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The Galapagos with kids — a bucket list item they never knew they had

anthony flint for the boston globe

The Galapagos feature up-close experiences.

By Anthony Flint Globe correspondent 

PUERTO AYORA, Galapagos — On board the Beluga, our shipmates were empty-nesters all. A family from upstate New York doing a family reunion with adult offspring, a crew from England, and assorted other gray-specked boomers with a slightly serious birdwatching ethos.

And then there was us: married couple with two boys, aged 8 and 12. Not content to wait for this ultimate bucket-list destination, we were determined to experience the Galapagos with our kids, soaking up this magical archipelago through their eyes.

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Planning a trip to the Galapagos is a major task under any circumstances, but going with offspring adds an extra layer of complexity. Everything gets passed through the kid filter, beyond laying in extra sunblock and Dramamine: will they have the stamina for long trips on a boat? Will they eat the food? Any Wi-Fi? Can my son bring his camera-equipped drone?

The answers were yes and yes, and no and no. But overall we needn’t have worried. That much was clear when the 8-year-old went snorkeling with hammerhead sharks at Genovesa.

The Galapagos is one of those places where friends say “you’re going to love it,” and it’s really true. But it can’t be done on a whim. There’s a series of branching decisions to be made – base yourself in a hotel and make day trips, or do an island-hopping cruise; go with a big international operator, or book more directly through local businesses in Ecuador; economy, tourist, or luxury; make the jumping-off point Quito or Guayaquil. Because of well-justified limits on visitors, tours fill up, so planning at least six months in advance is necessary. A year is better.

We chose Adventure Life, and in doing so a lot of questions got answered in short order. I was to be in Quito at a big United Nations conference, Habitat III. We only had a week in October to work with, taking advantage of the Columbus Day long weekend. Though a larger catamaran with a hot tub beckoned, the 1970s-vintage German-made Beluga was a luxury boat just shy of the top of the line. Operated by Enchanted Expeditions, the 16-passenger craft sliced through the open Pacific at 11 knots, mostly at night, arriving at new destinations each day.

The farthest you can reasonably make it from Boston or most locations in the United States is Quito, where the best place to crash is the new Wyndham airport hotel. The flights to the archipelago, three and a half hours from the mainland, leave the next morning, with a stop in Guayaquil.

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From the first steps on the tarmac of the airport at San Cristobal, it is clear how seriously Ecuador takes protecting this place. The boys got an education in invasive species and diseases as we were meticulously screened. After paying the $100 national park fee in cash, we traveled by pickup truck to the docks of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno — draped with languid sea lions — to meet the boat. My youngest son immediately started filling up the memory card on the waterproof Nikon One-Touch we purchased for the trip.

The rhythm of the days, it turns out, was perfectly suited for both kids and adults: bursts of activity, followed by down time. Each morning and afternoon, we all climbed into motorized dinghies called pangas, and made both dry and wet landings, splashing in the impossibly clear water or taking longish hikes. We took a short bus ride exactly twice, in both cases to visit giant tortoise preserves.

So it was: breakfast, panga, exploring; lunch and back out again; back for showers and time for reading and getting on the iPad, cocktail hour, dinner, an evening slideshow and debrief of what we saw, and what we’d see the next day. My sons were proud to share their photos, and diligently noted every lava lizard, bumphead parrotfish, and white-cheeked pintail we spotted in the handy workbook distributed at the start of the cruise. We rediscovered the art of the nap and of dinner conversation, and our expert guide, Juan Tapia, strapped on a guitar and serenaded me on my birthday, untethered from Facebook, out in the Pacific.

We covered much ground, and water. After the nature preserve on San Cristobal, examining tortoise poop and spotting rare finches in the trees, we landed on the soft white sands of Gardner Bay at Española. We puttered past cliffs and caves, looking for the masked and blue-footed boobies at Punta Suarez, and visited the blowhole, a lava tube that sprays water up in the air like a geyser.

The stop at Santa Cruz and the Charles Darwin Research Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Galapagos tortoise breeding center, was a welcome return to civilization, as was walking in Wellies on terra firma in the highlands for a giant Galapagos tortoise safari. Swarms of iguanas and albatross bobbing their heads in courtship awaited us at Santiago-Chinese Hat, a small volcanic island. Magnificent snorkeling was followed by a hike over other-worldly lava flows and geological formations at Sullivan Bay.

Genovesa Island, at the northern tip of the archipelago, featured a stunning hike observing magnificent red-footed boobies, frigatebirds, gulls, and herons. In the afternoon we hiked more at El Barranco, also known as Prince Phillip’s Steps, taking in the vast wilderness and looking for the short-eared owl. Genovesa was the scene of swimming with the hammerheads. My eight-year-old son dove in and snapped a picture of the diffident predators below, later proudly telling the tale to his horrified grandmother.

We were up at dawn the last day at Baltra, touring the mangroves of Black Turtle Cove, watching seabirds dive for breakfast, and rays, sea turtles and white-tipped sharks plying the calm waters.

The environmental ethos was instilled in ways that no classroom could ever provide. The boys learned to stow their shoes on the boat each day so no sand or dirt could be carried from island to island. We were instructed not to give in to cheeky birds who landed on our knapsacks and cocked their cute little heads – no water or food for them, lest they come to rely on the gifts of visitors. Each visit by every boat is carefully choreographed, so the destinations never feel overrun at any one time, one of many regulations to disperse the impact of an estimated 150,000 visitors per year.

The week had its vagaries. There was the business of my wife’s passport, which expired just shy of the six months required by Ecuador – a hedge, presumably, against her never coming back. We booked too late to get the “matrimonial bed,” so we split up in two cabins utilizing modest twin mattresses – mom and the 8-year-old, and me and the 12-year-old as roomies. The last overnight journey was a bit rough, prompting some brief vomiting in the airplane-sized lavatory.

We worried that our kids would be supremely annoying to the adults on board, barging ahead to see flora and fauna, or being picky about the food. But the empty-nesters quickly got into the mindset that it takes a village, making room on the panga gunwale, dabbing noses with sunscreen, and pointing out hidden creatures in the bushes.

In the Galapagos, everything that lives here came from somewhere else, whether mangrove seeds or tortoises floating in on currents off the coast of Chile. On board the Beluga, there was a similar convergence, from all around the globe, young and old, a tacit recognition that we’re all after the same thing: seeing a wonder of the world. My son’s close-up picture of a tortoise is up on the wall of his bedroom; he’s checked off a bucket list before he even knows he has one.


Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, can be reached at anthony.flint@gmail.com.