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Galapagos: A world within itself

The Galapagos may be tiny, but this chain of volcanic islands — offering a glimpse into a world unaffected by human touch — was instrumental in the inception of Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection. Here we reveal five must-visit islands.

Galapagos: A world within itself
Brown pelican, Santa Cruz. Image: Corbis

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Nowhere else on the planet does a place so small pack such a big punch. This tiny chain of 18 volcanic islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, barely registers on a world map. But they have influenced how we think about life, and ourselves, more profoundly than anywhere else on Earth.

Charles Darwin, who based his book On the Origin of Species on discoveries he made here, described the Galapagos as ‘a little world within itself’ — an isolated archipelago, in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, that defied human contact for thousands of years. The result is one of the most bio-diverse habitats in the world filled with species to be found nowhere else on Earth: giant Galapagos tortoises, the largest in the world; waved albatrosses, who kiss each other’s beaks during mating; and enormous Galapagos land iguanas, described in Darwin’s notebooks as ‘the guardians of Hell’.

But it’s also one of the strangest habitats in the world: a place where the animals are utterly fearless and people are a curiosity, not a threat. No other wildlife experience on the planet allows such proximity and acceptance. It’s possible to swim side by side with sea lions, play with penguins on the beach and walk through enormous breeding grounds as though you were as invisible as the breeze.

Wildlife is undoubtedly the star attraction for most travellers, but there’s much more to these wondrous islands than natural history alone. From hiking through lava tunnels and exploring enormous cacti forests to swimming in volcanic crevices and surfing world-class breaks: the Galapagos Islands are as active as you want to make them.

There are mountain-biking trails, sea-kayaking to remote bays and snorkelling and scuba-diving that’s among the best on the planet, as well as a fascinating culture filled with pirate and whaling history, laid-back beach towns and some of the most important conservation work being done in the world today.

This is more than a travel hotspot: it’s a glimpse into a world unaffected by human touch. That view doesn’t come cheap, but the high costs keep visitor numbers down, helping to preserve the environment, and for serious travellers it’s worth every penny. Maybe, like Darwin, you’ll return convinced the world is more amazing than you’d ever dreamed. Welcome to the greatest wildlife show on planet Earth.

Volcanic craters, Isabela. Image: Getty

Volcanic craters, Isabela. Image: Getty

Isabela
The largest island in the Galapagos is also one of its least visited. But don’t let that put you off: from its volcanic highlands to the deserted beaches of the coast, Isabela is a microcosm for the Galapagos as a whole and should not be missed.

The main hub, Puerto Villamil, is a laid-back beach town set against miles of palm-fringed sandy coast, where pink flamingos idle in the shallows and a beach bar is never too far away.

In the interior, the spectacular hike up the still active Sierra Negra volcano provides panoramic views across the island, while the upwelling cold-water currents around Punta Vicente Roca, in the northwest, produce brilliant varieties of marine life and some of the best kayaking and diving in the region.

The names of pirates can still be seen carved into the rock at nearby Tagus Cove and, from July to November, whales are easy to spot.

A sea lion eyes a selection of fish, Santa Cruz. Image: Getty

A sea lion eyes a selection of fish, Santa Cruz. Image: Getty

Santa Cruz
The island everyone sees, but few get to know. Santa Cruz is the central cog in most Galapagos itineraries, and the nearest hub from the airport, but few visitors do more than scratch the surface of this fascinating island.

The main town, Puerto Ayora, is the largest in the Galapagos, filled with shops, yachts, restaurants and the Charles Darwin Research Station, home of the islands’ scientific and conservation efforts. It offers the widest selection of hotels, with day trips to all corners of the islands.

But it’s outside of town where the fun really starts: mountain bike to El Mirador and explore a collapsed lava tube; jump in volcanic swimming holes filled with bright turquoise water, or surf beside turtles in Tortuga Bay.

Further afield, deep in the mist-filled forests of the highlands, visitors can encounter free-roaming Galapagos giant tortoises.

Great frigate bird, Genovesa. Image: Corbis

Great frigate bird, Genovesa. Image: Corbis

Genovesa
This wild, uninhabited island in the northeast of the archipelago is one of the most pristine and beautiful in the chain. There’s excellent diving and snorkelling off the coast, including regular visits from hammerhead sharks. But the real reason people come is for the birds.

Enormous swathes of swallow-tailed gulls and the world’s largest colony of red-footed Boobies — as many as 200,000 — can be seen nesting among the steep cliffs, lava plains and saltbushes of Darwin Bay.

Trails weave through the breeding grounds to lookouts over the lagoon where storm petrels, lava herons, finches, mockingbirds and more soar gracefully overhead. This is a twitcher’s paradise unlike anywhere else on Earth.

Galapagos sea lions, Española. Image: Corbis

Galapagos sea lions, Española. Image: Corbis

Española
The southernmost island in the chain is also one of the most isolated, which means it’s teeming with endemic species, including the hilariously clumsy waved albatross whose entire world population, upwards of 25,000 birds, returns to nest here between April and December every year.

Española also has one of the richest ecosystems here, packed full of marine iguanas, lava lizards and rare birds. But the star of the show is the sea lion: expect to swim in the surf with these characters and pick your way through the entire colony lounging on the shore.

Nearby Gardener Bay — an idyllic stretch of white sand — is one of the region’s finest sunbathing beaches, with some of the best snorkelling in the Galapagos off its shore.

Marina iguana, Santiago. Image: Getty

Marina iguana, Santiago. Image: Getty

Santiago
Geology is the main attraction here, with the pristine, twisting lava fields of Sullivan Bay providing a powerful and otherworldly experience — like walking on bubbling, liquid rock.

Nearby in James Bay — once the hideout of British buccaneers waiting to plunder Spanish galleons — there’s an old salt mine-turned-flamingo lagoon and a wonderful fur seal grotto, one of the only places it’s possible to get close to these shy animals on land.

Other highlights include visiting Santiago’s satellite island, Bartolomé, for the spectacular hike up Pinnacle Rock — the most photographed point in the region — and snorkelling with Galapagos penguins at Chinese Hat, a small rocky outcrop just off the southeastern coast.

Essentials

Getting there
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Quito, via Madrid; KLM flies via Amsterdam. Avianca flies from Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador to Baltra and San Cristóbal in the Galapagos.
Average flight time: 20h.

 

Getting around
You must be on an official tour for almost all sites. Exceptions include marked sites in the vicinity of towns. Most people visit the Galapagos on organised cruises. Another option is to stay ashore and take day trips to sights. Although often more cost effective, it means the range of islands that can be seen is less.

 

When to go
December through May is the rainy season. Expect bright sunshine, short downpours and temperatures in the high 20Cs. This is the time to see birds mating.June through November is the dry season, when temperatures drop to the low 20Cs but there’s less rain. This is the best time for diving and snorkelling.

 

More info
All visitors must pay an entry fee of $100/ $50 under 12s (£63/£31) in cash on arrival. The fee is divided between a number of parties involved in both managing and preserving the islands.
Voyage of the Beagle: a free online version of Charles Darwin’s 1839 book. literature.org
Bradt’s Galapagos Wildlife. RRP: £16.99.

 

How to do it
Wildfoot Travel has a new eight-day cruise on board a traditional sailing barquentine, visiting Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Santiago and more, from £3,995 per person, full board, including flights.
RealWorld Holidays offers an eight-day land-based trip, visiting Santa Cruz, Isabella and Floreana, from £2,695 per person, including internal flights, accommodation and most
meals. The price excludes international flights.

 

Expert tip
Invest in a good telephoto lens — at least 200mm — or a pair of image-stabilising binoculars.


Published in the South America supplement in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)