I visited the Galapagos Islands with my daughter Gal (aged 14) in December 2011. We were both totally blown away by our experience – it was in one word, magical. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the best safari or animal experience that I have ever had, and I’ve been on safari in Africa and India many times. The Galapagos simply took me by surprise – reading about them or even seeing photos of them was nothing like the actual experience of being there. As far as Gal was concerned, this was the best trip ever, and she just wants to find a way to go back!
The Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, are perhaps the most famous islands in the world. Made famous by Charles Darwin in his book “Origin of the Species” over 150 years ago, the Galapagos have fired the imaginations of generations ever since. Most people know that the islands are a place where some of the most unusual animals in the world can be found, but how easy is it to visit, and can one go with kids?
I didn’t really know what to expect – the islands are not famous for their exotic beauty – there are no world-famous beaches, bent palm trees or the like. Rather, they are the leftovers of massive ancient volcanic eruptions, and in many islands the fields of lava stretch forbiddingly into the distance. Of course I knew about Darwin and his research, and the fact that species developed on the islands completely independently from the mainland, but nevertheless, none of this prepares you for what you are going to see and experience, which is an adventure with mammals, birds and fish that you simply cannot experience anywhere else.
Getting there: Getting there is easy – you fly to Quito or Guayaquil in Ecuador, an easy four hour flight from Miami or Houston, and then catch a connecting flight to the islands. Prices for flights to the islands are fixed by the government and are currently around $400 return, though they are very likely to rise soon as Ecuador does away with some oil subsidies. The direct flight takes about 2 hours from Quito, and an hour from Guayaquil. Currently three airlines connect the Galapagos to mainland Ecuador.
The islands have two airports – we landed at Baltra, which is pretty much a bare patch of land with an airport on it, originally built by the USA during World War 2. Baltra offers nothing else – you either catch your boat there, or you take a short bus and ferry ride to the nearest inhabited island (there are three inhabited islands in total). On arrival you pass through internal immigration – there is very strict control of people entering and leaving the islands, and foreigners need to pay a total of $110 each ($100 National Parks fee and $10 immigration) to enter.
There are two ways to see the Galapagos – one is by boat, where you will eat , sleep and from where all your activities will be based, while the other is to be based on land – either on a single island from where you can visit other neighboring islands, or by staying for a few days on each of the inhabited islands. We would be on a boat. Our boat was a first class boat (there are various classes) with about 16 passengers. Small enough to access all of the visitor sites in the Galapagos, and with a well regarded guide and crew. Boats range in class and in size, from really basic to super luxury, and from 10 to about 100 passengers. The experience will be very different from boat to boat depending on your fellow passengers, the comfort factor and size, and the level of activities. Our cruise would take 8 days – others run for a little as 3 or 4 days, and up to as long as 15 days.
Are boats better than a land based trip? The jury is out. Boats are excellent, but you may well get sick (I did) and you never know who you are going to be stuck with for over a week. Also, boats are simply not suitable for small kids – there isn’t enough room to run around, and there is always the possibility that someone may fall overboard. A land based trip makes much more sense for families with kids under, say 10 or 12 years old.
The Galapagos has never been a cheap destination – the islands are remote and most of the supplies are shipped or flown in. The demand for tourist services is high and the number of boats and hotels is limited, so you’ll never find a really budget way to visit. A trip to the Galapagos should be compared with a safari to Africa in terms of expense perhaps. Expect land based trips and boat prices to be broadly similar.
Within about 15 minutes of leaving the airport we were in a zodiac making our way to our boat anchored offshore. Cabins were small – we had a double bunk and a small en suite toilet and shower. Our fellow passengers all had similar accommodation (some had a double bed). Within a short while we had met each other and our guide, and were eating lunch, the first of many outstanding meals cooked up by the chef from his tiny galley kitchen.
What about our fellow passengers? Gal was the youngest – we had two sisters in their 20’s, but mostly the ages ranged from mid 30’s to mid 50’s and came from all over the world – USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Holland, Switzerland, Ireland and Spain. Touring the Galapagos is a very active trip – it involves daily hiking, as well as snorkeling. There is as much to see on the land as there is in the ocean.
More to come soon!
PS I now plan trips to Ecuador and the Galapagos. For more info click here: