The Galapagos Islands are famous as the place where Charles Darwin began to develop his theory of evolution that only the fittest of any species would survive and thrive. Today, the exotic islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the place where eco tourists to go for a luxury vacation. There, it’s possible to discover blue-footed boobies with their distinctive blue feet, snorkel with marine life and watch giant tortoises lumber over land.
A First Glimpse of the Galapagos Islands
A two-foot-long gold-colored Galapagos land iguana greeted us as we stepped off the plane on Baltra Island, then wandered away dismissively as though he’d seen it all before. He was just the first of what turned out to be hundreds of iguanas, giant tortoises, penguins, sea turtles and birds of every kind. Not one of them paid much attention to our small group of tourists as we walked or swam past.
The natural wonder of the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of mainland Ecuador in South America, came to feel like a sort of reverse zoo, one where the animals are in charge. In a roundabout way, they are. Here, humans are required to stay two meters (six feet) away from any animal. We weren’t always able to follow that rule. In one case, a giant tortoise was napping in the middle of the trail, leaving us only a foot on either side to squeeze by. In another, a sea turtle swam up for air, shoulder to shoulder with an oblivious snorkeler. A third time, two huge male sea lions snoozed on the stairs we needed to climb down to reach the beach and our dinghy ride back to the boat.
Galapagos Islands Ecosystem
In 1978, UNESCO named the islands a World Heritage Site in recognition of its unique ecosystem and wildlife. The land is covered in lofty volcanic peaks, otherworldly lava fields, rocky shorelines and surprisingly soft white sand beaches. Wildlife ranges from those incredibly cute giant tortoises to only-in-the-Galapagos birds.
The Galapagos are located at the confluence of three major ocean currents. That gives rise to an amazing abundance and diversity of marine life, including sea lions, sharks, rays and penguins. There are 13 major islands, although not all have visitor sites.
Our western islands itinerary started in Santa Cruise, then included stops on the islands of Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago, and Bartoleme. Eastern Galapagos cruises can include stops at Santa Fe, South Plaza, Santa Cruz, Espanola and San Cristobal Island.
Protecting the Galapagos Islands
Ecuador does a terrific job of protecting this natural wonder. Galapagos National Park covers 97 percent of the islands’ land. The remaining 3 percent consists of 4 small cities — the largest is Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island with just 22,000 residents — and farms. A few grow coffee for export but most cultivate vegetables and raise hogs and cattle to feed themselves and their fellow Galapaguenos.
Access to the national park areas is strictly controlled. Boats plying the waters around the islands tend to be large sailboats and luxurious yachts like the one I traveled in as a guest of Andando Tours. The Passion can accommodate only 16 passengers. Even the large cruise companies, like Celebrity Cruises, that operate in the islands, run only smaller ships to reduce wear and tear on the fragile islands.
Each boat has an assigned itinerary and is equipped with a satellite signal. That way, national park authorities can track it and make sure no tour operator ventures off the assigned path. When rolling seas made staying in one spot dangerous, the captain had to get special permission to arrive a day early at our next anchorage.
Traveling Without Distractions
This is the place to vacation with kids (and adults) who are addicted to their devices. A Galapagos Islands cruise vacation comes with nature, but without cell service or wifi. Even our terrific tour guide, Paulina, a Galapagos resident, could not get a signal once we left Puerto Ayora on the first night of our 8-day, 7-night cruise.
While it was a bit painful not to be able to instantly upload to Instagram that photo of the perfectly perched Blue Footed Boobie, the fact that I couldn’t meant I spent all of my time staring at that wonderous bird with its robin’s egg blue feet.
Is a Galapagos Islands Cruise Right for Kids?
There were no children traveling with us during our mid-January adventure. But Paulina, mom of a 10-year-old and a veteran Galapagos Island guide, says the destination is hugely popular with families during school breaks.
While any kid who loves exploring nature could do the cruise, she says it’s generally best for children 6 or older. It can be physically too much for really young kids. And it can be dangerous for rambunctious little ones, both on the boat and on the steep cliffs and jagged lava fields of the islands.
Andando Tours, my host for this trip, accepts children younger than 6 aboard The Passion. It even provides cribs. And children under 12 sail at a discounted price.
TravelingMom Tip: Before booking a cruise with children, ask whether the ship has provisions for children, such as kid-sized wet suits and snorkeling gear. Chances are you will need to bring your own.
Where Are the Galapagos Islands?
The Galapagos Islands are a part of Ecuador. They’re in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador. There are direct flights from America and Europe into Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador. My flight from Chicago to Quito landed after midnight, so I booked the night at the Wyndham Quito Airport, just to make my life eaiser. If you want to spend a few days getting to know this beautiful city before heading to the islands, look for a hotel in the old town. It’s quite lovely.
My flight to the Galapagos included a stop in Guayaquil to drop off and pick up passengers before our final stop at the airport on Baltra Island. (That’s where we were greeted by that bored land iguana.) Then it’s a short bus ride to a short ferry ride to Santa Cruz Island.
There, we loaded onto a bus for a ride into the central highlands of Santa Cruz and a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station. While Spanish is the native language here, I found plenty of people who could converse in English.
Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands sit right on the equator. We had a bit of fun onboard the night we rounded the northern end of Isabela Island and crossed the equator.
Galapagos Island isolation is the reason for its unusual animal and marine life. Some — Darwin finches, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas and colourful land iguanas — are found nowhere else on Earth. It was these animals, which Darwin discovered during a brief 5-week visit to the islands, that laid the foundation for Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
The animals on these South American islands are essentially tame. Although one marine lizard on Floreana did give us a warning to step back and a mama sea lion on Santiago island barked a command for us to move back from her pup, most others we encountered were completely unaffected by our presence. Many of them, like that iguana at the airport, seemed bored by seeing yet another human.
Like most things Galapagos-related, encounters with the animals are strictly controlled. The rule, enforced by the guides, is to stay at least 2 meters (6 feet) away from any animal. It’s a good rule to have in place. The animals are so docile that it’s tempting to want to edge close and even reach out to touch them, especially those incredibly cute baby sea lions.
These gentle giants meander around looking for fresh water to rest in and close-to-the-ground vegetation to eat. They seem to spend a lot of their days sleeping. When we got a little too close or made a little too much noise, they would retract into their shell, hiding until we passed.
If you see a giant tortoise in a zoo, it can trace its lineage back to the Galapagos.
Each island is home to a slightly different variety of giant tortoise. On a few of the islands, the tortoises are extinct, having been starved by goats who ate all of the vegetation. National Parks officials have since eradicated the goats. Scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Center are breeding that variety of giant tortoises. Once the baby tortoises reach 25 centimeters – the size that makes them rat-proof — they will be re-introduced to that island. (Like the goats, rats were likely brought to the Galapagos by the sailors and pirates who stopped there over the years. Unlike the goats, which were hunted and killed, officials have not yet figured out how to eradicate the rats.)
Blue Footed Boobies
These large birds stand around the shoreline, showing off those robin’s egg blue feet. When they are younger, the birds can’t fly and their feet are white. As they mature, their feet turn blue to attract the opposite sex. Scientists think that a diet high in sardines makes their feet bluer. They are hunters who fly over the water, spot their prey, tuck their wings and dive into the sea.
Sally Lightfoot Crabs
Nearly black when they are young, these crabs take on a vibrant crimson hue when they mature. You’ll find thousands of them living on the rocks along the water line. As the waves go out, they scurry down the rocks, scavenging for food the sea left behind. As the waves rush back, they scurry up. If they can’t find enough food that way, these gorgeous creatures turn cannibal and eat one another.
Our first excursion on the small island of Floreana included a hike over a sandy trail to a hidden beach where sea turtles lay their eggs. The beach was marked by the trail of the mamas who emerge from the sea, pull themselves onto the sand, dig a hole, deposit their eggs and then make their way back to the sea.
We were curious to see what looked like large rocks dotting the pristine beach. They weren’t rocks. They were exhausted mama sea turtles resting up to find the strength to swim away. The rest was important, our guide explained, because just a few feet into the water swam a horde of male sea turtles. They were waiting to pounce on the females who would be too tired to resist their devilish charms. Sometimes as many as 3 males will mount the back of a female, taking as long as 30 minutes to take care of business. If the female is too exhausted to keep swimming with all of that weight on her back, she can drown.
Most of the sea turtles we saw – and we saw many – were swimming lazily through the waters off the coast of the islands, oblivious to us as we snorkeled nearby.
These pink wonders feast in brackish lagoons formed when the sea water washes in and is trapped in smaller pools. As the water evaporates, the salt level rises, making it fertile ground for iny brine shrimp. It’s the shrimp diet that gives flamingos their pink color. The baby flamingos on Floreana are brown, the juveniles are white and the adults show off shades of pink that intensify as they age.
Galapagos Land Iguanas
Like the golden iguana that checked us out as we walked from our plane into the Baltra airport, none of the iguanas we encountered were very impressed by us. A few posed for photos, but none ran away as we approached. We rarely saw them move, with the exception of the couple having sex beneath a tree as we walked by.
Galapagos Marine Iguanas
Marine iguanas are sometimes called Christmas iguanas. That’s because the males turn a Christmasy red and green during mating season, which happens around the time of the winter holiday. These reptiles spend much of their time lying around, absorbing heat from the black lava rocks and one another. When it’s time for a meal, they dive into the sea in search of algae and seaweed. They have only a few minutes in the frigid waters to eat, then fight their way back to the rocks before their body temperature drops. If it drops too low, they can drown.
These guys might be birds, but they act more like fish. Their tiny wings are useless for flying, but their giant webbed feet are great for swimming, much like the penguins that also ply the waters around the Galapagos Islands.
These islands that line the equator are the northern-most spot to find penguins. They arrive on the chilly ocean currents coming from the south and play in the waters around the Galapagos.
These guys are the pirates of the Galapagos birding world. They don’t hunt themselves so much as they lie in wait for, say, a blue footed boobie to dive into the Pacific Ocean and come up with a tasty fish. The frigate birds attack the boobie, waiting for the fish to drop, then swoop in for dinner.
These are just what their name implies: furry sea lions. They are smaller than sea lions, have thicker fur and tend to stay on the rocks. They hunt at night, which makes it unlikely tourists will see one during the day.
Sailing with Andando Tours
Andando Tours, my host for this trip, booked me on The Passion. This motor yacht was previously owned by a well-off Italian family. It was designed and built in Europe. It now houses 7 cabins, each with a private bath, including two large master suites and one single cabin. Because the Galapagos Islands are a bucket list trip, oftentimes people will choose to travel alone. With the single cabin option, they can have the trip without paying a single supplement, which is often 50 percent or more higher than passengers who travel two to a cabin.
Barefoot Luxury on a Galapagos Islands Cruise
Andando Tours markets the Galapagos as “barefoot luxury.” The barefoot part is a necessity on a boat with white carpeting. We were instructed to take off our shoes and stow them in a cubby on deck before walking inside. The luxury part is a treat. With more crew than passengers, we were pampered in every way. There was the cabin attendant who seemed to straighten the room – literally – every time I left it. And there was the crew who ferried us ashore each day in the powerized rubber Zodiac dinghy (called a panga in the islands). They seemed as excited as we were to take a detour to watch dolphins cavorting near the boat or sea turtles mating in the open water.
And, of course, there was the food. Unlike megaships with their endless buffet lines, the Passion offers personal service and plated meals. That is not to say that there was a lack of food in any way. Lunches were satisfying affairs with an Ecuadorian flair. Each meal included rice, sometimes yummy potatoes too. Main courses ranged from moist and tender turkey to chicken, savory shrimp in garlic sauce, beef filet, chorizo sausage and pork chops. Sometimes a meal featured 3 or 4 main dishes along with salad and veggies.
Andando tours sends a packing list after people book. Unfortunately, I didn’t heed the list and I packed all wrong.
Read more: Complete Galapagos packing list.
Quality of The Guide
As with any tour, the experience is only as good as the guide. Ours, Paulina, was terrific. It’s a good thing, too. You can’t do anything in the Galapagos without a guide. Paulina is a native Ecuadorian who has lived in the islands since 2005. Pauli, as we called her, was a fount of knowledge about the flora and fauna. She also was exceedingly patient with the seven of us aboard. Without fail, at least one of us would miss some critical instruction about where we were headed, what we would be doing and what we should wear. She had to repeat everything she said at least once. Often several times.
To become a Galapagos Island guide, Pauli spent 6 months learning about the flora and fauna of the islands,the geology of volcanic rocks and oceanography and currents, along with safety. The law has changed since she became a certified guide 13 years ago. Today, guides have to have a 4-year college degree.
The Galapagos Cruise Experience
There are few docks here, so getting to shore most often involves a “wet landing.” That means you’ll jump off of the panga into knee-deep water, often with a rocky bottom. Unless your feet are very tough, water shoes are important. You’ll want to bring walking shoes to change into for the hikes to see the animals. In some cases, thick-soled running shoes will be sufficient. In others, sturdy hiking shoes with thick soles and ankle protection are the way to go. Walking sticks would also be helpful for hiking over lava flows, especially if you have balance issues. Falling on those sharp lava spikes would be a very painful experience.
This island is reached by a quick ferry ride from Baltra airport. Since the port is on the other side of the island, Andando Tours picked us up in a bus and took us on a brief tour of Santa Cruise. It included a stop at a local farm that has embraced ecotourism. It’s a refuge for giant tortoises – we watched several as they slept and marveled as others who plodded slowly but purposefully across the land. And we had a lovely Ecuadorian lunch.
Next it was on to the Charles Darwin Research Center, named for the man credited with putting these islands on the map, scientifically and culturally. There, we saw the rearing center where giant tortoises are bred and raised until they are deemed rat-proof at 25 centimeters and can be reintroduced to the islands.
This is home to flamingos and sea turtles. But the most interesting part of this island is its human history.
First, there is Post Office Bay. Here, sailors and pirates who plied the waters around the Galapagos Islands set up a “post office” system. It consists of one large barrel. Sailors wrote notes and left them in the barrel, hoping that the next sailors who happened by would take the “mail” and hand-deliver it to the intended recipients.
Visitors still practice that today. We wrote postcards, addressed them and deposited them in the barrel. Then we searched through the stacks of postcards others had written looking for ones that would be close enough to our homes that we might hand deliver them. I found a few written by “Gramps” to his grandkids in the Chicago suburbs. I won’t hand deliver them, but I did put stamps on them and popped them in the mail.
The next stop was an invigorating hike into the “highlands” in the center of the island, the only source of fresh water on Floreana. When it rains, water seeps through the rocks into a “spring.” The fresh water attracted an eccentric doctor, Freidrich Ritter and his common law wife, Dore. A few years later, the population doubled when Heinz and Margret Wittmer arrived. The two German couples did not get along, although Dr. Ritter did assist in the birth of Margret’s first child, Rolf.
Then the Baroness arrived, along with her two lovers, further upsetting the uneasy peace. Ultimately, the baroness, her lovers and Freidrich Ritter all perished. Dore Ritter left the island after Freidrich’s death, leaving the Wittmers alone. Today, a statute of Rolf, honoring him as the first person born on the island, greets visitors when they arrive.
Here we had the best day of the trip, weather-wise. Sunny, blue skies and calm waters made for excellent snorkeling with sea turtles and penguins.
Fernandina, Santiago, and Bartoleme
Each of these islands offered its own take on the Galapagos Islands — sea lions, including a newborn pup, friendly birds that followed us for at least 20 minutes and landed on on our heads, and a boardwalk with 400 steps up to the top for a bird’s eye view of Pinnacle Rock, an iconic Galapagos rock formation.