The Ultimate Eco Trip For Kids
If you’ve ever wanted to experience a vacation unlike anything else in the world, the Galapagos will deliver a trip of a lifetime. Untouched by humans, the Galapagos are a group of volcanic islands in the Pacific with some of the most diverse animal species on the planet. The islands are famous for their fearless wildlife and varied landscapes, many of which are not present anywhere else on Earth.
Why Did We Choose a Galapagos islands vacation?
Three years ago, a group of friends and family began planning this trip as an epic 50th birthday celebration. After years of planning and waiting through a pandemic, we finally checked the Galapagos off our bucket list this past December. By booking a private ship for our group of sixteen, we were able to have a personalized and curated experience with a packed itinerary of island excursions that included daily snorkels, hikes, and kayaking adventures.
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For kids, the learning opportunities are incredible. In one trip they were challenged with learning about marine biology, climate science, oceanography, and evolution. Giant tortoises, blue and red-footed boobies, and sea lions are just a few of the wildlife species we encountered up close. Not to mention the cultural benefits of visiting Ecuador. The landscape, animal encounters, and natural beauty of the Galapagos are unparalleled; it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip that we will treasure forever.
Where Are the Galapagos Islands?
The Galápagos islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands 600-miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator and the Western Hemisphere. Charles Darwin and his famous book, The Origin of the Species, was based on his studies of the diverse animal species he observed during his time in the Galapagos archipelago. His observations and subsequent publication lead to the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution.
The Galapagos were the best place in the world to observe evidence of evolution by natural selection, as the nineteen islands emerged from the ocean more than five million years ago, devoid of any life forms. They have since evolved into one of the most diverse habitats in the world, and apart from daytime tourist excursions, remain untouched by humans.
We flew into Quito, the capital of Ecuador, from Miami, on a short 4-hour direct flight. We had flown to Miami from Boston the night before and stayed overnight to ensure we didn’t miss the connection and to enjoy the more relaxed travel pace.
There are many considerations when staying in Quito, including altitude sickness. I traveled for ten days throughout Ecuador with my two children prior to our Galapagos excursion, to experience the culture, landscape, and friendly people of Ecuador. Traveling throughout mainland Ecuador was an enriching experience that I would consider a must for any family considering a trip to South America.
There are many large chain hotels, including the Wyndham Guayaquil. It is centrally located on a beautiful boardwalk, with great amenities including a large rooftop pool. All 16 of us reserved it for our party. Only an 10-15 min drive from the airport, the hotel offers a complimentary shuttle for pick up and drop off.
You have to call the hotel and give them your flight number for them to pick up at airport. We waited 45 mins on the curb thinking that the shuttle runs continuously. I personally would not recommend another hotel. Guayaquil is not as safe an area as others, and I think other hotel guests may not feel comfortable wandering.
Booking A Galapagos Islands Family Vacation
A Galapagos cruise offers a lot of options for private bookings, with most ships holding 16-30 people. We booked our own boat that held 16 people. When planning a Galapagos family cruise, I wouldn’t necessarily concentrate on the company (there are a lot of them), but on the type of experience you want. We wanted a small ship that would be a personalized experience for our group of sixteen.
Adventures by Disney partners with National Geographic for family cruises, and their ships are much bigger; I would imagine that would be a very different experience of a Galapagos family vacation than what we had.
Boat Size: Bigger isn’t better
For our group, everyone was extremely active, and we loved the ease of having the entire ship to ourselves. There was no hassle in planning meals or finding venues that would accommodate us—we had everything to ourselves. From our perspective, booking a private ship for our group of sixteen met all our needs—comfortable with good food and reliable guides at an affordable price point (expect to spend about $8K per person). And the smaller capacity made for a personalized experience for the whole family, allowing us to see as much as we wanted without having to jockey for spots for daily excursions.
Every island has strict capacity rules about how many are allowed on at one time, and we were given a daily itinerary that we had to stick to. But because we were our own ship, our guide ensured that we fit everything in.
I’d suggest one of the small cruise ships if you do not charter your own boat (which I think is the best way). In addition Relais and Chateaux has two ships with Galapagos itineraries, the Origin and Theory. Their small ships cater to a luxury experience on a smaller scale, and like all Relais and Chateaux properties, are known for their exceptional dining experiences.
The food on our boat was excellent and included an number of local dishes. My favorite treat was Ecuadorian hot chocolate (milk, coco, cinnamon) offered on deck after every snorkeling excursion. That water is cold in December!
The Amazing Things You Will See
When it comes to animals, we all agree that there’s no point in ever going to an aquarium ever again. Nothing compares to seeing amazing animals on these natural habitat adventures. We got so up close with exotic wildlife in their natural environment, I don’t know where else you could go in the world where you could have an experience like that. We were able to walk right up to a seal on the beach, swim with manta rays and observe giant tortoises, land iguanas, lava lizards, and sea lion pups.
The animals are friendly for the most part, except when a male seal was being protective of a mother and her babies. Watching a mother seal nurse her babies was incredible, and though the males might make noises to let you know they don’t care for your presence, they won’t attack you or anything.
Every single island is different
On some islands we were walking on volcanos and lava, while others were white sandy beaches. One beach had red sand and one had black. Every snorkeling expedition was different in terms of what species we saw and how close we got to them. Everything was so different from day to day. Over the course of eight days, we never once lost interest in what we were doing. So even for someone that isn’t into the science behind the Galapagos—the Darwin theories—it’s still a must-do.
The entire family in our group agreed–the snorkeling is the best we’ve ever done. Where else can you have sea lions in your face, playfully engaging like a herd of puppies? Or reach out to touch a massive sea turtle? Though the snorkeling was optional twice a day, most of the kids did the snorkel each time. They were great about getting into a wetsuit and jumping off a D-boat into cold water. There were options from the beach for young kids who didn’t want to jump straight off the boat.
Wetsuits are necessary, and the boats will provide them along with snorkeling gear. Some guests brought their own suits/gear to ensure there were no issues for this once-in-an-lifetime snorkeling opportunity.
In addition to snorkeling, every day on a different island included a hike and possibly a kayak excursion. There were always incredibly informative talks from the guides educating us on the landscape and the species. Each day was an entirely different adventure. Every time we sailed to a new destination, I thought ‘How different can it be?’ Yet it truly was. Arriving at each new island is an extraordinary experience.
5 Things You Must Consider for a Galapagos family adventure
A Galapagos islands family vacation is not for the faint of heart. If you’re considering this trip with your family, then you are already an adventurous-minded traveler. But keep in mind that the trip does have its challenges. International restrictions, physical requirements, and age restrictions on both ends of the spectrum to name a few. I’ve listed a few that I think are important to know when planning your trip:
Technology is at a minimum.
There was no cell service for much of our trip and Wi-Fi is hard to come by. Although bigger ships may have better capabilities, be prepared to be off the grid for the majority of the trip.
A Galapagos Islands vacation is physically challenging.
Every day there were two hikes, two snorkeling excursions, and multiple adventures. Travelers need to be prepared to walk up and down ship stairs, climb ladders and hop out of dinghies into shallow waters. It’s a trip that requires physical fitness and a fair amount of energy. It can be exhausting if you’re not up for it. That said, we had an 75-year-old physically fit grandfather in our party. He snorkeled and easily managed the hikes. This can be a great multi-generational trip depending on the group’s level of fitness.
Is there a minimum age? I’d keep kids under 10 at home unless your eight-year-olds have managed past adventure travel well. We wanted the kids to be old enough to remember this experience.
There’s a good chance your itinerary will include a sea crossing during the night at some point. This boat ride left me a little rattled. Many passengers had knocked themselves out with Dramamine, but I was awake. I experienced rocking and crashing waves for hours one night. Though a crew member agreed the next morning that it was rough, he had also experienced far worse. A larger ship might be more immune than a small boat.
Everything is strictly scheduled.
A Galapagos itinerary is regimented. Breakfast is at a certain hour, before you hop on a dinghy to head to an island. Then you may have a quick break before the first snorkeling expedition of the day. Lunch and another hike and snorkel follow in the afternoon. Because the Galapagos National Park strictly monitors tour groups and island capacity, you will be expected to stick to the schedule that your ship has submitted in advance. This might stress the parents of younger children if kids aren’t cooperating with the structure.
You will not see every island.
Every island is different, and you won’t go to every single one. But your itinerary will take you to enough varied islands where you will see everything you need to see. All of it will leave you with a sense of wonder.