The one-of-a-kind wonder of the Galápagos Islands awakens a teen to the glories of the natural world.

By Conor Hayes, As Told to Kellee Katagi

At 16, Conor Hayes of San Diego unplugged from his high-tech world and connected with nature on a Classic Journeys Galápagos Islands family journey. His face-to-face wildlife encounters and bonding time with family and friends forever changed the way he relates to nature—and those who nurture.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t always believe the brochure. A place might be hyped up to be an incredible natural habitat and you go there and you see one lizard, and that’s it. That’s why the Galápagos Islands surprised me.

Waking Up In The Galapagos

When I woke up the first morning, I went outside with my friend Jack and there were five giant sea lions sitting there, right on the road. There was one huge one that was just chilling out on a park bench right in front of us. I knew right then that this trip would be different.

And it was. There was constantly so much to see and do that I rarely even wanted to get on the Internet or anything. I used my phone as a camera, and that was about it. Instead, I had the best up-close encounters with nature I’ve ever experienced—like walking right up to an enormous tortoise that was on the trail in front of us. He tucked his head in his shell and stared at us for a while. Then he poked it out again and lumbered off.

Kayaking With The Wildlife

Kayakers with sea lions in the Galapagos

Another time we went kayaking, to check out fish and marine iguanas. We did see a heck of a lot of iguanas, but the coolest part was when we got out of the kayaks to snorkel, and our guide led us to this little tide pool area. One of the pools had a bunch of baby sea lions that ended up swimming around and playing with us. They weren’t afraid of us at all. After about 10 minutes, one of the people on our trip yelled, “Something’s coming!” and the mom sea lion came over and started taking an interest in us. We swam away then, because we didn’t want to activate her maternal instinct.

We swam with the marine iguanas, too. The funny thing about them is that they’re huge—maybe 4 feet from tail to head—and they swim in an ungainly way, by wiggling their tails, but they’re still way faster than you. There are so many of them that by the end of the trip, we’d gotten past the point of “Look, there’s an iguana,” unless we were seeing a new color—over time, they’ve adapted to take on the particular colors of the different islands.

Marine Iguana on the beach in the Galapagos

Anytime we saw any animal, our guide, Alfredo, knew exactly what it was and could tell us all about it. He was super-cool and knew everything about everything. He reminded me of a younger version of The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. My dad said he was like Antonio Banderas, but I don’t know who that is. Alfredo was suave and interesting—he knew all the surf spots and was a big-time food connoisseur.

Eating Our Way Through The Galapagos

Speaking of food, everything we ate was so good. I’m not typically an adventurous eater, and although the food was very different, it wasn’t scary—not like eating a live octopus or anything. The main interesting dish was ceviche, which is almost like a soup or stew with fish and local vegetables.

Another one of my favorite parts of the trip was that I got to know everyone in our group, especially my parents, in a new way. My parents always talk about how traveling is a good way for kids to become more mature and learn to appreciate the “outside world.” But what’s really cool is that, on this trip, I got to see my parents acting like kids. They swam with the iguanas, they played with the giant tortoises and they rolled around in the sand imitating the sea lions.

Galapagos sea lions on a white, sandy beach

A Lasting Impression

One of the best things about the trip, though, actually happened after I got home. I went to the Galápagos knowing that it’s one of the most diverse and ecologically interesting places in the world—and it was. But what’s odd is that when I came back to San Diego, I suddenly appreciated more what I have here. I went snorkeling just 10 minutes from my house and saw some really cool stuff that I’d never noticed before. I guess it’s because in the Galápagos, wildlife is not only everywhere but it’s always in your space, so you’re forced to notice it. After a while you get used to picking things out because everything there is interesting. And then you go back home, and you’re still used to that. In a way, it opened up my senses to notice and appreciate nature right where I live.

We can’t get enough of the Galápagos Islands. You too? Read on …

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