A mom and son see a giant tortoise on a Family Galapagos Adventure.

I have three kids whose interests could not possibly be any different. Trying to plan a successful family vacation for a fashion student/model only interested in nightlife and spots that will go off on her Instagram, a foodie whose ideal trip revolves around dessert, long naps and antique stores, and a very active nature lover is, well, near impossible. No matter what I chose for a family vacation in the past, someone was always miserable—and often, that person ended up being me.

While I had dreamed of the perfect family getaway where we all laughed together as we created joyful family memories, full of life and bonding like never before, a few years back, I decided to try living in reality. Instead of a trip where only one, maximum two, of four people are happy, I committed to taking each child on a solo vacation, just them and me, that was centered around what they would most enjoy. And for my ever-curious, tireless, nature-loving son Noah, that meant adventuring together to the Galapagos Islands.

Looking out at the ocean on a Family Galapagos Adventure.

Galapagos is an archipelago of 19 volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. 97% of the islands are a national park, all except the very few inhabited parts. The Galápagos National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, a marine reserve in 1980 and a biosphere reserve in 1986. I knew that Noah would stay engaged by the constant change that is inevitable here. Each island is unique and to be fully explored by different fun activities like boating, hiking, and snorkeling. The Galapagos Islands lie on the Equator and are surrounded by different ocean currents—some very warm, some very cold. It’s this oddball mix of currents that make the islands’ climate and their biodiversity so unique. Both cold-water and tropical creatures survive in harmony here. Imagine iguanas warming themselves in the sun as tiny penguins playfully swim just a few feet away. The lack of predators here has made animal life unafraid of humans. Even today, visitors to the Galapagos can get within touching distance of the wildlife—but on that note, just because you could definitely doesn’t mean you should.

Our first experience of just how unbothered the animals were by us was when we were meandering down a beach on Fernandina Island and encountered a roadblock of thousands of marine iguanas. In my head, they would scutter about to try to avoid us. Nope. They just sat there, huddled together tightly, leaving absolutely no way for us to pass. Mind you, these are not small creatures. They grow up to 4.5 feet in length (their size depends on the island they live on). These remarkable reptiles are the only marine lizards on the planet. When the iguanas first arrived from the mainland, there was very little for them to eat, so they had to adapt to survive. In their case, this meant that they evolved to be very strong swimmers that can stay underwater for half an hour, and they dive up to 90 feet deep to search for seaweed and other algae found on rocks underwater to eat. Noah and I both couldn’t stop laughing when we learned from up a little too close and personal that to get rid of the salt they’ve absorbed from the sea, they sneeze white snot everywhere. While they dive in the cold water out of necessity, they’re cold-blooded animals, so they need to warm up and regain the energy lost while diving. That’s why they huddle up in such swarms and don’t move. There is also safety in numbers which helps to protect them from predators such as hawks while they’re sunbathing.

The Galapagos giant tortoise, which the islands are famous for, is no stranger to predators, but its biggest threat has unfortunately always come from man.  This majestic creature is massive, weighing over 500 pounds, and its shell can be between four and five feet long. In nature, it can live for up to 150 years! There are two distinct types of giant tortoise in the archipelago. Those with domed shells (right) live on wetter islands, eating lush vegetation on the ground. Tortoises with saddle-shaped shells (left) that curl up at the front live on drier islands. The curve allows them to stretch their extra-long necks up to eat the leaves of tall plants. From the 1600s to the 1800s, it is estimated that over 150,000 of these gorgeous creatures were killed for both meat and their impressive shell. Today, only between 20,000 and 25,000 remain. Five thousand of these congregate in one location, the slopes of Alcedo Volcano on Isabela Island. It is so easy to see why author Herman Melville called the Galapagos Las Islas Encantadas or the “Enchanted Isles.” Crossing paths with these ancient creatures walking excruciatingly slow, very Zen-like, through a misty meadow, makes the whole experience feel straight out of a fairy tale.

Marine iguanas in the Galapagos.

Also making our experience surreal was getting to observe the blue-footed boobies in action. Named after the Spanish word ‘bobo,’ which means ‘clown,’ these birds are a bit wonky and weird, to say the least. Males communicate with whistles, and females honk, making for quite the concert. It was easy not to take them all that seriously until we saw them hunt. They dive into the sea surprisingly stealth-like for such a funky, waddly-looking creature and can hit the water at over 60 miles per hour from over 300 feet in the air to expertly catch fish. Over half of the world’s blue-footed boobies live in the Galápagos, and they are quite easy to come across. Only if you make it to San Cristobal Island will you be able to see red-footed boobies.

One of our favorite parts of the trip was not knowing exactly what adventure would await us the next day. Crossings between islands took place at night to maximize time for exploration during the day, and the captain of our boat took many variables into account to decide which island would be best to travel to that evening. In the morning, we would wake up excitedly to see where we were.  Would we spend the day swimming with tropical fish, harmless reef sharks, sea turtles and penguins? Would we go kayaking for a new perspective of the scenic volcanic coastline, only to be surprised by the nearby breaching of a Bryde’s whale or an inquisitive sea lion that popped its head out of the water to curiously check us out?  Would we be hopping onto a Zodiac to cruise along the rocky shores to take pictures of the blue-footed boobies contrasting with vivid orange Sally lightfoot crabsOr hiking to find rocks where Darwin’s crew carved their names, making history something much more real than what it seems learned only from a textbook in school?

Learning about geology on a Family Galapagos Adventure.

On that note, as a parent, I was pleasantly surprised at how my son was engaged and excited to learn about things that he had never shown any interest in before. I knew he would dig the animal life, but he never cared for geology or history at all. But these subjects became real and relevant to his everyday experience there, and he was in a relaxed state to take it all in with a sense of wonder.  It was super cool to him to learn when we were on a small black sand beach of Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos islands, that the island was created when six volcanoes flowed together and that it somehow ended up being shaped like a seahorse. Or that just a few years prior, Cerro Azul actually erupted there. He was fascinated to learn that the Galapagos Islands are still moving today, over two inches to the southeast every year, almost like they’re on a geological conveyor belt. History came alive when we were on Floreana, and he heard tales from our guide of pirates who once hid out here. A post office established by British whalers in 1793 is still around on this island.  And it’s one thing to see whale bones perfectly arranged in a museum, but to happen to run into a bunch of gigantic whale bones on the beach?  Way more exciting—I think he felt like a real scientist out in the field, exploring and discovering and learning.

Playing in the ocean on a Family Galapagos Adventure

I’m convinced that there may be no nature destination on the planet quite as unique as the Galapagos Islands. And to be able to spend time with my enthusiastic son as he rattled off fun facts about Darwin that he’d just learned, as he tried not to giggle while snorkeling with playful penguins, as we doubled over in laughter together when we went back to the beach only to find a sea lion cozied up on his beach towel he’d laid out, as we sat in silence together in awe of the giant tortoises we ran across in a forest—it was an absolutely priceless experience that we will be talking about for decades to come.

All photos © Cathy Brown