Welcome to Ecuador’s “enchanted isles”—and a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experience found nowhere else on earth.
Imagine snorkeling with a family of inquisitive sea lions or swimming alongside giant sea turtles. Bask on the sun-warmed rocks, keeping company with dozens of marine iguanas (a 10-million-year-old species!). Meet the iconic giant land tortoises (called “galapago” in Spanish and the islands’ namesake). Marvel at the agility of the world’s only flightless cormorants, photograph the only penguin species found north of the Equator, and laugh at the comical crash landings of the huge waved albatross.
As you explore the starkly beautiful terrain, leave it to Mother Nature to paint the creatures that live here in a dazzling color palette. Spot flashy red Sally Lightfoot crabs, boobies sporting bright blue or red feet, the bright yellow glint of Darwin’s finches, and flocks of hot pink flamingoes. And you’ll have plenty of time to observe these creatures up close—many are fearless since they’ve never been hunted.
Small ships, the hallmark of Galapagos travel, are perfect for easy and unobtrusive access to islands where the birds, reptiles, and marine life are often unique to their habitats. You’ll explore these remote shores in the company of passionate, knowledgeable guides. Hike across lunar-like expanses of naturally patterned lava, walk among stands of ghostly Palo Santo trees, and investigate the shore life of a secret lagoon or coral beach. Enjoy the waters as you kayak along a cactus-dotted coast or jump right in for a refreshing swim. All the while you’ll follow in the epic wake of Charles Darwin, whose Galapagos studies led to his groundbreaking theory of natural selection.
Galapagos Islands travel delights all ages, whether you’re 8 or 80. Close-up encounters with the diverse wildlife of this isolated archipelago are both profoundly moving and ultimately delightful. As you snap that once-in-a-lifetime portrait of a bird, lizard, tortoise, or iguana…you’ll notice they’re just as curious about you!
This far-flung archipelago of 14 major islands and more than 100 tiny islets lies 620 miles west of Ecuador and comfortably straddles the equator. It’s a national park, a biological marine reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a pristine ecosystem without equal.
Volcanic in origin, the individual islands are the result of mantle plumes—extremely hot columns of rock that rise from the depths of the earth and form the land we see above sea level. Galapagos cruises offer the perfect vantage point for that introductory survey of these stark, arid, lava-smothered, cactus-and-mangrove-covered, coral-trimmed and mountainous isles and their breathtaking variety of wildlife, above and below the waters.
Northern Peruvian sailors lay claim to the first visit in 1485, but the official “discovery” of the islands goes to Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, who was blown off course during a voyage to Peru in 1535. The first world map to reveal the archipelago’s existence was printed in 1570 and shortly afterwards, the “Insulae de los Galopegos” (Tortoise Islands) became the refuge and food-supply source for the pirates who, for nearly 150 years, raided the Spanish ships sailing home from South America with Inca gold.
In the late 18th century sealers and whalers arrived, exploiting the region and its wealth of marine mammals. By the late 1700s, whale oil was more valuable than gold. Between 1811 and 1844, approximately 700 whaling ships arrived for the hunt, making the Galapagos the Pacific’s center for the industry. Herman Melville, that eloquent American whaler and author, visited the islands in 1841, writing about his impressions in his story—Las Encantadas—the Enchanted Isles.
By 1800, fur seals in the Galapagos were nearly extinct and the whalers left shortly thereafter. Ecuador claimed the islands in 1832, giving each a Spanish name—Espanola, San Cristobal, Fernandina, Isabela, Santa Cruz, and Floreana among them.
The region’s most famous visitor, Charles Darwin, arrived for a Galapagos tour on September 15, 1835. He stayed for five weeks studying the flora and fauna on four islands. His subjects included the now legendary Darwin’s finches (13 species in all), which focused his attention on adaptation, habitat and survival—a.k.a. natural selection. After 20 years of collecting supporting evidence, he published his iconic work On the Origin of Species. Today’s Galapagos cruises bring travelers to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island to learn about the wildlife and conservation efforts. Here you can witness two species of Darwin’s finches, as well as giant tortoises. The Tortoise Breeding Center here breeds and raises the newly hatched endangered reptiles.
Tours to the Galapagos showcase the diversity of terrain, habitat and wildlife, stopping at a number of islands on each cruise. Among the more unusual and endemic species are the red and green marine iguanas—the world’s only ocean-dwelling lizard—and the land iguanas that favor the tasty flowers and leaves of the prickly pear cactus. There’s also the chance to peer beneath the waters where 400 species of fish thrive alongside the magnificent green sea turtle and hammerhead shark. A snorkel with sea lions is an unforgettable treat for all generations.
In the avian world—which includes 28 endemic species—pink flamingoes and Galapagos penguins reside happily on adjacent isles, a neighborly fusion of the tropics and polar regions. Elegant frigatebirds soar overhead like kites while flightless cormorants forage for food on land and in water. Blue-footed boobies make Olympics-worthy dives from 100 feet in the air, and 12,000 pairs of waved albatross with their 11-foot wingspans make for a camera-ready spectacle. The most famous residents, however, are the giant tortoises, which measure more than four feet in length and weigh up to 500 pounds. Grasses, fruits and cacti sustain these venerable giants, some of whom can celebrate a century of birthdays.
Travel to the Galapagos is as close as you’re likely to get to a natural laboratory, where you have the remarkable opportunity to witness evolution at work. And where preservation and conservation are the only ways to keep these Islas Encantadas enchanted.