The Galapagos Islands are located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.  They were found by accident in 1535 by Fray Tomàs de Berlanga when his ship drifted off course on the way from Panama to Peru.  In his report, he noted a population of giant tortoises, and the islands soon came to be known as “The Islands of the Tortoise”, or “The Galapagos Islands”.

The islands were not considered desirable, and in fact were even referred to as “Hell on Earth” by some because of the volcanic activity and harshness of some of the landscape.  They were mostly avoided by everyone except for pirates in the 1600s and whalers in the late 1700s who decimated the tortoise population.

In 1835, the first scientist, Charles Darwin arrived on the islands on his ship the HMS Beagle.  It was this brief visit that fueled many of his future teachings such as Survival of the Fittest and the Theory of Evolution.

The Galapagos Islands with its rich history had been on our travel list for a long time.  We were eager to go, but many tour operators suggest kids be a minimum of 5-years-old, preferably 7-years-old to ensure that they can participate fully in all the activities.  We also knew that the National Park is limiting tourism to help protect the islands and we wanted to go as soon as possible.  This summer, our youngest was 7 so we decided it was time.

The biggest question we had to answer first was:  to cruise or not to cruise?  Until I started looking into it, I didn’t think there was a choice other than to take a cruise, but as it turns out, land-based tours are becoming more popular.  We decided to do a land-based tour because the thought of our kids on a relatively small boat (most of the cruises hold 200 or fewer passengers) sounded stressful for a couple of reasons.

  1.  All of them have been seasick before and though we’d be on a slightly larger boat, I didn’t want to find out that the sea didn’t agree with them when there was no turning back.  There was just too much risk in the unknown.
  2. Our kids are not always quiet.  They like to run around and be loud sometimes (because they’re kids).  But not everyone on a cruise would necessarily appreciate that (even if we chose a kid-friendly cruise) and I didn’t want to spend our time worrying about other passengers.
  3. Sometimes our kids just need to run and let out energy.  I wanted them to have the option to do this whenever the mood struck them.

We chose to stay at Galapagos Safari Camp on Santa Cruz Island.  There is one family cabin that was booked on the days we wanted it so we reserved two side-by-side tents which was essentially “glamping”.  I was a little bit nervous about being in a tent, but it was actually very nice!  The kids were set up in one tent with 3 twin beds and we were in the one next door.  Each tent had sliding glass doors & windows, a full bathroom, a coffee maker & tea, a phone, and a large deck with a hammock and incredible views of the ocean.  It was perfect!

The kids’ tent at Galapagos Safari Camp

The only downside we saw of being land-based was that we wouldn’t have the ability to see as many islands during our trip.  A boat would cruise during the night so each morning we could potentially wake up at a different island and have an opportunity to see more wildlife.  Being land-based meant that part of our day would be dedicated to transporting us to & from different islands.  Some of the islands are actually quite far away so this limited us in what we could see.  However we found that we were able to see most everything we had hoped for.  The only animals (birds) we didn’t see that we wished we had were: albatross, penguins, flamingos.  We had an opportunity to see flamingos on one of the islands we went to, however the day we were there the flamingos were nowhere to be found.  The albatross & penguins were on islands we didn’t visit.  In hindsight, being land-based was the right choice for our family.

Day 1 – Arriving in the Galapagos (Santa Cruz Island)

We flew from Quito, made a quick stop in Guayaquil, and arrived on the island of Baltra at 11AM.  Our guide picked us up and we took a quick ferry ride across the Itabaca Channel to Santa Cruz Island (our home base for the week).

Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos and we were surprised to learn that the population of the Galapagos is approximately 26,000 (the majority of those, approx 15,000, live on Santa Cruz.

On our way to the hotel we made several stops.

Los Gemelos, “The Twins” Pit Craters

Pit Crater – Santa Cruz Island

About 15 minutes into our drive we stopped at Los Gemelos, twin pit craters.  The one above is nearly 1,300 feet across and 2,300 feet deep.  These were created by the pressure of magma and volcanic gases that formed large underground caverns that later collapsed to form the pit craters we see today.

Tortoise Reserve

In the Galapagos, tortoises have the right to access your property.  As a result, there are quite a few plantations that are making money off of the tortoises by charging tourists to come look at them.  We went to one in Bellavista, but the setup is pretty much the same at all of them.  We were first served a sit down lunch on a covered deck overlooking the reserve and then we walked around the property looking at tortoises in their natural habitat.  We were told to stay at least 6 feet away from all the animals in the Galapagos.  However, as we walked around I came pretty close to a few that blended in with the landscape and seemed to jump out at me as I got near.

The tortoise swimming pool
Taking a break – looking at tortoises is hard work.

Lava Tubes

Climbing out of the lava tube.

Also on the property were a series of lava tubes that we were able to walk through.  Lava tubes are formed when the outer skin of molten lava hardens while the liquid magma continues to flow through.  This eventually leaves behind a cavity of empty tubes, or tunnels, that are perfect for exploring!

Day 2 – Exploring North Seymour Island & Las Bachas Beach (Santa Cruz)

North Seymour Island

On our first full day in the Galapagos, we took a 1.5 hour boat ride to North Seymour Island which is a small flat island created by seismic uplift instead of volcanic activity.  Here we saw land iguanas, frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, sea lions, gulls, and pelicans.

We had just stepped foot on the island when a frigate bird took notice of us and did some flybys.  We loved watching it until….

…it started dive bombing us.  It particularly liked my 10-year-old in her bright pink rash guard, but it came after all of us.  The kids started running away (a no-no as you’re supposed to stay on the trail and not run) and taking cover.  Our guide tried to shoo it away and it nipped his finger!  Instead of helping my kids I was snapping pictures (bad mom).

My daughter blamed the incident on me for dressing her in a bright shirt.  Our guide told us this was a juvenile bird who was just playing with us – although he admitted he had never seen this happen and certainly had never been nipped by one!

The frigate bird flying away and finally leaving us alone!

The frigate bird’s most unusual trait is displayed by the males.  During the breeding season, the males inflate the thin red sac on their chest to attract females.

A docile frigate bird. The island was covered with these birds, many of the males with inflated red sacs.

We visited in June during the dry season so this Palo Santo forest was very arid, but supposedly it turns green almost instantly once the rain starts.

Blue-footed boobies live off the western coasts of Central & South America.  The population in the Galapagos Islands includes about half of all breeding pairs.  My kids have a book about blue-footed boobies that we have been reading for years.  They’ve always been captivated by this bird because of its blue feet and its funny name.  We were all excited to finally get to see one in person and North Seymour Island did not disappoint!  Not only was the island full of them, but it was also nesting season so there were plenty of babies and eggs!

Blue-footed booby adult & child.
Blue-footed booby with child & egg!

During our trip it sometimes felt like we were at a wild animal park because the wildlife was so abundant and we could get up so close without spooking the animals.  But then we were reminded that this was nature at its best.  When an animal dies, no one comes to remove it.  We ran into our fair share of dead animals and it was hard to see sometimes, but it was also a good lesson in real life.

We were walking along when we came upon a blue-footed booby nesting right in the middle of the path!  And just beyond is a dead pelican that we had to walk around.  We found it amazing that the birds set up their nests in such exposed areas – and they didn’t fly away when we got up close like this.

North Seymour Island was not a big island, but the landscape completely changed as we walked from one end to the other.

A completely different landscape than the arid forest we started in. Santa Cruz Island off in the distance.

Once we made it to the other side of the island, we encountered sea lions for the first time on this trip.  We were all amazed by how unaffected they were by our presence.  They would walk along beside us and then flop in the sand and just lay there as we all stood around.  However, this was only a small little taste of what we would encounter later in the week!

Las Bachas Beach

After spending the morning at North Seymour Island, we returned to Santa Cruz Island and stopped off at Las Bachas Beach for snorkeling and exploring.  The white sandy beach is made from decomposed coral and is a favorite spot for nesting sea turtles.  Behind the beach is a small brackish lagoon frequented by flamingos, but on the day we were there the flamingos were not!

Though we didn’t see any flamingos, we did watch a pelican making its nest right near us.  It would swoop right over us with its beak full of twigs for the nest and then head out again – over & over & over again.  We also found little red crabs in the rocks.  So colorful!

After a morning full of sightseeing, the kids just wanted to play on the beach and swim in the water!


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Next Up:  Galapagos: Days 3-4 (Santa Cruz & Santa Fe Islands), 5-7

Previous posts on Ecuador: What we loved & lessons learned, Quito & Middle of the Earth, Day Trips from Quito, Hacienda Zuleta & the Andes Mountains