Commune with Penguins and Find Your Groove in the Galapagos: A DIY Guide for Families

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collage of photos from galapagos

By Carolyn Sotka

Concha de Perla, a quiet cove tucked away on Isabella Island in the Galapagos, easily lives up to its namesake  ‘pearl shell’. Layers of iridescent blue mix with rays of sun, shifting sand and emerald mangroves. One early morning, hours before the tours from boats anchored offshore would arrive, my family and I walked to Concha de Perla from our hotel. We had our breakfast alongside sea lions sprawled out on the boardwalk, and watched as they began their day with lazy yawns and stretches.

Sea lion on Boardwalk to Concha de Perla
Boardwalk to Concha de Perla

Not sure what to expect from our first snorkel, we were immediately surprised and awestruck. Huddled across the water on the black volcanic rock, sat three endangered Galapagos penguins. These penguins are very rare, second smallest in the world and the only species to live in the tropics, north of the equator. In a split second, they were shooting through the water beneath us like graceful bullets, targeting their morning prey.

When the penguins had their fill, we headed to the other end of the cove where a group of young sea lions were playing, completely nonchalant to our presence. We explored the labyrinth of surrounding mangroves, where saltwater meets fresh and the already ethereal world became even more dream-like. We soon found ourselves face to face with a marine iguana, with its spiky, dragon back and fierce stare down. But once this gentle herbivore started to swim with a wide doggy-paddle, our startled fear quickly subsided.

Snorkeling in Concha de Perla
Snorkeling in Concha de Perla

Over the next two hours we swam with sea turtles, rays, diving seabirds and so many species of tropical fish it looked like an underwater field of blooming flowers. During that one morning, in one cove, on one island – it was clear why the Galapagos Islands were among the first sites chosen by UNESCO’s World Heritage Program as a critical and irreplaceable source of life, inspiration and outstanding universal value.

Later as the tours arrived, hordes of people jumped in like paparazzi to swarm the charismatic mega-fauna. Images of the comic strip ‘The Far Side’ came to mind, as tourists lay on bellies with huge cameras and lenses inches away from their subjects. But that morning it was all ours. And turns out several other mornings and quiet evenings too, when different species of marine life clocked into the cove, as if switching shifts over the course of the tides.

Fluffy baby penguin, Isabella Island
Fluffy baby penguin, Isabella Island
Penguin with Fish, Isabella Island
Penguin with Fish, Isabella Island

Say Yes to DIY

When planning our trip to the Galapagos, I prepared myself to be disappointed because of our DIY choice, which was the only way we could afford to visit the islands. Nearly everyone I spoke to felt you had ‘to do’ the Galapagos by boat or that you only get to see the ‘good stuff’ as part of an organized tour. Six-day cruises on most budget-level boats, which are quite small and bumpy, average $3,500 per person – including airfare from mainland Ecuador. It would cost our family of four about $14,000 in a best-case scenario.

My heart sank when we landed in Ecuador and saw Martha Stewart, dressed in white resort wear, collect her designer bags before being whisked to one of those fabulous cruises. I thought we were doomed – that VIP passes were the only ticket to one of the greatest shows on earth. But luckily nature doesn’t just show up just for high price ticket-holders, as we quickly discovered on our own.

Our seven-day DIY eco-tour cost $3,500 for our family of four and included Santa Cruz and Isabella Islands. Half of that cost covered airfare, boat transfers between islands and national park entrance fees that you pay once – whether it is for a day or a month. The longer you stay, the bigger the bang for your buck.

Sea lions are everywhere
Sea lions are everywhere – look but don’t touch!
Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island
Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island

Why DIY is Better

DIY was the way to go, not just in the Galapagos, but also throughout the country of Ecuador. Kids ages eleven or under have big discounts in transport, tours and rentals that aren’t offered to the same extent on cruises with limited number of bunks. While the idea of being rocked to sleep for a week sounds romantic, the reality is kids are more susceptible to seasickness and can quickly tire of being stuck on a boat.

With DIY you are the tour guide and tailor to your needs. You don’t have to be held back by unsure travelers or force kids to eat from a pre-paid catered menu. Being on someone else’s clock can wreak havoc. When you are ready to escape and call it a day, you have the freedom to close the door and sleep in – so important for happy family travel.

Best of all, you can spend your time discovering something off the beaten path – like watching a soccer match or immersing your family in Saturday night’s social hour at the town square – when the universal language of play tames shyness and fast friends are made. Or meeting the little old lady who lived on the point next to Santa Cruz’s German Beach since she was six, and the inspiration for the beach’s name. You can’t get these experiences when you are on a boat-based tour.

People sitting on a park bench Galapagos Islands.
Choose your own adventure, Galapagos Islands.
Santa Cruz Island
Exploring Santa Cruz Island

Another great reason to choose DIY is to keep money within the local economy. Many cruise-based operations are foreign-owned with a pipeline from the airport to the boat and specific vendors. Recent changes in policy of who can own businesses in the Galapagos may radically increase foreign investment. Choosing well-established eco-options, smaller hotels, local seafood and restaurants, shops with handmade gifts and island-based tours can be one way to contribute to and sustain a way of life that Galápagueños rely on.

There are several misconceptions about DIY travel in the Galapagos. One is you have to have a tour guide to do anything. Not true – there are special spots on every island for independent travel. On Isabella we rented bikes, rode through a cactus forest, saw a flock of flamingos, watched a giant land tortoise lumber along the trail and tucked amongst outcrops of rocks, stayed until night fell to watch hundreds of sea and shore birds during their seemingly private happy hour.

Flamingos, Isabella Island.
Flamingos, Isabella Island.
Sea lion, Isabella Island.
Sea lion, Isabella Island.
Marine iguana, Tortuga Bay
Marine iguana, Tortuga Bay

Maximize Your DIY

Many places do require national park guides but by booking a few short tours you can minimize cost and answer all your natural history questions. On our Los Tintoreras excursion – which was swimmable from land but restricted – we saw our first baby marine iguanas – so cute, smaller than the size of your hand and baby penguins –so fluffy and still that they looked like a sign post. We swam with sharks and snorkeled until our fingers and lips were blue. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and as excited as we were to see what the reef had in store that day.

On Santa Cruz, the Charles Darwin Research Center just re-opened in March 2016 after an extensive renovation. The pre-packaged tours sped through the beautiful center. Two college interns were stationed at the front desk and lamented that most people don’t stop to ask them questions. We chatted with them and other staff for hours and learned so much we would have never even thought to ask.

Charles Darwin Research Center, Santa Cruz Island
Charles Darwin Research Center, Santa Cruz Island

Throughout the islands, the national park guides were eager to share the natural history of this diverse mecca of marine life, which can be unique to each island. The bottom-line is that information is easily accessible; guides readily offer advice about best spots to view wildlife and have strongly embedded conservation and sustainability ethics, the cornerstones of protecting the islands’ future, to help you minimize your ecological footprint along the way.

Another misconception is that the populated islands are overrun with tourists. It is true that visitors have increased from 40,000 in 1990 to 225,000 in 2015 – yet hotel capacity on most of the islands is typically filled at 50% – meaning there is a need to support what is there and not invite outside businesses to attract or build more. There are laws in place to limit sprawl and allow the Galapagos National Park Service to close or modified sites that might suffer from overuse. But more often than not, we were totally alone, or repeatedly bumped into the handful of other solo travelers.

We came, saw and not conquered but communed with nature in such a relaxed and organic way that we will never forget. As the islands shrank in the wake of the boat, I was already planning our next trip. My biggest regret was that I didn’t book more time in the islands to visit San Cristobal and Fernandina or add an offshore tour to other remote islands. These extras might bump up the cost to around $5,000 for a ten-day, adventure for a family of four. DIY Galapagos will be a trip of a lifetime, blow your mind, not break the bank and leave you forever touched by the spirit of one of the most special places on earth.

Land of the marine iguanas, Las Tintoreras Islet.
Land of the marine iguanas, Las Tintoreras Islet.
Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.
Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island.

Now Is the Time to Go!

A few helpful hints:

Pack reef-friendly zinc-based sunscreen and clothing protection, wet suits, seasickness bands, snorkel and mask (you can rent fins if space is a constraint). Practice with your gear before you go.

Pick hotel locations you can walk to, with a pool or other fun games for after hours and stay at least two – three days. 

Ask hotel if you can book for a family, rather than per person. Many places list rooms for four but consider that to accommodate four adults.

Do not miss the parks! Ecuador does playgrounds better than any other country, with Smith Family Robinson- type play structures everywhere. Ecuador is very safe and health conscious.

Look for island-based tourism offices with day tours and rentals like mountain bikes, surfboards and kayaks.

Plan day excursions for no more than three – four hours and bring food/water.

Find where the locals eat, ask for the family-style meal – usually an inexpensive, delicious daily special.

Pick ferries and boat shuttles that are highly rated. Some of the cheaper ones have had safety issues in the past.

Fare shop with local airlines and look daily as rates often change – Tame, Latam, Avianca, Copa.

Headshot of Carolyn Sotka

Carolyn Sotka is a marine biologist, writer and photographer with a passion for combining all three by traveling to remote islands and wild coasts. Her life goal is to visit every coastal country in world and so far has made it to nearly forty. She’s worked on ocean and coastal conservation issues for over twenty years and is co-author of a best selling book “The Death and Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival”, recently showcased on PBS’ Big Blue Live. Check out for more travel stories.




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