A blue-footed booby // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Sea lions and crabs abound on the Galapagos Islands. // © 2017 iStock
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, which is led by the founder of Thomson Family Adventures.
Sitting on the beach, our group of kids and parents listened to the surf instructor, pretending to paddle and balance on terra firma before attempting to catch a real wave.
But some of us were taking it more seriously than others.
“Let’s practice again,” said Jennifer Lord, a jovial mom from St. Louis and our group’s de facto den-mother-slash-camp-counselor, to my 8-year-old son. “Paddle, paddle, paddle! Jump! Good job!”
It might seem like just another surf lesson on a beautiful beach — but this was most certainly no ordinary destination.
“We’re not just surfing!” Lord shouted. “We’re surfing in the G!”
By “G,” Lord meant the Galapagos — more specifically, a white-sand beach on Isabela Island, the largest of the secluded archipelago and located about 600 miles west of Ecuador’s coast.
Part of the nine-day Galapagos Multi-Sport Adventure from Thomson Family Adventures, the trip deviates from the common cruise-oriented vacation to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, combining the best of land and sea into an itinerary that includes activities, lodging and many meals, which are typically eaten at local restaurants.
During our two-part adventure, which was split between Isabela and Santa Cruz islands, we experienced a vacation that is geared toward active families and offers a snapshot of local culture, food and conservation efforts.
“Thomson Family Adventures is about getting kids to have fun and learn,” said Alejandra Mosquera, our group’s Ecuadorean rafiki, a Swahili term meaning “friend.”
Her goal was to engage and teach our group’s five kids — who ranged in age from 8 to 11 — throughout the trip. Normally, the services of a rafiki are included for bookings of eight or more.
“We take time to answer kids’ questions and explain things to them, instead of just focusing on the ‘fun’ part of the Galapagos,” she said. “The destination is not just about the beach and swimming. It’s too special for that.”
Of course, our kids were too busy to notice that they were learning as we surfed, rode bikes to El Garrapatero beach on Santa Cruz, played “monkey in the middle” in the surf, kayaked the azure waters and walked through flamingo-filled wetlands en route to a giant tortoise breeding center. There, we witnessed the massive, serene creatures in various stages of life, from embryos and hatchlings to adults nearly ready for release.
But perhaps one of the best “classrooms” during our trip was on Isabela’s Islote Las Tintoreras, a small volcanic island, where waters are teeming with white-tipped reef sharks.
During the short panga (water taxi) ride from Puerto Villamil — its pier littered with sea lions snoozing in the sun like dogs — we got our first glimpse of Galapagos penguins, which were standing at attention as if to pose for our cameras.
Frigate birds darted overhead, and blue-footed boobies greeted us as we disembarked, their turquoise feet a stark contrast against a sea of black lava that was dotted with burnt-orange Sally Lightfoot crabs.
During a 40-minute hike, we stepped carefully, keenly aware that we could mistake the heaps of black marine iguanas for lava rock. We ambled through vast stretches of “aa” lava — a Hawaiian term for the jagged shape that our guide, Miguel Carrera, explained would make you cry “ah, ah!” if you walked across it barefoot — and the kids took turns holding the fan-shaped flipper bone when we found the complete skeleton of a sea lion.
Farther down shore, a mummified, sun-baked iguana reminded us of the challenging conditions in this isolated Eden made famous by 19th-century British scientist Charles Darwin. As we finished our hike, a playful sea lion popped its head up at the shore as if on cue, practically begging us to join for a swim.
Later that afternoon, we snorkeled in the chilly waters of Loberia Chica, known locally as the “sharks’ canal.” Remembering Carrera’s assurance that the sharks are “98 percent vegetarian,” we proceeded through to a lava-rock corridor and were stunned by piles of sharks who slept unperturbed.
“The kids learn about the Galapagos Islands and how important it is to take care of a place like this,” Carrera said. “This type of trip can inspire kids for the rest of their lives.”
We couldn’t agree more. That week, we swam with more sea turtles than I’ve seen in a lifetime and frolicked amid sea lions so unafraid of humans that, at times, they were nose-to-nose with members of our group. We took pictures near giant Galapagos tortoises as they soaked in a mud bath and toured the famed Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, enjoying what my husband describes as a “proliferation of wildlife” unlike anywhere else in the world.