Galápagos Islands: Intimate Encounters with Extraordinary Creatures

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.