Ecuador & The Galápagos | Community Service

Spend three weeks living in Ecuador’s Andean highlands on this summer community service program in Ecuador for high school students. Join members of a local Quechua or Yumbo community in meaningful service projects, ranging from light volunteer construction work to teaching schoolchildren to helping with the local harvest. Then, explore the other-worldly landscapes and extraordinary wildlife of the Galápagos Islands – one of the most unusual places on earth and home to giant tortoises, lava tunnels, equatorial penguins, marine iguanas, and blue-footed boobies. Travel from island to island, boating, hiking, and snorkeling through unmatched geographic and biological diversity.

  • June 26, 2015 - July 26, 2015
  • June 28, 2015 - July 28, 2015
  • July 5, 2015 - August 4, 2015
Students completing grades 9-12
Community Service
Typical Group:
15-17 students, 2 leaders
4.5 week(s)


Experience life in a small village in the Andean highlands as you work with a traditional Quechua or Yumbo Indian community to complete a series of volunteer projects identified by the village council. In past years, we have volunteered with villagers to construct a community center, formed work groups (called mingas) to harvest crops of beans, barley, and wheat, helped run a summer camp for village children, and built a childcare center for children whose parents work long hours in the surrounding farms. This summer, continue in this tradition as you complete construction and agricultural projects, as well as teach English, health, and environmental topics to children and adults. Choose an independent project and pursue an aspect of Ecuadorian culture of particular interest to you—learn to make empanadas with a local family, try milking a cow, or organize an opportunity for you and your friends to lend a hand in reforestation efforts. After the workday is finished, spend afternoons exploring the rugged beauty of the surrounding areas, playing pick-up soccer with Ecuadorian friends, practicing Spanish, or hiking into the hills surrounding your village. Participants on this volunteer program can expect to complete between 50-80 hours of community service work.

On weekends, we take advantage of the spectacular natural beauty and diverse cultural traditions of Ecuador. Visit snow-capped Cotopaxi, one of the world’s largest volcanoes, hike to the mountain’s historic base camp, and trek to rare equatorial glaciers. Don traditional panchos and pants and ride horseback over the open páramo with your cowboy guides. Other activities may include short hikes to soak in hot springs, visits to local indigenous markets, and watching a parade or attending a dance during the Inti-Raymi festival.

Volunteer for three weeks in a small village and form incredible friendships, both within your Putney group and with Ecuadorians from our project village.

Volunteer for three weeks in a small village and form incredible friendships, both within your Putney group and with Ecuadorians from our project village.

Then spend a full week traveling the Galápagos Islands, one of the most fascinating places on earth. Cut off from the rest of the world for millennia, the unique species that evolved and thrived in this desolate landscape were the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Once merely a stopping point for whalers who harvested the giant tortoises for meat, the Islands are now a living museum and the world’s premier destination for naturalists and conservationists. Declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1934, 97% of the archipelago became a protected national park in 1959. In 1986, the ocean surrounding the islands was declared a marine reserve, second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Located at the confluence of five major ocean currents, the Galápagos Islands boast nutrient rich, cool waters that encourage a diversity of marine life. Invasive species and over-fishing continue to threaten the fragile eco-system. As we explore the Islands with local guides and wildlife experts, we meet its residents and learn about the challenge of balancing development with conservation in this biodiversity hotspot.

We stay in small, family-run hotels during our time in the Galápagos. We eat our meals at restaurants or picnic style on hikes and excursions and transfer between the islands by charter boat. We are required to wear flotation devices on all open-water crossings.

“Teaching the children at the school in Anrabi gave me my greatest sense of accomplishment. The kids attended school in the summer as often as they could to learn from us, which was incredible. Not only did I develop incredible bonds with the people in my group, but I bonded with the children who lived in our village of Turuco, and that is something I will never forget.”

— Kyra Clark, The Dalton School, New York, NY

We begin our Galápagos adventure on the island of Isabela, the largest and one of the youngest islands in the archipelago.  Isabela is home to the Islands’ largest population of wild tortoises. Five of the six volcanoes on Isabela are still active, making it one of the most volcanically active places on earth. We hike to the crater of the Sierra Negra volcano, which last erupted in 2005, where we experience a bird’s eye view of this magical landscape. While on Isabela, explore mangroves, beaches, and snorkel with penguins, sea turtles, and sea lions in the calm, clear-water bays.

Next, we board our boat and set off for the island of Santa Cruz where we meet one of the Galápagos’ most famous residents, a 100 year old tortoise named Diego, who has helped repopulate an entire species of giant tortoises.  We visit Diego along with other tortoises and rarely-seen land iguanas at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Explore lava tunnels on a trip to the highlands and take in one last panoramic view of the Islands.  Relax on the brilliant, white sand beach of Tortuga Bay, where we observe marine iguanas and kayak through a mangrove forest.

Explore the Galapagos Islands with local naturalists.

Explore the Galapagos Islands with local naturalists.

Our final stop is the island of San Cristóbal, the easternmost and one of the oldest islands in the archipelago. A visit to the Interpretation Center provides an introduction to the biology, geology, and history of human impact on the Islands. We explore the coastal regions before heading up into the highlands to visit a giant tortoise rehabilitation center. Snorkeling off of Kicker Rock, the remains of an underwater volcano, offers us the chance to swim with manta rays, sea turtles, harmless Galápagos sharks, and an impressive array of colorful tropical fish. Get acquainted with playful sea lions during a swim at Isla de Lobos and hang out with marine iguanas and blue-footed boobies on the beach.  We return to Quito for the final night where we have a chance to reflect on the extraordinary encounters and opportunities we have had during our summer of community service in Ecuador & The Galápagos.


  • Volunteer with Ecuadorian friends in a minga to refurbish a community building.
  • Celebrate the Inti-Raymi harvest festival with traditional Quechua costumes, song, and dance.
  • Climb to the equatorial glacier of Cotopaxi, the world’s largest active volcano.
  • Snorkel with playful sea lions in the clear water of a sheltered bay.
  • Observe marine iguanas, sea turtles, and Galápagos penguins in their natural habitat.

What to Expect

For most of each weekday during the first three weeks, we are actively involved in community service work. This volunteer work, as well as afternoon and weekend activities, can be strenuous, and you can expect to spend most of each day outside. If you have experienced difficulty adapting to locations at high altitude, you should consider choosing another destination. Everyone participates in all of the group’s projects on a rotating basis, and everyone lends a hand in meal preparation and cleanup. Since we live in our village as the local people do, accommodations are very simple with separate space for boys and girls, and basic bathroom facilities. You should come to the program with an open-mind, eager to participate in new experiences, and interested in exploring another culture and way of life.

At Putney we take pride in our reputation for careful, thorough planning and attention to detail. The descriptions of our high school summer travel programs are based on our experiences in previous summers and our plans for this summer. It is inevitable that some things described here will not happen exactly as presented. To get the most out of the Putney experience, participants need to be flexible in responding to unforeseen situations, and creative in taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. We expect Putney participants to share responsibility for the success of their experience. Rules that provide a safe and structured environment, set curfews, and prohibit the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco are in place and enforced. We expect you to behave in a mature and productive way at all times.


Tuition: $6,590

Putney organizes escorted international flights. Please consult us for fares.


Learn about last year’s program by reading the 2014 Community Service Ecuador & The Galápagos Blog.

This program begins and ends at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia.

This itinerary represents a general description of the group’s travels in Ecuador. Units are based in separate host villages and do not meet during the program.

Departure • Join your group to begin our village-based community service in the highlands of Ecuador. The group flight departs from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport where you meet one of your leaders who accompanies the group to Quito, Ecuador.

“Our expectations were that Zach would experience a simpler, back-to-the-basics way of life and learn how to use his hands for work (as opposed to just using his fingertips with all the technology that surrounds him at home). Your program exceeded our expectations!”

— Patricia and Richard Hatzenbeller, Hatboro-Horsham High School, Horsham, PA

Quito • We spend our first day exploring Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. Get to know your leaders and the other students, tour the colonial Old City, ride the teleférico, savor rich Ecuadorian coffee in an outdoor café, and participate in an in-depth orientation discussing life in Ecuador, your project, and group dynamics.

Community Service Village • Travel by bus to our small host village in the central highlands north of Quito. Volunteer with our host community to complete a series of construction and agricultural projects.

Traverse the Ecuadorian páramo on foot and horseback as you explore Cotopaxi, one of the world’s tallest volcanoes, and the surrounding countryside.

Traverse the Ecuadorian páramo on foot and horseback as you explore Cotopaxi, one of the world’s tallest volcanoes, and the surrounding countryside.

Cotopaxi • Enjoy a two night visit to magnificent Cotopaxi, a snow-capped volcano. Stay at a cozy hacienda, hike to the mountain’s breathtaking glacier, and ride horseback across the surrounding páramo.

Galápagos Islands

Isabela • Our week of Galápagos exploration begins with an early morning flight from Quito to Baltra Island and a boat ride to the island of Isabela, one of the youngest islands in the Galápagos.  On Isabela, hike to the crater of an active volcano and discover an other-worldly landscape of hardened lava flows. Snorkel with penguins, sea turtles, and sea lions, visit the breeding center of the giant tortoise, and watch a colony of blue-footed boobies fishing in the bay.

Santa Cruz • Next, travel by boat to the island of Santa Cruz. Pay a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station. 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 into the wild. Go for a hike in the highlands and check out the cavernous lava tubes. Head to Tortuga Bay, a stunning beach with fine white sand, to see marine iguanas or try your hand at body surfing.

San Cristóbal •  After an early morning boat transfer and an introduction to the Islands at the Interpretation Center, we head into the highlands and take in a panoramic view over the Pacific Ocean. Afterward, jump on bikes for an exhilarating downhill ride through the highlands to the coast. Snorkel at Kicker Rock, the remains of an underwater volcano, and see sea turtles, manta rays, and maybe a harmless Galápagos shark. Climb to Frigate Bird Hill and take in the views from the top. Visit Isla Lobos, a sea lion and blue-footed booby colony and fantastic snorkeling spot.  Return to Quito for one final night before the flight home.

Return • Fly with the group, including one of your leaders, from Quito to Atlanta and continue to your final destination on a connecting flight.

This itinerary represents our best projection of the group’s schedule. However, we may implement changes designed to improve the quality of the program.


Background • 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. Opulent 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 Quechua or Yumbo indigenous heritage.

Known as “the birthplace of evolution” the Galápagos Island archipelago is the world’s premier biological hotspot and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Located 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands were discovered in 1535 but remained uninhabited until 1832. With over 97% of the land area declared a national park, and a marine reserve second only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Islands are home to many unusual species, including the marine iguana and giant Galápagos tortoise.

Kicker Rock

Snorkel around Kicker Rock in the Galapagos Islands.

Population • Ecuador’s population is roughly 14.5 million people in a land area approximately the size of Colorado. The largest ethnic groups are mestizo (mixed European and indigenous) and Indigenous groups. Our villages (population under 1,000) are predominantly Quechua Indian. The Galápagos Islands are home to an estimated 30,000 people, most of whom live on five of the thirteen main islands.

Language • Spanish is Ecuador’s official tongue, but ten indigenous languages are also spoken. Quechua is the first language of the highland Indians, including the residents of our village. However, most people also speak Spanish.

“The thing that have me the greatest sense of accomplishment was working in the community center. Seeing the way it started, with all of us working together, and putting the final touches into it really made me realize what teamwork can accomplish.”

— Braden Meyer, Brattleboro Union High School, Brattleboro, VT

Climate • “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 60′s and 70′s 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 6 a.m. and sunset at 6 p.m. year round. On the Galápagos, the dry season runs from July to December. During this time high temperatures range from 72-77 degrees. 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.

Cuisine • Ecuador is known for its variety of exotic fruits and fresh juices, seemingly endless culinary permutations of the potato and other root vegetables, delicious seafood, hearty meals of rice and other grains, and flavorful soups. Seafood is a popular staple on the Galápagos Islands.

Ecuadorian produce markets on our Community Service program in South America

Some 200 species of wild potato are found in the Andes. Try llapingachos or potato pancakes, an Ecuadorian favorite.

Currency • Ecuador adopted the U.S. Dollar as its official currency in 2000. ATM machines, easily accessible during excursions, are the most convenient way to access cash.

Voltage • Electricity in Ecuador is 127V/60 Hz, so voltage converters are not necessary. There are opportunities at various points during our journey to recharge cameras and other electronics, however, access to electricity is often intermittent and is shared within our group and with the local community.

Visa  U.S. citizens are not currently required to have a visa to enter Ecuador.  Non U.S. citizens must check local visa requirements.


The Community Service Ecuador program is directed by Lauren McDowell. If you have questions, are interested in receiving more detailed information, or would like to talk further about the program or any of our high school summer programs abroad, please get in touch!

Lauren McDowell

Lauren McDowell: Washington and Lee University, B.A., Spanish, Economics. Lauren lived in Spain during college, and has been on the go ever since. She led Putney programs to Ecuador, Cuba, Costa Rica, and Spain. When not traveling, Lauren enjoys yoga, reading, and being a mom. Her two young sons will one day join Putney Student Travel groups themselves. Lauren coordinates high school summer programs in Latin America and acts as our liaison to the Putney Open Door Fund scholarship foundation.

How To Apply


If you are new to Putney Student Travel, visit our Online Application.  
If you are a Putney Student Travel alumni family, 
use your existing account information to Log In.


You can hold a space in a program by completing the Online Application Form, submitting a signed Agreement Form, and providing the $700 Application Deposit by Mastercard, Visa, or Discover Card through our secure online system or by sending a check to our office. Our admissions staff is also available to take credit card information over the phone.  We will hold a space in a program for a reasonable time, pending completion of the full application process. See Step 3.

After March 15, we will hold a space temporarily as above, but we must receive full payment by check or wire transfer within three days to continue to hold a space in the program.


Before we can make a final admissions decision, an application must be complete.  In addition to the Application Form and Application Deposit described above, a complete application includes:

  • Applicant Statement – Attach a statement explaining why you would like to join a Putney program and what you feel you can contribute to it. Your application cannot be processed without this statement. Approximately 150–300 words is sufficient. Global Action applicants’ statements must be 300-500 words addressing these questions, and detailing their interest and/or experience in the country and issues on which they wish to focus.
  • Two Teacher Reference Forms

These documents are available as part of our Online Application.  We review a completed application within a few days, and notify families of our admissions decision by e-mail.