My philosophy when going on big trips with the tween set (ages 9 to 12) is to throw two things at the situation: animals and adventure. Animals offer an immediate connection that raises the cortisol levels in our brains which equals warm happy feelings. Adventure provides adrenaline and meaningful activities that keep their traveling brains and bodies busy. Our 3 part tour of Ecuador a few years back offered animals and adventure in copious amounts and was a great and memorable success.
Part One: The Rainforest of the Amazon Jungle
The kids and I went ahead of the husband to spend 5 nights in the very remote Sacha Lodge in the Amazon Jungle. Just reading about this place was a thrill and appealed to every part of my less than sensible parenting personality. Just to get there we had to take a motorized canoe up the Napo River, hike a mile, then climb aboard a proper canoe with a paddle for the final leg through the black water of Pilchicocho Lake – home to piranhas and caimans (small alligators). Even the kids were looking at me like I must be just a tad crazy to select such a remote location. They scanned their surroundings for other kids that would not materialize while donning the required black rain boots and rain slicker (hello rainforest), but in the end we all loved it.
And what’s not to love about being so thoroughly ensconced in nature? It was a thrill just walking back and forth from our very comfortable two bedroom with an ensuite bathroom and a porch with a hammock. There were monkeys and birds (over 600 species can be seen here) aplenty above our heads in the trees. We were pretty impressed with that immediate dose of nature, but we were just getting warmed up. We learned that the day starts early in the jungle with wake up calls somewhere between 5am and 6am in the form of a knock on our door. Each day offered a morning and afternoon adventure with quiet time in between. Our daily doses of adventure ran the gamut from four hour long hikes to getting back in the canoe to explore the waterways or climbing a 130 foot tower to wander on the canopy bridge. We were able to explore a tree house built around the sides of 135 foot Kapok tree (very Avatar-ish). One day we made the trip back in the motorized canoe to visit a local village; we learned more about the lives of the people living there and shared a meal with them.
Throughout every single adventure and most of our meals we had our guide, Dominque from Germany. He was matched with Tio, a local villager (and former Shaman), to help with the spotting of animals and explanations of nature. As no one else at the lodge wanted to share their time in the jungle with kids (can’t blame them) we had these two amazingly knowledgeable and fun guides all to ourselves. Tio showed the kids how to make music with reeds from the jungle and made them crowns on the last day. They taught the kids how to fish for piranhas and later that day we jumped in the water and swam with the piranhas – apparently they are only hungry at night. (This experience was nothing like swimming with dolphins.)
We also made two new friends, Gehrig and Rick. Fellow travelers who we plan to stay in life long touch with thanks to our mutual love of travel and social media. Being so far removed from the norms of day to day life was such a privilege and so peaceful for all three of us. We were sad to say goodbye to everyone at Sacha Lodge. Thank goodness we had our reunion with the husband, some friends, and our cruise through the Galapagos to look forward to.
Part Two: The Galapagos: All Creatures Great and Small
If you want animals and adventure look no further then a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Some visitors choose to be land based. Some go for a 7 to 10 day cruise. We took the Goldilocks option and choose a 3 night cruise on a medium size ship (100 people) and it was JUST RIGHT for us. This part of the trip was the major motivation for heading to Ecuador. In this land of all creatures great and small, we were endlessly delighted by the many animals, birds, flora, fauna, and dramatic landscapes we were able to observe. Our favorites were the awesome giant tortoises, the playful sea lions, the bright orange crabs juxtaposed against the black lava, and the entertaining Blue Footed Booby with his impressive courtship moves.
Twice a day we would head out on the ship’s tender (the excursion boats) to various parts of the islands to explore and broaden our understanding of this hopefully forever frozen in time location. We were all thrilled to hop in the water at least once a day to swim with the fish and play with the sea lions. On every hike there was something interesting to see and learn around the corner. Our ship, the Galapagos Legend, was very comfortable and well run.
Fun treats were always provided when we returned from our expeditions and the kids loved swimming in the pool. The boat offered many comfortable sitting areas, an outdoor bar, and afternoon and evening programs to further enrich our understanding of the location. Of special note was an evening star tour where the presenter highlighted all there was to see in the night sky above us. Other than that I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
Part Three: Cuenca, School Visit, and Mountain Climbing
Ecuador was our first group trip with Thomson Family Adventures. One of the central reasons we chose this company for our visit to Ecuador was their Pen Pal Program. This very special program puts your kids in touch with other children the same age in the country that you are visiting. About three months prior to your departure the connection is made and letters between the children go back and forth via snail mail or photos of the letters sent in an email. No matter how the letter is received, it is always a thrill to receive this personal MISSIVES and my two would spend hours crafting the perfect return REPLY complete with drawings and thoughtful notes. The big day where they got to meet their new friends was “1st day of school” exciting – complete with jitters and nervous smiles.
After our tour of the Galapagos, we visited our pen pals at their school in Cuenca, Ecuador. There was a bit of a language barrier for sure, but the giant smiles exchanged made up for that. The school pulled out all of the stops. There were games the children played together and we were treated to a performance with the dancers in the traditional dress of the region.
We brought snacks and some bottles of Coke and our kids had the opportunity to serve the school kids these treats. It was an unforgettable experience that we were all very thankful to have. It made me very thankful to have chosen Thomson as our travel company, as I myself could not have replicated this very special experience.
Our guide then whisked us away for an afternoon of some serious rock climbing not ten minutes from the school that we visited.
We had just spent three days on a cruise ship in the Galapagos that we loved every minute of, but if you ask the kids their favorite day of the trip…? There answer would be the school visit/rock climbing day. Not easy to compete with a Blue Footed Booby dancing and prancing and waving his feet around, but that day did.
Thank you Ecuador for sharing with us your many amazing and abundant array of animals and offering us so many adventures of so many different varieties to experience. It was an incredible trip.
This trip is from our family’s Must Go Destinations list.