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Ecuador: Reading Grass Paramo – The High Andes Underfoot

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Course Location:
Program Dates:
Spring 2018
Travel Dates: 3/9/2018 - 3/18/2018
3 Credits
Stuart White
The program fee is $766. Airfare is additional. Tuition is included in your spring course load, unless you register for more than 18 credits. Students are responsible for obtaining the appropriate vaccinations, including any associated costs. At the time you are admitted, you will be required to submit a $500 non-refundable deposit.
Students should have taken at least one course in ecology, biology, geography, anthropology, botany or international studies. They should arrive in good physical condition and have adequate boots, hat and clothing for cold, rain and possibly snow.

This course visits three spectacular mountainous national parks in Ecuador. What ties these parks together is páramo, a high-elevation savanna. Páramo covers extensive areas of the tropical Andes in an altitudinal belt between the tree line and the snowline, and is one of the highest plant communities in the world.  Despite its remoteness and wilderness aspect, evidence suggests that the development of grass páramo was driven by late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. We focus on páramo ecology, including human impacts following deglaciation 15,000 years ago.

Readings will examine the three data sets available for elucidating the process of grass páramo formation:  fossil pollen, sedimentary charcoal and evidence of early hunter-gatherer occupation.  The course will then assess how these data support or refute the conventional wisdom that grass páramo is a purely climatic expression or, as argued more recently, the replacement vegetation of a zonal forest removed by early agriculturalists.


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A field trip during Spring Break to three grass páramos in Ecuador, in Cajas, Sangay and Chimborazo National Parks, will ground the information acquired in the literature review. In Ecuador, students will walk páramo landscapes and apply their academic preparation to on-the-ground observations and explanations of current tree lines, forest patches above tree line, the dominance of tussock grasses and giant ground rosettes, the frequency and behavior of fire, and plant tolerance to periodic burning.  A trip to a desert páramo in Chimborazo National Park, between 13,000’ and 16,500’, will highlight environmental constraints on the plant community.

By the end of the course students will have a deeper appreciation of humans as a keystone species in grass páramo creation and maintenance.  They will have applied the lessons of páramo etiology to an enlightened management and conservation of Ecuadorian páramos.  Concurrently, students will have developed a sensibility to the weight of history on contemporary vegetation, and to the ubiquitous but sometimes elusive nature of anthropic inputs.

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Course Structure

Students will meet with their instructor via BigBlueButton, a Skype-like feature of Blackboard, about one month before Spring Break. This meeting will anticipate the logistics of the field trip, and introduce a list of readings to be completed before traveling to Ecuador.

Students depart for the field trip on the evening of Friday, March 9, 2018, leaving from JFK in a direct flight to Guayaquil. A bus will transport students from Guayaquil to Cuenca the next morning. During the ensuing week, we will visit páramos of the three national parks mentioned. Return travel will be on Sunday, March 18.  Students will be advised regarding specific flight arrangements.

Grading will be based on (i) an introductory exam (30%) given after a páramo excursion the first day in Ecuador and based on pre-Spring Break readings, (ii) participation in the field studies during the Spring Break (40%), and a final exam (30%), prior to the return to the U.S. This course is offered through the Geography Department and earns 3 credits.


Students should have taken at least one course in ecology, biology, geography, forestry, environmental studies, anthropology, botany or global studies. Exceptions can be made upon consultation with the instructor.

For the field portion of the course, students will be required to walk every day in páramos at elevations of 11,000’ and above. Those who are comfortable at altitude will have the opportunity to hike to 16,500’ on Chimborazo mountain. They must arrive in good physical shape and have adequate clothing for mountain conditions. Students will be housed for most of their stay in a rustic field camp at 11,400’ within Sangay National Park.


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The instructor, Stuart White, owns and manages the Mazar Wildlife Reserve in the Cordillera Real of Ecuador, where he has lived since 1982.  The MWR is dedicated to conserving 1700 hectares of mountainous native habitats and their fauna, financed largely by the husbandry of an alpaca herd pastured at lower elevations.  Stuart received a PhD in Geography at the University of Wisconsin in 1981 and subsequently taught Geography at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, until moving to Ecuador.  In addition to raising alpacas, Stuart has spent his years in two pursuits:  First, promoting the reintroduction of this camelid to the Ecuadorian rural economy; and second, as habitat conservation advocate, crystalized in the establishment of the Fundación Cordillera Tropical (, which he headed between 2000 and 2010.  Since 2010 Stuart has been a lecturer with the Geography Department at the University of Vermont, where he taught during 2011-2012.

Instructor contact information:
Email: or

Skype: stuwhite2
Cell: +593 93 927 2402; Home/Cuenca: +593 7 418 9719
Mazar Wildlife Reserve: +593 7 305 5223

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