The author and her son, Jack, in the Galapagos (Photo: Julie Earle-Levine)
“Argh! It’s cold!!” my 7-year-old son Jack yelped as he jumped into the clear, turquoise waters off Champion, a tiny islet in the Galapagos, about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
In New York we’d been practicing snorkeling at a pool in downtown Tribeca — not quite the same. “Just look down!” I told him, and he did. “Woah! There’s a cliff!” he shouted, referring the seabed that he could see 100 feet below (the water was that clear). A curious sea lion swam up to investigate. Then Jack and I could not hold back from doing exactly what our guides had warned us not to do — we smiled, allowing water to seep through the snorkel mouthpieces.
Related: Finding the Real Galapagos
Jack, looking for baby albatross, in the background (Photo: Julie Earle-Levine)
Getting up close and personal with wildlife in the Galapagos is just one reason kids love this locale. Where else can a sea lion swim up and give you a kiss on the cheek? “It was tickly!” Jack told everyone that night at dinner. He never mentioned the cold water again and was the first on deck every day, dressed in a wetsuit and ready for our regular snorkeling excursions, where he chased penguins around and spied Manta rays skimming through the sea. Jack was also excited to point out a white-tipped reef shark cruising in the shallows, which sent me scrambling back to our boat (I’m Australian!).
Why visit now? Tourism here is relatively new, and access to the Galapagos National Park is limited — but there are more visitors than ever before. In the past 20 years, tourism has increased five-fold, now attracting 100,000 people a year. Go before it changes. And for anyone who loves snorkeling, the visibility is incomparable. I’ve snorkeled everywhere from the Great Barrier Reef to the Maldives, and I’ve never seen such beautiful clear water that’s so rich with wildlife.
Quasar Expeditions’ M/V Evolution, in the Galapagos (Photo: Julie Earle-Levine)
On our eight-day tour on the M/V Evolution with the Ecuadorian-owned Quasar Expeditions we saw brilliant red sally lightfoot crabs on black lava rocks, tiny lava lizards, golden yellow iguanas baking in the sun, and brilliant blue-footed boobies, who are both talented dancers and excellent dive bombers.
Jack, on the deck of the M/V Evolution, where you can hang out on sunbeds. (Photo: Julie Earle-Levine)
In this collection of 13 major islands and six smaller islets, exotic creatures abound, but to see them requires some work. Most days we took two-hour-plus walks, often on rocky terrain, and went deep-sea snorkeling. And the kids on the trip (there was another family of four children from Spain), embraced their role as young explorers. (Tip: call ahead to see if other families will be on board and the kids’ ages.)
In the Santa Cruz highlands, we tracked dozens of lumbering giant tortoises. Mounds of black marine iguanas delighted Jack with their endless spitting (“SO gross!!!”). And fluffy, slow-blinking albatross chicks and snuggly sea lions clambered over their mommies, commanding our attention.
Jack spent most of his time with the guide, pointing out ‘masked’ boobies, frigate birds, and eagles like he’d been doing it all his life. Even the nightly lectures were a hit. Afterward, we would go stargazing on the deck. The Galapagos is the only place in the world where you can see stars and planets from both the northern and southern hemispheres, and they’re so bright they seem to cast their own glow on the water.
The author, with a mommy sea lion and her pup (Photo: Julie Earle-Levine)
Here are some tips if you’re planning to take your own family to the Galapagos:
CHOOSE YOUR SHIP WISELY
For families, picking the right tour operator is crucial. Quasar has two smaller vessels: The Grace, a classic yacht that was Aristotle Onassis’ wedding gift to Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, and Evolution. Both have no more than 30 guests (meaning you won’t be waiting in lines to get on and off the boat) and two top-notch, kid-friendly naturalist guides.
Other great, family-friendly outfitters in the Galapagos include:
• Metropolitan Touring also has smaller boats and can plan a package that includes land options since it has a luxury property, the Finch Bay Hotel, on the island of Santa Cruz.
• Lindblad Expeditions operates three ships including The National Geographic Explorer, that loomed large next to our boat one day — making us feel very, very small.
• Silversea Cruises is a luxe Italian-owned line that does high-end tours.
Abercrombie & Kent guests in a Zodiac (Photo: Abercrombie & Kent)
• Abercrombie & Kent also offers luxurious accommodations on two 10-day journeys.
• Blue Parallel has private charter and smaller tours that range from 4-7 nights.
• Butterfield & Robinson welcomes young explorers with early dinner times and kid-friendly meals, plus scavenger hunts and movie nights.
• You’ll notice everyone wearing ugly water shoes. For every person in your family, pack a pair of sneakers, a pair of water shoes, and a pair of dry shoes— water shoes aren’t appropriate for some of the more adventurous walks.
• Make sure you pack a sunshirt. It will save the hassle (and the fight) of slathering on sunscreen a few times a day.
• Bring your own kid-sized wetsuit and flippers, in case your boat doesn’t have the right size.
• Our boat had a doctor in its crew, but it is worth packing tea tree or eucalyptus to disinfect cuts you might get from walks and scrapes when snorkeling. Baby wipes are also useful, since you can’t flush toilet paper on some boats, including Quasar (the staff clear the bins a few times daily).
• Pack a proper point-and-shoot camera with a waterproof case — an iPhone doesn’t cut it here.
• There is no cell service, and it is refreshing to go without an iPad and mobile phone (TV is out of the question, too). But in advance, download as many audiobooks and e-books as you can to keep kids entertained during down time. Scribd.com offers unlimited access to New York Times best sellers, as well as a good selection of children’s titles.
• Pack a high-quality sketchbook and pencils for kids to sketch animals they saw that day. (We recommend eBoo.)
• A Spanish dictionary is also great to have, so that you can learn a few words a day. Our staff was 90 percent Ecuadorian and only a couple people spoke English.
• Bring binoculars, which are great for tracking birds, including frigates that fly over the boat, and for seeing albatross babies and nests up close.
Quito is an amazing place to spend a few days on your way home. The city is culturally vibrant and great for kids. Some of the highlights include:
• At the markets, you can buy cool hats by traditional hat makers and alpaca throws (even better than sheepskin). Kids can also get a local ‘limpia’ massage to restore energy and relax.
Jack, trying on hats in Quito, which cost as little as $20. (Photo: Julie Earle-Levine)
• Stay at Casa Gangotena, a hotel overlooking Plaza San Francisco in the heart of the historic district. It’s worth the splurge for its deep baths, luxe beds, and walking proximity to all the major attractions.
• Don’t miss the city’s Botanical Gardens: you can explore on a bike with Metropolitan Touring, stopping off for the most delicious handmade ice cream at Heladeria San Agustin, in business since 1858. Try interesting flavors like tree tomato and soursop.
WATCH: Trip of a Lifetime in the Galapagos Islands