I just returned from a two-week trip to Ecuador which included a visit to the amazing Galapagos Islands. This trip was slightly different as it was my first opportunity to introduce my children, ages five and seven respectively, to expedition travel. First off, I would like to say that giving the gift of travel to your children breathes new life into the phrase, 'trip of a lifetime.' As I think back to the sights, sounds, smiles and fun we all had, there is absolutely no question in my mind that this incredible experience will help to greatly enhance all our lives for many years to come.
Armed with a small arsenal of electronics, age-appropriate workbooks, and a slew of travel-size games, we set off from Seattle in the early hours of the morning. On arrival in Quito, we were met by our smiling guide and whisked off to our hotel. I chose the Marriott as our first stop, thinking that at least a familiar environment for the first night or two might be welcome. We were not disappointed and enjoyed two nights in the city acclimatizing and preparing for our upcoming adventure.
Located 10,000 feet above sea level, with a population of 2.5 million, the city of Quito is a thriving metropolis. With a growing middle class, a new airport under construction and a government investing significantly in the country's infrastructure, Ecuador is definitely moving ahead. Ecuador's geographic location straddling the equator provides the optimal year-round climate for agriculture which has helped to position the country as one of world's leading exporter of crops such as bananas, roses and exotic grains such as quinoa. An ideal temperate climate, extremely affordable cost of living, and stable US Dollar-based economy have led to Ecuador being an up-and-coming destination for North American retirees looking for a place to spend their golden years.
On our first day, we had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Amber Freire, proprietress of Rumiloma, a mountainside hotel and restaurant which despite its location feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Located just 20 minutes by car from the city center, this cloud forest enclave offers visitors one of the most welcoming environments possible. Constructed from local stone from her in-law's quarry, which was the original business on the property, Amber and her husband Oswaldo have created a beautiful retreat furnished with original colonial antiquities and Andean treasures gathered from around the country. Each room is unique and offers four-post beds, soaking tubs, and toasty wood-fired stoves to cut the cooler evenings. Over a delicious tasting lunch we sampled local specialties prepared with numerous fruits and vegetables grown on site, we learned more about this amazing country and Amber's goal of helping the Achuar, native rainforest people, sell their crafts to Ecuador's visitors.
So where were the kids? After finishing their lunch, the children set off to explore the property with three of Amber's children. Llamas, peacocks and horses roam the property. And, if that were not enough, the forest trails and rope swing kept them very busy. Children know no boundaries when it comes to making connections; a simple, ”do you want to be my friend” or “can I play?” is all it takes, as the grown-ups are left to navigate communication and time to learn more about a host and country.
The next day we woke up pre-dawn once again and set off to the airport for our flight to the Galapagos Islands. During the weeks prior to the trip, we had spent time priming our children for the upcoming adventure. We had purchased children’s books, surfed the Web, and spent time learning about the enchanted islands. I was convinced that the children knew more than I did when I first visited the islands ten years ago, and their enthusiasm about the trip was contagious! On arrival, we transferred to a small dock where Zodiacs waited to transfer us to the ship. Not two minutes into waiting there were sounds of excitement from the children as their keen eyes spotted a marine iguana, sea lion and pelican. The homework had paid off and I smiled as they 'informed' our naturalist of each species they identified.
Our home for the next week was the National Geographic Endeavour operated by Lindblad Expeditions. Carrying just 96 passengers the Endeavour is in my opinion one of the best vessels operating in the Galapagos. While there are smaller vessels, I recommend that when traveling with smaller children, it is good to be on a larger ship. With more public areas, a larger crew to help accommodate requests and a wider variety of accommodations, this class of vessel offers a greater range of options which are perfect for families traveling with children. The staff was exemplary and catered to our every need. Willy, the hotel director, helped us arrange earlier dinner times which better suited the children, and the galley provided a great selection of kid-friendly meals.
Over the following week we visited many of the islands in the archipelago. Each day we went ashore with one of the expert naturalists who helped to translate the incredible natural history of the islands. Just like Charles Darwin did in the 1830's, we marveled at the almost unbelievable wildlife encounters and sheer ambivalence of the animals. We swam with sea lions and frolicked with them on the beach, came face to face with prehistoric marine iguanas, and discovered giant tortoises the size of small smart cars and thought to be upwards of 200-years-old. Despite our efforts, nothing had quite prepared us for such an amazing experience. Like starring in our own personal nature documentary, we marveled at the incredible diversity, playfulness and seemingly untouched environment of the Galapagos. For me, certainly the most special experience was seeing the reactions on my children’s faces and participating in the creation of truly life-changing experiences for the whole family. Raising children requires investment on many levels, but there is no question in my mind that the investment to facilitate this kind of experience was incredibly worthwhile.
In addition to having pure fun we also learned a tremendous amount. My wife Hillary and I had chosen to take our children out of school for a week and so wanted to ensure they continued to learn. Lindblad Expeditions is known for their expert team of naturalists, of whom many are parents themselves. They spent a great amount of time and patience introducing our wide-eyed clan to the volumes of knowledge they possess. Ask my kids how many eggs a blue-footed booby lays, they know. Or, how long a marine iguana can stay underwater, they know. And, they can tell you why baby sea lions are left ashore for up to three days—so that their mommies can off to fish and later return to feed them. When it comes to learning children are like sponges and at times it seems they learn through osmosis. And later, after hiking and exploring, there was ample time to cool off in the surf and make new friends with the playful sea lions once again.
Day after day we played, learned, hiked and bonded as a family. We were kept busy and shared an amazing experience, but before we knew it, the time had come to disembark. The time had come for us to leave our home away from home—our floating exploration vessel, the expert naturalists, the friendly and accommodating crew, and those adorable sea lions. Our suitcases weighed the same, we didn't buy any souvenirs, but our cameras’ memory cards were as full as our minds with amazing images which we will treasure forever.
After our time onboard the National Geographic Endeavour, I had arranged for us to spend a few days visiting the highlands of Ecuador and the town of Otavalo. We journeyed two hours by car north of Quito into the Andes Mountains and stayed in a hacienda built in the 1700's. Ecuador has many such haciendas which are managed by descendants of the Spanish conquistadors. Originally established to manage the surrounding land and people, these incredible examples of colonial life have since been converted to hotels. With beautifully landscaped grounds and amazing collections of period furnishings, staying at these places is like stepping back in time. The town of Otavalo is famous for its vibrant and colorful craft market. We spent a whole morning exploring, bargaining, and visiting with the local Otavalo native people and came away with a few prized souvenirs to bring home. Later, back at the hacienda, we geared up for horseback riding through the surrounding corn and strawberry fields.
Before we knew it the time had come for us to return home. We packed our suitcases and souvenirs and headed back to Seattle. Since returning home the children have shared pictures and stories with their classmates and teachers. We have posted pictures to our walls and scrapbooks, arranged souvenirs on our shelves, and talked daily about the countless adventures we had.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands with my family was truly magical. After 15 years of leading and planning expedition travel, I know without question that trips such as these change your life. But, now having explored the ‘enchanted islands’ with my wife and children, I fully understand the amazing and lasting impact a travel experience can have on a family. Please contact me if you have any questions about planning such a trip. I would be happy to help!