Volunteer Travel in Baños, Ecuador

By Melissa Ruttanai

Volunteer Travel Makes a Difference to You Too

“We’ll sing the Preposition Song to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.” My husband Neil passed out copies of song lyrics. In a tight semi-circle, twelve people from around the world congregated inside the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños for the weekly language exchange called intercambio. A guest volunteer, Neil led the session with an activity geared toward learning English and Spanish prepositions. We introduced ourselves, practiced translating, and sang aloud on our feet without shame that we might be off key. Volunteer travel rocks!

VoluntourismEach Monday, the Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños or BIB begins its week like a well-oiled machine. Coordinators Karl and Mazz sit at the head of a large table, welcoming new volunteers and reviewing the previous week’s accomplishments.

Though technically not volunteers, Neil and I had become good friends with the staff and were invited to attend their weekly meeting. Laughter mixed with serious brainstorming as Karl eyed the clock and Mazz kept minutes. From all over the world and of every age, volunteers commit to a month of community service: running English classes for local youth, holding cinema nights, and participating in the popular language exchange. They live together, share household chores, and help local Ecuadorians learn English. International and domestic travelers stop in Baños on their way up and down the Andean Mountains, and like Karl and Mazz, many stay.

Volunteering in Baños, Ecuador

Volunteer teaching in South America
The Library in Banos

In general, Baños de Santa Agua is a major stop along the tourist trail. With hot springs and fusion foods, Baños offers a getaway from Quito and mountain retreat beside the Rio Pastaza. Package tourists soak in mineral waters and return to the capital within the week. Long-term backpackers camp out in local hostels. But BIB volunteers are different. Immersed in the community, they get to see what real Ecuadorian life is like. They read to school children and shake hands with thankful parents. At night, people wave “hola” to volunteers and often—because they know Karl—their drinks are discounted at popular bars.

TEFL courses online
It’s not easy being on center stage!

Each weekday at 3pm, the BIB’s painted shutters open and young children begin calling out for their favorite teacher. Karl knows each child by name, hugging one and rustling another’s hair. On beanbags and benches, the volunteers sit with Ecuadorian children. They read Curious George, Star Wars, and Cinderella in Spanish and English. During Halloween, they parade through town in costume, handing out flyers for the BIB’s programs. As Karl stated, “We’ve lots of volunteers, but we can’t have a BIB without the children. So sometimes we have to remind the town that we’re here.”

During meetings, I can see that each volunteer loves this program in a different way. “Listening to [the kids] read in their own language has helped me learn Spanish quicker,” said Drew, a volunteer from Massachusetts. “They pronounce every syllable carefully and it helps me too.” In many ways, volunteering in Ecuador is symbiotic. Both volunteers and students benefit. Kids receive language lessons and role models from overseas. Volunteers become part of a mission to help the local community and experience Ecuador differently than most travelers.

Living as a Volunteer at the BIB

working with kids abroad, voluntourism
In travel, it is the relationships that matter.

One multi-story building and a large courtyard comprise the BIB property. On the second and third floor, double and triple rooms line the shotgun hall. A large kitchen and living room offer common areas for reading and relaxing. On the first floor, a learning lounge opens to the street and welcomes students with shelves of Spanish and English books as well as comfy beanbags. Off to the rear, a crafts center has long tables and painted murals for art and group projects. Through a generous donation, the BIB also has a movie projection and sound system for Wednesday’s cinema night.

While living at the BIB, volunteers work together and care for the house, courtyard, and sidewalk. Each week during the Monday meeting, chores are divvied up so that floors are mopped, the street swept, and bookshelves organized. At night, volunteers enjoy each other’s company with walks around the basilica and drinks at the bars. Life is relaxed and fulfilling.

make a difference in your travel
You can travel and make a difference in the hearts and minds of kids anywhere.

During Neil’s intercambio, the atmosphere continued to be laidback and welcoming. Four Ecuadorians sang the Preposition Song and several foreigners translated phrases into Spanish. The hour and a half ran quickly as participants chatted with each other and joked about strange diction. By the end of the session, we laughed about the singing competition that turned into rap songs about prepositions. Karl closed up the BIB and we waved “Hasta luego!”

“See you in an hour.” I said to Mazz, who smiled and waved back.

“Yep, see you at the bar.” She turned to ring her boyfriend and get ready for a nightcap in town. Unlike an office job or regular internship, volunteering at the BIB is about an expat lifestyle centered on social living.

Details & How to Become a Volunteer
To become a volunteer at the BIB, applicants should contact Karl and Mazz at artedelmundo21@gmail.com with a letter of introduction and ability to commit up to 3 months in Baños, Ecuador. Volunteers do not pay for the program. However, participants are expected to pay a monthly donation for their room, starting at US$120 per month that includes bedding, utilities, laundry access, WIFI, and cookery. Accepted applicants should inquire about paying in advance in order to receive a discount. Baños de Santa Agua is located in Tungurahua, 3.5 hours south of Quito, 9 hours east of Guayaquil and 7 hours north of Cuenca via bus.

 

Beyond the Hotels – Big City Homestays in South America

By Melissa Ruttanai

alternative to hotelsIn South America, accommodations are classified into categories and awarded stars for service, similar to the way guidebooks and AAA function. But travelers coming to South America for the first time may be a bit confused over the categorization of the sleeping arrangements south of the equator. For example, just because one business is a hotel it is not necessarily better than a hostal, or small guesthouse. Visitors to the region must do their research and investigate star-ratings for each place that they stay. Overall, hostals are a good budget choice where private bath, clean sheets, and family-run service is provided. Hospedajes are also nothing to ignore. They are even smaller establishments than hostals with perhaps 4-5 rooms often with private bath, but lacking in other amenities such as restaurant, bar or communal kitchen. We’ve found some of the best deals via hospedaje in Huanchaco and Nazca, Peru. But a new class of accommodations has emerged in South America and savvy travelers should take note. Private homestays are a fantastic way to relax but also immerse yourself in the local culture.
What is a Private Homestay
homestay peruUnlike hostals, hotels, and hospedajes, a homestay is often a rented room in a private home. In the past, companies would arrange “homestays” with local families in order to allow travelers to see what life is like for the locals. Often, the experience was trite. But now from Ecuador all the way down to Patagonia, private homestays offer more authentic and sincere experiences.
Neil and I have had four homestays overall, two in Ecuador and two in Peru. All have been fabulous. In a homestay, you live in the home of a local, practicing Spanish, taking your meals, and learning about the best places to shop and visit from the insider’s perspective. You’ll receive your own key, sometimes your own entrance. But for 4 days or 3 weeks, you will get an experience that cannot be mimicked in a hostel or hotel. Guests eat and socialize with the host family and other travelers. The experience is not about partying all night or locking yourself in your room. Here, the crowd is diverse—ranging from traveling couples, 30-something backpackers, expats, and even young families with kids.
the good life in travelFor all four stays, we’ve utilized Craigslist and AirBnb. Do your research. Find comments left by previous guests and secure a deal that suits your budget. As two people traveling on the road for over 2 years, Neil and I love homestays. The room is usually slightly more expensive than a hostal guesthouse but less than a hotel. However, security, cleanliness, and warmth of each place have been fantastic, especially in the city. When we stayed in Quito and Lima, our hosts gave us specific information about the city regarding safety, bus routes, and restaurants. Our hosts took great care in making sure we had everything we needed. That doesn’t always happen in the other accommodations.
Every Homestay is Different
homestay Peru friendsDepending on the family, every homestay is different. In Quito, our “Ecua-mama” picked us up from the airport, offered us dinner and even played a very competitive round of Rummikub with us. In Manta, our hosts let us have the run of their waterfront apartment. Dinner was not included but breakfast was a culinary event with homemade broccoli pies and hand-ground plantain and cheese fritters. While in Lima, we had a private apartment with bathroom, TV, living room, and private access to the kitchen. Currently in Cusco, we are in a cozy cottage-like house with flatscreen TV and great WIFI.
So, before booking and after you’ve researched their online reputation, think about asking your homestay hosts the following questions:
Are they renting a private room or an entire apartment?
Are there private bathrooms?
Is there a kitchen to use?
Are there any discounts for multiple guests or longer stays?
Can they pick you up from the airport or bus station?
What meals are included?
Do the hosts live in the house?
What kind of neighborhood is the homestay in?
How far is the walk to the city center?
With four homestays under our belts, Neil and I have had four unique experiences. While some homes were about total integration into the family, others give travelers space to rest and relax. Though you never know for sure which host you’ll have, from what I experienced, both are fantastic with accolades of their own. In April, we will be in Buenos Aires and have already started to research homestays and apartment rentals. Since three friends will travel with us, I’m toying with the possibility of renting a homestay that is an entire penthouse or maybe a multi-level colonial house. Though I love affordable hospedajes and even party hostels, our preference for homestays has eclipsed them lately especially in the big city.

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