Christmas-colored iguanas that swim in the ocean? Seabirds with blue feet the color and texture of a rubber kiddie pool? Hundred-year-old tortoises that look like they’ve just walked off the set of a dinosaur movie? No wonder Charles Darwin was so taken with the Galápagos Islands. As a destination for lovers of wildlife, or for anyone who needs a thorough cleansing from the rigors of modern life, this pristine and superbly isolated archipelago tops even the safaris of Africa. Among our planet’s many outstanding natural wonders, there are none quite so intimate as the encounters with wildlife you’ll have in the Galápagos. The unusual animals here, whether reptile, bird, or mammal, are completely unafraid of people, and it’s this opportunity to commune with wildness in its most natural, unguarded state that makes the Galápagos such an unforgettable destination.
The magic of the Galápagos Islands, which straddle the equator 966km (600 miles) west of Ecuador, reveals itself to you slowly. The landforms here aren’t exactly beautiful—so don’t come here if you’re looking for a tropical paradise of endless palm-treed, sandy beaches. With rough volcanic surfaces and scrubby vegetation in many places, the islands in the archipelago have a bizarre, even forbidding, aspect. But once you take your first shore excursion and greet the islands’ unique inhabitants as they go about their business, unconcerned about your presence, you’ll fall under the same spell that bewitched Darwin. These islands may be the most scientifically important in the world, but on a more basic level, they’re also the most delightful.
Due to their particular topography, weather, and sea conditions, each island in the Galápagos is a distinct wildlife habitat, though many species are present on multiple islands. All but a handful of the islands are uninhabited and have no signs of civilization besides some marked trails. Access to most is by sea only and carefully controlled by the Galápagos National Park; touring the archipelago is best done with accredited ship-based outfitters. Santa Cruz is the most populated island of the archipelago; its main town, bustling Puerto Ayora, is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and the famous Galápagos tortoise Lonesome George.
Española is undoubtedly one of the archipelago’s greatest treasures: Here, visitors can walk on a broad, sugary beach where hundreds of adorable sea lions romp, either playfully curious or totally oblivious to their human interlopers; or you can hike the path that skirts Española’s western end, where there are delightful sideshows of seabird antics at every turn. Blue-footed boobies dance and court, frigate birds perform acrobatics, and waved albatrosses take off and land on a windy “airstrip.” Isabela is the largest island and perhaps the most beautiful. It’s made up of six shield volcanoes whose bases fused together above sea level to make up one mountainous island. Isabela’s rugged seacoast is riddled with dramatic coves and rock walls where snorkelers and divers can swim right alongside sea turtles, sea lions, and Galápagos penguins. The youngest in the archipelago is Fernandina, an other-worldly landscape of black lava where very little vegetation exists. Despite the scant flora, Fernandina supports thriving communities of marine iguanas—basking in the sun, usually underfoot! Flightless cormorants, yet another unusual Galápagos species, which lost its ability to fly because it had no predators, nest on Fernandina every summer. Tiny Bartolome, with its gorgeous crescent beach and spiky rock formation in the quiet bay, is the iconic image of the Galápagos, featured in the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and countless marketing materials. Sailing between any of the islands, you’re likely to spy whales, dolphins, rays, and sharks, or the coolest pelagic fish of them all—the enormous mola mola, or ocean sunfish—launching its entire body out of the water.
As the full wealth of the Galápagos Islands can be visited only by sea and with government permits (tour operators arrange these up to a year in advance), it’s essential to do your homework and find a reputable outfitter that suits your needs and traveling style. The small cruise ships that sail in the Galápagos are equipped with a full range of ways to explore the archipelago and its wildlife and have more comfortable accommodations, while the intimate catamarans offer more of a “roughing it” type of experience. Most expeditions last from a week to 10 days, though the longer you spend in the Galápagos, the tougher it is to reenter the civilized world.