10 Things Kids Will Love About the Galapagos Islands
By Catherine | February 6th, 2009
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As the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin approaches (February 12 if you haven’t got it marked on your calendar), my mind turns to the Galapagos Islands, the birthplace of his revolutionary evolutionary ideas. I had the privilege to live in the Galapagos for a few months back in 2001, about a year before I became a parent. Of course my priorities were different then, but it’s not hard to think back with a mother’s lens and see that those enchanted islands hold a lot of kid appeal.
Most people think of the Galapagos as a trip for seniors, and indeed boatloads of silver-haired retirees with binoculars and Tilley hats embark on packaged Galapagos expeditions each year. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – that generation of travelers are more likely to have the time, money and interest in this destination and kudos to those adventurous enough to make the journey. You just don’t hear of a lot of families with children heading there, and frankly they don’t know what they’re missing.
I don’t necessarily recommend the Galapagos for families with very young children. I’d wait until they’re at least 7 or 8 years old, with 10 and up being ideal. I’m waiting until my girls are confident swimmers, able snorkelers and nimble-footed hikers (there’s a lot of sharp, wet lava rocks to navigate), plus I want them to be knowledgeable and curious enough to contemplate the natural wonders of the place.
Granted, not all kids are budding naturalists keen to observe, say, the subtle evolutionary differences between the beaks of various finch species from neighboring islands – not exactly most tweenager’s idea of a good time. If you’re having a difficultly selling your kid on a trip to the Galapagos, here are a few cool things that just might change their minds.
- Live-aboard boating
There’s nothing like starting the day with a swim off the deck before breakfast. Most tours to the Galapagos entail a 3 to 10 day boat trip to various islands around the archipelago, so you and the kids get to eat, sleep and play on board. Opt for a smaller, more intimate vessel that’ll give your family a fun taste of life at sea – the kids might even get to steer the captain’s wheel and help hoist the sails. There are charters that cater to families with children, with animated guides, kid-friendly food and special activities for younger passengers. Try GAP Adventures, Galapagos Online or Galapagos Tours and Cruises. Heck, even Adventures by Disney has a Galapagos tour.
- Lonesome George
The Galapagos are named for the gentle giant saddleback tortoises that lumber through the islands – you’ll probably encounter a few of these enormous creatures on some of your island pit stops. You’ll no doubt visit the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz where you can see the most famous bachelor tortoise of all, Lonesome George. Poor George is last of his specific breed of Pinta turtles and all efforts to find a mate for him have failed to capture his fancy. He’s become an icon of the conservation movement and will help your kids become aware of the issues.
- Post Office Bay
Since the 18th century, pirates, whalers and sailors have taken advantage of the makeshift post office erected on the island of Floreana. They would leave letters in an old barrel in Post Office Bay in the hopes that some passerby heading in that direction would deliver it for them. This honor system mail service is still going on today, with travelers leaving unstamped postcards in the barrel and taking any letters addressed to their hometowns back with them. Bring some postcards with you and have your kids write one to themselves – chances are it’ll eventually find it’s way to your mailbox!
- Wacky birds
The bird life in the Galapagos is truly astounding. Goofy dancing boobies with bright blue feet. Dive bombing frigate birds with red balloon throats. Enormous albatrosses beak fencing with their mate-for-life. Flightless cormorants. Even penguins (yes, on the equator). If your kids think bird watching isn’t their thing this bizarre collection of winged wonders – many found only on these islands – will surprise them.
- Playful sea lions
It’s a little freaky at first, but the sea lions in the Galapagos have no fear of man and are surprisingly interactive and playful with us. They’ll swim right up to you, eyeball to eyeball, practically tickling you with their whiskers. They’ll whiz around you in graceful circles, and maybe take a friendly nibble on your fin. You’ll think you’re in a tank at Seaworld with trained animals, but this is the wild! Your naturalist guide will help you steer clear of the bulls, but the rest assured the rest of the colony is safe. Swimming with seal lions (especially the pups) will no doubt be a highlight for you and the kids.
- Marine iguanas
These prehistoric, leathery, salt-sneezing dragons are so ugly they’re cute – they’re one of the coolest creatures found only in the Galapagos. You’ll see clusters of them lazily soaking up rays on the black lava rocks, so mellow they won’t scurry away if you come up for a close look. If you happen to catch some swimming in the ocean for a feed, you’ll see how powerful and graceful they can be in that element – they’re the only sea-going lizard in the world.
- Lava landscapes
You’ll feel like you’re walking on another planet when you go to Santiago, a stop on most Galapagos itineraries. Geologically speaking, it’s a very young volcanic island and you can clearly see the ridges and coils of the flowing molten lava – time hasn’t had a chance to erode them away yet. These lunar-like rock formations are practically void of vegetation except for a few hardy cacti and some algae-laded tide pools, which is enough to support the rich wildlife including fur seals, lava herons and bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs.
- Explosive blowhole
On the Punta Suarez landing on Espanloa Island, your guide will take you on a path overlooking a spectacular blowhole. As the waves flow back and forth, the seawater rushes into a fissure in the lava rocks producing a dramatic fountain that shoots up in the air like a geyser. This is a “wow” for kids of all ages – and a reminder not to mess with the awesome power of Mother Nature.
- Tortuga Bay
If you have some time in Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz, ask around for the path to Tortuga Bay. You’ll have to sign in at the gate (the National Park likes to keep track of visitors), and then walk along a cobbled trail through a forest of tall Opuntia Cacti. Strolling the 2.5 km path provides a bounty for nature watchers, but once you reach the destination you’ll be greeted by a pristine beach of white powdery sand. The sea is a little rough at the main beach, but a cove to the west is like a calm lagoon. Bring plenty of water if you go.
- Inspire a shutterbug
A trip to the Galapagos Islands is a boon for budding photographers of all ages. If possible, give each child their own camera with an assignment to capture the amazing flora and fauna on film (or digital flash memory card, as the case may be). A camera safari will really make them focus in on the details and become more observant towards the natural wonders. Alternatively, go the old fashioned route with a pencil and sketchbook and have them draw what captures their fancy.