Galapagos Islands for the Multi-Generationals
By Barbara Kuczen, Ph.D.
“What was I thinking?” I asked myself as the plane touched down on Santa Cruz Island, the gateway to the Galapagos Islands. The trip seemed like a good idea when I began my elaborate plans to take my daughter, her husband, and my two grandchildren for the experience of a lifetime. I wondered if I had been overly influenced by one of my favorite quotes by David Rockefeller, “I am a passionate traveler, and from the time I was a child, travel formed me as much as my formal education.” Oh well, if all else failed, the pre-trip visit to Ecuador’s Otavalo Indigenous Market had been a success. My battered suitcase was filled with lush alpaca shawls and gorgeous hand-beaded jewelry.
I’m reasonably fit, but as soon as the Galapagos trip was on the travel agenda, I vowed to begin an intensive fitness program. For a number of reasons, which unfortunately include laziness, the exercise regime never got off the ground. As the flight landed, I silently did the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” lament. I began feeling a bit like one of the 150-year-old giant tortoises that we all hoped to see. I began making deals with God, promising to work diligently on fitness in the future if I could just hold my own with this multigenerational group, including my grandkids Jack (10,) his sister Lee (12,) and their 40-something parents.
This vacation was something of a pilgrimage for me. Before he died, my father urged my sisters and me to visit the Galapagos. He had been stationed at a base which later became the very airstrip on which we had just landed. I spent my childhood enthralled by his fascinating stories of giant tortoises and life on these barren islands. I experienced a sudden unexpected surge of emotions, ranging from wonder to nostalgia. I didn’t bother to explain my feelings to my family. Instead, I asked them to look around and imagine my father as a young soldier 75 years ago.
After riding a bus to the harbor, we took a short ferry to Santa Cruz, where our bags were piled into the bed of a white pick-up truck, the unique form of a taxi on the island. We crowded into the interior of the taxi, and a forty-minute drive through the highlands brought us to our lovely rented condo in Puerto Ayora. While the adults unpacked, the kids enjoyed a refreshing dip in the pool. Then it was a short walk to the waterfront to take advantage of 3 for 1 cocktails at the charming bars and restaurants on Charles Darwin Avenue. While the adults decompressed, Lee and Jack explored the waterfront and found some very practical safari-type sun hats to fend off an equatorial sunburn. They also met a friendly sea lion who positions herself directly underneath the cutting board at the fish market.
Our first full day we hiked about 2 miles down a lovely boardwalk surrounded by palo santo and matasarno trees, as well optunia cacti. Although I cursed the sun as we walked, when the boardwalk ended, I realized that the hike was worth every drop of sweat. Marine iguanas greeted us as we emerged on Tortuga Bay Beach. With the pristine sand and dramatic surf, it was simply spectacular – one of the most beautiful beaches in the Galapagos. After hiking further down the beach (just what I needed!) we arrived at a lagoon bordered by mangroves. Mom and kids rented kayaks and encountered colorful reef fish, white-tipped sharks, rays, and the beach’s namesake – sea turtles. In a stroke of genius, I volunteered to sit in the sand and watch everyone’s belongings – able to rest up for the hike back.
No trip to the Galapagos Islands is complete without a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station at the far end of town. We walked there after Tortuga Beach to see different species of giant tortoises and learn about breeding and life cycles. When it was time for Happy Hour, our phones indicated that we had somehow walked over 11 miles. We went to Los Kioscos for dinner. Also called Seafood Alley and back from the main street, it’s filled with many small Mom and Pop food stands. They serve fresh fish, rice, and other Ecuadorian food at outside tables. We selected our fish and lobsters, as well as the way we wanted them prepared.
The next day another white pick-up truck taxi took us to the highlands. We hiked through Scalesia forests and around the Gemelos sunken craters, formed from empty magma chambers. Lee and Jack really loved exploring the lava tunnels at a local farm and wandering around with the giant tortoises, many of whom were over 100 years old – which is about how old I felt after the previous day of keeping up with the family.
Puerto Ayora is the perfect spot to stage day trips to the nearby islands, each unique in its own way. A morning boat trip brought us to North Seymour Island. I wisely brought along my trusted walking stick, nicknamed Buck, and I was able to navigate rocks without stumbling or twisting an ankle. Most islands in the Galapagos require that visitors be accompanied by a certified naturalist. You are not allowed to veer off the designated path, which keeps the islands unspoiled. I felt like Charles Darwin, leading my crew past nesting boobies with their big, deep blue feet and frigate birds, all of whom seemed unfazed by our close presence. Jack laughed out loud at the male frigate birds, who inflate the red pouch on their breast to attract mates. Lee, on the other hand, cooed softly at the nesting booby chicks that looked like cotton balls. Our boat had a captain, helper, and a cook. The fresh tuna luncheon should have had a Zagat rating!
I woke up feeling pretty cocky on our fourth day. “What had I been worried about?” I asked myself. Whatever the family could do, I could do just fine, I thought, as we headed off to Las Grietas. Grietas means crack. Las Grietas is actually three pools, surrounded by tall cliffs, where crevasses have opened in the earth. We took an eighty cent speed boat taxi from the main dock to the other side and followed the signs to the Finch Bay Hotel. From there it was about thirty minutes hiking along a trail that was sandy and rocky, then wound over a jagged lava field, salt flats and through a cactus forest. Finally, we climbed to the top of Las Grietas. However, when I took one look at the slippery, algae-coated boulders and steep descent into the pools, I realized that perhaps I had been a bit overconfident. I wisely opted to sit this one out. The rest of the family enjoyed a cool dip, while I enjoyed the unique surroundings.
“Jack and Lee didn’t freak out even after seeing a ten-foot shark!”
It was our fifth day and we had arranged a speed boat tour to South Plazas, formed from lava rock and located on the east coast of Santa Cruz Island. We were greeted at the small dock by sea lions and quite impressed by the bulls who protect their colonies. My trusty walking stick, Buck, did not let me down. I was able to view the frigate birds, pelicans, swallow-tailed gulls, and other birds. Following another fabulous luncheon onboard our 15 passenger yacht, we set sail for Punta Carrion where we snorkeled with sea turtles, white tip sharks, sea lions, and lots of fish. I was glad our trip took place before Shark Week aired on the Discovery Channel. Jack and Lee didn’t freak out even after seeing a ten-foot shark!
After six days, we left Santa Cruz via a high-speed boat for San Cristobal to begin our second leg of island hopping. The two-hour boat ride was intense, to say the least. The vessel pounded the water so violently that I could only reassure myself that they made this run every day, so the boat must be able to sustain the slamming force. Jack and I are both prone to seasickness, which is why we had chosen a land-based, rather than a ship-based trip. However, neither of us got sick – I guess because it is rolling, rather than pounding that results in seasickness. When I disembarked I vowed to light a candle back at the Quito Cathedral in thanksgiving for no fractured vertebrae. We checked into a beautiful new hotel in the waterfront town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The rooftop was perfect for sunset! For dinner, we opted for highly-rated El Descanso Marinero. We loved the kitschy décor and Galapagos Islands documentaries playing in the background. The portions were large and food fresh.
The next morning Buck the Walking Stick was polished up for another day of island exploration. A boat tour, with a certified naturalist, took us to Isla Lobos. We disembarked on a small concrete landing and started up the hill to the rocky path. After fifty feet, I realized that I had met my Waterloo. Even Buck couldn’t save me. The uneven, unsteady large rocks were an invitation for rolling an ankle, so I bailed on the hike but enjoyed sitting and watching the blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, and iguanas that seemed to get closer the longer that I sat quietly. In fact, one huge sea lion bull climbed up to sun on the concrete landing a few feet from where I sat – which I found slightly unnerving. After Isla Lobos, we boated to Ochoa Beach for snorkeling with sea turtles and sea lions. Back in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, we walked to the end of town to Playa Mann. Lee and Jack enjoyed this experience the best of all! The sea lion cubs would try to engage in play by blowing bubbles at you, butting your mask, and jumping at you as you stood in the water.
The last day in San Cristobal I arranged for a fisherman’s tour, 360 degrees around the island. It is conducted by a fisherman and naturalist, aboard a fishing boat. It included a stop for snorkeling at the iconic Kicker Rock (aka as Leon Dormido.) We learned that you could see white and blacktip sharks, rays, fish, sea turtles, and if you were really lucky – hammerhead sharks. However the current was swift, and locals said that it was not easy snorkeling. I opted out of this trip, but the family loved circumnavigating the island and stopping to snorkel at various beautiful beaches. Once again the meal served on board was amazing. I spent my free time at the Interpretation Center, developing a scavenger hunt, which I printed up at the hotel. After their excursion, the kids loved learning about the history of the Galapagos and its geology by completing the hunt.
“…I brushed a tear from my own eye and thought of the famous Dr. Seuss quote, “Oh the places you’ll go.”
The last morning we were scheduled to fly back to Quito to enjoy a day of sightseeing in this historic old city before flying home. Lee and Jack asked if they could go down to the waterfront to see the sea lions one more time. I stood on the hotel room balcony watching them and reflecting on how wonderful it was to see the Galapagos through their young eyes. I realized that the trip was just about perfect! As they walked back, wiping tears from their eyes at having to leave this most magical place, I brushed a tear from my own eye and thought of the famous Dr. Seuss quote, “Oh the places you’ll go.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – BARBARA KUCZEN
Barbara Kuczen is a graduate of the University of Illinois and received her doctorate from Loyola University. She worked as the Early Childhood Coordinator for a large elementary school district. Her responsibilities included supervising the teaching staff and therapists for birth to a six-year-old program serving special needs and typically developing children. Barbara also spent many years as a university professor. She has been an elementary school teacher and administrator, has organized a community education program, and worked on a McCormick Foundation grant to develop readiness for kindergarten. Barbara has served as a consultant to numerous school districts, hospitals, Head Start programs, child welfare agencies, and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. She is a well-known public speaker, having appeared before several thousand groups. She has been interviewed for radio, television, newspapers, and magazines in every major city in conjunction with her three books on childhood and family stress. Barbara was also a weekly guest on the Bob and Betty Show in Chicago and a regular visitor to the Sonya Show in Detroit. Her most recent publication, Pass-Along-Papers won a national award. She currently conducts training on a variety of child development topics, in particular executive functioning in children. Dr. Kuczen has visited schools, early childhood programs, special education programs, hospitals, and Head Start programs throughout the United States to discuss the effective and efficient use of assessment and curriculum. Barbara has visited every continent and traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. She currently spends as much time as possible with her two grandchildren.
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