There’s plenty of scope for spending fruitful time in Ecuador other than travelling. A huge number of possibilities exist for prospective volunteers, with a growing number of foundations and NGOs seeking outside help to keep running. Ecuador is also one of the top choices on the continent for learning Spanish. It’s easy to enrol, lessons are good value and the language spoken in the sierra is clear and crisp.
Many opportunities exist for volunteers, though most require you to pay your own way for food and accommodation and to stay for at least a month, with a donation of around $250–450 going towards food and lodging. Reasonable Spanish skills will usually be needed for any kind of volunteer work with communities, and a background in science for research work.
Someone without these skills should still be able to find places with no trouble, especially in areas of conservation work demanding a degree of hard toil, such as reforestation or trail clearing in a reserve. In fact, short-term, unskilled volunteering has evolved into a kind of tourism in its own right in Ecuador, so-called “voluntourism”. You can arrange to volunteer either from home – probably better for more formal, long-term posts – or on arrival in Ecuador, which is simpler and more convenient. The SAE in Quito keeps files on dozens of organizations looking for volunteers. We’ve listed below a few popular ones based in Ecuador, plus useful organizations abroad. If the main purpose of your trip is volunteering, you will need to have the appropriate visas before you go; those planning to work with children should allow enough time for Ecuadorian authorities to carry out checks before travel.
One-to-one Spanish lessons arranged in Ecuador cost around $5 an hour, offering tremendous value for money to prospective learners. Most language schools are based in Quito, with a few others in Cuenca and the main tourist centres. You’ll normally have lessons for the morning or afternoon (or both if you have the stamina), and there are often social activities arranged in the evenings and at weekends. To immerse yourself totally in the language, homestays arranged through language schools are a good idea, sometimes costing as little as $10 a day for accommodation and meals. You can arrange Spanish courses in Ecuador from home, but it’s unlikely to be as cheap as doing it when you get there. For arranging lessons and stays in advance, try Amerispan (wwww.amerispan.com) or CESA Languages Abroad (wwww.cesalanguages.com).
More adventurous linguists could also have a stab at learning an indigenous language, such as Quichua, which a few schools offer on the side. The reaction you’ll get from native speakers, even with some elementary knowledge, is well worth the effort.
Unless you have something arranged in advance with an international company or organization, you’re unlikely to find much paid work in Ecuador. Being an English speaker, the only type of job you can expect to get with relative ease is as an English-language teacher, especially in Quito or Guayaquil. It’s usually stipulated that English should be your native tongue for these posts, but completely fluent non-native speakers shouldn’t have much difficulty. Don’t expect to be paid very much, unless you have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or similar qualification, which will give you greater bargaining power. You’ll have to have a work visa, which can be expensive to get – enough to put most people off in the first place. If you have any training in ecology, biology, ornithology and the like, you could try to hunt around the jungle lodge operators asking if they need a guide. Fluent English speakers with such qualifications are often in demand.