, and get acquainted with life in Ecuador. Through daily interactions with locals and periodic Spanish lessons, there will also be time to learn or practice some language skills.

Days 3-15 - Host Village in Imbabura
Three hours north, in the province of Imbabura, the group will spend the next few weeks experiencing life in a small village tucked into the foothills of the Cotacachi volcano, working with a traditional Quechua community. They'll volunteer with villagers to help with clean water initiatives, form mingas (working groups) to harvest crops of beans, barley, and wheat, run a summer camp for village children, or help with improvement projects at a local summer camp. Afternoons will be spent exploring the surrounding areas, playing soccer, practicing Spanish, and getting to know the community members. There will also be an overnight trip to nearby Otavalo to explore its magnificent open air textile market and hike and boat around the Laguna de Cuicocha, a crater lake with spiritual significance in Quechua tradition.

Days 16-18 - Cotopaxi National Park
In the morning, after saying goodbye to the village, the group will head back down south to visit breathtaking Cotopaxi, the world's largest strato-volcano. They'll stay on a working hacienda (ranch), where they'll enjoy delicious food, day trips to visit Ruminhaui volcano and horseback ride along the moors with cowboy guides, and time to relax by the fire in the evenings. Finally, they'll head back to Quito to get ready for the Galapagos Islands.

Day 19 - Santa Cruz Island
After an early morning flight from Quito, the week of Galapagos exploration begins with the island of Santa Cruz, where the group will visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. There, they'll observe many species of tortoises and land iguanas in captivity, brought back from the brink of extinction, and learn what scientists are doing to reintroduce them to the wild. The group will hike in the highlands and check out the cavernous lava tubes, and visit Tortuga Bay, a stunning beach with fine white sand, to see marine iguanas and body surf.

Days 20-22- San Cristobal Island
The morning starts off with a visit to the Interpretation Center and hike into the highlands to take in a panoramic view over the Pacific Ocean. Afterward, the group will jump on bikes for an exhilarating downhill ride to the coast, where they'll snorkel at Kicker Rock, the remains of an underwater volcano, and see sea turtles, manta rays, and maybe even a harmless Galapagos shark. They'll climb Frigate Bird Hill and take in more views from the top, and visit Isla Lobos, a sea lion and blue-footed booby colony and another fantastic snorkeling spot.

Day 23 - Tababela, Quito, Ecuador
For the final night, the group will be back in Quito, enjoying their remaining time together at a residence near the airport.

Day 24 - Return to the United States
The group will fly together from Quito back to Miami. 

Each Mitzvah Corps international program commences at a U.S. gateway airport. Participants are responsible for their transportation to the gateway city, where they will be greeted by their Mitzvah Corps staff. The entire group will travel together from the gateway airport to their international destination, and return together upon conclusion of the program.

Domestic Travel to Miami

Mitzvah Corps Ecuador and the Galapagos will commence at Miami International Airport.

Participants are responsible for their own transportation from their home to the airport. Travel parameters are provided upon registration; once confirmed, participants will submit their domestic travel plans to Mitzvah Corps. 

The cost of domestic travel is not included in tuition, nor does Mitzvah Corps make arrangements for any domestic travel.

Domestic carriers have varying regulations regarding unaccompanied minors (read specific policies and fees of major domestic carriers Southwest, United, Delta, American, and JetBlue). Please refer to the protocol of the chosen airline, and notify Mitzvah Corps in advance of the program so that we can provide the contact information for the staff member who will greet the teen upon their arrival, and coordinate a smooth travel experience. 

International Travel to Ecuador

Participants and staff on Mitzvah Corps Ecuador and the Galapagos will depart together from Miami International Airport, and return to the same airport when the program concludes. During the program, the group will also fly from Ecuador to the Galapagos and back. All participants must travel with the group.

The cost of these round-trip airfares is estimated to total about $1,600 and is not included in the program tuition. 

Mitzvah Corps handles booking and purchasing seats for each participant on the group flights. When the seats are ticketed in the spring and the cost is finalized, that charge will be added to your Mitzvah Corps bill, and you will be required to pay it in full by April 1st.

If you have access to points or miles that you'd prefer to use instead of dollars, and there is reward availability on the group flight, that method of booking may be available. Please contact us to discuss this option.

Obtaining a Tourist Visa

United States citizens are not currently required to have a visa to enter Ecuador or the Galapagos.

Non-U.S. citizens must check local visa requirements, including requirements for countries passed through in transit.

Global Traveler's Insurance

Traveler's insurance is included in Mitzvah Corps tuition; policy details are available upon request. 

Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions about international travel!

What are the housing accommodations like?
Group accommodations are carefully selected to emphasize convenience, a positive group environment, and wholesome interaction with local people and fellow travelers. Living accommodations in Ecuador are very simple. The group will live in a community building or albergue, located near the center of town. Rooms are shared with participants of the same self-identified gender. There are simple bathrooms with running water, flushing toilets, and a shower. During excursions and in the Galápagos, they stay in simple, clean, eco-lodges, bungalows, and family-run inns where they sleep in beds, and have hot showers. Staff always reside alongside participants.

What are the physical requirements for participation on this program?
Mitzvah Corps Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands engages in volunteering projects that require moderate to intensive physical labor (digging, building, painting, lifting heavy objects, etc) outdoors in summer heat and humidity. As with all Mitzvah Corps programs, participants are expected to be independent and not require consistent one-on-one care. 

Will participants receive documentation of community service?
Yes! Mitzvah Corps awards 80 hours of community service for participants on the Ecuador and Galapagos program. Please note that this number is inclusive of all social justice community engagement; participants who are looking to document specific, traditional direct service hours should contact Mitzvah Corps in advance with any questions.

What kind of clothing should participants pack?
Mitzvah Corps Ecuador and Galapagos participants should pack casual, comfortable clothes, including outfits that can be worn and dirtied while working on labor intensive projects. Closed-toed shoes and hats are a must.

“We have all 4 seasons in a day,” is a familiar refrain in the Ecuadorian highlands. While the weather can change frequently throughout the course of the day, July temperatures are moderate, reaching the 60s and 70s when the sun is out, and cooling off substantially at night. Due to its location on the Equator, daylight hours in Ecuador are constant with sunrise at 6am and sunset at 6pm year-round. On the Galápagos, the dry season runs from July to December. During this time high temperatures range from the low to mid-70s. Although the Islands are located on the Equator, the cool Humbolt Current makes the ocean water quite chilly year round, and moderates the on-shore temperatures even during the warmer months.

What is NOT included in the program tuition?
International airfare from Miami to and from Ecuador, and from Ecuador to and from the Galapagos Islands (approximately $1,600) is not included in program tuition. However, families do not need to take any action to secure international airfare. These flights are obtained by Mitzvah Corps on behalf of all participants, and the charges are added to each family's bill in the spring.

If non-U.S. citizens require a visa for entry into Ecuador, the cost of the visa is not included in program tuition. U.S. citizens do not require a visa for entry.

Do teens need spending money? Will there be a chance to exchange currency?
All necessary expenses (meals, housing, transportation, etc) are covered by Mitzvah Corps tuition. However, some families may choose to send their teen with extra money in order to purchase snacks, souvenirs, or gifts. The amount varies depending upon each family's budget, but typically $30-$40 per week is sufficient.

Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as currency, so there is no currency exchange needed. Money can be withdrawn from ATM machines throughout the country.

How will laundry get done?
There will be opportunities for participants to wash and hang-dry clothing. Quick-drying fabrics are encouraged for convenience.

How will teens get to and from Ecuador?
The program will commence in Miami's international airport. From there, the group will fly together with their staff to Ecuador. Additionally, the group will fly together from Ecuador to the Galapagos. The cost of the international airfare is not included in tuition; however, Mitzvah Corps makes arrangements on behalf of the participants and passes the true cost on to the families. Please visit our "Travel" tab for more detailed information.

How does Mitzvah Corps handle teens who become ill or injured?
The participants’ health and safety is our primary concern during the summer. In all instances where the health of a teen is in question, parents/guardians will be contacted.

The Mitzvah Corps staff are First Aid/AED and CPR certified, and will carry a variety of supplies and over-the-counter medications at all times; parents/guardians have the option to give permission for the staff to administer these medications while completing the health history forms.

If a teen needs medical attention beyond what can be provided by the staff, or there in event of an emergency, the group always has access to quality professional care.

Are there any vaccinations required to travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos?
Please visit the Centers for Disease Control website and consult your doctor for more information about vaccinations that may be applicable for travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos.

Additionally, the Union for Reform Judaism requires that all camp and travel program participants, staff and faculty must be immunized. Medical exemptions are granted in rare cases; please contact us regarding any potential exemptions prior to registration. For more information, please refer to the URJ Policy Statement on Vaccine Status.

Is it necessary to purchase a special visa or traveler's insurance?
United States citizens are not currently required to have a visa to enter Ecuador or the Galapagos. Non-U.S. citizens must check local visa requirements, including requirements for countries passed through in transit. 

Traveler's insurance is included in Mitzvah Corps tuition; policy details are available upon request. 

At A Glance

Dates: July 9-August 1, 2018
Length: 24 days
Issue Focus: Clean Water & Indigenous Heritage
Community Service Hours: 80
Cost: $6500 $6300 + airfare
Mitzvah Corps organizes and reserves seats for participants on a round-trip group flight from a gateway U.S. airport to each international program destination. Program staff will fly with the group on both departure and return. The international airfare is not included in the tuition cost; please refer to the TRAVEL tab for details. 
Register by January 4th to receive the $200 discount noted above.
Mitzvah Corps is open to all rising 10th - graduating 12th graders.