The Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of 13 major volcanic islands and more than 40 small islands, is a treasure chest of plants and animals -- many found no where else in the world. The islands are situated on the equator 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador. A three-hour flight from Quito, with a short stop-over, takes you to the island to Baltra, where you pass through the Galapagos National Park gate. You're then whisked off by buses taking you to a passenger ferry that crosses the Canal de Itabaca, the narrow stretch of water between Baltra and Santa Cruz island. Upon arrival at Santa Cruz, you'll find a wealth of information on accommodations and also the 80 operators with licenses to tour the Galapagos on varying sizes of yachts. Most of the Galapagos' matchless wildlife can only be seen from these boat tours. (Independent travel using inter-island flights and ferries is possible, but extremely expensive.)
The Charles Darwin Research Center, on Santa Cruz Island and covered by every tour of the islands, exhibits a wealth of information on the Galapagos' geology, climate, and conservation efforts. You'll also see tortoise-rearing pens, where predator-proof enclosures hold groups of miniature giant tortoises in an effort to boost the severely reduced tortoise population. Touching the tortoises is a big non-no, but you can get close enough for great pictures.
North Seymour Island, just off Baltra, is a bird-lovers paradise, hosting nests of the largest colony of the beautiful frigate birds From small boats, you come ashore to black lava and trails that lead past large colonies of blue-footed booties and the frigate birds. You'll also discover sea lions and nesting marine iguanas.
South Plaza Island is another haven for both birds and also land iguanas, who hover around the striking vegetation of sesuvium plants and cactus trees, which the iguanas savor. Trails lead to sheer cliffs where you can view sea lion pups, frigate birds, masked boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, and a host of other birds. In the sea, you might view manta rays and dolphins.
Each of the Galapagos islands, one of the world's best diving spots, has its own character. On Santa Cruz islands you'll also find beautiful beaches, opportunities for hiking and biking, horseback riding, and of course a chance to delve into the island's fascinating geology and wildlife. Activities you can partake in throughout the islands include snorkeling, diving, and fishing.
The Galapagos Islands offer a step back in time and source of inspiration for people throughout the world. Tourism has taken its toll on the islands, but the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Center have been following a threefold approach to the problem with eradication programs, re-population programs, and a quarantine system with inspectors for alien pests. You'll want to wander carefully in the area, preserving the island's magnificence for generations to come.
Tips & Resources
When to go: Wildlife spotting good throughout the year. January to June (warm-wet season) is slightly warmer than rest of year. July to December are coolest months (need wetsuit for snorkeling)
Things to avoid: Sunburn: bring ample sunscreen
Insect bites: bring repellent during warm-wet season
Running out of cash: The Galapagos are not for the budget minded. The park entrance is $100 and boat trips and accommodations are pricey compared to mainland spots.