This exotic locale is not at the top of most family vacation lists, but it should be, especially for families with older kids. This one-of-a-kind place offers awesome animal encounters, adventures in nature, and pristine beaches. It’s a trip your family won’t soon forget.
Imagine climbing a lighthouse on the rocks to find that an ambitious sea lion has already claimed the top spot (and judging by that noise he just made, he’s not about to give it up). Picture kayaking through crystal clear water when a giant green sea turtle pops its dinosaur-like head up next to you for a quick breath before diving back below. See yourself snorkeling off the beach when a tiny penguin swims up to playfully peck your mask—so quick you might have missed it if you’d blinked.
These are the types of breathtaking moments you can expect in the Galápagos Islands.
Located about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos are a group of volcanic islands that straddle the equator and are best known for the research done there by English naturalist Charles Darwin in the mid-1800s (theory of evolution, anyone?). Today, the islands are home to a unique variety of sea and land life, from giant tortoises to blue-footed boobies, and have become a popular spot to visit year-round. Tourism is limited in order to reduce human impact on the islands’ fragile ecosystems, but there are still plenty of options for families that want to visit this beautiful place.
The Galápagos' famous giant tortoises are slowly making a comeback after years of conservation efforts. Fun fact: These tropical reptiles can live up to a year without any food or water and are thought to have a lifespan between 100 and 300 years!
The Galápagos are part of Ecuador, although about a 2-hour plane ride from the mainland. You’ll need to take a flight into either Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador, and then a second flight on a smaller plane into the Galápagos.
Where to Stay
You might opt to take a weeklong cruise aboard an eco-friendly tour boat, such as one of the three 20-passenger yachts operated by Ecoventura. This isn’t your average cruise—think less lounging and more snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, hiking, and exploring (with a daily afternoon siesta and time for stargazing at night, of course). Cruisers follow an itinerary that’s been approved by the Galápagos National Park Service and typically visit six or seven islands over eight days, with excursions led by two experienced and knowledgeable guides.
Ecoventura is an especially family-friendly option, as the tour groups are small, the boats offer two triple cabins (a rarity), and the company is careful to place families on cruises with other families—often those with younger children are placed on one boat while families with older children are placed on a separate boat.
If a week on the water won’t work for your crew, look for a hotel on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana, or Isabela—the populated islands (the Galápagos Islands’ total human population tops out at just 25,000)—and make your own itinerary of day trips to the other islands via high-speed boat.
Is my child the right age?
However you choose to visit, a Galápagos adventure is best for families with kids ages 5 and older. The sweet spot for kids is most likely ages 9-12—when they’re old enough to appreciate a little bird-watching but still young enough not to treat the spotty Wifi access as a prison sentence—although it depends on the child, of course. The youngest age recommended for an Ecoventura cruise is 7, although the boats are equipped with life jackets and snorkeling gear for kids as young as 5.
Unsure if your kid is ready for this kind of trip? Ask yourself these three questions:
1. Is my child good with following directions? There are many rules in the Galápagos, from staying on the trails during an island visit (so you don’t accidentally trample an iguana’s eggs, for example) to placing toilet tissues in the garbage rather than the toilet (let’s take a moment to be thankful for American plumbing!).
2. Does my child have good impulse control? There’s a strict no-touching rule for the wildlife you’ll see—no matter how cute those baby sea lions are and how close they get to you (they're anything but shy!), you’ll have to resist reaching out and petting them. Including this little guy:
3. Will my child appreciate this? The Galápagos are a far cry from Disney World. Your child won’t be surrounded by in-your-face entertainment at every turn, and she won’t be able to Facebook, Snapchat, or tweet her every move. If you’ve got a teen whose smartphone seems like a fifth limb, the digital detox this trip requires may have him sulking through his snorkel mask.
If your child checks out, get ready for a memorable trip you’ll be talking about for years to come.
When to Visit
You can visit the Galápagos year-round, as the weather is more or less consistent. There are technically two seasons in the islands: December through May is the “warm” season, when the air temperature is more tropical and the water is warmer for swimming and snorkeling. June through early December is the “dry” season, when the water is a bit cooler (better for diving) and the highlands have a layer of mist that makes them greener and lusher this time of year.
Besides checking out the wildlife, year-round activities include snorkeling and swimming, SCUBA diving, hiking, kayaking, and enjoying the beautiful beaches that rival any in the Caribbean.
Since each of the islands is unique, you have a lot of options when it comes to planning your trip. Here are a few must-do’s when visiting with kids, which you can look for in a cruise itinerary or plot out on your own:
Highlands of Santa Cruz
Located on one of the four populated islands, this area is easily reachable by bus or car. Here you’ll find the Charles Darwin Research Station, which houses the giant tortoise breeding center (read: lots of baby tortoises). You’ll also want to pay a visit to Las Primicias, a tortoise reserve and private farm where you can take a walk among the giant tortoises that roam freely. And don’t miss a descent into “the tunnels,” the largest lava tubes in the Galápagos (now completely lava-free, of course).
Young giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station range in age from a few months to a few years old. The younger they are, the faster they move!
The area around this rock is one of the best for snorkeling. Snorkelers will likely find clear waters and a variety of sea life, from sea turtles to dolphins, sharks, sea lions, Galápagos penguins (if you’re lucky!), and lots of tropical fish. If you’re visiting between December and May, you should stop by nearby Floreana (population: 250) for a chance to see sea turtles on land or just off the shore during their breeding season.
The Galápagos penguins are the smallest of their kind in the world.
Post Office Bay
Also located on Floreana, this tiny bay may not look like much, with its weathered wooden barrel and graffiti-like signs, but it’s a truly cool spot. Bring a postcard and drop it in the barrel—no postage required. The idea is that a future traveler heading in the direction you’ve addressed your card will pick it up and hand-deliver it for you. So of course, you’ll want to return the favor by delivering one of the addressed cards to its intended destination—and you’ll be carrying on a tradition that dates back to the 18th century.
Don't let the skulls scare you off! There's nothing spooky about a stranger hand-delivering a postcard you left in a barrel on a remote island...right?
The most photographed island in the Galápagos is the place astronaut Buzz Aldrin described as the closest thing to a “moonscape” he’d seen on Earth. Not many species thrive on this island, but the landscape is incredible and you can climb to the top of an extinct volcano (about 300 stairs will lead you there easily) for stunning views.
Fans of the 2003 film Master and Commander might recognize this landscape from the silver screen.
Here you’ll find a sea lion “kindergarten,” where the mother sea lions “drop off” their babies for playtime while they scout the waters for food. The shore here is relatively safe for the small sea lions, as the waters are shallow and mostly protected from sharks and other predators. The little lions flip, float, and wiggle with their peers just off the white sand beach, strengthening their swimming skills for the deeper waters.
Española is also home to a clan of Christmas iguanas—can you guess how they got their name?
This port town on Santa Cruz is the social heart of the Galápagos, with a population of 12,000, the highest of any of the islands. There are plenty of shops here to pick up souvenirs.
Things to Know Before You Go
Be wary of the drinking water. As with most trips south of the border, you’ll want to be careful not to drink tap water in Ecuador or the Galápagos Islands, as it could contain parasites that will make you sick. Choose bottled water over tap, both for drinking and brushing your teeth. Opt for no ice cubes in your beverages and skip salads and other produce that may have been washed in tap water and then served raw.
Be prepared for the plumbing. Plumbing in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands is different than in the U.S. The pipes in these countries aren’t built to handle paper products, so all paper waste (yes, including toilet paper) goes in the trash, not in the toilet.
Put down the iPhone. Wifi spots are plentiful in town, but non-existent on the unpopulated islands (only four of the dozen or so islands are populated) or on most of the cruise boats. Snap away with your smartphone camera, but don’t bank on live tweeting your photos during the trip.
White, golden, green: Each beach is different in the Galápagos. You can find this green-sand beach on Punta Pitt, on the east end of San Cristóbal Island.
Leave your shampoo at home. If you’re staying on an Ecoventura boat, that is. The company encourages guests to use the biodegradable (read: eco-friendly) soap, shampoo, and conditioner provided in each cabin.
Be selective about souvenirs. Steer clear of tchotchkes made with black coral or animal parts such as bones or feathers—buying these supports a practice that’s dangerous to the Galápagos ecosystem.
Respect the rules. Most of the Galápagos is governed by the Galápagos National Park Service, which sets specific rules for tourists. Visitors must stay on the marked trails on each island and maintain a distance of 2 meters (about 6 feet) from wildlife (yes, this rule applies to those cute baby sea lions, too).
Shield your skin. You’ll be on the equator, where the sun can be fierce. Pile on the sunscreen, and remember to reapply.
Plan for seasickness. If you’re cruising or even just taking day trips to the islands, you’ll want to take steps against seasickness. Consider a transdermal patch (some last up to three days) or at least have Dramamine on hand.
Bring a good camera, and a GoPro is also a good bet. From rare blue-footed boobies to beautiful white-sand beaches, you won’t want to miss the photo ops on these magnificent islands.
What to Pack: Essentials & Extras
For a smooth trip, be sure to bring:
• Passport. The Galápagos are part of Ecuador, so every family member will need a passport to get there. (No immunizations are currently required to visit, but check with your local health office at least two weeks before your trip for any updates.)
• Several bathing suits
• Casual clothes for hiking, kayaking, etc.
• Sunscreen (lots of it!)
• Pepto Bismol for any potential tummy troubles
• Electrolyte packets, to help with recovery after seasickness
• Oro-dry or other medicine to treat swimmer’s ear
• Advil/painkiller, for sunburn or other aches and pains
• Prescription Sudafed, to help ease ear pressure during the plane ride and/or snorkeling
• Games or electronic devices that don’t require Wifi
• Star map for stargazing (the constellations are much different on the equator, and on a clear night there’s no telling how many you’ll see!)
After a day spent playing with sea lions, spotting sea turtles, and swimming with penguins, the Galápagos sunsets will still take your breath away.
Main photo: The Sally Lightfoot crab, also known as a red rock crab, is common on several islands in the Galápagos.
All photos by Kaitlin Ahern and Brian Miller