Cup your hands and place them lightly against your face. Now exhale a long deep breath, as if you are trying to warm them from the cold. Do you hear the sound? A deep, coarse bellow that sounds like Darth Vader, or at least Rick Moranis in Space Balls. It’s the sound a 150-year-old land tortoise makes when it vacates all of the air from its lungs in order to give its legs and head sufficient room to retract inside its shell. We heard it when we came up behind one too quickly and it sought shelter from the unknown noise.

A uniquely Galápagos style of social networking site

After hearing it a few times from other tortoises and perfecting the sound themselves with our naturalist guide, Alfredo, my kids coined the term, “vadering”. It was just one of the fantastically fun learning experiences we had last week on our Galápagos family vacation, as we participated on Classic Journeys’ island-based multi-sport program.

As they’ll tell you, these land tortoises live up to 150-200 years, which means that some of them were around for our Civil War. And they can weigh 500+ pounds, and move at speeds around 0.3 km per hour as they travel 5km per day in search of their leafy favorite foods and the social networking site of the local muddy watering hole.

Galapagos turtles on the beaches. You’ll never guess where that fine white sand comes from…

The land tortoises were only one of the amazing animals, birds and sea life that we encountered as we hiked, kayaked, snorkeled, and mountain biked around three different islands from our boutique hotel accommodations. Another favorite of the kids was learning the origin of the beautiful fine white sand we sat on as we interacted with the local sea lion population: parrot fish eat the coral and then “poop” it out as sand. And we saw schools of parrot and damselfish along with sea lion pups, giant sea turtles, Galápagos penguins, iguanas, and even white-tipped reef sharks as we snorkeled in water that was so clear we could see 40-50 feet away.

Sealions on the beach in Galapagos Blue-footed boobies “Dancing with the Stars”

But the stars of the week were the blue-footed-boobies, that make the famous mating dance. It’ll never make you forget “Dancing with the Stars”, but it will get your attention, just as it does the female birds that the males are working so hard to attract. Our group of nine (including three teenage boys) had plenty of laughs during the week “booby spotting”, but we all also learned more than we ever would have from a textbook. By the end of the week, the kids were expert at distinguishing red-footed and Nazca-boobies from their blue-footed cousins. And we watched in amazement from kayaks off the coast of Santa Cruz Island as a flock of blue-footed boobies soared above the crystalline waters in search of schools of fish. Once a school was spotted, the leader would soar high in the sky to alert the rest of the flock and as one, they would dive bomb into the waters, reaching depths of 15 meters or more. The first time we witnessed it, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. But with the luxury of our island-based timetable, we could linger in a picture-perfect lagoon and watch the show over and over again.

Blue footed boobies in the Galapagos

Island-based = no “on-the zodiac-off-the-zodiac” rigid schedules

Our family had resisted planning a Galápagos family vacation in years past, because we didn’t want to be stuck on a boat for a week. Friends who had gone the boat route described the on-the-zodiac-off-the-zodiac lockstep ritual and rigid schedule in a way that made us hold back, even though the islands were always around the top of our bucket list. Once we learned that a few select islands had some beautiful, eco-friendly boutique accommodations, we jumped at the chance to experience the Galápagos for ourselves. We stayed on San Cristobal, Isabella, and Santa Cruz islands. The Hotel Iguana Crossing on Isabella was typical of the hotels. The ocean laps at the front door. There’s nothing but National Park (with a live volcano) out the back. This eco-luxe hotel is everything you could want in Galápagos accommodations – cool, very close to nature and eco-minded. Amenities include a negative edge swimming pool, a roof-deck Jacuzzi, a game room that became a favorite of the kids, and its own excellent restaurant. And it’s named for the iguanas that cross right in front to the white sand beach that stretches for miles in both directions, and which has virtually no people on it other than a few local surfers and body-boarders.

Iguana Crossing hotel in the Galapagos.

Classic Journeys operates island-based cultural walking adventures and family multi-sport vacations year-round in the Galápagos. Guests enjoy 7 days and 6 nights in boutique hotels. Expert naturalist guides create opportunities to come face to face with an incredibly diverse population of birds, plants, animals, and sea life that are endemic to the Galápagos and which have no natural predators. Download a day by day itinerary of the trips, call a Guest Services Coordinator at 800-200-3887, or email Classic Journeys at