July 25, 2019
A final farewell from your group of Ecuadorian and Galapagueño travelers. It’s been a surreal past two weeks, and we cannot imagine a better group to end our last trip with. It’s unbelievable to think that this family just met each other a few short weeks ago. Before we sign out, we would love to share our last days spent together as a group.
We left off in Tena after an adventure-packed, awe-inspiring rafting adventure. Our faithful charter bus fit for a NFL football team carried us safely to our next adventure, Baños. Without a moment’s notice, Will found a colorful array of traditional ponchos with animals on each unique piece. Words do not come close to describing it, but picture a majestic brown bear print coming out of the center with a fur-lined hood. As this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, many of the guys followed Will’s purchase. Each poncho is a true original, and the animals adorning each piece appropriately represents the wearer’s spirit animal. We brought our new ponchos into the streets of Baños for more souvenir shopping and a local food stop. Sloan has been expressing her intense desire to try guinea pig since the start of the trip and we FINALLY found an opportunity to do so. She definitely led the charge in trying the guinea pig and the group followed. We still have mixed emotions about the taste, but we’re very proud of our efforts to push boundaries this trip.
The afternoon was well spent walking into every souvenir shop in sight, and we were quick on our feet to find a full dinner. This brings us to an amazing restaurant in the midst of the city, and we took advantage of the many card games the restaurant had to offer. Louisa started an intense game of ERS that could only be ended when food was in sight, but our night didn’t end there. We spent the rest of the night continuing to roam the streets of Baños and eating ice cream along the way. Our first day in Baños could not be complete without mentioning the excitement for Claire and Mason’s birthday in the morning… it was palpable. We settled in and got ready to bring on the festivities!
It’s Mason and Claire’s birthday!!!! The newly 17 and 15-year-olds, respectively, were both woken up to a surprise with the whole group singing happy birthday! Hugs and smiles all around, we boarded a birthday-worthy party bus to begin our waterfall tour of Baños. Mixed into these incredible views was an electrifying cable car ride across the river canyon. We went for a waterfall hike, took selfies with waterfalls, rode under waterfalls, and after we were waterfalled out, we went back to Baños for a lunchtime refuel. But wait, what’s this?!?! A piñata?? And a birthday cake?? Surprise, it’s a birthday party! With two fell swoops of the broom, Claire and Mason successfully exploded the piñata into an explosion of candy and Oreos. So much sugar, but hey, it only comes around once a year. We hopped back onto our trusty bus and this time headed off for the Tree Swing on the End of the World. Pictures are soon to come, but for now, feel free to trust us on how breathtaking this place was. We were taking turns pushing each other on this mammoth of a swing, flying into the clouds and back to earth over and over again. Jackson seemed to actually be taking off for flight with his arms extended, headed for the great unknown. Thomas took it to another level, capturing his takeoff on camera with the kind of feeling you can only get at iMax. Once we had our fill of the swing, the accompanying zip line caught Cam’s eye. A couple more reps on this adventure wire, and soon enough, we had to continue on to our next adventure of the day. So it goes, but up next was a culinary fiesta.
You guessed it folks, it’s Banquet Night! As tradition has it, we dressed ourselves in the newly purchased clothing we have accumulated along the way. Once again, our poncho-wearing group of 5 stole the show. We came across an amazing restaurant atop a hotel in downtown Baños to ourselves. Bradlee and Callie were quick to find a jenga set, and they started an eventful game that ended with cheers and the sound of falling blocks. After eating our fair share of food, we directed our talents to karaoke with the help of the ever-so generous restaurant staff. Louisa and Lizzie belted their hearts out to a song from the Nickelodeon show Victorious, which is an appropriate word for their performance. It was truly victorious! The entertainment didn’t end there as we filled the rest of the event with jokes and documented our time together with polaroid pictures. Reminiscing on our time and countless meals together, we all joked that Kate has bought Baños out of Amor wafer-cookies. This once again brings up our group’s insatiable sweet tooth. We scoured the streets of Baños in search of Oreo milkshakes… and found them we did! After a great deal of anticipation, we all fixed our eyes on Kenan and Gray’s massive Oreo milkshakes smothered with marshmallows and whipped cream. It was a difficult mountain to climb, but they both summited with the eventful completion of each mug.
This brings us to our final Moonup. To top off our birthday celebration and final full day together, Jimi and Callie serenaded us with a jaw dropping performance of NEEDTOBREATHE’s “Washed by the Water.” We ended the night in each other’s company and eager to go horseback riding the next day.
Can you believe that it’s our last day together?! These past few weeks have flown by, and horseback riding was the perfect way to end our time spent together. Jimi quickly impressed us with his horseback riding capabilities, and he led our horses in a quick gallop. Just like that, our journey has come to a close in a flash. It’s rare to find a group of people this willing to create a family, but that’s exactly what we have done. It may have only been 2 weeks that we’ve been together, but for us it seems like an eternity. It’s hard to imagine a life where we weren’t waking up with 15 of our closest friends, ready to take on yet another adventure. We are beyond impressed with these students that are now our friends, our siblings, and our children all at once. We could not have gotten luckier with more loving, caring, and passionate people to spend our time in Ecuador, and for these relationships made, we’ll always be thankful. Our adventures here may be coming to a close, but this trip is only the beginning of relationships that will last the rest of our lives. Che’vre amigos, until we meet again. Signing off, for one last time,
Mary Ellen and Gray
July 22, 2019
Gray and Mary Ellen here to update you on our magnificent, awe-inspiring trip across Ecuador and the Galapagos. We have a lot to catch up on. To kickstart our time back in Ecuador, we traveled across the country to a beautiful place known as the Shandia Village for the community service portion of our journey. We are absolutely thrilled to be working on a building for local artisans; this project will serve as a place for artisans to work. Ultimately, we hope that this project will further the economic basis of the village. Without hesitation, our group dove face first into service.
Upon arrival, we ate a large and lavish lunch, then headed to the riverbank to collect lovely cream-colored rocks that serve as the foundation of the artisans’ lodge. Think hunting for seashells, but so much cooler and twice the reward. We got to see and add to a project that has so much meaning for this community, and to be able to see tangible work being done was incredibly fulfilling. After several hours, we transitioned into dinner. We had a surprise visit from one of the locals who explained to us different spiritual practices and religious ceremonies the people in Shandia believe in. Jackson was particularly interested in the topic and gained a much better sense of the people who we are serving.
Breaking news, we have discovered a local guitar shop operated by 4th generation craftsmen and simply could not hold back from adding a handmade Ecuadorian guitar to this magical ride. A major component of the persuasion was knowing we have a prodigy in our midst… please give a warm welcome to our very own… Jimi Dixon!! Moonup is now filled with acoustic versions of Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, and possibly a little bit of NEEDTOBREATHE is in our future? You’ll have to stay tuned!
Day two of service started early! We were back to the river collecting stones, sand for the foundation, and hauling it all to the lodge construction site. It was hard work but could not have been met with better attitudes and overall zest for life by this group. Folks like Kate and Kenan spiced up the work with the local children, offering rides up the hill on their sand-filled wheelbarrows all day long. Callie also lent an extra hand by taking photos of the group. Meanwhile, Thomas kept the good tunes coming with the Bluetooth speaker never far from the group, and before we knew it, the work was all done! A true thank you goes out to Cam and Sloan, whose attitudes and encouragement as LODs became instrumental to the group’s success. We returned for another satisfying Ecuadorian feast of traditional soup, yucca, meat, and rice. To end the day, Jimi serenaded us with his angelic voice and John Mayer-esque guitar capabilities.
We couldn’t contain our excitement for our third day in Shandia, so we decided to devote our energy to the best way possible. A surreal waterfall hike was the answer, and our group of adventure seekers never cease to amaze us. Will led the hike by making a vow to jump into every single body of water and to stand under every rushing waterfall. There wasn’t a dry article of clothing in sight which is a testament to our group’s incredible ability to fully immerse ourselves into every opportunity, including waterfalls. Warm showers and soup awaited us back at our lodge, but our last day in Shandia wasn’t over quite yet. After learning about local artisans the past couple of days, we decided to put our skills to the test by making our very own crowns and bandanas. We then had an opportunity to interact with local artisans in the community. Louisa never ceases to impress us nor the locals with her Spanish speaking capabilities as she is able to strike conversation with anyone in sight. She even took it upon herself to learn handshakes and chants from the local kids. Meanwhile, Mason started an intense game of basketball that ultimately left all parties involved out of breath.
We followed the setting sun back to our lodge for dinner accompanied by an unusual dessert… And without further ado, we would like to introduce the dessert for this particular evening. It was none other than grilled BEETLES!! This particular dish was met with sour faces and squeamish noises, but we eventually demolished the ENTIRE plate of bugs. To end our time in Shandia, we partook in a traditional ceremony of dance and music. This event perfectly culminated our journey in Shandia, and it was amazing to see our group grow closer with the community and work towards something greater than ourselves. We left with high spirits, a sense of accomplishment, and eagerness for the next day.
It’s time for rafting!! We woke up well rested and ready for a full day of rafting. A short bus ride carried us to the beautiful Jatunyacu River, where we set out for a day full of fun and adventure. Claire and Bradlee carried this sense of adventure to the front of the boat as they both took turns “riding the bull.” They quickly turned our rafting adventure into a true rodeo by riding the front of the raft with one hand in the air. Ultimately, our rafting adventure had to come to a close as we were greeted by calm waters and the shoreline. We took our party to the town of Tena where we are staying for the night. While waiting to explore the town, Lizzie introduced the group to a card game called ERS, which has quickly become a favorite. As tensions rose and hands started to throb, we decided that there could only be one winner, and the winner is none other than our very own Louisa Thompson. We left the card table for a family dinner of Pad Thai and other fixings followed by Oreo sundaes for dessert.
We concluded the night by walking along the river and making the most of every moment as we have very few days left in our journey. It is hard to believe how quickly this trip has flown by our newfound family, and we cannot wait to see what Baños has in store for us next.
Gray and Mary Ellen
July 17, 2019
We are back! Hello from mainland Ecuador; we have much to catch y’all up on! Since our last tune in, there have been many adventures on the island paradise of San Cristobal. Our first full day started with a visit to Galapaguerra, meeting a plethora of the most active tortoises mankind may ever have encountered. Did you know that a tortoise can survive for a year without food or water?! Our tortoise adventure ended with a visit to the breeding center with the cutest little tortoises we have ever met. We then went to a great lunch in the highlands, and an incredible tree house afterwards. Everyone has already started planning their next vacation to Ecuador, which includes a night’s stay at the tree house. Our visit was comparable to something out of a Magic Tree House book, but the ocean was once again calling our names.
After ending our visit at the tree house, we ventured to a remote beach where we were met by sea lions and inviting waters. We took a short hike up an onlooking cliff where Sloan pointed out National Geographic worthy views. After taking in the surreal views, we ran down and landed face first in the clear water. Jackson led the group in body surfing, and we all took notes. The waves left us with George Washington hairdos, waterlogged, salty, and happy. It was time to head towards our final beach of the day, the first snorkeling opportunity of the trip! We were in for quite the treat when we saw not one, not two, not three, not six, not eight, not even nine…… but 10 majestic sea turtles! Like Crush from Finding Nemo, we fin, noggen, and duded all over the bay. Mason came thiiiiiiiis close to catching dinner with his bare hands as he swam all over the big blue sea chasing after the whole cast of Shark Tales. Weary but content, we headed back for dinner and Moonup, concluding an adventurous day and preparing for yet another one.
We got up early, ate a full breakfast of ham and cheese croissants, and prepared ourselves for a boat ride out to Isla Lobos! Today’s agenda consisted of yet more snorkeling, but first, a tour of the home for Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate birds. These magnificent blue footed creatures had become a peak interest for our Alabama boys, Mason and Jimmy, were pleasantly surprised by the dozens of Blue Footed Boobies that happily allowed us to see their home, take pictures, and see them interacting in their natural habitat. After a toasty hike, it was time to plunge in for some snorkeling. Thomas led the charge, full of excitement and tenacity and ready to take the ocean by storm. We chased fish until we could no more, and soon enough it was time to re-board our ship and venture on to a beautiful, secluded beach.
Louisa was ready to brave the cold water as she jumped off the boat with excellent form. We all swam after her to the shore where we started a game of none other than… frisbee! By the end of the game, we were all covered in sand due to some impressive, athletic dives. We have come to accept and embrace the fact that sand will follow us everywhere we go. We all laughed as sand would shake out of our hair like water from a wet dog. Feeling content, we headed back to our boat where we were greeted with dry towels. Our journey back into town was accompanied by a jam session led by Kid Cudi and countless others.
A fulfilling meal of rice and vegetables left us satisfied and ready to conquer all that the Galapagos has in store for us. This leads us to a surprise that we have been cooking up since the start of the trip. Silent drum roll please… We decided that the marvelous, most awe inspiring activity to add to this trip is PADDLE BOARDING!! We split into two groups of 8, in which the first group paddled to meet the other half at a beautiful beach. Cam and Callie took charge by taking the lead of the first group. They successfully led the group to the shore with confidence and ease as they were greeted with cheers from the shore. Bradlee was smiling cheek to cheek as she rode the waves in, which was only a precursor to the amount of fun the second group would have paddle boarding. Without a moment’s notice, Will was aboard his paddle board leading the group amongst the sea lions. We had a successful paddle boarding trip, and we could not imagine a more perfect way to end our last day in the Galapagos than with a game of soccer.
With minutes to spare before dinner, we all joined forces in an intense soccer game. This was a matchup for the ages, with both teams playing at Olympic caliber. Kenan and Lizzie, truth be told, may have professional careers awaiting them simply by the sheer amount of goals scored this evening. Mason somehow managed to offense and defense all at the same time, and our bedrocks Will and Jackson held down the fort in goal. A mighty game, and while the scoreboard was of course a factor, there were simply too many great plays to declare a clear winner. Stay tuned for our highlight reel of the game, coming soon to an ESPN near you.
Today marks a milestone in our trip, as we close the book on our our Galapagos chapter and make way for the adventures to come in the Amazon. The flight back was smooth, all the more entertaining with a bit of turbulence and some on board music selection. Big ole nugs to Avianca Airlines for providing the personalized music playlists at every seat, as well as some stylish earbuds. Claire stayed busy on this travel day, locked into her artistic work composing portraits of each and every one of us. We’re taking about Atlanta’s newest da Vinci here. And finally, we were back. We made it back to Quito a completely different group. It’s incredible what 6 days can do in this kind of environment, with relationships being built constantly and memories being made every step of the way. We started out in Quito as strangers, but as we stepped off the plane back in the Ecuadorian capital, we were a family. This motley crew of adventurers stumbled across a hidden gem of a restaurant, and ordered food fit for kings. We’re talking burgers, nachos, guac, and all the fixin’s. Just when it couldn’t get any better, we were granted control over the stereo system. Dinner turned into dance party almost immediately, with appearances from Lil Wayne, Grateful Dead, and you guessed it, Green Day. Kate took us all to school educating on how to do the wave, while Jimmy rocked out like he gets paid to disturb the peace.
We ended the night walking through the streets of our newfound home in Quito. The feeling of content is indescribable, but it is safe to say that we felt as full as the moon facing us behind the far off mountain tops. We look forward to losing ourselves in the service of others in the upcoming days.
Gray and Mary Ellen
Callie – ¡hola! Just wanted to say hi and that I miss y’all! Ecuador is amazing and I can’t wait to tell y’all all about it! Love you guys
Bradlee -hey everyone miss y’all tell everybody I say hi! Love y’all!!
Louisa – Hi, miss you. Dad, you will be glad to know I have been wearing sunscreen. Mom, you have probably figured out by now I stole a few lululemon pieces. Helena, miss you extra.
Kate – hey mom, dad and mags- miss you guys tons but I’m having so much fun here love you so much and hasta luegooooooo️️️️️️️️
Claire – hola I am having a great time but I miss Sadie and Popcorn so tell them I say hi 🤡
Sloan – hey I’m having a great time
Lizzie- hey I’m having a great time!! Miss y’all
Kenan – hey fam I’m having an amazing time and miss you guys so much. The Galapagos were amazing and I will see y’all soon. Love you
Jackson – Can you please get me a Beyond Juice wrap when I get home. Love you
Cam – Tell Ferris I say hi. See y’all soon.
Will – I’m having a great time. I miss y’all and chic fil a and moes. 🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪🤪
Mason – I am having the best time and love my friends here!!! Miss you!
Jimi – I’m having a terrible time just kidding, love and miss you 🤤🤤🤤🤤🤤
Thomas – hope sc is having fun in the Galapagos I, having so much fun see y’all when I get home
July 15, 2019
It’s hard to believe that it is day four of our journey across Ecuador and the Galapagos. We started with a late night arrival at the airport followed by introductions and laughs. It is unbelievable how quickly this group has come together, and Gray and I could not be more proud.
Kenan got to work quickly by introducing himself and others while knowing everyone’s names before we even got to the airport. He even came up with a nickname for everyone in our group. We were greeted by pizza once we arrived to our hotel. From the outside, it would be hard to guess that our group had just met each other. We went into our first moonup of the trip where we selected Louisa and Will as our first LOD’s due to their positive attitude and willingness to help others.
The next morning, we were surprised as to how everyone got out of bed quickly and motivated for the day. On our way to the airport, we shared riddles to pass the time. Lizzie quickly made friends with a group of Ecuadorian kids on a field trip to the Galapagos.
This excitement carried us to Santa Cruz where we were immediately greeted by giant tortoises. Everyone was mesmerized by the sheer size and slow-moving nature of the tortoises. We had an opportunity to climb inside of empty tortoise shells, and Claire did not spare a moment. She climbed in with ease for the perfect photo. After familiarizing ourselves with the local reptiles, we proceeded to check out the strip of Santa Cruz. James and Mason both wasted no time at all in procuring bucket hats. With sun safety as important as it is, and with the added benefit of bucket hats always being in style, it didn’t seem possible to NOT at least get a couple. For dinner, traditional rice, beans, and chicken was the order for most. We really and truly thought the group was exhausted afterwards and ready for bed, but the truth was a stark contrast. Who would have guessed, on our way home, we would just so happen to walk by a giant live music festival on the street???
Thomas and Callie stole our attention and ultimately that of the camera man with their unique dance moves, which were captured by a large screen off the stage. We made fools of ourselves as we danced through the night. A personal favorite of the group was the two step. Kenan along with the help of Sloan led the group on stage where we danced with the band. Luckily, Gray captured the event on the Go-Pro. We then danced our way back to the hotel for some unbelievable and indescribably Well. Deserved. Rest.
To start our first morning in Santa Cruz, we had a five-star breakfast of eggs, toast, and fresh fruit! This well-fueled group of adventurers headed into a brackish cave to see a beautiful array of fish and rock formations. Next up came another beach visit, accompanied by chicken fights and plenty of dope beats from our small, yet dependable Bluetooth speaker. Before we knew it, we were hopping onto a ferry to set off for our next island. It was so important that we stock up on snacks before our sea voyage, and none were happier than Kate when we put back all of the cookies and wafers in sight. The trip was bumpy and sunny, but everyone had an absolute blast. We arrived to our new home, unpacked our bags, and set off immediately for the closest beach in sight. With smoothies on our mind, we headed straight for the food booth and tried out every flavor in sight. They were all mighty fine, but none rivaled the taste of Bradlee’s strawberry smoothie. We bathed in the sun and sipped on our drinks, with surfers in the background and sea lions everywhere, things seemed to be the best they’ve ever been. Cameron started a game of beach soccer, and we all joined in. However, the sunset got that much better when Jackson and Gray went swimming in the ocean with the spectacular view behind them. It was a sight to see!
We cannot think of a better way to end our first day in San Cristobal than watching the sunset together as a group, and we cannot wait to see what our remaining time in the Galapagos has in store for us!
Gray and Mary Ellen
July 12, 2019
Hello Ecuador + Galapagos Families!
We received word from our Trip Leaders that the group has arrived safely in the Galapagos! Their trip is off to a great start, and we cannot wait to hear more stories from their adventures.