A Dream of Exploration in Ecuador

In the rainforest,

the rest of the world feels distant, unreal. Upon returning to the United States, the rainforest feels like a beautiful and strange dream.

 

This dream is the story of 13 Texas State Bobcats studying abroad in Ecuador in June 2019.

Where, Why, How

Day 1, June 7. I think we crossed the equator 4x today

The South American country of Ecuador straddles the equator, providing habitats for roughly 23,000 species of living things, homes for nearly 16.5 million people, and exports of oil, timber, cattle, shrimp, raw cacao, refined chocolate and more to the rest of the world. It is the perfect location to explore ecology, conservation and humans’ roles therein. Texas State University’s study abroad program to Ecuador is led by two expert faculty biologists, Dr. Shawn McCracken and Dr. David Rodriguez, who are passionate about introducing students to the immersive learning that’s possible here.

Shawn and David — the close quarters of a trip like this quickly bring everyone to a first-name basis — have led this expedition three times before. They collaborate with a local conservation nonprofit called Third Millennium Alliance (TMA), which operates a research station and protected area called Jama-Coaque Reserve, which is where we’re going now. In addition to being Texas State faculty, Shawn volunteers as TMA’s director of education and program development; he’s excited to share this special place with the rest of us. TMA’s executive director, Ryan Lynch, is also along for the adventure; he has arranged everything that needs to happen for our group to get from metropolitan Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, to coastal Jama-Coaque.

view of the tropics from the window of a bus

Our ride is a tourist bus, whose driver loads up our many packs and crates in a mind-boggling, life-sized game of Tetris. Driving away from the hotel at 9:21 a.m., it’s our first look at Ecuador in the daylight, and thus begins a total biology nerd-out that doesn’t stop for nine days. Over the course of the drive, we drop about 8,000 feet in elevation from Quito’s perch in the Andes Mountains down to sea level, including a barefoot dabble in the Pacific.

Eventually we pull over near a carved wooden sign saying “Reserva Ecologica Jama-Coaque,” and we pile out of the bus. However, we immediately pile into pickup trucks that are waiting for us — the bus’ transmission can’t handle what’s to come.

Bump, bump, bump we go down a dirt road. It winds through a small community called Camarones, after their river, which is named after the river’s shrimp. There are dogs and chickens and laundry hung out to dry. Tall trees begin closing around us. At one point, there’s a flash of brilliant blue as the trucks startle four or five large morpho butterflies that were on the road. Anticipation rises. The trucks come to an abrupt stop.

wooden gate with sign saying "Reserva Jama-Coaque" in the rainforest

But we’re not there yet. No, this time we’re hopping out of the trucks because the way forward now is a trail. Everyone grabs their pack; TMA staff load the crates of scientific gear onto a mule and a horse. Down we go, single file, picking our way carefully through the mud and the roots and the encroaching branches for about a quarter of a mile. At the bottom of a slope is the Camarones River, crossable by stepping-stones. There on the other side, up the opposite slope, we see it: we’re here.

The Bamboo House

TARANTULA at about 6:50 p.m. on the desk. Folks took pictures, it ran away. It’s in the house.

Our home base at Jama-Coaque, the center of our new little universe, is the Bamboo House.

The Bamboo House has two floors. There’s a covered entryway for taking off boots — no dirty footsteps inside! — and a short hallway that leads to a simple but breathtaking deck with wide rainforest views. The deck is where we eat, talk, plan the day, review our work, watch the birds. Upstairs is additional open space. Both floors have bunk-style bedrooms, and both floors have hammocks for studying and relaxing. The kitchen is on the first floor, opening onto the deck.

About 100 feet away from the Bamboo House, down a stone-lined path, there’s a two-seater bathroom equipped with composting toilets. A couple yards down the hill from that, there’s a two-stall shower house. The doors are curtains that hook closed. Between these two sanitation structures is a small sink plus space for handwashing clothes. Farther up the hill from the Bamboo House is the casita, another large two-story house with additional bedrooms, and farther still is the classroom, a roofed but un-walled space that looks out over everything below.

There is one tap with drinkable water. There is a hydroelectric generator that turns the still-remarkably-clean spring water into electricity for three lightbulbs and one power strip. There is no internet, no cell service.

Very quickly, the rest of the world outside this specialized facility fades out of existence, leaving only the wondrous architecture and the forest that surrounds it.

looking uphill at the Bamboo House
Looking into the Bamboo House through its open side
Main entryway to the Bamboo House
Students in hammocks on the upper level of the Bamboo House

The Adventurers

Shaeleigh’s GoPro fell in a stream. Mel took off her boots and found it with her feet!!

We’re a small group with a big presence — full of personality, excitement, knowledge, curiosity and somehow enough energy to power through days that each feel like a week.

For the undergrads, there’s Jess Hobbs (a shark specialist) and AJ Sanjar (an attentive observer). Mel Pechacek (avidly awaiting the sight of a monkey) and Shaeleigh Wuollet (a pillar of perseverance). Austin Banks (a wry humorist) and Bianca Gebhardt (who loves all animals effusively). Cheyenne Gonzales (the first person to spot a snake) and Nina Garcia (sharp and perceptive).

The graduate students are Lisa Koetke, receiving her biology master’s at the end of summer; Chloe Reeves, a conservation biologist who’s already adept at genetics lab work; and Bria Marty, getting a master’s in biology with the intent to be a science educator or park ranger.

Throughout the trip, we share space and smells and photos of our coolest sightings; we share food and bug spray (DEET-free, please). We help each other cross streams and creep down hillsides and handle animals. Everyone is up for the challenge. Jess is correct when she says to Shaeleigh and Bria, “Between the two of you, the amount of stuff we forgot or ran out of, you’ll have it covered!” Shaeleigh’s extensive first aid kit gets hauled out multiple times — luckily for minor ailments only.

Joining us were donors Ken Wilson at first and his wife, Verena, later on. Ken is a Bobcat, a Distinguished Alumnus of the university, and together the Wilsons’ generosity has made this Ecuador program possible. Funding through the Wilson Fellowship supports the graduate students’ participation in research; other parts of the Wilsons’ donations have covered the expensive yellow fever vaccinations that both grads and undergrads needed to get before leaving the U.S.

“Without him, I would not be able to be here,” Chloe states. “Having Ken on this trip has been really fun. He is such a sweet and funny man. Being able to thank him personally has been really satisfying to me, and I hope to him as well, getting to see the good that he is doing.”

Ken cares deeply about the lasting impact that study abroad can have on students. “What do the students see abroad that prompts them to think and to use that experience?” he muses. Ken and Verena have both traveled the world themselves, and have a variety of insights to share with the rest of us during quiet after-dinner hours or in classroom discussions.

students and faculty sitting around a long table eating a meal

The Assignment

6:25 p.m.: Pink sky, diffused through cloud cover, lovely. In the classroom, referencing papers by flashlight.

What we’ve come here to do is threefold: document biodiversity, read and discuss scientific papers, and conduct genetic research into frogs and fungus. With a small group like this, everyone’s contributions are important.

The undergrads’ main hands-on project here in Jama-Coaque is identifying and recording all the species they find in particular areas, at particular elevations. To do this, they’re using a tool called iNaturalist.

“It allows people — anyone on the planet — to go out and document biodiversity,” explains Shawn. Users upload their photos and plug in their best identification, whether that’s pretty specific or very general. Other users can chime in with agreement or alternatives. The app takes embedded data from the original user’s device to pinpoint latitude, longitude, date and time. All of this adds up to a global crowdsourced map of life, which is providing valuable knowledge for researchers and even leading to the discovery of species that scientists haven’t described before.

“They're the actual collectors of real data that we collect from these small one-meter plots along an elevational gradient here in Ecuador, as well as a longitudinal gradient,” explains Shawn of the students' work. “I hope that doing this project throughout the years with students, we can start to analyze some of these data, and get an idea: Are things changing in these different habitat types? Or along these different elevational gradients?”

A group of students in the understory

The procedure is to lay down a meter-square outline made of PVC pipe onto the ground at the assigned random spot. Then, students must photograph every living thing within this square, submit the pictures to iNaturalist, and provide the best identifications they can. After a practice run with Shawn close to the Bamboo House, the students split off over the next few days, armed with GPS coordinates, to complete their lists on their own.

A group composed of Jess, AJ, Mel and Shaeleigh heads out on the afternoon of Day 5. “The bugs that are crawling are gonna go fast,” Jess says when they confirm that they’re at the right coordinates and have laid down the square. “We can take pictures of things that don’t move later. Let’s keep focusing on things that we’re going to scare away.”

“Look on the plants too for bugs,” interjects Mel. “I see some movement — here’s a spider.”

“Oh, I’ve got another spider on this leaf,” AJ adds, and a moment later: “I’ve got some fungus I can take pictures of.”

“Aw man, I lost my spider — he was a big ’un!” Mel laments.

“OK. Any other creepy-crawlies?” says Jess. No. Onward to documenting the plants. “This is a heliconia,” says Shaeleigh, isolating a stalk so that she can get a good photo. This first plot takes around half an hour, but they’re faster at the second one, done in about 15 minutes. “The evolution of students while studying evolution in the tropics!” shouts Jess. It’s true — in only a few days, the students move more surely through the forest, make more confident identifications and draw more connections between the things they see.

This experiential learning was paired with reading and discussion. Everyone reads everything, but for each session there’s a group of two or three students assigned to guide the conversation and check for understanding. David outlines the expectations: “You need to change your reading habits to deep reading. If you don’t understand something, write down what you don’t understand. We’re sharing our collective knowledge.”

two female students lead a classroom discussion
a copy of the book "Tropical Nature" lies open on a table on top of two notebooks

The main text is a rollicking read called Tropical Nature, full of fascinating anecdotes and explanations of how these special ecosystems operate. “After reading Tropical Nature on my own, and going out and doing some hikes with my group members and by myself, I’ve noticed that a lot of the things in the book are corresponding to what I’m seeing outside in the jungle,” says Cheyenne. “It's a really cool experience to be reading about something and actually be able to experience it in real life, in real time.” Other texts are peer-reviewed publications about relevant topics, such as socioecology, species variation by latitude and analysis of mitochondrial DNA. “One thing I’ve been learning,” shares Austin, “is how to read a scientific article, which I’ve never been very good at.” Indeed, those articles take a particular skill to interpret, which doesn’t come naturally. It’s especially hard without internet access for looking up unfamiliar words and concepts. But together, the students piece together the meaning. It’s during group study sessions and the discussions that everyone seems to get the best handle on these papers — by asking each other for help and rephrasing the ideas in their own words.

Shawn points out how important and intentional this work is: “How can you be a scientist if you don’t know how to read a scientific paper? If you are going into science as a career, you have to be able to understand this stuff.”

A geneticist holds small test tubes while two graduate students observe

That’s also the point of David’s genetics training with the graduate students. They’re learning how to extract and process DNA in order to gain insight into biodiversity and evolution.

David and Shawn's current research is about the dynamics between amphibians and a deadly fungus that infects them. They use genetic analysis to learn more about how different strains of the fungus affect different species of frogs. Bria, Chloe and Lisa are helping collect frogs (to be clear, the frogs survive this experience!), take measurements and run the DNA testing.

It’s hard, hard work. The collecting hikes involve climbing up muddy slopes in the dark with unseen edges and spiky stinging plants ready to grab you if you fall, not to mention any ants, spiders or snakes that might be in your path. “It felt like ice-skating on a rope over a pool of glass shards,” says Bria. “Treacherous is definitely the word for it. I will never forget that. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I came because I knew I could do it.”

David is understandably careful about who can come on a collecting hike, but the undergrads are welcome to sit in while David takes DNA samples (a tiny bit of blood and tissue) and the grad students measure the frogs’ lengths and weights. Mel especially, a future geneticist, is paying close attention. “Anything with DNA is just interesting to me,” she says.

Two researchers work at a lab table in the Bamboo House

Sitting around the classroom tables, David and the students talk about where DNA is located within an organism’s cells and how to extract it for study.

“I’m going to embrace my ignorance,” says Lisa brightly; her work so far has not included a lot of genetics lab time, but she’s ready with questions and focus. David nods reassuringly: “The whole point is to work out our knowledge.” Together, the group rehearses the steps: break open the cell structures, balance the pH levels, pull the DNA out of the created mixture, rinse it, add a chemical to prevent bacterial growth and further breakdown. “Now you have DNA that you can use to do whatever you want,” David says. Amazingly, it’s really that simple to get your hands on the building blocks of life.


The Animals and Plants

6:30. Howler monkey troop before dawn, loud! Tons of bug noises, and now that the sun is up, birds.

Life is absolutely everywhere in the rainforest. “There are a lot more animals than I thought there were going to be, pretty much everywhere you look,” notes Bianca. One of the most eye-catching groups of animals we see is birds.

There’s a hummingbird feeder hanging at the Bamboo House’s deck, conveniently near the hammocks. It’s frequented often by jewel-toned little hummers: the crowned woodnymph, the white-whiskered hermit, the long-billed hermit. If there’s a fluttering in the trees across from the deck, we grab binoculars and a spotting scope to get a better look, and that’s how we see the araçaris, relatives of toucans.

a student looking through binoculars at birds
a student uses a magnifying viewer to look at a hummingbird's long bill

Some of us get up before dawn to follow the reserve’s ornithology crew. Jama-Coaque’s bird research is important and unique. “We are probably the first bird observatory in South America that operates on a long-term, year-round, constant-effort level,” explains Mike Ellis, TMA’s director of research and one of the bird experts. Ecuador has some of the highest bird densities worldwide, making Jama-Coaque a valuable hotspot for studying how long birds live, when and how long they’re able to reproduce, and how climate change impacts their survival. The ornithologists gently catch birds by setting up long, delicately meshed nets that the birds mistakenly fly into. Once a bird is in the hand, the researchers measure and record pretty much everything they can: length and width of nearly every feature; feather condition, which indicates age; presence of sex indicators. They’ll also slip a tiny metal band around the bird’s leg, with numbers to identify each known individual. Once complete, they release the bird and start all over again with another, for hours at time.

None of the students came into the trip as bird experts, but the time in Ecuador may have sparked a new hobby for some. AJ comments, “I feel like now when I go back home, I’ll keep my eye out for the different birds and see if there’s any birds that migrated here, and just keep track of what’s going on with the birds.”

A highlight of the trip came on Day 3 when Bria caught a boa constrictor. These are not venomous animals — they squeeze their prey rather than envenomate it — so under David’s careful eye it was safe for students to hold the snake. Bianca quite literally cried with joy: “I am so happy right now. I love snakes,” she said as the boa coiled in her arms. This close, we could see an iridescent sheen down the six-foot length of its variegated brown scales.

In our last couple of days at Jama-Coaque, Mel finally got to see her monkey. The howlers’ calls came closer and closer until they were just outside the house. We rushed outside and saw the troop in the nearby trees, going about their monkey business.

student Bianca Gebhardt holds a boa constrictor

Of course, it’s not just animals that are cool here. The plants at Jama-Coaque are incredible. “Something I learned back at Texas State that I’ve found to be really helpful while I’m here in the tropics is understanding the relationships between the flora and fauna,” Bianca says. “I’ve seen it everywhere I look, especially with epiphytes, through seeing bromeliads on all the trees.”

Epiphytes are plants that grow on top of other plants, without stealing nutrients — they are not parasites. Think of the spiky little ball moss of Central Texas. In the equatorial forests, epiphytes come in all sizes and a variety of shapes and colors. Bromeliads are one such group of plants, whose deep water-filled leaves provide homes for other life, such as tiny frogs or salamanders. “Some of these trees are supporting two metric tons with bromeliads,” Shawn tells us. AJ asks, “Do the trees that evolved to invite epiphytes have bigger buttresses than other trees?” Some of them do: organic engineering to support all that weight.

Other plants have spent their evolutionary capital on different, more aggressive forms of self-defense. There’s a palm that’s trunk is covered — totally covered — in needle-like spikes. There’s bamboo that sends runners along the ground, often hidden by mud, with inch-long thorns that can go through your boot. There’s a thigh-high plant that can sting right through your pants.

During one classroom discussion, a group of parasitic fungi called Cordyceps comes up; this is a bizarre set of organisms that, when they infect an insect, send signals to the bug’s brain that drive it to climb as high as it can, whereupon the fungi kill it and send their own spores out on the breeze to reproduce. We might see Cordyceps fungi here at Jama-Coaque. Shawn rather delightedly says, “It’s capable of mind control!” Nina says, “… Can it do that to us?” Thankfully, the answer is no — just to insects. Shaeleigh points out that some ant species have sophisticated methods of dealing with this: “If it happens to an ant, there are workers trained to spot this fungus, and they’ll isolate that ant.”

On a night hike up the middle of the Camarones (which is shallow enough to be traversed in boots), we encounter vast amounts of invertebrates. There are spiders on every surface, and these aren’t small spiders either — they’re two or three or five inches in diameter. Moths keep flying around us. Someone spots a sleeping morpho butterfly — huge, at least six inches in wingspan — and after we’ve gathered around it, it wakes up, flapping madly in an unpredictable course that seems stuck on us. It hits me in the face, hits Jess multiple times. This is the only time I’ve ever cowered, arms held up to my head, from a butterfly.

Bria is our resident spider aficionado. She is eager to meet them, hold them and air-kiss them goodbye afterwards. The rest of us quickly learn to yell “Bria! Spider!” when we see a good one (they’re all good ones), or some other invertebrate. Mel really sums it up: “I think her excitement’s rubbing off on me. In the States, I’m skittish towards spiders. That’s probably the only insect I’m really afraid of here. I actually held a baby tailless whipscorpion, and then later on we found a large one that actually crawled up my arm. It was scary and exciting at the same time. But I had people telling me no to freak out. It was a cool experience.”

For her part, Bria is getting back just as much as she gives. “I love talking with the undergrads about this stuff because they’re coming to me with questions about, what does this word mean? What is this insect, what is that?” she says. “And even though I may not have all the answers, it’s really helping me discover what kind of teacher I am.”


The Night Hikes

NIGHT HIKE 7:55 p.m. Raining but you can’t feel much of it in the forest.

The thing about frogs (and many other animals, for that matter) is that they’re more active at night, so that’s when we go out to collect the research specimens. And the thing about the tropics is that night falls early — sunset around 6 p.m., matched with sunrise at about 6 a.m., year-round — so it’s fully dark by 7 p.m., and 9 p.m. feels like midnight. This cycle means that most nights, there are at least a few of us who go exploring, sometimes for fun and sometimes specifically for research.

One night, we stay fairly close to camp — although “close,” “mostly flat” and “easy,” when applied to hikes at Jama-Coaque, are very, very relative. We’ve got about eight or nine folks on this particular hike. Bianca has been given an important task: carrying the large drybag that will transport our specimens safely back to the Bamboo House. “I’m so happy I’m bag lady!” she says.

A student with a headlamp holds a specimen-collecting bag in the dark

Here’s how the collecting process goes while we hike down the trail: Whenever someone sees a frog, they use a bagged hand to grab it, then turn the bag inside-out around the frog. (“Like picking up dog poop,” Bria notes.) They blow a little air into the bag and add some leaves to make the frog more comfortable. Meanwhile, another person uses a handheld GPS unit to take the coordinates, so that later we can return each frog to its proper habitat. The collector uses a thick permanent marker to write a sequential number on the bag. All of this info gets jotted down quickly by a designated recorder. Then the frog in its bag is placed gently into Bianca’s bigger bag.

“Someone’s hopping in here — I felt the ‘thump thump.’”

It’s humid but the light rain is nice and cool. We either venture off the trail, or it becomes more overgrown. We arrive at a pond around 8:35 p.m. and folks disperse somewhat along the banks, headlamps on, calling out to each other when they spot a frog or encounter a tricky bit of ground. The air is loud with frog calls and thick with small flying insects that are attracted to our lights. Bria sees water scorpions in the pond and starts telling us about them, how they’re not actually scorpions at all, just called that because of their appearance. Bianca comments, “I’m learning so much from you, and you’re not even a professor.”

Someone yells “Snake!” It’s in a low tree over the water, long but very thin, not much thicker than a pen.

Bianca almost slips into the pond, but she thinks of the frogs in her big bag and stays upright through force of will.

There are a couple of tarantulas, some bullet ants, a moth with eyes that shine pink in my headlamp. The rain stops and a few stars peek out through one small patch of clear sky, the first and last stars of our trip here. We get back to camp at 10 p.m.; one of our 16 specimens croaks audibly through the drybag. Good night.


The Food

1 p.m. lunch: rice, coleslaw, noodle cheese soup, chicken, fresh pineapple

We need quite a bit of sustenance to keep going through all these activities. Besides, the day’s three meals are a lovely time to gather for conversation, look at photos, consult the field guides and recharge our mental batteries.

Breakfast at the Bamboo House is an each-for-themselves affair, but mostly folks cook together: “Do you want eggs? Should I make tea?” It’s collaborative and friendly. The kitchen is small, so having only a few designated cooks at a time helps keep things running smoothly. There’s a gas stovetop, two tiny sinks, shelves of metal plates, shelves of spices, shelves of dry goods: granola, rice, cacao powder, ground coffee, peanut butter, canned tuna, powdered milk. There is no refrigerator. Ketchup and mayonnaise, highly prized, come in big plastic bags with nozzles. Hot sauce is worth its weight in gold, and David’s homemade salsa even more. Produce is kept in a screened-in cupboard so that raccoons, kinkajous and insects can’t get to it.

Each day, two women from Camarones walk up the trail to the house to make our lunch and dinner, the latter of which they leave for us to heat up later in the day. Their names are Benilda and Catarina, and they are excellent cooks. They make fish, pescado frito, that rivals any restaurant entrée, and plantain fritters, patacones, that are downright addictive. Without their effort and skills, our trip would have been worlds more difficult.

They say that cooks in Manabí, the province we’re in, make the best food in Ecuador. Based on Benilda and Catarina, I believe it.

Two women cook in the Bamboo House's kitchen
Plastic canisters of food on wooden shelves

The Challenges

6 a.m.: raining, howler monkeys, a clap of thunder.

“It’s so crazy how it’s so interconnected,” Jess muses about tropical ecology, “and we’re just scratching the surface. It makes you upset when you think about how much we’re losing.”

Coastal Ecuador has already lost a lot. This is one of the most heavily deforested places on the planet; about 96% of the forested land has been cleared. That's why Jama-Coaque Reserve exists: to protect as much of what's left as possible. “The ecological reasons behind our work are a direct result of our history of deforestation,” explains Ryan. A major driver throughout Ecuador is oil: clearing roads through the forests to get to the oil wells, then clearing more land for housing and farms along those roads, and so on.

Behind oil is money. “We’re not going to get rid of oil in Ecuador,” Shawn says pragmatically. “We’re not going to get rid of oil in Colombia or Peru. These countries can’t afford not to drill for oil.” Ryan agrees, saying: “We can buy all the land we want, but if we ignore the neighbors who surround us, they’ll keep doing whatever it takes to feed their families.”

This is as true in Ecuador as it is in Texas.

Therefore, a main theme of TMA’s work is researching and promoting sustainable forestry practices to create jobs. When people are able to make a living at the same time as caring for their natural resources, that’s a win-win situation.

leaves in the tropical rainforest
students taste roasted cacao beans

Cacao is a good example. This plant, the origin of chocolate, is native to Ecuador and grows well in deeply shaded conditions, meaning that it can be planted in the understory of existing forest rather than clearing the land to make room. In other words, it’s a forest-friendly crop. TMA is helping to preserve an almost-extinct cacao variety called Nacional, and the organization’s researchers are investigating the genetics to see if they can breed a variety that’s both high quality and highly productive — that is, competitive in the chocolate market. This is just one place where the intricate details of biology meet the even more complex details of human needs and desires.

People want chocolate. People want coffee for drinking and balsa wood for building lightweight air-turbine blades and oil for everything. People want lots of these things, as easily and cheaply as possible, which often means clearing biodiverse forests in order to plant many acres with only a single crop. This practice is known as monoculture, and it prompts habitat destruction, species loss and erosion. It’s how lots of us get what we crave, and how others afford to keep a roof over their heads. It’s a system with a lot of inertia behind it.

a student walks down a trail in the lush rainforest
Agricultural field in Ecuador

If we want to change systems like this, it’ll take effort. Since 2007, TMA has been building relationships in the town of Camarones and other nearby communities. All too often, external conservation groups have big goals that peter out when they hit the ground — grants end, grad students move on — leaving their local partners frustrated and distrustful. It’s significant that TMA has been a steady presence for 12 years now, committed to working with their community, understanding what they need and value instead of deciding for them. The organization hires local park rangers to be stewards of the reserve, and trains parabiologists — folks who don’t have a formal science education — in biology research skills. These ambassadors go on to spread the conservation message through their networks, and at regional or international conferences, in an ever-widening ripple.

David is straightforward in describing TMA’s achievements: “Conservation is complicated, and what these guys do is pretty damn amazing.”

Hosting study abroad programs is another way that TMA brings people into the ripple so that they too can amplify the wave. Once you’ve been to Jama-Coaque, the idea of losing it is devastating.

“My biggest goal,” Shawn says, “is for students to walk away with a better understanding of all the biodiversity that the planet has to offer and — probably most importantly to me — an understanding of how all of our choices impact global conservation.”


Boots set out to dry in the Bamboo House entryway

The Weather and the Mud

1:15 p.m. trail we came in on — you can hear the mud sucking at our boots.

Normally June is the tail end of the wet season — the half of Ecuador’s year when it rains a lot — but not this year. This year, there’s El Niño, and it rains nearly every day of our trip.

The temperatures here are lower than at home, and notably, although the humidity measurements are similar, the feel of it is not as bad as Texas. Maybe it’s just because the Bamboo House doesn’t afford the same distinction between “indoors” and “outdoors,” but here we don’t have that suffocating sensation of stepping into a humid Texas day. The nights get downright cool.

With more-than-average rain comes mud. There are two kinds of mud at Jama-Coaque: deep, thick, sucking mud that grabs at your feet and glues you to the ground, and thin, slick mud that makes the trail as slippery as a slide. Both are formidable. More than one tumble occurs.

At the end, when we’ve stuffed our humidity-dampened clothes back into our packs and we’re leaving Jama-Coaque and washing off our gear, the absence of mud is a shock. “I forgot what color my boots are!” quips Nina.


The End

Day 9, June 15 TRAVEL 6:15 wake up, bathroom, clothes, pack

How do you come back from a place like Jama-Coaque?

It’s easy to see how Americans like Shawn and Ryan get hooked on the tropics and make it their home. There’s too much to take in on a short trip; everything around you is too enticing to leave behind completely. Which, after all, is the goal of this program in particular and of study abroad in general. We hope that it’s transformative. We hope that students see the unique majesty of places like coastal Ecuador, see how the local communities are interconnected with their own in Central Texas, and then use that insight to make informed choices moving forward.

“This trip is preparing me for all kinds of challenges,” Bria reflected on Day 4, “even though they may not literally be challenges like traversing through the jungle. I am going to basically traverse through the jungle of all kinds of things after this master’s.”

Aren’t we all, whatever our path? Aren’t we all hiking through ups and downs, sometimes on muddy trails? Let’s try to keep the wonder as we go, the resilience and the drive to seek out knowledge about the extraordinary world that surrounds us.

Explore Further

We encourage you to learn more about conservation at the Jama-Coaque Reserve, and to take a look at how we produced this story.