Family-friendly Santa Cruz

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Photographs: Jorge Vinueza

We arrived in the Galapagos Islands one day in April, the hottest week of the year, when the water is crystal clear (visibility is great for snorkeling) and when hats — and as many cold beers and pitchers of lemonade — become an obligatory accessory for exploration. Not all months are like this. That’s the thing about the Galapagos. Depending on when you visit, the experience can be (will be) different…

Our family — my son of 4, my daughter of 9, my wife, and I — made it to Itabaca Channel from Baltra airport in the afternoon, ready to cross over to the island of Santa Cruz. The images quickly amassed in our collective memories.

I have been to the Galapagos many times and the channel always welcomes me differently. Sometimes the landscape is parched and arid, with its dark turquoise water. Sometimes it takes on deep green hues, with the purple silhouettes of distant islands in the distance, like heads of curious dinosaurs that rise above the waves. I have witnessed the most commented natural spectacle of this site in particular, when hundreds of Blue-footed boobies dive-bomb into the water for their afternoon fishing routine, synchronizing their splashes like a fireworks piece by Cai-Guo Quiang.

I didn’t tell my children about the boobies’ diving before we arrived, hoping to surprise them. But it turned out that today they were fishing somewhere else, and I was the only one frustrated. Would this be the dream family vacation I was hoping for? Would Galapagos perform as it had done so many times before?

Arriving at Itabaca Channel, Santa Cruz Island’s official welcome.

A detail caught the attention of my daughter, however: a small fish nibbling on the rope of the barge that was about to take us over to Santa Cruz. “Dad, it’s Dory!” she exclaimed, her eyes on stalks.

It wasn’t Dory, of course, because the species that inspired Pixar’s character is electric blue and this fish was silver; but, like Dory, it had a bright yellow tail and swam like the cartoon, with her fins almost robotically detaching themselves from the flat body to move forward: a Yellow-tailed Surgeonfish.

The name seemed comical to her, for sure, and her wonder didn’t go unnoticed by me. The boobies might not have dived for us today, but I knew at that moment that it did not matter what we experienced here… Galapagos is Galapagos. And this was not my experience alone. It was to be our joint experience, forever to be cherished and remembered by all. I felt a surge of enthusiasm in my veins that lasted the entire week-long stay.

Five days in the heart of the ‘isles’

The stars of the week were undoubtedly the sea lions. My son and daughter became obsessed with taking pictures of them… any sea lion that ever crossed our path. The ones lazing on a bench, sleeping on the cement stairs, lounging on the boats’ transoms. Juveniles, large adults, medium-sized females… Our cell phone memories were filled to capacity in less than an hour. It became an evening ritual for my wife and me to review the photos taken during the day, deleting those that didn’t make the grade, while making space to continue documenting the trip.

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Everything in the Enchanted Isles is a metaphor. Cacti are trees and turtles, of course, are dinosaurs. Lava tunnels are stone cathedrals larger than mountain caves, grains of salt we encountered on our way to Las Grietas are diamonds, and the Gemelos sinkholes, the largest giant’s footprints our minds could conjure.

Things here are grand… And it is just as grand to meet the smallest penguin in the world and the little turquoise-eyed dove and the friendliest bird in the history of nature: we weren’t sure who would break the ice first, my son or the bird, and soon they were engaged in existential conversations at the breakfast table.

Darwin’s finches, an enigma of nature and evidence of evolution.

Even if a child finds it hard to evoke an accurate image of their stay, because they were “too young to remember” their Galapagos trip, I believe every child who travels to these islands will be irreversibly affected by their magic. It might not be explicit, but it’s there, under the surface, feelings they will carry in their minds for the rest of their lives.

’m convinced they will carry with them the wonder of the time they stood in front of the tortoises and looked inside their beady ET eyes, or the time they walked on the island’s heart of lava and splashed in the crystal waters next to baby reef sharks and rainbow fish and jet black iguanas that shook their tails like rudders to swim from one shore to another.

From the dock, we saw golden rays that looked like dragons’ scales. In the open-air fish market (Pelican Bay), we saw four pelicans, two sea lions, and a lava gull conspiring to steal a morsel from the vendors, finally successful after several strategic attempts.

Galapagos’ eternal youth

For a child, for the child within ourselves, Galápagos, and, in this case, Puerto Ayora, is not even a vacation: it is an immersion into the great mystery of its own peculiar existence. Who or what invented this place!?

Galápagos is like a world conspired by the imagination of our planet… Things may seem familiar, but it’s full of unexpected exceptions that differentiate it from everything you have known before. Can a child really get out of the sea after having swum close to a shark, as if he was leaving a pool?

Yes, in Galápagos it is. For an adult, these realizations go through the convoluted machinery of logic and can only produce a very brief short-circuit: we know it is not a parallel universe we’re in, that the plane did not pierce a portal on the way here. We perhaps only come to an estranged realization, that “disturbing strangeness” the likes of Freud described.

But in the mind of a child, everything strange makes sense. In fact, all that is strange about Galápagos expands the possible universe of their minds. The sponge that they have in their little heads receives everything like a given… When I showed my daughter the difference between the finches’ beaks, she told me that it was the profession each species inherited from its parents: “His parents were plumbers so that’s why his beak looks like a wrench,” she explained, laughing.

The amazing Scalesia trees, the ‘giant daisy’ of the Galapagos.

After visits to islands that looked like moons and walking in forests covered by the only species of daisy that is actually a tree (the famous Scalesia), these marvelous landscapes are now part of our shared world, a world that has multiplied in terms of its possibilities, in terms of its beauty and sheer natural complexity. And despite the long walk (I had to carry our son on my shoulders for an hour), every day we would end our explorations in Tortuga Bay.

We did not talk much about it. We just got everyone ready and went… But now that I think about it, Tortuga was the image which we wanted to cherish in our hearts ever since we visited it on our first morning on the island, like a symbol of the infinite dimension the Galapagos creates within our souls. That beach is like a world of expanding mirrors. The white, blinding sand; the crystal mantle of endless turquoise, sinking into the sky behind the horizon.

Sun sets over the archipelago…

There, we discovered the small pool of water that forms at the very edge of “Playa Brava” when the low tide traps baby reef sharks and a varied aquarium of tropical fish (Cortes’s Rainbow Fish, King Angelfish, and, of course, a group of Dories…). There, we swam like we would in any beach, like we would in any pool. There, we made this world apart, this “different” universe, the most logical place on Earth.

Organize your trip and start dreaming of the Galapagos with our guide to Puerto Ayora and Santa Cruz Island

PH: J. Vinueza

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