skip to main content

Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / February 

Virginia Tech students venture to Ecuador to study biodiversity, medicinal plants, and so much more

February 27, 2018

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences duo Matthew Eick, a professor of environmental soil chemistry in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, and Renee Selberg-Eaton, instructor and undergraduate program director in the Department of Human Nutrition, teamed up to lead their second South American expedition into some of the most diverse regions Ecuador has to offer. Here, Eaton (right, forefront) floats with students on the Tiputini River.

The students float on the Tiputini River.
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences duo Matthew Eick, a professor in the Department of Environmental Soil Chemistry, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, and Renee Eaton, instructor and undergraduate program director in the Department of Human Nutrition teamed up to lead their second South American expedition into some of the most diverse regions Ecuador has to offer. Here, Eaton (right, forefront) floats with students on the Tiputini River.

What to Bring When Traveling to Ecuador (20-lb. limit)
-insect repellent
-rain gear
-headlamp
-quick-dry clothing
-a smile

In December, as most students were settling in for a well-deserved winter break, 18 College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students spent the days following Christmas packing carry-on bags with gear and sundries in preparation for an 18-day study abroad adventure below the equator, where summer now reigns supreme.  

In the journal entries below, the students invite readers to accompany them — without fear of a blister or bug bite — as they visit an integrative health clinic, trek into the wilds of the rainforest, and traverse the rugged slopes of the Andes. What better way to explore this culturally and geographically diverse country than through personal accounts and photos that capture the students' experience of this unique land? Fasten your seatbelts for this armchair adventure.

Travelogue:
The students' story.

Straddling the equator, the country is situated in western South America facing the Pacific Ocean. Quito is the capital city.

Straddling the equator, the country is situated in western South America facing the Pacific Ocean.
Straddling the equator, the country is situated in western South America facing the Pacific Ocean. Quito is the capital city.

Day 1: Arrive in Quito

“Today after attending orientation, we went on a historic tour of Quito. We first stopped at the Cultural Center, which had an overlook of the city. Here, we learned that the Incans originally built a city here in order for it to be easy to defend, as it is surrounded by an active volcano and mountains. We then visited the beautiful Basilica del Voto Nacional, where the outside was adorned with statues of many animals from each diverse ecosystem that Ecuador has. Finally, we got the chance to view ancient artwork at Casa del Alabado Art Museum, where the guide explained to us that it is not set up chronologically like most museums, but by the dead, the living, and the spirit. We're off to a great start and are thrilled to have gotten a taste of Quito's history!”

The Cultural Center overlook provides extraordinary views of Quito, which is in the northern region. Quito is considered one of the most beautiful big cities in South America.

The Cultural Center overlook provides extraordinary views of Quito, the capital city. Quito is considered one of the most beautiful big cities in South America.
The Cultural Center overlook provides extraordinary views of Quito, which is in the northern region. Quito is considered one of the most beautiful big cities in South America.

The students take in the Basílica del Voto Nacional in Quito.

The students take in the Basílica del Voto Nacional in Quito.
The students take in the Basílica del Voto Nacional in Quito.

Day 2: The Andes

“On December 30th, we woke up at 6 a.m. in the morning to begin our journey of the Andes Mountains. First, our biologist tour guide, Jamie, taught us about the native flora and fauna. After the field lecture, we hopped on the bus and traveled up to the summit. The hike down the mountain was long, but worth it. The views were fantastic and we got to see an elusive spectacled bear. Something interesting we experienced was walking through multiple paramo, high altitude wetlands. After the hike, we visited the Papallacta Hot Springs Resort and relaxed after a long day.”

The students hike in the Andes Mountains.

The students hike in the Andes Mountains.
The students hike in the Andes Mountains.

Day 3: Health clinic

“This morning we started the day off at the hot springs resort and were able to get an amazing view of Antisana which is 18,700 feet. This peak is normally covered by the fog. We drove back and had a little bit of down time in Cumbaya. We unpacked and repacked for our journey to Tiputini tomorrow. We then went and toured the hospital as well as the health clinic and learned about the public and private health systems. The hospital we visited had 130 beds and three floors which consisted of a public health floor, pediatrics and gynecology floor, and a private health floor. One major difference that stood out here was that Ecuador does not have assistant positions (PA, NP, DO). Instead, they just have nurses and physicians. Medical school here begins right after high school and is a six-year program. They then will typically go to the U.S. for their residency. Today was very cool seeing the similarities and difference of the health care system.”

“We talk about the concept of One Health and the relationships between humans, animals, and our environment. On this trip, we are seeing it and developing a deeper understanding of how behavior can impact other areas of the world. We’ve also begun to explore medicinal plants, invasive species, plastic pollution, and health care systems.”

The students visit a health clinic.

The students visited a health clinic.
The students visit a health clinic.

Days 4-6: Tiputini

“One group went on a lagoon hike in the afternoon. Our tour guide, José, told us about one of the bridges that we crossed. During the wet season, the 15-foot-high bridge is fully submerged in water. I thought it was interesting that the water levels change so much throughout the year. While on the small boat that we took around the lagoon, I was asked to pull out an anaconda skin from the water. The highlight of the lagoon trap was seeing the prehistoric-looking bird known as the hoatzin, with its blue head and red eyes.”

“Our group started off the day with a lovely hike to the Canopy Tower where we saw tons of unique birds. After our bird watching, we hiked around the base and ended with a nocturnal monkey watch. After lunch, everyone suited up in life jackets and got on the boat heading down the Amazon River. The first half of our boating trip consisted of traditional Ecuadorian fishing, where our guide caught some beautiful fish! After the fishing trip, we were instructed to jump off the boat and float down the river. Feet up, sun out, not a care in the world. The ultimate lazy river in the Amazon! It was a float to remember, and enjoying it with people you have become close to was the ultimate reward!”

The students, along with a hitchhiking praying mantis, enjoy an afternoon on the Amazon River.

The students, along with a hitchhiking praying mantis, enjoy an afternoon on the Amazon River.
The students, along with a hitchhiking praying mantis, enjoy an afternoon on the Amazon River.

Day 7: Relaxation and awareness

“In such a short amount of time, this group has become like a family. Embracing new experiences together, looking out for one another, and genuinely enjoying one another’s company. It’s amazing how quickly complete strangers can become great friends. It goes to show that studying abroad is more than just seeing what the new country has to offer; it’s forming lasting relationships with the people with you. We have been lucky to have such a great group!”

“This morning, we visited a salt lick. Birds come to this area and eat the soil to detox their bodies and to get needed nutrients. It’s kind of like a spa for birds! The colors of the birds here are so much like the foliage that they can be hard to see, but if only you could hear the beautiful sounds they make! Sitting on the boat, watching the birds, we felt an overwhelming urge to protect this wonderful place. The locals tell us that the rainforest might not be here for us to visit in the next 15 years. We can’t let that happen. This place is too magical to be depleted for temporary resources. The rainforest has given us so much, hopefully we will be able to give it something in return.”

“Later, some students, joined by the professors, took a dip in Yasuni River one more time. This time, the river had a much stronger current and it became a workout just to stay in place. Another group of students took another trip up to the Canopy Tower to do some more bird watching above the canopy of the forest. Later, we congregated for a brief recollection of the trip and discussion on what we learned. Personally, I learned that the decisions you make at home have a lasting effect on the Amazon. For example, deforestation is taking place to grow palm oil. Choosing not to buy products that contain palm oil will lower the demand for it and will decrease the amount of deforestation that is taking place.”

Izzy representing VT pride at the top of the rainforest.

Izzy representing VT pride at the top of the rainforest.
Izzy representing VT pride at the top of the rainforest. The canopy tower is around 200 feet high.

Days 8-10: Traditional medicine and agro-ecology

“We began the day by visiting Jambi Huasi, a healing house in Otavalo. This clinic was started by indigenous people who wanted equal health care and respect. It combines traditional and modern medicine to give patients the option to choose whichever treatment they desire. This clinic emphasizes family planning/women and children’s health in order to prevent early pregnancy and violence among the indigenous community. After the clinic, we spent a few hours in the city shopping at the local market. Merchants come from all over South America, including Peru and Bolivia. After the market visit, we went to a traditional indigenous home to learn about different instruments and to hear songs from ceremonies and special occasions, such as the summer solstice. For dinner, we experienced a unique ceremony in regards to cooking food in the ground, which is only performed four times a year and on special occasions. We ended the day by gathering around a large fire and enjoying each other’s company.”

“We adventured to Hacienda Verde, where owners Lucia and her mother started a new agricultural legacy. This legacy entails polycropping and increasing the biodiversity of species planted on their farm. This, in turn, increases productivity and efficiency. It is an impressive operation and run by hardworking, honorable people. We started off with a lovely agricultural hike, where our guide showed us all types of plants with healing properties. We even got to stand on the equator! After our hike, we had a beautifully prepared lunch, all vegetarian. Later, we split up into groups, where one group brushed their teeth with aloe toothpaste and prepared a medicinal mixture, and the other group used bug larvae as lipstick! To end the day, we experienced a cleansing and had a closing discussion. The whole experience was life-changing and overall peaceful.”

“There were many plants, like aloe vera, that have been used by natives for centuries to heal wounds and burns. Some of the herbs, like lavender and lemongrass, are used to brew tea for relaxation. And herbs like payco are used by Ecuadorians to help focus the mind. Indigenous Ecuadorian healers mix some of these various herbs to create poltices that are used to heal or protect the spirit.”

Students preparing herbal tonics at Hacienda Verde.

Students preparing herbal tonics at Hacienda Verde.
Students preparing herbal tonics at Hacienda Verde.

Group photo in front of a rainbow after learning about traditional indigenous music and culture.

Group photo in front of a rainbow after learning about traditional indigenous music and culture.
Group photo in front of a rainbow after learning about traditional indigenous music and culture.

Days 11-15: The Galapagos

“We began the day with a tour of Islas Lobas, where we observed sea lions, blue-footed boobies, and frigate birds. Our tour guide explained the difference between the endemic frigate and the native frigate, which has to do with the red ring around the pupil of the native bird. We then had an hour of snorkeling around the island, where we were able to swim with the sea lions and observe multiple sea turtles, barracuda, parrotfish, and sting rays. After lunch, we toured the Interpretation Center with our guide Santiago. He explained to us how the islands were formed and the importance of eradicating plastic pollution due to its effects on the environment and the animals.”

The students on their way to the blue footed booby nests.

The students on their way to the blue footed booby nests.
The students on their way to the blue-footed booby nests.

Santiago explains how the islands were formed.

Santiago explains how the islands were formed.
Santiago explains how the islands were formed.

The students meet up with rare blue footed boobies.

The students meet up with rare, blue footed boobies.
The students meet up with rare blue-footed boobies.

The students met sea lions by land and sea, snorkling with the marine mammals, along with angelfish and other native species.

The students met sea lions by land and sea, snorkling with the marine mammals, along with angelfish and other native species.
The students met sea lions by land and sea while snorkling with the marine mammals, along with angelfish and other native species.

The students pose at Finca Guadalupe.

The students pose at Finca Guadalupe.
The students pose at Finca Guadalupe.

Day 16: The last day in paradise

“Today was a fun-filled final day on San Cristobal Island. We began by visiting El Junco Lagoon (or, crater lake). From this spot, we had a wonderful view of a vast majority of the island. Our guide explained the history of the land and various native, endemic, and invasive plants in the area. We also learned about the impact that tourism has on the local economy and environment. Some interesting facts that stood out to the group were that while only about 6,000 people live on the island, there are more than 200,000 tourists each year, making tourism the greatest source of income on the island (65 percent), followed by fishing, agriculture, and government positions. The island relies heavily on three wind turbines that produce 40-60 percent of the electricity, depending on the season. We also learned that boats consume almost 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel per month, which astounded everyone. The most common wildlife we saw at the lagoon was the frigate bird, which travels there to wash the salt off of its wings.”

“On our second activity, we toured a land tortoise reserve equipped with a semi-natural breeding center. The aim of their work is to recover the population of tortoises on the island and maintain a healthy ecosystem. This is done by taking males and females from the wild and allowing them to breed in the natural landscape within the walls of the reserve. The eggs are then placed into incubators where they are protected from predators. When the babies are born, they are provided with a safe place to grow until they are mature enough to be released back into the wild. This reserve is one of three dispersed throughout the islands and saves the population from predation.”

“Lastly, we traveled to Puerto Chino, a beautiful secluded beach. While there, students enjoyed time in the sun, sand, and water while taking in the views and wildlife.”

A look at lovely Puerto Chino beach.

A look at lovely Puerto Chino beach.
A look at lovely Puerto Chino beach.

The students hike around El Junco in the highlands of San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos Islands. Despite the name, it is a crater lake rather than a lagoon.

The students hike around El Junco in the highlands of San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos Islands. Despite the name, it is a crater lake rather than a lagoon.
The students hike around El Junco in the highlands of San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos Islands. Despite the name, it is a crater lake rather than a lagoon.

Students mug for the camera in El Junco.

Students mug for the camera in El Junco.
Students mug for the camera in El Junco.

Days 17-18: Final reflections

“After traveling for almost 24 hours, we are finally back in the United States. During our trip, we’ve taken every mode of transportation, hiked the Andes Mountains, explored the Amazon, and snorkeled in the waters of the Galápagos Islands. We saw a spectacled bear and swam with sea turtles. We learned about cultures and traditional medicine. And along the way, we formed friendships that may outlive some of the giant tortoises we met in San Cristobal. But this trip was about even more than seeing animals and making friends. Every single one of us was inspired by the experience, whether it was to help preserve the rainforest by avoiding buying products containing palm oil, to save sea turtles by not using plastic straws, or preserving culture by opening an empanada restaurant. We’ve learned so much about health, the environment, and culture, and a great deal about ourselves. We can’t wait to share it all with the Blacksburg community. Hasta la vista, Ecuador!”

The students wait for the multiple modes of transportation required to bring them home.

The students wait for the multiple modes of transportation required to bring them home.
The students wait for the multiple modes of transportation required to bring them home.

Contact: