The Galápagos Islands are probably the most famous wildlife-watching destination in the world. And no wonder – it’s almost impossible to exaggerate the sheer spectacle of the place that provided inspiration for Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking theory of natural selection.
This remote archipelago is a land of stark lava formations, cactus forests, lush green highlands, turquoise bays and quintessential tropical beaches. But, best of all, it is overflowing with wildlife at every turn. Within minutes – sometimes seconds – of landing on this dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you can be face-to-face with more strangely fearless and curious animals than anywhere else on Earth.
Roughly 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and slap-bang on the equator, Darwin’s “Enchanted Isles” consist of a cluster of 13 “proper” volcanic islands (larger than four square miles) plus six smaller islands and more than 100 islets. Every one has its own unique atmosphere, distinctive landscape and inimitable wildlife.
You can see everything from penguins living in the tropics and boobies with bright blue feet to tool-using woodpecker finches and male frigatebirds turning their wrinkled throat sacs into extraordinary, fully inflated red balloons. One day you could be watching time-worn giant tortoises in the misty highlands, and the next you could be snorkelling with playful sea lions in crystal-clear water. You could be sunbathing on black lava rocks next to prehistoric-looking marine iguanas, or sitting with waved albatrosses as they perform their bill-circling, swaggering courtship displays (they look rather like Samurai warriors performing Lord of the Dance).
Within minutes you can be face-to-face with strangely curious animals
There really is nowhere else quite like it.
All this said, 170,000 tourists visited the Galápagos last year so, not surprisingly, it’s beginning to feel a little crowded. It’s a high-profile place and lots of people want to see it for themselves. The consequence of such an onslaught is that wildlife tourism is more tightly controlled in the archipelago than anywhere else in the world. You’re only allowed to visit tiny pockets of the national park, you can disembark (from small boats) only at designated landing spots, you must walk only on clearly marked trails in strictly disciplined small groups, and you must be accompanied by local certified guides. Regulating tourism with such military efficiency may feel extreme, but it is essential under the circumstances. Ultimately, though, there has to be a limit and in the not-too-distant future, visitor numbers will have to be capped.
Did you know?
The Galápagos were discovered by chance in 1535 by Father Tomás Berlanga, Bishop of Panama
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How to book
Because of the long distances involved, the only practical way to explore the Galápagos is by live-aboard boats, which travel between islands, mostly at night, and make different stops each day. More than 80 vessels are licensed to operate in the archipelago and there are countless combinations of stops and routes. Most cruises go ashore twice a day: 10 full days on the boat typically means 20 shore landings, 10-20 snorkels, and several panga rides (pangas are small, open outboard-powered boats) to about 10 different islands.
Exploring on your own is considerably more difficult. Getting around independently is tricky and all visitors must be accompanied by a licensed naturalist guide at all landing sites. But four islands (Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Floreana and Isabela) do have hotels of varying sizes and standards and a few boat operators offer day-trips.
Following in Darwin’s footsteps involves a flight from Quito or Guayaquil, on the mainland, to Baltra or San Cristóbal. Some cruises leave from Baltra (the dock is a five-minute drive from the air terminal). Others go from Puerto Ayora, the tourist hub on Santa Cruz and a relatively busy town, with a bank, ATM machine, taxis, pubs and even a cinema.
Puerto Ayora, the tourist hub of Santa Cruz
Wildlife Worldwide (wildlifeworldwide.com
) offers a variety of tailor-made live-aboard tours on many different vessels carrying from 14 to 90 passengers. Prices start from £3,495 (including flights) for a typical eight-night itinerary.
Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk
) offers comfortable cruises on the 48-passenger Eclipse, which has the generous accommodation of a larger vessel and yet the atmosphere and exclusivity of a small yacht. Prices start from £3,995 (including flights) for a typical eight-night itinerary.
) offers trips for small groups (4-16 passengers) aboard the Cachalote I. Prices start from £3,249 (including flights) for a typical 11-night itinerary.
Where and when to go
Wildlife activities vary greatly and each month has its own highlights. For example, green turtles begin their egg-laying in January; penguins interact with swimmers on Bartolomé mainly from May until the end of September; humpback whales begin to arrive in June; July through to the end of September is the best period for most seabird activity; peak pupping for sea lions is around August, while their pups play aqua-aerobics with snorkellers in November; and December is the month for hatching giant tortoise eggs. So there is always something going on.
The hot, humid, slightly rainy season (with occasional tropical showers) is from December to May (March and April are usually hottest and wettest). The seas tend to be calmer and clearer at this time of year (with 60ft-80ft visibility typical) and the water temperature averages 79F (26C), so this period is best for snorkelling.
The cool, drier, windier season (with occasional drizzle or mist) is from June to November. Sea temperatures at this time of year drop to as low as 66F (19C) and visibility often goes down to 30ft-50ft, while sea swells can make some landings tricky.
What to see
There are more than 60 approved visitor sites across the archipelago altogether, and where you go will influence what wildlife you are likely to see. With this in mind, most top 10 wishlists include the following:
Found mainly around the westernmost islands, where particularly cool currents keep water temperatures low. They can be seen in several places (around Pinnacle Rock, on Bartolomé, is good) but breed only on Isabela and Fernandina.
Like the penguin, breeds only on Fernandina and Isabela; found nowhere else.
Found pretty much everywhere and a familiar sight from early in the trip.
Breeds only on Española and, apart from a few pairs on Isla de la Plata, near the Ecuadorean mainland, nowhere else in the world; present April to December.
Galápagos land iguanas are found on the central and western islands; not surprisingly, Santa Fé is the only place to see the endemic Santa Fé land iguana.
Probably the most famous birds in the archipelago. As a result of his five-week stay, Darwin speculated that the 13 species of these rather unassuming little birds had evolved from a single species on the mainland – and this set the stage for his major breakthrough. They are found throughout the archipelago, though some species are restricted to certain islands.
Galápagos giant tortoise
The best places to see them are in the Santa Cruz highlands and on Alcedo Volcano, Isabela, which host the largest populations; San Cristóbal, Santiago, Española and Pinzón also have tortoises.
The only seafaring lizard in the world is impossible to miss. There may be as many as 300,000 marine iguanas across the archipelago, loafing around in the sun on rocky shores to raise their body temperature between dives.
Galápagos sea lion
Easy to find throughout the archipelago. One of the best places to snorkel with them, in calm water, is Santa Fé, but there are many other locations.
Galápagos fur seal
A little harder to find but there are one or two hot spots (the seal grotto on Santiago is the best place to view them up close).
In many ways, Galápagos is much the same as when Darwin first set foot in the archipelago, back in 1835. But one major difference is the number of tourists, which has been increasing exponentially in recent years. In certain places, at certain times, the well-worn paths can be as busy as high-street pavements at lunchtime. But there are still quiet corners of the archipelago and the wildlife is just as approachable as it was in Darwin’s day.
The trick is to go ashore as early as possible, in order to avoid other groups (many don’t go until after a leisurely breakfast); this is also the best time to see the peak of animal activity in the best light. It’s also worth avoiding the busiest periods of the year (usually December to January and July to August).
Before you go
There’s probably no need to read On the Origin of Species before you go, but Galápagos Wildlife by David Horwell and Pete Oxford (published by Bradt) provides an excellent introduction to the islands and their wildlife.
The seas around the Galápagos are teeming with life and the snorkelling is terrific. So if you’ve never snorkelled before, take some lessons before your holiday.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is definitely worth a visit. A short walk from Puerto Ayora, it is the place to learn about the island’s natural history and the conservation work of the Charles Darwin Foundation. It also has a giant tortoise-breeding programme, where baby giant tortoises are reared.
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