By Lisa Tucker McElroy
May 1, 2011
It's hard to imagine that a tortoise could possibly be as big as my 11-year-old, but it's true -- at least when Zoe knelt down next to it. And the fact that we could get up close and personal with giant tortoises in their own environment is really what a trip to the Galapagos is all about in the first place. For my daughter, a kid who loves science, animals and the outdoors, this Galapagos cruise -- in the islands first described by Darwin -- was a trip made in heaven.
Our trip began with a flight from Philadelphia to Quito, Ecuador, changing planes in Miami. The modern LAN plane had comfortable seats with built-in movies and video games that were perfect for my tween companion. Thanks to AdventureSmith Explorations (a broker for small-ship adventures), our ride to the hotel was waiting for us when we landed.
Once at the Hotel Patio Andaluz, we were happy about two things, in particular: first, that we took our doctor's recommendation of taking medication to prevent altitude sickness (at about 9,200 feet above sea level, Quito is the world's second-highest capital) and, second, that we packed light. The tour operator only allows 44 pounds of luggage per person on its yacht-based Galapagos cruises, but it's so warm here at the equator that we do not even need that much -- light layers, swimsuits and sandals are more than adequate year-round.
After breakfast at the hotel, we set off to explore Quito. Visitors to the city should not miss the old part of town where, back in the 16th century, Spanish missionaries set up gilded churches, convents and monasteries every few blocks. The town square is a public meeting place, and Zoe enjoyed wandering around and eating the excellent empanadas sold at stands and cafes along the way.
The next day, we were itching to buy some local crafts, so our tour guide took us to head to Otovalo, an Ecuadorian market town where indigenous artisans from all around the country come to sell their wares. We fully intended to buy only a few gifts but, somehow, that plan fell by the wayside as we ended up buying several large alpaca blankets, five or six toys, some necklaces, earrings and a dozen scarves -- all for a total of about $100. The highlight? Local children (including a little girl who couldn't be much older than three), dressed in native costumes, sang Ecuadorian songs for us as we left. On the way home, we stopped to snap a few photos of ourselves straddling the equator for Zoe's science teacher back home.
Out to Sea
The next day, it was time to hit the water. We headed back to the airport and took a flight to San Cristobal, the largest town in the Galapagos islands. Cecibel, our trained naturalist, met our flight and brought us to the harbor where our 20-passenger Ecoventura yacht, the Letty, was docked. As soon as we caught a glimpse of the boat, Zoe started screaming. "Mom, look, it's so pretty. And it's so big," she said. "Can I fly like a bird on the front part like they did in Titanic?"
We had only been in the Galapagos for half an hour, and I could already tell we were going to have a great time.
And have a wonderful time, we did, especially Zoe, who couldn't get enough of the fresh fruit and fish, the daily snorkeling and the nature walks during which she asked a million questions of the infinitely patient Cecibel. In fact, my usually cranky-in-the-morning middle-schooler was awake and raring to go before the 7 a.m. alarm sounded (the crew sang to wake us up, which is pretty funny if you're 11). Throughout the trip I could always count on her to be the first one on the sun deck with the binoculars after breakfast and the first with her life jacket on when it was time to go ashore.
The daily schedule was extremely well organized: The crew sailed the ship overnight to a new island, then woke us for breakfast followed by a morning hike. On land, the naturalists explained the plants and animals that are native to each island, giving us plenty of time for photos, rest and questions. The easy nature hikes lasted two to three hours but covered only a mile or two, allowing people of different ages and abilities to easily keep up. In fact, we never needed the hiking boots that the company recommended on its packing list -- closed-toe sneakers worked just fine even on the sometimes rocky trails.
After a hot lunch, we would often snooze in the South American siesta tradition, then wake up for some snorkeling and beach time. Because the Ecoventura yachts can make their way into the smaller coves that larger cruise ships can't, we often had the beaches and trails to ourselves -- except for the sea lions, water birds, crabs and iguanas, that is. We took more photos than we could count with our underwater camera. Finally, when we were ready, we would take the dinghy back to the Letty, where drinks and appetizers awaited us. In the evening, we would get a briefing on the next day's activities, eat a gourmet dinner and, finally, sail overnight to the next island while we slept.
Clients considering the Galapagos probably know that ecological preservation is paramount in the islands. In fact, the archipelago is mostly national park, meaning that visitors cannot enter without a naturalist guide. What they may not know, however, is how well preserved the islands truly are; with the exception of a few footpaths, they seem untouched, with animals roaming and birds flying only inches away. While visitors cannot touch or feed the animals, they can get quite close, making for terrific photos (even when taken by an 11-year-old). Even better, each island is also home to unique wildlife, meaning that each day brings a new and different adventure.
Ecoventura's excellent environmentally friendly cruises attract families from around the world; onboard our ship were families from Australia, Panama, Venezuela and Mexico -- all the better for Zoe to meet some pen pals. Perhaps by coincidence, many of the kids on our cruise had special needs (among them, autism and cerebral palsy), but the crew accommodated their dietary and mobility restrictions as if it was an everyday thing. Especially impressive is the crew's affinity for children -- the bartender remembered Zoe's Shirley Temple order from evening to evening and helped her learn to ask for it in Spanish, the dinghy captain tied kayaks together and pulled the kids around with the speedboat engine and the snorkeling guides held the little ones' hands while they learned to breathe with their faces in the water. After a few days, I felt like Zoe's friend and roommate, not her mom, and Zoe loved her independence and the bond she created with the Spanish-speaking crew.
That bond -- to the crew, to the other families, to the nature in these breathtaking islands -- made it hard to leave the Galapagos. Still, I came away from this trip committed to sustaining the earth and all of the creatures who live on it. As for Zoe? She's practicing her Spanish and reading up on Darwin -- with the goal of becoming an Ecoventura naturalist herself one day.
AdventureSmith Explorations matches guests with the top names in small-ship cruising as well as with intimate, boutique ships that may not make the radar of most travelers.
AdventureSmith books Galapagos cruises through Ecoven-tura. Departures for the eight-day cruises are every Sunday; all cruises are via three identical, 20-passenger expedition yachts -- the Letty, Flamingo and Eric. AdventureSmith Explorations offers an 11-day package with time in Quito before and after the cruise.
The price, per person, for an 11-day itinerary like the one profiled here is $4,695 to $5,595. The cost includes three nights Quito hotel accommodations with breakfast, all airport and hotel transfers, Galapagos flight, Galapagos National Park entrance fees and taxes, Galapagos transit card, an eight-day/seven-night Galapagos cruise, all onboard meals and the services of an experienced Galapagos Islands naturalist guide.