Close Encounters in the Galapagos Islands

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Need Caption (Carla Hunt)
Carla Hunt’s granddaughter, Morgan, exploring the Galapagos Islands. (Carla Hunt)

Charles Darwin sailed into the Galapagos Islands in 1835, and what he found are most of the same natural wonders that scientists, amateur naturalists and visitors bearing binoculars and cameras see today: Antarctic penguins and fur seals living right on the equator, cormorants that swim but no longer fly, sun flowers growing to treetop heights—just a sampling of flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth.

To cruise around these Islas Encantadas (Enchanted Isles) is simply one of the most exceptional travel experiences anywhere—a true voyage of discovery. And don’t let anyone tell you that there is any more wondrous place on earth for families to explore together. Here, among 13 major islands, isolated 600 miles off coastal Ecuador, kids respond to the magic of Galapagos as they track Sally Lightfoot crabs sidling across dark lava rocks; meet yellow land iguanas basking on the sand and tangles of black marine iguanas clinging to the cliffs; walk among giant tortoises in the highlands; and join the families of sea lions as they play like kittens from water to land and back again.

I know this natural bonanza to be totally true, based on onsite inspections and on-going wonder during some 10 cruise and/or land visits in the Galapagos—recently updated with my best-cruise-ever in the company of my granddaughter, 11-year-old Morgan Hunt. This grandmother gets credit for my being invited by Bill Roberson, whose adventure tour company INCA is the worldwide representative of the sleek, comfy, luxurious, 16-passenger yacht Integrity, which sails on 7-night itineraries visiting islands on either the Eastern or Western Route, both charted by the Galapagos National Park.

My favorite islands lie East, the routing on the 11-day Origin of Species program that includes two nights in Quito at the Hilton Colon Quito and two days on Santa Cruz Island in the company of giant tortoises that share the highlands with the magical Galapagos Safari Camp, where we overnighted in luxury tents.

This grandmother gets no credit for the perfect draw in guides—Dutch-born naturalist Ian Post, who is wildly knowledgeable, fun, and passionate about conserving the world we live in. Grandma credits the luck of the draw in booking aboard a passenger-perfect boat: 10 smart, skillful, sharing adults from all walks of life plus four fabulous kids roughly the same ages, who bond immediately during this very active cruise, with daily hikes on land, almost twice daily snorkeling and kayaking.

And I take no credit, but great pride, in my choice of roommate, for Morgan is not only a relaxed, engaged and engaging traveler, but she swims like a sea lion and keeps to the daily task of maintaining a trip journal—liberally sprinkled with the word amazing.

Lay of the Land & Sea
Each Galapagos island is different, and every Galapagos visitor has their favorites. Mine start with Española with its dramatic black lava cliffs, packed with blow holes shooting water geysers high in the air. Morgan’s journal recorded the island visit: “We woke up at 6:30 a.m. to go on a 2-hour hike before breakfast. We saw lots of sea lions and the Española mocking bird. After breakfast, we did our first snorkeling trip, and saw schools of colorful fish and coral. It was amazing as sea lions would come right up to your face, then dart away, and swim around us.”

On San Cristobal Island, some cruise passengers opted for a morning hike to spot blue- and red-footed boobies mating and nesting. The day also included time for kayaking and snorkeling at Kicker Rock swimming amongst sharks, sea turtles, fish and sting rays. Time on Rabida Island was spent walking on a beach that was “red because of the volcanic ash,” as Morgan explains, spotting flamingoes, and snorkeling among penguins, sting rays, sharks and eels.

My other island favorite is Genovesa, whose skies are filled with swallow-tailed gulls, petrels, shearwaters, red-billed tropic birds and soaring great frigate birds with 7-ft. wingspans; all three species of the Galapagos booby gang are here (the red-footed, blue-footed
and masked).

Active days on each island are topped off with family-friendly gatherings such as a crossing the Equator fiesta and a barbeque dinner on the top deck.

INCA offers Galapagos Islands cruises ranging from eight to 18 days. The 11-day Origin of Species cruise is priced from $6,095 pp dbl for the balance of this year; from $6,995 in 2017.

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