Sunday, August 9, 2009

A final word

We came as strangers, we leave as friends. After three weeks, Ecuador has taught us much. We take memories with us and we leave behind concrete examples of how travelers can give back and not just take from a foreign country-- a cleaned up town square in Mindo, a freshly painted playground with new swings, dozens of new trees planted near Cotopaxi, and a newly constructed orquidiario that will be used to teach locals about the beauty of nature around them.

Many thanks to all our fantastic students, wonderful local guides, and to our expert Kitty Coley for making this trip one to remember.

Elie, Alex, and Jes

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Kicker Rock

Hello all,

Yesterday we settled into our last spot in the Galápagos, San Cristobal.
One group spent the day finishing up On Assignment projects and then hit the beach. The other headed to two locations for snorkeling. One snorkel location is called Kicker Rock (see photo below). Students had the chance to swim alongside sea turtles and sea lions. Many of us even saw Galápagos sharks below us as we swam through the channel at Kicker Rock! From the boat we saw a pod or two of dolphins and watched as dozens of Blue-footed boobies dove at high speed into the ocean to catch their food.

Today groups will switch activities.
And by tonight, everyone will have completed their On Assignment projects. We have a special dinner planned for the group to celebrate all the hard work that our students have put into their photographs, surveys, research, and presentations!

On Thursday we head back to Quito for our
final night abroad.

Hasta luego,
Elie, Jes, and Alex

Lonesome George

Hello all,

Yesterday we left Santa Cruz for our last island stop in the Galápagos - San Cristobal - where Charles Darwin first landed in the islands.

Before leaving Santa Cruz we headed over to the Charles Darwin Research Station to visit the world famous Galápagos tortoise, Lonesome George. Luckily for us Lonesome George wasn't hiding in the brush. Though many of us only saw him from the back (photo below), we did get to see other giant tortoises up close.

One highlight of the research stations and breeding centers we've visited is seeing the babies. Everyone loves babies! It's hard to believe that these tortoises that could fit in the palm of our hands can grow up to 500 lbs! And it's even harder to believe that most of them will outlive us.

Alex, Elie, and Jes

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Galapagos Wildlife

Here's a glimpse at some of the amazing wildlife we've seen in the Galápagos. Here you can see a Blue-Footed Booby, Marine Iguanas, and White-Tipped Reef Shark. This barely scratches the surface of all the animals we've seen. . .

Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico

Hello all,

On Friday we went on a 10-mile hike of Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico. Our guide said it was the most strenuous hike on all of the islands, and we all made it!

We walked along the massive caldera of Sierra Negra for some time and then went down into the lava fields. In the lava fields we saw two types of lava - Pahoehoe lava and A'a lava. From one of our vantage points we were able to see all the way to the northern tip of the island. We could also see Fernandina and Santiago islands. Amazing!

Here is one of the hiking groups near Volcán Chico.

The Galapagos

On Thursday morning we left Quito for the Galapagos Islands. We flew into Balta and then took a series of buses, ferries, and boats to arrive at Isabela - the largest of the islands. We've been so busy since we arrived, this is the first chance we've had to write. More to come soon!

Elie, Jes, and Alex

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Quito and a visit with Pablo Corral Vega

Hello all,

Yesterday was our last day in Quito. . . we head to the Galapagos Islands today! Yesterday we had the opportunity to ride the teleférico and to see the city from high in the surrounding mountains. In the afternoon we visited an artisan market to buy gifts for our families and friends. We then broke into our On Assignment groups to continue work on our final projects. They are coming along great!

Last night we visited the home of Pablo Corral Vega, an Ecuadorian photographer for National Geographic. His home is filled with his photography-- it looks like an art gallery. The students asked many questions about photography and Pablo gave them advice for their projects. Many students said that they came away with life lessons. One student asked a question of Corral Vega and said that his answer will change the way she approaches her life and career. We hope you enjoy the photos below from our time with him.

After a few inspiring hours at Pablo's home we came back to our hostel for a joint birthday celebration for Callie and Justin--we celebrated with two delicious cakes from a nearby bakery. There is nothing like a little sugar before bed!

Now we are all packed and ready for our 9:45 a.m. departure for the Galapagos!

Bon voyage!
Elie, Alex, and Jes

Pablo Corral Vega

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

El Porvenir and the Paramo

Greetings family and friends,

, in loose translation, means unhospitable land. Although some of us were challenged to adjust to the high altitude, strong winds, and colder weather, our time in the shadows of the great volcano Cotopaxi was quite memorable.

Upon arriving at El Porvenir, our hacienda in the highlands, we warmed ourselves near crackling fireplaces and drank tea. We then took a two-mile hike around the grounds, and watched the sun set across valleys, mountains, and volcanoes.

On our first full day at El Porvenir we headed out for a horseback ride along gorgeous highland trails.
Despite a few worries beforehand, everyone had an amazing experience. Students also planted trees and watered vegetation around the hacienda.

The next day we traveled by vans approximately 35 minutes to Santa Rita, a reserve with completely different ecology and biodiversity. After a quick hike to a waterfall, students painted orchid holders and went zip-lining over the canyon and river below.

Our last day in the paramo was the most challenging, but perhaps the most rewarding. After an early wake up and delicious breakfast at the hacienda, we drove to the Cotopaxi volcano and hiked up to the Refugio
José F. Ribas, which stands at 4850 meters above sea level. The air was thin and misty, but our purpose was clear. We took our time, supported each other, and everyone made it up to the refugio, a huge accomplishment for our group! After reaching the refugio, we walked around a glacier lake, Limniolago, and returned to the hacienda for one more delectable lunch.

We are now in Quito preparing for our stay in the Galapagos. Everyone is excited to meet National Geographic Expert Kitty Coley and leave for the Galapagos on Thursday!

Jes, Elie, and Alex

Hacienda el Porvenir's dog, Lobo

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Back to Quito

The view from our hostal in Quito.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tarabita and the bird whisperer


The past two days in Mindo have been full of excitement. Split into two groups,
we visited Angel Paz, a man we now call the 'bird whisperer'. We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to bird watch and hike. Angel spotted at least five species of birds for us, including the Toucan. After the hike, we were treated to amazing food - plantain balls, cheesy empanadas and a fruit juice cocktail. The vista from where we ate was incredible.

The other day we rode on a tram called the Tarabita over a valley. We
then hiked down to a waterfall for swimming. Along the way we learned about plant species and uses. In the afternoon we went zip lining. Many of the students tried tricks and everyone made it through all 13 zip lines. What excitement! After lots of traditional Ecuadorian food-- rice and beans-- we are splurging for pizza tonight, followed by a chocolate demonstration!

Tomorrow we leave Mindo for Cotopaxi with a stop em route at
Mitad del Mundo - a museum marking the line of the equator!

Until soon,
Elie, Jes, and Alex

Thursday, July 23, 2009

To Mindo . . .

Hello all,

Tuesday morning the group broke into their On Assignment teams. Wildlife &
Conservation students spent the morning at the Botanical Gardens and Vivarium, which houses a significant amount of amphibians and reptiles, while the two Photography groups visited different parks and worked on perfecting techniques. After lunch in different areas around the city, we all regrouped at Hostal Arupo and boarded our bus for Mindo.

After a 2.5-hour drive through spectacular cloud forest, we finally
reached Mindo, where we met our two guides: Nikki and William. Our guides, who are both bird experts, will be with us for all of our hikes and activities while here and accepted our invitation to join us for dinner last night. After dinner and our brownie/ice cream dessert, we headed back to our hostal and had a quick powwow before lights out.

Today we began our morning with an hour walk to Mariposas de Mindo, a
small butterfly garden down the road from our hostal. After learning about the butterfly life-cycle, we entered into an enclosed garden housing over 30 species of native butterfly, including Morphos and Monarchs. The butterflies were quite friendly and more than a few of the students acted as rest stops for the lime green, orange and even translucent insects. Despite the cold water, the students embarked on a tubing expedition right after the butterfly garden. Tied together in groups of 5´s and 6´s, the tubes carried the students down the Mindo River for about 20 minutes, conveniently dropping them off near the entrance to our hostal.

With an
hour of free time before lunch, many of the kids participated in a game of volleyball, while others lounged around in the hammocks and admired the view. We ate lunch in town and then took part in some community service. Directed by Klever, an extremely friendly local resident, the students broke up in to two groups. The first group spent the afternoon cleaning up the town square by removing unwanted plants and trimming trees and bushes. After working for about an hour, the group was joined by local Mindeños who worked alongside the students. Meanwhile, the second group painted and repaired the jungle gym of the local pre-school with help from some of the school´s children.

Now we´re off for some well-deserved showers and dinner!

Alex, Jes, and Elie

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Quito Eterno

Hello family and friends!

After a morning of getting to know each other through orientation
games yesterday, we broke into our On Assignment teams for the afternoon. Photography students worked toward a body of 8-12 images that have a common theme while Wildlife and Conservation students created projects on various topics, including plant biodiversity, bird species comparisons and carbon footprints of Ecuadorians.

Last night as a group we visited Quito's
Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An organization called Quito Eterno led us on an educational tour. Our students took lots of pictures and learned much of the city's history, as well as many of its secrets. The tour concluded with a cup of hot chocolate at a spot with a great vista of the city. The best part - our tour was lead by the caped Diablo! (see photo below).

This afternoon we leave for adventures in

Alex, Elie, and Jes

Monday, July 20, 2009

The group has arrived

We've received word from the expedition leaders that the group has arrived in Quito. They are settling into their home in Quito, the Arupo Hostal.

En route to Quito yesterday, the students took time to get to know each other at the Miami International Airport-- there was much talking, card games, and airport snacks. (See photo below.) They ended the evening with a little celebration and song for Justin on his 15th birthday!

Today the group will hold an orientation and begin to explore this historic city.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Meet the Expedition Leaders

2009 Ecuador B Expedition Leaders, left to right: Elie Gardner, Jes Therkelsen, and Alex Silva

Wildlife & Conservation
Alexandra Silva. Cornell University, B.S. Alex was an Animal Science major and a Natural Resources minor at Cornell, with a special emphasis on wildlife and habitat preservation. She spent a semester at the Universidad San Fransisco de Quito’s Evolution, Ecology, and Conservation in the Galápagos program, where she studied and traveled the varied regions of Ecuador, including Quito, the rainforest and the Galápagos Islands. She served as a volunteer veterinary technician at CEMEII, an animal hospital on the island of San Cristóbal, where she worked directly with the Galápagos campaign to limit the damage caused by domestic cats and dogs, and as an animal keeper at the Santa Marta Rescue Center in Tambillo, Ecuador. At Cornell, Alex was a teaching assistant for a course on domestic animal biology, a journalist for the New York Forest Owner Association newsletter, and an administrative assistant for the Cornell Cooperative Extension. She worked as a veterinary technician at the VCA Berwyn Animal Hospital in Berwyn, Illinois. In the fall of 2009 she begins a two-year fellowship with Environment America, an environmental advocacy organization. Alex has traveled throughout Ecuador, Venezuela, and Chile. She is fluent in Spanish.


Elie Gardner. University of Missouri, B.J. Elie is an award-winning, St. Louis-based photojournalist and educator. She majored in Journalism at the University of Missouri and spent six months studying in San José, Costa Rica at the University of Costa Rica. She studied journalism and photography with the Associated Press’ Diverse Voices/Diverse Visions program and in a six-week fellowship at the Poynter Institute. Elie was a crew member for the Missouri Photo Workshop in 2003 and 2005, and directed the photo sequence at the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists’ Minority Journalism Workshop in 2007 and 2008, a position she will hold again in fall 2009. She completed photography internships with the Columbia Daily Tribune, the Grand Forks Herald, and The Tico Times in San José, Costa Rica, and worked as the online photo editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She is currently an adjunct professor at Webster University and a staff photographer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Elie is proficient in Spanish. Some of her photography, multimedia and editing work may be viewed online at

Jes Therkelsen. Amherst College, B.A.; American University, M.F.A. Jes is a Washington D.C-based photographer, filmmaker, media consultant, and educator. He graduated magna cum laude from Amherst, where he majored in Geology and collaborated with NASA on his thesis project. After receiving a one-year Hellenic American Educational Fellowship to teach in Athens, Greece, he relocated to Washington DC to study social media at the Center for Social Media at American University. Jes has written, produced, and directed several award-winning independent films, and is the owner and founding director of Sensory Media Arts LLC, a Washington-based media production company. He serves as a lecturer in Film and Visual Media at American University and Catholic University in D.C. As a 2008 Advocacy Peace Fellow in Nepal, he initiated The Clean Hands Project – a media campaign meant to empower and mobilize Nepali Dalits by teaching them photography and video-making. The project may be viewed on-line at Jes’s photographs have been exhibited at numerous venues in Washington, including the Washington School of Photography, Touchstone Gallery, Tryst Café, Healing Arts Gallery, and the New Media Center at American University. He is currently a 2009 Washington D.C. Artist Fellow. Besides filmmaking and photography, Jes is an avid musician and composer.


Welcome family and friends of National Geographic Student Expeditions participants!

We have created this blog in order to keep you updated on the progress of your child’s National Geographic Student Expedition this summer. We hope that occasional updates throughout the expedition will help keep you informed about the activities, projects and successes of the program.

The expedition leaders will post entries approximately once per week during the program. The leaders’ first priority is the students and the program. If updates are infrequent, it is likely due to the group’s very busy schedule and inconsistent internet access. Please know that any important issues that arise during the program will be discussed and resolved with leaders and parents by phone, not through the blog.

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Best wishes from us all at National Geographic Student Expeditions