7 Reasons to Go to Cambodia

When you’re thinking of travel destinations this year, why not think outside the box? A Winterline gap year offers you unique options. Stand out from the crowd and learn about a beautiful country you might not otherwise consider: Cambodia. We still have a few spots left on our 2019 Itinerary 1 gap year, and our 2020 applications will be opening soon, so get ready to visit with us!

  1. Our trip focuses on interpersonal skills and communication. Maybe you’ve been having trouble getting along with people. Maybe school’s so overwhelming that you need a reminder of the bigger purpose. Maybe you’re trying to learn more about yourself. All of these issues will be touched upon.
  2. Learn about conflict and see how it leaves a lasting mark. From the late 1960s until the 1990s, Cambodia was under the rule of the oppressive Khmer Rouge. While the regime ended long ago, its destruction has left an impact on Cambodia’s citizen today. Visiting Cambodia will teach you first-hand about a history you don’t know. It will also enforce the importance of learning to keep peace, and you’ll be able to pay homage to the country’s losses, helping them move forward.
  3. You’ll get to see the beauty of Angkor Wat, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The temple complex is the largest religious site in the world. These ancient buildings are not only breathtaking, but full of history you don’t usually learn in class.
  4. Cambodian culture is unlike any other. From the dance, to the cuisine, to the religion, Cambodia is vibrant in color and experience.  
  5. Visitors often say that Cambodians are some of the kindest people in the world. Despite a recent painful past, the people have an infectious and inspiring spirit. The best way to learn about a country is by hearing what its native people have to say. Go to Cambodia and listen to people’s stories. It’ll help you understand more about this country than you could learn from any textbook.
  6. Experience the liveliness of a Cambodian market. Various types of goods pack full bustling stalls. Shopping at one of these markets is not only exciting, but will give you a glimpse into daily life.
  7. The country is more than just its temples. Siem Reap has a diverse nightlife scene, while Phnom Penh is lauded for its cultural renaissance and world-class dining. Battambang is up-and-coming, notably for its architecture and contemporary art scenes.

Going to Cambodia means you’ll get to disconnect from the fast-pace of life. The beauty, the religion, the solemn history, and the kind people of the country will remind you what life is really about. Learning about loss and tragedy is difficult, but it’s important for moving forward. This visit to Cambodia will be both a physical and spiritual journey, as you recognize how to connect and communicate with both other people and your own self.

Vibrancy of India

Winterline students will get to spend some considerable time exploring India. And although much of India struggles with extreme overcrowding and poverty, it is a country full of incredible landmarks, religious history, and colorful culture. Gap year student visiting this spectacular country won’t have to look far to discover a vast array of new experiences.

Making Your Journey

For many travelers, the activities and landmark sites make the biggest impact. Visitors to India have plenty of sites to explore.

  • Taj Mahal — This world-famous marble palace is an architectural wonder with an intriguing back story. You could call it the LeBron James of places to visit in India.
  • Buddhist Caves of Ajanta — These caves, which date back as far as 2nd Century BC, have tremendous artistic and religious importance. Plus, they’re really beautiful.
  • Himalayas — You can’t ask for much more from a mountain range. World’s tallest peak? Got it (Mount Everest, at 29,029 feet). Glaciers? Check – the world’s third-largest quantity of snow and ice reside there. Several climates in various spots? Uh-huh. Multiple rivers? Yep.
  • Tea Gardens — Darjeeling isn’t just a variety of tea. It’s the gorgeous area of India where this type of tea actually comes from. Cool, huh?winterline, gap year, india

Eye-Opening Facts

  • With nearly 1.3 billion residents, India contains about one-sixth of the world’s total population. Only China has more people.
  • India’s Hindu calendar has 6 seasons: spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, pre-winter, and winter.
  • It’s illegal to take Indian currency (Rupees) out of India.
  • India has the world’s lowest meat consumption per person.
  • India has more mobile phones than toilets.
  • Hinduism and Buddhism both originated in India. Hinduism is the country’s most commonly practiced religion.winterline, gap year, india

Flavors of a Nation

Like its majestic mountain peaks, Indian food isn’t subtle. It’s quite straightforward with its one-of-a-kind mixture of opposing, yet somehow complementary, flavors and consistencies – sweet vs. salty, creamy vs. spicy.

Spices like turmeric and cumin — along with consistent use of flat breads, rice and lentils, depending on the region — are major components of India’s food profile. The meats of choice are fish, chicken and mutton (that’s sheep, in case you didn’t know).

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Whether you want to try new foods or dedicate your time to a social cause, you won’t run out of fascinating places to go, people to see, and cultural nuances to experience in India.

“Leave No Trace” for Traveling on Your Gap Year

We’ve given you a look at our partner NOLS.  NOLS teaches you how to relate to the natural world in the most respectful way possible. Their Leave No Trace principles are a set of guidelines that allow you to get close to nature and enjoy the things it has to teach without doing harm. They cover everything from pre-trip planning to interacting with other people on the trail.

There’s clearly a parallel between each of these guidelines and those that we would prescribe for traveling internationally. Here are a few examples:

1. Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.

Depending on where you are in the world, different laws and regulations will apply. If you’re going to Bangkok, it could be pre-entry visa requirements. If you’re in the backcountry of Wyoming, the special concern could be finding clean drinking water. Venice, maybe pickpocketing.

Knowing what you’re facing before you get there can be a huge advantage, because it allows you to adapt while you still have time and other resources. You can pack your water filter, and your hidden money pouch. You can apply for that entry visa before you miss the deadline!

2. Visit in small groups. Split larger parties into groups of 4 – 6.

Each time you visit a place, you leave an imprint. Whether that’s a physical footprint, or a complex socio-cultural impact, something happens. There is no one way interaction, where you might receive a piece of a culture and not leave a mark. And traveling in smaller groups is imperative for maintaining that balance.

We all know the groups of a hundred people walking through town, matching hats, ice cream. It’s weird. Winterline always emphasizes small group sizes, whether that’s learning with a partner, or wandering through an old European town. It leaves a smaller footprint, and it also creates a stronger sense of community within the group.

Girls Hiking NOLS

3. Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.

Whatever you bring into your campsite, you take with you. This fundamental relationship to trash, refuse, and waste, is how we approach our international travel experiences as well. At the end of every Winterline activity, you’ll probably hear a Field Advisor say, “OK let’s pick up any micro trash we see.”

The aim isn’t to be annoying. It’s to recognize and acknowledge that we are all making an impact all the time. If twenty of us leave a plastic wrapper on the floor, the world will quickly become a landfill, and that’s not what we want. We learn about marine biology because we love it. We learn about life in the slums of India because we know that humans are humans. Whether it’s marine species or humanity, our trash affects each other. The way we treat the world is how we treat ourselves. This Leave No Trace principle highlights that very important fact.

4. Preserve the past, observe but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.

Everything that humanity has built is a part of our heritage. That’s what it means to be a global citizen, to be a citizen of the world. To truly embrace this complexity is to be an inheritor of all of human history, the good and the bad, the terrible and the true.

Allowing history to be, and to coexist with the present is what allows us to transcend the limited perspectives of our own time, and thus learn. When we embrace history, observe it without damaging it, we avoid making the same mistakes of our forbears, whatever the color of their skin or the beliefs of their time.

5. Be courteous, yield to other users on the trail.

You’ll never be alone forever. At some point you’ll join others, even on the road less traveled. How you treat those people is not only a reflection on you as an individual, but all the things you represent to them. Whether that’s your nationality, your eye color, your skin color, your fresh Nike kicks, the way you allow others to express themselves and pursue the things that matter to them in those brief moments of human interaction are not forgotten.

What gets established as culture doesn’t happen in large fell swoops, mandated from on high, but in the minutiae of fleeting moments, kind gestures, bitter memories. The way we treat others inches our society towards behaving in that way.

How would you like to be treated? And to go beyond the Golden Rule — which would have you do unto others as you would have them do unto you — how would others wish to be treated? Because we’re not all the same. That’s why we travel in the first place!

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6. Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

To soak up the world, it’s best to listen. Whether that’s on the trail or in the bustling streets of Mumbai, this Leave No Trace principle bears its own weight. The sound of the birds, of the singing of water taxis and tuktuks, of your peers laughing, these are the real joys of travel.

When you leave your home, don’t leave this principle behind. No country should be proud of having a boisterous reputation. The ability to learn is founded on the ability to listen. See the world, but also listen.

A Guide to Gaming by a NOLS Alumni

Before my wilderness trek with NOLS, my idea of gaming usually involved an evening spent on the couch with a PlayStation controller in one hand and potato chips in the other. In the backcountry though, gaming takes on a whole new meaning. While hiking through the Gila National Forest with fellow Winterliners in September 2018, the usual gaming options were out of the question; yet not having a computer or board game within a 50 mile radius gave us all the more motivation to be inventive. Deprived of computers, phones, and board games, the only gaming equipment we could find were our hands, words, and the occasional funky looking stick.

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Canyoneering in the Gila National Forest with NOLS | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

“Out there things can happen – and frequently do – to people as brainy and footsy as you” (Dr. Seuss)

At the start of every day-hike, I found myself paying particular attention to the landscape around me. I was awed by the stunning landscape that surrounded us, ranging from scorched hillsides to a raging river enclosed by canyon cliffs. After a while though, I found myself focusing on the ground before me. This was in part to keep my wobbly, heavy-laden self from stumbling, but also because I had become used to my surroundings. I began to notice how the backpack chafed my hips, how the dust of the trail stung my eyes, and how each step caused my feet to ache just a little bit more.

What kept me from focusing too much on my exhausted body were the intensely competitive and wacky games that we played. Some were closely related to nature, including things like identifying bird calls, plant types, and animals, while others were more abstract, involving words games and puzzles. Instead of being tired and grumpy, I found myself immersed in each game, eagerly clashing wits with my peers.

Many of the games we played were introduced to us by our NOLS instructors, who have amassed a collection of games over countless wilderness expeditions. Each of our instructors had their own favorites; some of which are simple and intuitive, while others are… well let’s just say: a little strange.

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What in the world has six letters and starts with ae??? | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

A voice crying out in the wild

One game called “Ichi-Mini-Hoy” – allegedly introduced by a Japanese NOLS instructor – was a particular highlight. Essentially, Ichi-Mini-Hoy consists of two teams walking around a self-designed baseball field. Each team sends out one player from their home base to circle the field from a direction opposite to the other team. Whenever two players meet, they face off in a fierce rock-paper-scissors duel, and whoever loses has to return to home base and start over. 1 point is scored whenever a team member makes it all the way around the field. Sounds pretty normal doesn’t it? Here’s the catch though: every player was required to keep their knees together and squawk like a wild bird.

Any onlooker would have doubtlessly questioned our sanity. Luckily for us, we were miles away from any sign of civilization, so the only confused onlookers may have been actual birds, squirrels, and the occasional deer.

Will you look at that… another tree

After spending days in the wild, I expected my standards for what qualifies as entertainment to change drastically. I thought that soon enough, I would be seeking out funny looking rocks or start poking cacti with sticks as a pastime.

Contrary to my gloomy expectations, the games I played with the Winterline crew only increased in complexity as the hike progressed. Within a few days we had mastered intricate word games and storytelling challenges – many of which could be played on the move.

How Spongebob died choking on a crouton in Hogwarts

The without a doubt favorite game of my hiking trek was a pantomiming challenge called “Murph”. The rules are deceptively simple: all you need is one volunteer to walk out of earshot until another group has decided on three things:

1)        a person

2)        a place, and

3)        a cause of death.

After this, a second volunteer who knows these three things must convey them to the first volunteer using only the word “Murph” and hand gestures. The wild pantomiming that follows produces some of the most hilarious misunderstandings I have ever seen.

In my very first game I had to try to understand the following from a person waving madly and hysterically crying “Murph!”.

1)        SpongeBob died in

2)        Hogwarts while

3)        choking on a crouton

Playing Murph around the flickering light of a campfire after a long day of hiking was a great way to ease tension and relax.

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Campfire shenanigans | Photo By: Benjamin Kilimnik

The Murph Effect

The games we played had a more profound effect on group interactions during my hiking expedition than I initially realized. Not only did they lighten the mood, but they also helped us process the inconveniences and struggles of living in the wild. They offered us something to focus our attention on, keeping our minds off our unshowered selves and aching muscles. This, in turn, reduced group grumpiness and helped bring us closer to together. Instead of simply being a way to pass the time, the games and puzzles shaped my overall hiking experience and helped me bond with fellow hikers.

It is refreshing to realize that you really don’t need electronics, board games, or even cards to play a game. Even though we may not realize it today, the human mind is more than capable of finding entertainment without these things. In the backcountry, all you need is another person and a little bit of creativity – the rest creates itself. In the end, gaming is really about clashing wits with another person, and having fun along the way.

Not Your Ordinary Circus

Throughout my time as a Winterline Field Advisor and living in Cambodia for a couple years, taking students to the Phare Circus was one of my favorite parts of any program I’ve ever led. The shows are exciting, funny, insightful, artistic, interactive, even stress-inducing with some of their tricks! Even if you’ve seen the same show multiple times (I’ve been there too many times to count!), it doesn’t get old.

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But there’s a little more to these performances and this skill set than what meets the eye. First of all, I’m sure when many of us read the word ‘circus’, we think of animals dressed up doing tricks through flaming rings, sequins and feather headdresses worn by women riding elephants, acrobats being whipped through the air at the top of a huge circular tent. Maybe we think of movies we’ve seen, like Dumbo, or The Greatest Showman, or even remember the Ringling Brothers. The smell and taste of peanuts and popcorn. The unease of clowns riding unicycles. A lead showman dressed to the nines.

At Phare Circus, there are no animals, only humans using their bodies to create incredible performances. There are costumes and props, but nothing like what you might imagine for a circus or something like Cirque du Soleil (but there is a tent and popcorn!).

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Circus tricks | Photo By: Abby Dulin

This isn’t your typical circus, with an even less than typical start. What you don’t see is that The Phare Circus supports at-risk Cambodian populations by training them for a specific skill, thus creating an avenue for a more successful future. Once someone has made it to the circus as a performer, musician, light production member, or artist, that’s the outcome. The last step. They’ve truly made it out of poverty and into a comfortable livelihood.

In the province of Battambang, Cambodia, you’ll find Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school for training in professional arts including illustration, painting, theater, music, animation, graphic design, dance, and circus. Founded in 1994, at risk youth are trained at this school entirely free of charge, as well as given free general education (K-12) and social support before moving on to the circus or creative studio. Currently, the school supports around 1,200 children, as well as their families.

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Winterline students at circus school | Photo By: Abby Dulin

Each performance at the circus is a story of Cambodian culture, having to do with myths, legends, actual historical events, or even modern-day society. You’ll see gripping nightmarish reenactments from a child’s mind during their traumatic experience living through the Khmer Rouge Era. You’ll see hilarious comparisons between Khmer culture and foreigners as tourism continues to grow and the cultural differences intermix.

And those are just the story lines.

Shows are filled with incredible stunts, tricks, art, dance, and interactive moments with the crowd. Before and after the show, the audience makes their way through a gift shop, filled with goods handcrafted by those that went the route of creative studio instead of circus performing. Each item sold in the gift shop or created during one of the performances raises profits to support the NGO school as well as the performers and artists.

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Circus tricks | Photo By: Will Vesey

The circus and skill training for our students is located in Siem Reap and is a favorite skill day. It’s a skill where students can let go and simply try everything that’s thrown at them. Learning to juggle, learning to flip properly, how to make standing human pyramids and balance other bodies with yours. It’s not so much a specific skill you learn so much as it is learning more about yourself; what you’re good at, what you’re willing to try, and how to trust your body to perform a certain way. It’s also a great opportunity for our students to get their bodies moving as our Asia trimester spends a considerable amount of time in big cities after an outdoors-filled first trimester!

To learn more about the Phare circus and their efforts, please visit https://pharecircus.org/ to check out their different shows and how to reserve your own tickets if you’re planning to visit Cambodia. For the Phare Ponleu Selpak school and social enterprise efforts, visit https://www.pharepse.org/ and consider supporting this fabulous NGO.

In Khmer language, the name Phare Ponleu Selpak means, “The Brightness of the Arts”.

The Dawn of India

In March of 2019, our Winterline squads spent a month traveling through Western India. During this time, each of us had the chance to choose our own adventure by embarking on an Independent Student Project. Destinations included an Ashram, an Ayurvedic healing center, a farm, and a dance studio.

Be it thoughts, mental images, or sensations, each of us has unique memories of our time living in India. In my case, the sound of the ancient Sanskrit chants played during meditation still ricochet in my head.

In order to showcase our varied perspectives and experiences, I asked my fellow squad members to engage in a bit of self-reflection.

What is your favorite memory from India?

“It was the last day of the Art of Living ISP, where we took a course on how to make your life happier and more fulfilling. We were in an Ashram which is a sort of remote sanctuary where people can go out to connect with nature and meditate. Great vibes had been flowing the whole week and it all culminated after the last meditation session. We were instructed to close our eyes and “let the music flow through you.” Then this funky Indian music comes on. I felt self-conscious at first but we all got into a groove soon enough. It felt incredible to be in the moment and just dance my own dance.” – Sam

“My favorite memory from India was the wild banter that would occur during my time at the Art of Living ashram, particularly at lunch time. We had a cook named Ganesh that would feed us way too much and would continue to put food on our plate no matter how much we pleaded. He didn’t speak very much English but he somehow managed to tease and mess with us purely with gestures and his emotions.” – Caedon

“My favorite memory from India is Red Stone. Red Stone was the location for my self-care project. The food we ate was amazing and the owners of the farm and meditation center were so open and friendly. In the mornings, we practiced yoga and in the afternoons we would learn about sustainable living and meditation.” Tyler

“My favorite memory was the hilarious meals we had during my ISP week at an ashram with 5 other members of my squad. One of the kitchen staff called Ganesh loved to serve us food and would pile on a new portion every time we finished eating despite our protests, to the extent that some of us got 5 servings because he wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was the greatest show of hospitality and friendship that we could have received because it overcame the language barrier between us, and it gave us a sense of belonging within that community.” – Yeukai

The Ashram Crew | Photo by: Suryatej

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

“We spent five days learning about a very specific type of meditation, called pranayama. We would spend multiple portions of the day practicing breathing exercises, as well as beginning to train our mind and enter a calm state of relaxation. I was able to get into this so called meditative state, and it was quite incredible. With time I hope to be in full control of my focus and state of mind.” – Caedon

“I am most proud of my dedication to yoga and meditation during my stay at Red Stone.” – Tyler

“I’m proud of how my group and I woke up early every morning and continued to practice the breathing techniques and meditation skills we learned at the Ashram for over a week after leaving the ashram. It was hard to keep up with it afterwards because of the busy Winterline schedule, but we all want to take what we’ve learned back with us when we go home.” – Yeukai

“I’m proud of myself for experimenting with new cuisines. I tried a different Indian dish almost every day I was there and I don’t think I ever had an absolutely terrible meal.” – Sam

Moo! | Photo by: Suryatej

What was most challenging for you?

“We had to wake up at the crack of dawn every morning and practice the breathing exercises. There was a particular way you had to kneel (vajrasana) that made the three stages of pranayama extremely painful. Luckily I found that putting a pillow underneath my shins quickly resolved my dilemma.” – Caedon

“The biggest challenge for me was not speaking the language. Though many people do speak English in the cities, when we got to more rural destinations few people could communicate in English.” – Tyler

“Having to travel in small groups constantly because of the safety risk to females in India was challenging, because it took away from my independence and ability to be spontaneous.” – Yeukai

“Adjusting to and accepting a totally different way of life in the ashram was more challenging than I expected. Especially when we met an ayurvedic doctor. I remember walking into his hut and seeing this stout man sitting there. He read our pulses and told me that my air and fire elements were agitated, and that because of this I would soon lose all of my hair. It was so strange to experience coming from a western culture where medicine is based more on science.” – Sam

Boat trip with our Art of Living course instructor | Photo by: Suryatej

If you were to sum up your experiences in India with a single word or phrase, what would it be?

“Enriching” – Caedon

“Peace” – Tyler

“Inspiring and introspective”Yeukai

“Exotic” – Sam

Panama: The Bridge Between Two Continents (mostly) and the Connector of Oceans

It’s an extremely humbling thing to take control of your life by completely letting go of the details. We didn’t know each other three months ago. We didn’t have any idea how we would get from place to place. We didn’t know the foods we would put in our bodies or the people we would meet, but everyone in the Winterline program had at least one thing in common.

We want adventure. Actually, let’s rephrase that… we crave adventure. We need something in our lives that can completely change the direction of the paths we will take in our futures. Whether it was climbing a mountain in the tiniest community with no air conditioning, partying in Panama City for days on end, or just relaxing at the beach with a couple (but just a couple) margaritas on a rest day, we kept chasing after each day for new experiences. We valued our nights just as much as the days, either too excited for the next day to fall asleep or passing out, exhausted, in one of our many different beds. Sometimes it felt like we haven’t slept in years because of how hard we tried to learn about the new communities and cultures. After living in Panama for about a month with my best friends, I can confidently say that we found a consuming adventure, which marks the beginning of our expedition traveling the world with one another, through Winterline.  

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First, we traveled to the Panama Canal to learn the history of the beautiful country we were living in. We went through a museum of the canal’s building process and watched a documentary on its purpose.. After exploring the area for a bit, we were informed there was a ship passing through and had the opportunity to watch the locks in action as we enjoyed the wonderful weather and sipped on iced coffee. Pictured above is our field advisor, Jeff, watching how the water levels rose and fell while delivering the cargo ship on its way into the Pacific.

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El Cocal marks our first home. We were briefed shortly on the special drinking water and lack of service and air conditioning. After embarking on what felt like a lifetime of driving, we found our homes in this tiny, relatively unknown community. In pairs, we were welcomed into homes of community members for our home-stays and given a quick tour of the area. I walked 15 minutes every day to get to the meeting area for work and food. We interviewed locals, played futbol with the teenagers, and we even climbed a mountain. We spent nine days here and it was the best way to commence our travels of Panama. Pictured above are the children of El Cocal, who welcomed us into their homes with a traditional dance ceremony.

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At the end of our stay in El Cocal, we were reunited with Squad 2 for an educational experience at the farms outside the town. Here, we took a tour around the sugar cane farms, learned to squeeze juices with old fashioned machinery, and learned about natural building. The picture above shows us preparing the mud to build up the walls. To do so, we jumped around in the mud and slowly added straw to help strengthen the house. Everyone working with us was extremely excited to teach us very knowledgeable about their town’s history.

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Taking to the water, we jumped in some kayaks to paddle our way out to the Caribbean Sea. After a brief instruction, we made our way to the historic area of Portablo, Colon and learned about how pirates attacked the port during the Spanish Empire. When we were still, we could hear howling monkeys throughout the jungle and feel the sun shining down on us on from the clearest blue sky. We finished our journey on foot through the trees to the battle ground,where we could see the ocean go on forever into the horizon. Pictured above are Josie and Becky taking a little break on our very physically demanding, but rewarding, trip.

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Next, we headed inside to learn about creation with our hands and were introduced to the educational work of the FABLABS. They showed us how 3D printers worked, how to use heavy machinery, and told us to use our imaginations to build anything we could think of. Pictured above is our friend, Katie, learning how difficult it is to cut a straight line with a hand tool. This was a great way of being introduced to wood work and getting a taste of how hands-on we can be, whether we want to make a simple keychain or build furniture for our home.

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After our day in the FABLAB, we put our skills to the test as we built house 2.0 which is the idea of building houses with reused materials for a very low price. This project started in efforts to end homelessness around the world. We bolted together large pieces of wood that we had cut out in the labs and spend hours in the heat working on. Becky and Josie were nothing but smiles as they held up the large beams while others inserted g the foundation pieces to keep our house up! We learned so much about teamwork and communication as we put up this house.

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In the streets of Panama City (literally), we teamed up with an urban innovation team to try out an idea we had. After noticing how busy the streets were around a preschool, we realized there were no crosswalks, no signs, and no speed bumps. We wanted to improve the safety for children seeking an education, so we grabbed some paint brushes and tape to create a combination of the three missing features.. We themed four streets of the sea to remind drivers of the school across the street and to keep kids from wandering too far from the sidewalks. Above are the whales we designed being painted by our friends of Squad 2, while others worked on bubbles, starfish, and sharks. We wanted to bring attention and awareness to the fact that this was an area where young kids were learning and we did just that with the bright colored paints and designs of the cities newest crosswalks!

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Across the street from our crosswalks, we found ourselves in a small bakery known for their Venezuelan empanadas. We were taught how they were originally made, how they are made now, and how they are different from traditional Panamanian empanadas. We took turns making our own personal empanadas filled with our choice of beef, chicken, fish, and, in my case, cheese and beans (plenty of great vegetarian options in Central America). Pictured above is Jason demonstrating his new skill of shaping dough before it’s filled and fried to perfection. After trying all of their specialty condiments and eating way too many empanadas, we left the bakery feeling even more connected to the community of Panama City through food.

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After a long days work, we did one of our favorite things: pile into one of our tiny rooms and listen to the stories we all had to share. Coming from all different places, New York City to Colombia, California to Kansas, we loved hearing about where each other came from. After spending every day and night together for weeks, it truly felt like I had known my squad for years, yet I still am learning new things about everyone every day. Fitting so many people into our small but comfortable living spaces sometimes lead to us being way too loud for the hostel and having to hang out outside, but we all loved staying up all night just talking to each other. Hostel Amador was the perfect place for getting to know each other while watching movies, playing ping pong and playing with our pet goat, Luna. (Our friend, Brogan, really loved that goat).

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Another interesting workshop we did was stopping by a famous Panamanian rum distillery. Here, we sampled the beer and rum they made and walked through the ways different drinks were created. We toured the machinery, which had many different processes of creating various alcohol flavors. Pictured above is our field advisor, Jeff, explaining to Tyler how the rum is transported through pipes from machine to machine.

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Sneaking away to Casco Viejo, Lydia and I enjoyed one of the most amazing helpings of Carbonara we had ever had. The food culture of Panama was something we all enjoyed and deepened our appreciation for the new and inviting places we traveled to. Some of our favorites (besides the endless supply of carbonara) were rice and beans (of course), empanadas, the pizzas and (veggie) burgers delivered by Uber drivers at all hours of the night, the Colombian crepes, delicious coffee, gyros, and anything from Cafe Niko’s.

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We stayed in many places in our travels around Panama, from hotels and hostels, to home-stays, and even our transport bus with Eduardo, driving from city to city on the scariest roads with the most intense drivers I have ever experienced. We never stayed in the same place for more than two weeks but somehow we were accepted in every community with open arms. Everyone showed patience with our horrible (but improving) Spanish and our loud nights that kept everyone awake. We enjoyed time with the locals who made us way more food than we could eat and taught us about the most important values of their culture – family. That’s how Panama impacted me in ways I will never forget. My family. I started this 9-month long adventure as an individual with thirty-one other young travelers and five loving field advisors and somewhere along the way we went from strangers to family. We take care of each other, we have fun together, we sometimes cry and get upset but I know they always have my back. The fifteen amazing people in my squad showed me the importance of living fully and completely but will never let me forget where we all began.


Somewhere in Panama, we found a home. This home wasn’t just in the city or in El Cocal or any one specific place. It was carrying all of our stuff on our backs, in the rain and scorching heat, together, as a group. My family is my home and that is how Panama is still with us, forever.

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Location Spotlight: Rancho Mastatal

Last year, we gave you a look into our Costa Rican partner Rancho Mastatal, but we thought it was time for an update! 

At Rancho Mastatal, our students learn about permaculture and immerse themselves in a community that cares deeply about environmental sustainability. By doing so, students learn how to live in balance with the environment, making the most of what nature provides us without causing harm to our ecosystem. This includes cultivating natural building and food production skills, as well as learning about soil ecology and fertility.

Rancho Mastatal takes pride in their focus on natural building, which emphasizes the use of local labor and resources. These materials include wood, sourced from the region and sometimes directly from their property, earth, straw and natural grasses, bamboo, stone and rock, and manure. All of these resources are found in abundance and are not just strong, but renewable and sustainable. Students also get to learn the proper techniques to use each of these materials, which they put to test by building on their own!

Working with wood | Photo By: Maria O’Neal
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Working with wood | Photo By: Maria O’Neal
winterline, global skills, gap year
Building at Rancho Mastatal | Photo By: Maria O’Neal

Another main focus at Rancho Mastatal is hand preparing meals from whole foods that are locally or regionally sourced. For many students, this is a far cry from the processed and prepackaged foods that are so prominent in America. At Rancho Mastatal, students develop an appreciation for every step of the food preparation process, from gathering ingredients all the way to eating the final product. For example, our students get to make and enjoy their very own chocolate!

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Yeukai showing off her handmade chocolate | Photo By: Emma Mays
winterline, global skills, gap year
Paris squeezing limes | Photo By: Emma Mays
winterline, global skills, gap year
Grinding beans | Photo By: Emma Mays
winterline, global skills, gap year
Starting the food prep | Photo By: Emma Mays
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Chocolate time! | Photo By: Emma Mays

Finally, students get a lesson in permaculture, which is the practice of sustainable land use design. This involves planting in patterns that occur naturally to maximize efficiency and minimize labor and waste. Permaculture allows us to reach the desired level of harmony between man and nature, making it a win-win situation for all sides!

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Planting at Rancho Mastatal | Photo By: Emma Mays
Winterline, global skills, gap year
Planting at Rancho Mastatal | Photo By: Maria O’Neal
winterline, global skills, gap year
Planting at Rancho Mastatal | Photo By: Maria O’Neal

Interested in learning more about Rancho Mastatal? Check out their website or join us when we head back next year for the 2019-2020 gap year!

Location Spotlight: Triangle Y Ranch Camp

We are so excited to kick off our gap year program at the Triangle Y Ranch Camp. During their stay in Arizona, our students will participate in group discussion, games, team building activities, and Winterline rules/guidelines to strengthen their bond before they embark on the rest of their 9-month journey.

This specific YMCA retreat center has a unique history. The site was formerly a mining community, for mostly gold and copper, and was right next-door to Buffalo Bill’s ranch. Mrs. Woods, a local children’s author, inherited the camp in 1949. Her sons were passionate about the outdoors, so she donated the site to the YMCA, and it quickly became an all-boys camp. The Triangle Y Ranch Camp is now co-ed and also offers opportunities for underprivileged kids in the area.

Triangle Y Ranch Camp
Photo From: Triangle Y Ranch Camp

The ranch camp sits on 200 acres of land at 4,600 feet of elevation in the high desert of Tucson. There are many natural wonders to discover there; many guests and staff have seen deer, coyotes, and bobcats on the property! Not to mention the beautiful views that come with the high desert scenery.

There are also plenty of fun activities for our Winterline students to take part in during their free time. Archery, riflery, zip lining, a climbing wall, high ropes course, and swimming pool are amongst some of the options.  Guided trips to local caves are also offered!

What an amazing place to meet and get to know our new students! We cannot wait! See you in September 🙂

Location Spotlight: NOLS Southwest

In the past, Winterline has done backpacking trips with NOLS in Colorado and Wyoming. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these areas, it gets cold in the fall. We are excited that our students will get the chance to hike in a warmer climate; the Southwest of the United States.

Our students will travel from the Sonoran desert in Tucson to the Gila National Forrest of New Mexico (approx. 5-hour drive), where they will begin their backpacking trip with their peers and NOLS instructors. This is a mountainous area with elevations ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet and plentiful with Ponderosa pine trees, beautiful plateaus and mesas, and 1,000-year old ruins.

During the trip, students and their leaders will hike on trail, but there will be some opportunities to walk off trail. One benefit of our Southwest NOLS trip is that the weather is more stable than other mountainous areas in the U.S.. This will allow more time for skill building, an emphasis on learning, and is also a great benefit to this shorter backpacking course. Of course, weather is unpredictable so we cannot promise that it’ll be great, but the weather should be better than years’ past.

Students will learn a variety of skills, such as camping, living in the backcountry, self-care in the outdoors, cooking, and navigation. NOLS also has a strong leadership curriculum, and this will be highly emphasized throughout the NOLS trip, as well as the duration of Winterline. As a former NOLS student, the leadership skills and learning opportunities were one of the highlights for me. NOLS really enables students to learn more about themselves and because it takes place in the beginning of the gap year, students are able to develop a sense of community together.

In the words of Ben Venter, Senior Field Instructor for NOLS, “the community that is developed on a NOLS course allows and encourages people to be better versions of themselves and that can then be applied to all realms of their lives… We are constantly thinking of how to make more positive experiences for our students.”

NOLS has plenty of opportunities for both teens and adults, including programs that offer college and continuing education credits. Check it out for yourself!

Chef Up: Cooking with Winterline!

The American chef, David Chang, once said, “Food, to me, is always about cooking and eating with those you love and care for.” I began to deeply understand his words after my year with Winterline, and especially while reflecting on one of my favorite skills on the program; cooking.

I’ve always loved to bake and cook at home for myself and my family, but I had never taken any professional cooking classes. Throughout my year with Winterline, I was exposed to an array of culturally diverse cuisine with the opportunity to learn how to make some incredible dishes. We had some amazing partner organizations, but I was most impressed with the cooking schools we worked with while I was on Winterline. I further discovered my love and passion for cooking this year, and found the beauty in creating and sharing meals with my closest friends.

The first partner that introduced our group to cooking was actually not a cooking school. NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) was our first official partner with Winterline. We did an 8-day backpacking trip in the Wind River Range of Wyoming and learned a lot about a lot, specifically in the outdoors. We each were split up into small cook groups and had to ration our food before the expedition. By the end of our trip, I was amazed by how delicious our meals were each day, especially considering we only used dry ingredients and a small, propane-powered stove. For breakfast, we had eggs and sausage, chocolate chip and cranberry pancakes, and even brownies one morning! And for dinner, we made quesadillas, pasta, pizza, and even a quinoa-based dish with Salmon! We ate like kings during NOLS, to say the least. After my positive experience with cooking in the backcountry, I was hooked. I wanted to cook as much as possible throughout the rest of Winterline, and I did.

My cook group, Leela and Patrick, “cheffing up” some dinner… I believe this was Pasta night!

Although our first “official” cooking partner wasn’t until second trimester, I had plenty of opportunities to cook in Central America. Most of our accommodations in Belize and Costa Rica had kitchens. When we stayed at Rancho Mastatal, I assisted in the kitchen and even helped cook dinner with my homestay family there. And during my ISP in Costa Rica, I learned how to make corn tortillas from scratch, all in Spanish! If it’s something you’re interested in learning more about, I’d encourage you to find out-of-the-box ways to cook during the first trimester.

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Learning to make home-made/hand-made corn tortillas in cooking class! (It’s much harder than it looks)

When we were in Cambodia, we spent a couple days at École d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule, a hospitality and culinary school located in Siem Reap. We went through a series of learning about techniques and various meals. We then made our own savory dishes, desserts, and baked goods. By the end of each day, we had lots of amazing food to try. I particularly liked that there were full-time students on the campus, so we had the chance to ask them questions about their experience. After we learned our skills at Paul Dubrule, we took it upon ourselves to create and serve a 3-course meal, plus cocktails and dessert, at our hotel. Winterline rented the hotel kitchen and bar for us that night and we put on quite a show for our guests, the other Winterline cohort. We made Asian-inspired courses, and I had the enjoyment of being a chef that night! It was a great (and tasty) way to celebrate our successful week.

From left to right: Alice Hart, Anna Nickerson, Alex Messitidis, at the Paul Debrule school in Cambodia.

When we were in Bangkok, Thailand, we also took cooking classes at Bai Pai Thai Cooking School. This was one of my favorite partner organizations all year! The class was really hands-on and we made a 4-course meal (including a delicious dessert). The courses were all traditional Thai food, and creative dishes. They even gave us individual recipe books to take home, and I’ve put it to good use already!

Our amazing instructors at BaiPai!

The Pad Thai I made! This was difficult to pull off…

For my Independent Study Project, I went to Paris to take French cooking classes. Although none of the other Winterline students did this with me, it’s something I felt worth including in this post. It was a significant and meaningful way to come to an end of my year with Winterline. I built upon cooking skills that I had acquired earlier in the year, and I shared my meals with total strangers who I grew to become friends with.

Putting my piping skills to the test with this white chocolate mousse in my French cooking class.

I discovered the beauty in creating and sharing a meal with someone, or many people, this year. I found my passion and interest for cooking, and I was able to share my passion with so many of my close friends during the year. We coined the term, “chef up” as slang for “cooking.” Some of my fondest memories from Winterline involve creating and or sharing a meal with the group. It’s a very special part of the Winterline experience, and I hope some of you reading this can find your own ways to “chef up” during your gap year.

Location Spotlight: Monteverde, Costa Rica

Near the end of trimester one, our students spent an exciting two weeks in the beautiful town of Monteverde. To keep you engaged with our students’ journey, we’re giving you an in-depth look of the town.

Monteverde is known for its high altitude of 4,662 ft (1,440 m) above sea level, which places it directly in the clouds. Thanks to these clouds and the moisture they provide, the town has an incredible amount of biodiversity. This variety of species makes the town a big spot for ecotourism, and a great place to visit or study.

The community of Monteverde itself began when four pacifist Quakers from Alabama sought to find a place to embrace peace and cultivate their dairy farms. In 1950, some of the Quaker families moved to Costa Rica. Then, they began to establish Monteverde with some of the area natives. Today, Monteverde has about 7,000 permanent residents. The town is also home to environmental organizations, the Monteverde Conservation League and the Monteverde Institute, where our students are lucky enough to study.

Costa Rica Rainbow
Costa Rica Rainbow | Photo By: Our Field Advisor, Sarah

The Monteverde Institute was founded with the vision to build “a sustainable community for a sustainable world”. The Institute brings attention to, and attempts to find solutions for, local issues affecting the community. All food comes from local sources, and the facilities are environmentally efficient. They achieve this status by collecting rainwater, using biodegradable cleaning supplies, recycling, and using passive solar energy and natural lighting.

In addition to giving back to the environment, the Institute gives back to the people of it’s community. Our students participate in homestays through the Monteverde Institute! Families who host don’t just receive compensation. They are also able to participate in programs and classes specifically geared toward them, such as a sustainability and energy audit.

Winterline Homestay
Natanielle coloring with the kids at her homestay | Photo By: Alex Messitidis

Alex Messitidis
Making new friends in Costa Rica at homestays. | Photo By: Alex Messitidis

During their homestays, our students complete an Independent Study Project (ISP). Each person gets to pick a study focus, and some of the options are truly unique. For example, some of our students get to process coffee, all the way from farming to brewing. Others paint their own batiks, creating a cloth that expresses their individuality. Others still participate in tree climbing, a home bakery business, or upcycle discarded materials like tires to create new products. Spanish conversation and foot reflexology are also two popular options.

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Ingrid’s Bakery, one of our Independent Study Locations | Photo By: Alex Messitidis

The rest of the ISP programs include making handcrafted paper, woodworking, mapping, working in aqueducts, tropical farming, horsemanship, dairy farming, natural building, and bird tracking. With all these options, each student is sure to find something new that they love. In fact, it’s probab;y hard to pick just one!

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Charlie making a silk batik while at his independent study | Photo From: Charlie Dickey

Baking
Students baking for their independent study project | Photo By: Alex Messitidis

Monteverde is full of incredible opportunities not just for our students, but for visitors of all kinds. Whether you’re after ecological learning or cultural immersion, this breathtaking town is sure to draw you in. 

Location Spotlight: Rancho Mastatal

Both of our Gap Year cohorts are currently in Costa Rica, and they’ve just finished up their time at the one-of-a-kind farm within a rainforest, Rancho Mastatal. While there, our students worked with the community to learn how to live sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint.

Climate change is real and it’s happening now. The way we live impacts the Earth, and that means we have the power to decide how much of an effect we have. We hope that the visit to Rancho Mastatal teaches our students not only to be kinder to the earth, but to each other as well.

Rancho Mastatal
Sam and Savannah | Photo By: Meagan Kindrat

Rancho Mastatal cares a lot about the people around them. They source their food and building materials locally and “support regional efforts for clean water, healthy food, fertile agricultural land, and safe, naturally constructed buildings”, according to their mission. This focus on community resilience is a lesson students can apply to both home and wherever they travel. While there, the students bunk in communal living, teaching them patience, practice, and balance. Learning to live peacefully and share resources with others is a skill that will go far for students. It’ll come in handy when they get to college and have roommates!

Rancho Mastatal Living
Rancho Mastatal Living

Of course, our students learn a lot about the environment at Rancho Mastatal. A sustainability lesson shows how climate change affects the area of Mastatal. Individuals also learn how they can change their habits to prevent further damage. Students learn about permaculture, a way of agriculture that mimics the patterns and relationships found in nature. This method allows for the reuse of outputs as inputs, minimizes work, and restores environments. Learning permaculture gives students the tools to be ethical and responsible consumers. This means producing their own food when possible or choosing wisely when they shop.

Dini and Samir getting their hands dirty. | Photo By: Rancho Mastatal

To further protect the environment and its species, Rancho Mastatal created its own wildlife refuge, consisting of an amazing 200 acres of land. Rainforests contain an enormous variety of species, and this area is no exception. Refuge areas like this one are integral to preserving the livelihood of the plant and animal species who call the rainforest home.

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Whitaker and Sam making juice. | Photo By: Patrick Galvin

Natural building is also a huge focus here. This means building with native and unprocessed materials: wood, earth, straw, natural grasses, bamboo, stone and rocks, and manure. Students learn the different techniques used to build with these materials, like timber frame construction or lime and earthen plasters. You can take a look at some of the infrastructure built with these methods and materials. Not only are building materials natural, but so is the energy use. Rancho Mastatal uses solar energy for power, hot water, and cooking. The ranch also uses biogas, rocket stoves, composting toilets, and wonderbags and hayboxes which minimize fuel use when cooking. Food is sourced locally and prepared by hand without the use of tools like microwaves. The goals at Rancho Mastatal are to make meals cost-efficient, nutritional, and sustainable.

Elaine
Elaine learning woodworking by handcrafting a spoon | Photo By: Patrick Galvin

Our students learn a wealth of information about living green. Simultaneously, they get to help the the residents – human, plant, and animal – in Costa Rica. Every day is something different, and no experience here is replicable anywhere else. Rancho Mastatal is truly a one-of-a-kind adventure.

For more information about Rancho Mastatal, be sure to check out our Rainforest Living Short Program and Rancho’s Website.

Location Spotlight: Ridge to Reef Expeditions, Belize

Both of our groups have been basking in the beauty of tropical Belize, where they’ve had the opportunity to work with our partner Ridge to Reef Expeditions. Ridge to Reef, or R2R, was founded in 2014 by the non-profit organization Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) to manage protected areas.

Photo By: Christian Lillie
Photo By: Christian Lillie

R2R focuses on environmental awareness, using natural resources, and sustainable economic development. These are three skills that our students comprehend and demonstrate everywhere they go. The program is structured specifically for volunteers, making it a great fit with Winterline.

One of the main concerns in Belize was the decline of manatee populations due to hunting and gill netting. R2R continues to work on protecting vulnerable and endangered species today. TIDE reported that a recent study showed 10% of manatee sightings were calves, meaning there’s strong reproductive activity. This shows how the hard work of researchers, scientists, and volunteers is paying off!

Photo By: Ridge to Reef
Photo By: Ridge to Reef

Our students work alongside these experts to learn about the interconnectedness of forests, rivers, and reefs in the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor. This is where the name Ridge to Reef comes from – the holistic focus on protecting the entirety of the ecosystem.

As important as the conservation work is, volunteers also get the weekends to relax and explore. Students get to explore the temples, learn to make (and taste) chocolate, swim in waterfalls, and zipline through the jungle. There’s never a dull moment in Belize!

Photo By: Meagan Kindrat

Check out the R2R website to learn more, read testimonials, see beautiful pictures, and find a trip for yourself!

Location Spotlight: NOLS

Last week, we highlighted the YMCA of the Rockies for you. Now, our groups have moved on to Lander, Wyoming, where they spend 11 days with our partner NOLS: the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Meagan Kindrat NOLS

Photos by: Meagan Kindrat

NOLS was founded in Sinks Canyon, Wyoming in 1965 by Paul Petzoldt, whose dream was to train leaders who could live sustainably in the wilderness and pass on their knowledge to others.

This leadership theme is still prominent. Today, NOLS prides itself on teaching the core curriculum of leadership, wilderness skills, risk management, and environmental studies. Just a few of the things our students learn include how to sleep outside and stay warm, cooking over a single burner stove, navigation, and bonding under adversity, all led by the highly qualified instructors.

Of course, another perk of NOLS is the breathtaking location. Wyoming is proof that beauty is everywhere in nature; you don’t need to be on a beach to get a great view.

Meagan Kindrat NOLS

The beautiful mountains of the Northwest.

Meagan Kindrat NOLS

Snow already? Not so unusual for Wyoming.

Blue Cohort goofing around in some free time.

Meagan Kindrat NOLS

NOLS teaches our students how to stay safe in the woods when the sun goes down.

 

NOLS has plenty of opportunities for both teens and adults, including programs that offer college and continuing education credits. Check it out for yourself!

 

 

*all photos by Meagan Kindrat

Location Spotlight: Estes Park, Colorado

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Blue Cohort having fun at Orientation | Photo by: Dini Vermaat

Our Gap Year program kicks off with orientation at YMCA of the Rockies located in Estes Park, Colorado. We begin our adventure by introducing students to Winterline while laying the foundation for the rest of the year.

It’s amazing that we get to learn and play in such a beautiful place. Surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, YMCA of the Rockies offers an environment inspired by nature where friends and family can grow closer together while enjoying the natural beauty of the world around them. During their stay in Estes Park our students participate in group discussion, games, and team building activities to strengthen their bond before they embark on their 9 month trip.

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Green Cohort playing morning games

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Anna and Lex during team-building

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Green cohort working as a team

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Elk hanging out at YMCA of the Rockies

 

Do you want to learn more about Estes Park and YMCA of the Rockies?
Check out our fast facts listed below.

  • YMCA of the Rockies has more than 860 acres of Colorado beauty.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park are home to around 3,000 elk.
  • The national park covers 415 square miles of wildflowers and mountain views.
  • The town of Estes Park is one of the highest-rated family destinations in the United States.
  • While staying at the YMCA our students have the opportunity to hike, roller skate, do yoga, observe wildlife, build campfires, and play miniature golf and other outdoor sports.
  • There are over 300 miles of trails to be hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Elk, big horn sheep, marmots, squeaking pikas, and the iridescent broad-tailed hummingbird all find their home in Estes Park.
  • The national park is great for climbing with peaks ranging from 12,000-14,000 feet above sea level.
  • YMCA of the Rockies sits at an elevation of 8,010 feet.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park has more than 265,000 of acres ready to be explored.