If you like to appreciate wildlife in settings other than a zoo or typical nature preserve, experience the adventure of a lifetime in the Galápagos Islands. Famous as the place which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the island archipelago is renowned by nature historians and wildlife enthusiasts the world over. The islands were declared a national park in 1959; less than 20 years later, they were designated as a World Heritage Site.
Located a bit over 600 miles from Ecuador’s mainland, the Galápagos archipelago contains 13 major islands and six small isles, over about 19,500 square miles of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Only five of the islands are inhabited — by people, that is. Throughout the islands, an amazing variety of other animals roam. Even more amazing is the fact that they are completely fearless around humans.
While the study of pristine, unfettered wildlife is the Galápagos’ greatest draw, many vacation activities are available for the intrepid tourist.
No visit to the Galápagos Islands is complete without a stop at the Charles Darwin Research Station, located on Isla Santa Cruz. Throughout the island chain, visitors can spot giant tortoises, marine iguanas, colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs, and sea lions in their native habitat. Birdlife is also plentiful, including herons, penguins, and other sea birds. Visitors can approach most animals on the islands, as they are largely unafraid of the few humans they see. (Island authorities strictly regulate the number of visitors to the island and provide guides to accompany all tours.) Some of the best sites for wildlife viewing are Santa Cruz’s sea lion colony at La Loberia, and Isla Isabela’s Tagus Cove, where Galápagos tortoises majestically amble.
On the diverse beaches of the Galápagos Islands and off their shores, travelers can enjoy sunbathing, nature watching, snorkeling, scuba diving, and surfing, to name just a few activities. We recommend the following locales:
- For simple beach walking and lounging, nothing beats the island of San Cristóbal, noted for its powdery white sand.
- Swimmers and snorkelers will appreciate the calm blue waters of such areas as Cerro Brujo or Las Bachas, where turtle nesting sites lie.
- For an afternoon of swimming in unsurpassed beauty, Isla Isabela’s deep blue lagoons beckon.
- On the island of Genovesa, mangroves fringe the shores of Tortuga Bay, where manta rays and sharks are frequently spotted in the blue-green waters.
- Darwin Bay, once the mouth of a volcano, features a coral beach that is often lined with sunbathing seals.
- For a change of pace, visitors can travel to the isle of Santiago, where its black sand beaches are home to many turtle nesting sites.
- On the island of Santa Cruz, snorkelers enjoy frolicking with sea turtles and sea lions, as they swim among schools of tropical fish.
- Scuba divers find hammerhead sharks and manta rays throughout the archipelago’s dive sites, along with kaleidoscopic arrays of tropical fish.
- Experienced surfers will enjoy the waves of Punta Carola, off San Crisóbal.
The landscape of many of the islands has been compared to a moonscape, which is understandable, given that they are volcanic. While the settings may be more austere than lush, they do have a singular beauty. Hikers will enjoy visiting such sites as Volcán Wolf, the islands’ highest mountain, or the unusual volcanic rock formations at Isla Bartolomé. Once they’ve worked up an appetite, they can feast on the islands’ very fresh seafood. Restaurant specialties include viche, a thick fish soup made with yucca, chili, and onions, and a ceviche of chopped lobster, raw onion, tomato, oil, and citrus juice.
Cruising from island to island by boat provides a pleasant interlude between island tours. A veritable cradle of natural history, this lunar landscaped wildlife haven offers a unique island vacation experience. Whether looking for simple relaxation or active exploration, the adventuresome tourist will find plenty to enjoy in the Galápagos Islands.