Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A Galapagos adventure evolves

It's survival of the fittest on hot, rugged hikes, but kids' wonderment worth it

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2"We can't put toilet paper in the toilet and we can't drink the tap water. On our hike this afternoon, we saw two sea turtles mating near the shore. Then we went snorkelling and I saw a shark! We also saw one spotted ray, three giant manta rays, and tons of fish."

Although my husband and I had been to the Galapagos Islands twice before, in January last year we had the opportunity to return with our eldest son, his wife, and their two children, Jordyn, 11, and Christopher, 13, embarking on a seven-night, eight-day, boat-based exploration of the islands. Watching our grandchildren encounter the unique and unusual wildlife turned out to be an experience that exceeded our expectations.

The children were the ideal age for such an adventure. They were able to participate fully in all the physical activities, namely the daily hikes, usually over rocky, hilly terrain in hot, humid conditions. They listened quietly and intently to the naturalist's stories and took many photos. They were as fascinated, as were the adults, by the free, fearless creatures and the oddities of Galapagos wildlife -- penguins on the equator, flightless cormorants, and bobbies with large, bright-blue feet. Other passengers commented on the children's unbridled enthusiasm.

A New York Times article described how parents are spending considerable money on family travel. The Galapagos was mentioned three times. Although the article focused on wealthy parents and expensive trips organized by outside agencies, it pointed out that these parents see family travel not just as a luxury, but as something they embrace for both educational value and life lessons. Travel, they say, exposes children to different cultures and issues they would never encounter in their daily lives.

Jordyn considered it noteworthy that we were not to drink water from the tap. Although this happens to be true for tourists everywhere in Ecuador and many other parts of the world, Jordyn never had to consider this before. There were many other learning opportunities, but through this one experience alone, she perhaps realized the clean water that flows from the tap in her hometown of Pueblo, Colo., is not to be taken for granted.

At the end of every day, as we sat together eating dinner, I asked the children: "What was your highlight today?" After the first day, Jordyn had two highlights: how the magnificent male frigate bird attracted females by ballooning the red pouch beneath his bill to such an extent he could hardly see over it, and the sea-lion pup that came right up to her, sniffing at the strap of her water-bottle holder. Chris liked "everything, especially the iguanas."

Little did we know then that after supper that night, we would witness a shark "show." At least 10 large sharks swarmed around the ship, feeding on fish. Many of the fish escaped being devoured by jumping out of the water and "flying" for several metres over the surface of the ocean. Among the sharks, a lone sea lion bravely competed for the catch of the day. "You don't get to see this every day!" exclaimed Jordyn.

Blue-footed bobbies were the highlight the next day, especially the juvenile that looked at us so curiously. Then there were the nursing sea-lion pups. Another day, it was the Galapagos penguins standing at attention on the rocky shore as we cruised by on the panga (skiff). The children expressed sadness about an abandoned albatross chick.

Another day, a highlight was the prehistoric-looking giant tortoises and seeing Lonesome George, the celebrated century-old tortoise that is the last of his subspecies from Pinta island, at the Charles Darwin Research Station. After one stiflingly hot day when we had trekked up Dragon Hill on Santa Cruz Island, the children said their highlight was simply "the breeze at the top of the hill."

There were many more high points. Woven through them, for all of us, was the sense of fairy-tale magic that many of the guidebooks describe.

"The magic and spell of the Enchanted Isles (as the Galapagos Islands were once named) really do exist," says one.

Another suggests you will think you've stumbled upon an alternate universe, some strange utopian colony organized by sea lions and arranged on principles of mutual co-operation.

-- Postmedia News


Continental Airlines flies from Edmonton to Houston (direct, non-stop), with a connection to Quito, Ecuador.

A "cruise" to the Galapagos will, on average, cost $2,500 to $3,000 per person, which may or may not include the flight from Quito to the Galapagos or park entrance fees.

Children under 11 are half-price on most boats. In our case, the two grandchildren and their parents took one "inside" stateroom as well as one "outside" stateroom to reduce costs. The inside stateroom proved adequate for a good night's sleep, but the outside room with its two large windows was nicer for hanging out during the day. They also used reward Air Miles to fly to Ecuador, which greatly reduced costs.

Do not hesitate to do some comparison shopping. Knowing what boat we wanted, we searched the Internet and found the best price through a travel company in the U.S., a quote later matched by a local cruise agency.

There is no doubt the best prices are to be had when booking from within Ecuador. However, one takes the chance the most desirable boats will be full. Having said that, when we disembarked from the Galapagos Legend, it was going to take on only 50 new passengers and would be continuing its journey half-full. Two years ago, a group of colleagues booked a Galapagos trip locally through Metropolitan Touring in Quito. They paid $1,700 for five nights on a fine boat, the Santa Cruz.

Boats sail the Galapagos seven days a week, 365 days a year. There is really no bad time to visit. The warmest months are from December to June. January to March can be hot and humid, as we experienced. Besides being in the depths of our cold winter, January is a great time to visit the Galapagos because land birds start nesting, sea turtles arrive on the beaches to lay eggs, on Espanola the adult male marine iguanas become brightly coloured, and water temperatures are warm, ideal for snorkelling.

Good walking shoes, high-grade sunblock and a hat are essential. Snorkelling gear can be rented on board.

It's truly amazing to see so many species living so closely and peacefully together. The sandy beaches surrounded by high cliffs and volcanoes and the shimmering expanse of ocean are captivating. But the magic and spell these writers mention likely refer to how the creatures of the Galapagos have not learned or adapted themselves to fly or shy away when humans approach.

On the contrary, they seem downright inquisitive about us, their visitors. This experience is a continual source of pleasure and amazement. It is a daily occurrence to witness courting and mating, to have to detour around a blue-footed booby sitting on an egg, or a sea lion nursing her pup or sleeping on the path.

Not your ordinary cruise

TRAVEL by boat to the Galapagos is not a "cruise" such as one takes to the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. Rather, a trip to the Galapagos can be classified as adventure travel.

Consider mainland Ecuador as base camp, a place of departure and return for an "expedition" to the Galapagos Islands, 1,000 kilometres away.

One must be in reasonably good physical condition. Besides the hiking, the task of getting from the main ship to a small panga to go ashore, as well as the dry or wet landings, can be difficult, especially when the ocean is not calm. One elderly couple on our boat remained on board the entire week after discovering they were not up to the physical demands.

Another difference is the lack of amenities one comes to expect on a cruise. We chose a seven-night journey on the Galapagos Legend, a length of time that enabled us to explore the islands of North Seymour, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Espanola, San Cristobal, Bartolome, Isabela, Fernandina, Rabida and Santiago. From past experience, we knew this boat to be clean and comfortable, with delicious and hygienically prepared meals.

The Legend is one of only five 100-passenger ships, the largest that are permitted to cruise the Galapagos. For those susceptible to seasickness, a larger boat is likely better. Even then, we cannot deny that we got rocked to sleep a few nights as the ship sailed.

On our boat, we did not have Internet access and were out of cellphone range for most of the eight days. There was one dining room where all passengers ate together, and two bars, one inside and another on deck. There was a small pool the size of a large hot tub on deck. Although passengers sat around the pool, we never actually saw anyone in it.

There was a very small library with books about the Galapagos or novels left by previous guests. Despite the lack of amenities, I was struck by the fact Chris and Jordyn never complained of boredom or became absorbed with their electronics. During our downtime at midday, when it was too hot to venture ashore, the children downloaded their photographs and worked on their reports for school.

There are many choices of boats with which to explore the Galapagos, from a Celebrity 90-passenger cruise ship to a comfortable 16-person yacht to a small converted fishing boat. There are boat-based trips with nights spent aboard.

It's also possible to do day trips, returning to the same hotel on one of the two main inhabited islands each night. The problem with the day trips is you really need to explore an island early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the intense heat, and that is difficult to do with day trips. It would also be impossible to reach the outer islands such as Fernandina and Isabela.

Whatever boat is chosen, be aware that according to Galapagos National Park rules, a certified naturalist guide must always accompany visitors during excursions to the islands.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 D3

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