Visiting the Galapagos Islands with Kids
The Galapagos Islands have exuded an exotic, remote and unattainable destination that’s usually reserved for travel bucket lists. This group of about 20 islands (only four have human population) off the coast of Ecuador has some of the most diverse and unique plants and animals in the world. The Galapagos are a UNESCO World Heritage site, and 97% of the archipelago is reserved as a national park. We fulfilled a family travel wish last year when we spent a week to explore the islands. Here are our best tips for planning travel to the Galapagos Islands.
10 Tips to Plan a Galapagos Trip
Cruise vs. Land Based
There is a common misconception that the only way to see the Galapagos Islands is by booking a multi-day cruise, but there are other options. Cruises are an ideal way to see more of the islands but can come with a hefty price tag per person and have a set sailing schedule. However, visitors don’t have to worry about the logistics as they are transported to and from each island. Lodging, beverages, food and guided shore excursions with a naturalist guide are included in the rates plus the use of snorkeling equipment and wet suits.
Some cruises can be booked last minute at a fraction of the cost, but you risk not finding availability and not getting on the best choice of ships. As you’re reviewing cruises, make sure they don’t have age restrictions and look for children’s discounts. Research the islands on the itineraries and what the highlights are for each island. One cruise geared towards families I saw that was completely booked months in advance was Ecoventura. They have designated Family Departures for families with kids ages 7 and up and offer family-friendly activities.
The alternative to cruises is a land or hotel based option. We did a DIY five-night, land-based option which was considerably cheaper than the cruises and allowed for a flexible itinerary. Cruises have a set schedule that may not be ideal when planning around school and activity schedules. Most of the cruise ship time frames didn’t fit our schedule during the U.S. Thanksgiving break in late November.
Land or hotel based trips allow you to plan a more personalized itinerary while traveling to the Galapagos on a budget. Visitors can use the populated islands (Santa Cruz, Isabella, San Cristobal) as a base and island hop or like us, stay on one island to explore it further. There are also tour companies that offer land-based itineraries covering 2 to 4 islands. We stayed in Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz which is the most populated city on the islands. It resembled a Caribbean cruise port with tour companies, restaurants, lodging and many shops.
Traveling to the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are about 600 miles from Ecuador’s mainland. Quito and Guayaquil were the gateway cities for the two-hour flights. Be sure to get to the airport 2 to 3 hours before your Galapagos flight since transit cards ($20 per person cash) need to be filled out. All luggage including purses were thoroughly checked for anything that could pose a threat to the native plants and animals.
Baltra (GPS) and San Cristobal (SCY) are the islands’ two airports. We flew into Baltra since this was the closest to our destination of Santa Cruz Island. Non-Ecuadorian nationals must pay an entry fee of $100 for adults and $50 for children under 12 years old. (Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar.)
Puerto Ayora made for a great home base due to the many attractions and amenities on Santa Cruz Island. These are the major activities we did and some tips specific to the island.
Visit Charles Darwin Research Center
The scientist Charles Darwin spent a lot of time on the islands while studying his evolution theory. This free attraction is a great orientation to the islands. There were several exhibits on the research and conservation of the animals and plants at the Darwin Research Center. It also housed enclosures of iguanas and giant tortoises in different stages. It’s also a great place to see them breeding baby tortoises.
Hang out with Giant Tortoises
The giant tortoise is the unofficial symbol of the Galapagos. Visiting a turtle reserve is a must when in Santa Cruz. Located in the highlands where many of the farms are located, there are two reserves where the giant tortoises hang out: El Chato Reserve and El Rancho Primicias. Our taxi driver recommended Primicias since it had fewer tourist vans. A fence separates the farms so the tortoises wander between them.
We encountered so many giant tortoises freely roaming in their natural habitat. It almost felt like we were in some pre-historic park. Our early morning visit ensured we practically had the farm to ourselves. Visitors must follow these three rules: don’t use flash when taking photos, stay 6 1/2 feet (2 meters) away from the tortoises; don’t touch the tortoises. Everyone can wander around the reserve to observe them. It was incredible come face to face with these tortoises whose average life span is over 100 years. Though most times the tortoises just ignored us. My kids also enjoyed climbing into giant tortoise shells here.
Relax at Beaches and Swimming Holes
It was a pleasant surprise to find stunning beaches with turquoise waters and fine, white sand in Santa Cruz. Tortuga Bay was one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve visited, but we also shared the shoreline with many marine iguanas, which are endemic to the Galapagos Islands. It was so interesting to watch them swim to shore or the lava rocks. It was like the Animal Planet show come to life.
It was a bit of a surreal experience to see several birds we’ve never seen before and marine iguanas passing us as we relaxed on the beach. The nearby lagoon area, surrounded by mangroves, cacti and other plants only found here, was an ideal place to kayak and spot sea turtles and stingrays.
We also loved visiting Las Grietas which was located between two volcanic cliffs. This swimming hole had clear turquoise waters where ocean saltwater mixes with rainwater. It was a refreshing swim after a hike through a cacti forest, volcanic rocks and colorful salt lagoons.
For a different perspective, we also enjoyed and recommend a glass-bottom boat and snorkeling tour. Life underneath the surface was just amazing, and we spotted some large, white tip sharks and sea turtles. The tour ended at an islet with some large marine iguanas lounging on the lava rocks. On Santa Cruz, there were also options to take snorkeling tours to other islands as day trips.
Options for Galapagos Day Trips
In order to really see a diverse wildlife, it’s almost necessary to take a day trip to the neighboring uninhabited islands. Many tour operators offer day trips that average about $150 per person and include transportation aboard a large boat, a naturalist guide (mandatory for visiting uninhabited islands) and lunch. Cash is preferred or there’s a 10% markup for paying with credit cards. These day trips can add up so when you are planning, choose which islands you want to visit and compare your total costs vs. booking a cruise.
Uninhabited islands must be visited with a naturalist guide. Each island offers something unique. Only a few tours are allowed on these islands, and they are heavily regulated by the Galapagos National Park Service. We decided to visit North Seymour Island which was the closest island to Santa Cruz at 45 minutes away. It was incredible to see many blue-footed boobies, Sally Lightfoot crabs, frigate birds and their chicks, many sea lions and their pups during our visit.
We also stopped at the nearby islet of Mosquera which was mainly inhabited by hundreds of sea lions sleeping on the white sand beach and unafraid of humans. Two of my son’s memorable experiences were swimming with sea lions while snorkeling and playing a chasing game with a curious sea lion.
Where to Eat on Santa Cruz Island
There are no fast food places on the islands so don’t expect any Starbucks or McDonald’s here. But fresh seafood is plentiful. We loved going to the fish market daily in Puerto Ayora to watch the pelicans, herons and sea lions battle each other for fish scraps. There were also plenty of other restaurants for those who crave pizza, burgers and local Ecuadorian cuisine.
We loved calle de los kioscos which is a street of restaurants also known as seafood alley. Charles Binford Street is closed off nightly, and the restaurants lining the street set up tables outside with their fresh fish and lobster. The lobsters were huge! They cook them any way you want with various sauces and include sides of salad, rice, beans and plantains. Our meals (including the lobster) were usually under $20 and could feed two people. It’s also community dining in the middle of the street so it was a great way to interact with other tourists and locals. We ate here practically every night during our stay.
Getting Around Santa Cruz
There is no issue getting around the islands if you’re on a cruise since transportation is provided. A land-based option requires getting around using the island’s taxis: white pickup trucks that held a maximum of four passengers. They were easy to flag down and took us around town for only $1. Puerto Ayora also wasn’t very big and was very easy and safe to walk around. Tours usually come with transportation. Ferries also run daily from Santa Cruz to the other populated islands of Isabella and San Cristobal.
Best Time to Visit the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands are a year-round destination. Peak season is between June and September and mid-December to mid-January. During these times, prices are higher and availability on cruises and tours can be limited. December through May is the rainy season, but the water is warmer for snorkeling. We were told that during that time all the trees are lush and filled with colorful leaves and flowers are in bloom. It is also the land birds’ mating season and when sea turtles nest at the beach.
June through November offer cooler weather and water but a dryer season. The trees were bare during our November visit. We saw plenty of sea lion pups and many frigate bird and blue-footed booby chicks. If you’re cruising, the waters are calmest between February and April.
We highly recommend visiting the Galapagos Islands for an extraordinary wildlife experience. Whether you choose to cruise, island hop or do a land-based trip to the Galapagos, you’re guaranteed a memorable experience. We loved our short and sweet visit to the islands and can’t wait to return soon.
Try to spend a minimum of a day before and after your Galapagos trip at Quito or Guayaquil for some rest and sightseeing. Hilton Colon Guayaquil was a wonderful hotel close to the airport and the city attractions.
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Mary lives in San Diego, California with her husband, 13 year-old daughter and 10 year-old son. She was born in the Philippines, grew up in the U.S. territory…