Former Journey Latin America manager Janet Fox chooses an unusual but highly rewarding destination for the Easter holidays.
When I told our children, Jaime (10) and Carys (6), we were going to the Galápagos Islands they unsurprisingly had no idea what to expect.
Over the weeks that followed we established where the islands lie and why they are so special. We encouraged our daughter with her swimming lessons and felt sure that the educational value of our visit would more than justify an extra week off school.
The remote and isolated Galápagos Islands lie 600 miles off the Pacific coast of Ecuador, astride the Equator. The islands have never been part of the South American continent and are in fact the peaks of giant underwater volcanoes. Over time, the flora and fauna has adapted to the local environment and developed differently to its ancestral species on the mainland. It was this process, observed by Charles Darwin in 1835, that led to the theory behind his book The Origin of Species.
Today, the archipelago is without doubt one of the greatest tourist attractions in the Americas. The landscape is barren and volcanic, but with a unique beauty, and there are few places in the world where such a variety of weird and wonderful wildlife can be found. It is a Mecca for natural history enthusiasts and divers now consider the islands to be one of the world’s top five dive destinations.
After a two-hour flight from Quito (via Guayaquil), we were met at Baltra airstrip and taken across to Santa Cruz Island by boat, where we were driven to the Finch Bay Hotel, near Puerto Ayora. The best way to visit the Galápagos is on a boat cruise, however the Finch Bay is an ideal choice if you want to begin or end your holiday with a few days on the beach. It’s also good for families and those short on sea legs.
The hotel overlooks a small white-sand beach surrounded by mangroves in a protected bay. There are 21 air-conditioned rooms on two floors, with hammocks on the terrace outside the rooms. Facilities include a swimming pool, outdoor Jacuzzi, restaurant and bar. If you’re feeling active there are many excursions on offer. We chose sea kayaking followed by snorkelling. Having seen sharks (harmless thankfully), sea turtles and rays, our ecstatic son Jaime would happily have stayed out snorkelling for the rest of the day.
We continued our visit with a four-night cruise aboard the Santa Cruz, a first-class liner that holds up to 90 passengers. I must admit that at first my husband and I were a little sceptical about cruising on a large vessel. We’d visited Ecuador before (my husband Jorge is Ecuadorian) and our previous visit to the Galápagos, pre-children, was on a small boat in a group of only 12.
We were however pleasantly surprised by the ship’s ample space and relaxed atmosphere and most of the time felt pretty unaware that there were 80 fellow passengers on board with us. Island visits were made in small groups with guests being transferred on shore by panga (rigid inflatable zodiacs). Our group of ten, the ‘Dolphins’, comprised a mixture of Americans, Canadians and Brits. With each group being accompanied by its own well-trained, English-speaking local naturalist guide, we never once felt rushed and briefings were well pitched to keep everyone interested and involved.
At this time of year, many of the sea birds are nesting (including the magnificent waved albatross) and you have to be careful not to step on a nest as you walk along the trails. The wildlife has no fear. The large blue-footed boobies provided the comedy value with the chicks sporting downy white coats and the parents with their absurdly bright blue feet.
One advantage of being on a larger boat is that the more distant islands, such as Fernandina, can be reached by overnight sailings. For me, Fernandina was a highlight - the tiny Galápagos penguins darting through the water, the flightless cormorants hopping amongst the Sally Lightfoot crabs and the prehistoric-looking marine iguanas, Jaime’s favourite, piled up on top of each other, soaking up the sun and snorting out salt water from their nostrils.
Another firm family favourite was the giant tortoise, of which we were lucky to see several in the wild on Isabela. We also managed to see some of the rarer sub-species of giant tortoise, thanks to the islands’ breeding programme at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.
We were visiting during the hot season (January to April) and although there is very little shade on the islands, it is the perfect time of year for snorkelling as the ocean is at its warmest. Each day, the morning island visit was followed by lunch on the boat and an afternoon free to enjoy the water and its wildlife. Swimming with the sea lions was pure magic - the inquisitive pups twisting and turning in the water among us, seemingly totally unafraid of us ungainly humans.
Having worked up a healthy appetite with all this activity, the food on board far exceeded my expectations. Several varieties of bread were baked daily and there was a good choice of exotic fresh fruits, salads, fish and meats. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet-style, with waiter service at dinner. An optional child menu was available in the early evening, which proved a great way for the children to make new friends. Afterwards they happily entertained each other in the bar, without a Playstation in sight, leaving us parents alone to enjoy a leisurely dinner and uninterrupted conversation!
All in all, we had a fantastic time in the Galápagos. The Santa Cruz offered the perfect combination of a fairly active Galápagos visit with the luxury of staying on a comfortable boat. The children loved the experience and we all had great fun snorkelling together and learning so much about the fascinating wildlife and history of the islands.
Just remember, if you’re thinking of taking a family holiday to the Galápagos, be sure to have plenty of free file space on your digital camera - you’ll need it!