Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

These islands host intriguing flora and fauna that’s unlike anything else on earth.

The Galapagos Islands are “a must” on any inquisitive adventurer’s itinerary. It is definitely unlike any other environment on earth. Nature has taken its own path to evolution as plants and animals have adapted to their surroundings in complete isolation.

Uninhabited by humans and other predators until the 16th century, these islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, were created by volcanic eruptions five million years ago. The result is a moonscape vision of rare rock formations in islands and islets populated by a staggering number of animals as well as birds that color the skies with their diverse plumage.

Many marine currents that converge at this point near the equator have fertilized the land with unique botanical and zoological traits that have captivated tourists and scientists alike for most of the last century.

This strange paradise so fascinated British scientist Charles Darwin in the 19th century, that he dedicated many years to studying the flora and fauna of the islands. His astounding discoveries were published in 1859 – two decades after he first visited the Galapagos – in his controversial book “The Origin of the Species.” The book exploded as an international best-seller calling world attention to this then-unknown Ecuadorian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.

The Galapagos takes its name from the thousands of giant turtles that have made this isolated territory their home. Other interesting “islanders” are prehistoric land and marine iguanas, lava lizards and rare birds that can only be found in these parts. The Galapagos Islands are also famous for their white-sand shores and cactus forests that harbor 13 different species of finches, flightless cormorants, penguins, hawks, mockingbirds, flamingos, blue- and red-footed boobies, frigates, albatross, pelicans and more.

These patches of land existing between the intense blue of ocean and sky are already a magnificent attraction. But when you add the spectacular zoology, the effect is incredibly dazzling. The Galapagos may well be the only place on earth where the wildlife is not afraid of humans. When approached they remain strangely detached and never shy away. Visitors, in turn, are only allowed to follow certain paths, without touching the animals or in any way disturbing the balance of this fragile environment. The well-trained guides and scientists that escort tourists on land excursions from their boats, strictly enforce these rules. Large vessels must anchor at some distance from the shore, and passengers must disembark on small rubber rafts. Snorkeling is also permitted in certain spots.

All 125 islands and islets in the Galapagos chain comprise a total surface of 3,000 square miles of which 97 percent are protected as the Galapagos National Park and its Marine Reserve, both declared by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. This government-protected land is one of the most desirable places to visit in the world.

The Galapagos is also considered one of the seven most important regions in the world for diving. In different areas of the islands, people practice deep or shallow diving and get close to colorful coral reefs, sea lions, whales, whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, sting rays, manta rays, sword fish, turtles, orcas and many other impressive specimens. Down in the depths, marine currents run so strong, that they’ve shaped the cooling lava that flowed from the ocean floor during several volcanic eruptions, into dramatic sculptures. Lava tunnels, interesting rock formations and impressive vertical walls are part of this intriguing underwater landscape. It should be noted that the islands of Santiago, Bartolome and Floreana offer some of the most exciting diving in the world.

Sixty-two destinations can be visited in these enchanted islands. In Floreana, for example, visitors can explore Post Office Bay, The Black Beach, Flamingos Lagoon, Cormorant Point or the Pirate’s Caves. On Genovesa, the frigate birds, furry seals, marine iguanas, tropical birds, red-footed boobies and masked boobies are distinct residents, while on Fernandina, sea lions, iguanas, pelicans, penguins and cormorants are the attraction. A good show at Española is the dance of the blue-footed booby or the courting of the albatross.

Other points of interest are El Geiser, El Soplador and Cucubes, all of which are home to a variety of exotic bird life. Santiago is popular for its lava flow formation that flanks a trail leading up to Bartolome, a volcanic island that’s home to furry seals and sea lions. Colonies of frigate birds, sea lions and blue- and red-footed boobies live in North Seymour, while the Plaza Islands are an important habitat for sea lions, sea gulls and iguanas living among the cacti. The Bay of Santa Fe is also surrounded by cactus forests, and is home to sparrow hawks, as well as sea lions and iguanas. Isabela, which is under constant volcanic activity, is home to a nursery of turtles.

The Charles Darwin Foundation on the island of Santa Cruz is the place to learn more about Darwin’s pursuits on the archipelago, as well as many scientific facts about the Galapagos’ unique history and formation. Some 200 scientists, educators and volunteers work and reside in this island. The Charles Darwin station is also in charge of scientific research and conservation of the islands. Many tourists also like to go to Puerto Ayora to enjoy the many restaurants, shops and art galleries in this area of Santa Cruz.

A total of about 20,000 people live on the islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal. Coming from the mainland as well as other countries in South America and Europe, these residents have created a distinct community that sets them apart for their different traditions, beliefs and customs. And so, the incoming flow of residents, have created original styles in arts, crafts, music and literature that are endemic to this region.

Daily flights from Quito or Guayaquil transport visitors to the islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. A fleet of well-equipped yachts, operated by some of the best tour operators in the world, are available to take tourists on exciting cruises to various islands. Expert guides take charge of island tours as well as some marine activities, including diving and snorkeling. Most of these Ecuadorian companies have tour operator partners in the U.S. Vessels can generally take from 16 to 100 passengers and their accommodations range from luxury to comfortable. Journeys last from three to seven nights. Agents generally get commission when they book clients in advance. There’s a $100 per person fee to enter the Galapagos National Park.

The islands of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have several hotels that range from B&Bs and budget hotels to small upscale resorts. These options give visitors the opportunity to relax, scuba dive, go kayaking, bike or hike in these two islands before or after embarking on a more serious tour of the archipelago. Different day-cruises to neighboring islands can also be arranged by the hotels.

The weather in the Galapagos is subtropical and is determined by sea currents. Since the islands are near the equator, it can get quite hot. Possibly, the best time to go is from May to December, but most cruise vessels have air-conditioning.

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