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The enchanted islands...of the Galápagos

Someone had sneezed on my shoe. I peered down to confront the culprit, only to find two beady eyes, framed by a black mohican, staring back defiantly. A marine iguana – perched millimetres from my boot – had just regurgitated the seawater it had swallowed while scraping its breakfast algae off the rocks. I half expected to hear David Attenborough’s dulcet narration wafting down from the skies, because visiting the Galapagos is like having a front row seat in the world’s best wildlife documentary.

Scattered 850 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos islands were discovered by chance in 1535 by Panamanian archbishop, Tomás de Berlanga, when his ship was blown off course. He dubbed the mist-laced islands the ‘Enchanted Islands’. And he was right. A unique haven for a huge range of wildlife, only here can you find a vampire finch, penguins in a tropical climate, lizards that can swim, cormorants that can’t fly and a 30-centimetre-long carnivorous centipede. Expect a panoply of creatures straight from the pages of Alice in Wonderland, because you won’t experience anything less.

One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Galápagos comprises 18 main and three smaller volcanic islands that straddle the equator (so it’s summer all year long). They vary in terrain from the rocky and barren younger islands, to the lush and tropical older ones. And like the wildlife, this Unesco-listed archipelago is ever evolving. Balanced on top of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates, volcanic eruptions – the most recent was this year, on Isabela island – are constantly changing the topography and habitats.

The wildlife that flew, floated or swam here aeons ago has had to adapt, too. Indeed, half of all species in the Galápagos are found nowhere else on earth. Which ones you see will depend on your itinerary. Most trips are divided into visiting either the eastern (Santa Fe, San Cristobal, Floreana, and Española), or western (Santiago, Isabela and Fernandina) islands. Plump for the east and you’ll encounter more human habitations but better beaches, plus irresistible opportunities to snorkel with sea lions and see the waved albatross. The west is less developed and more geologically diverse, and is home to such fascinating creatures as the flightless cormorant.

The central island of Santa Cruz is site of the Charles Darwin Research Station, named after the famous naturalist who travelled here, aged 26, in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle. His observations over their five-week stay spawned his On the Origin of Species paper and the game-changing theory of evolution. In his diary – alongside descriptions of his (failed) attempts to ride the giant tortoises – he noted: ‘It seems to be a little world within itself’.

Several Galápagos giant tortoises are resident at the research station, with one notable exception – Lonesome George. The 100-year-old giant Pinta tortoise was the last of his kind and sadly passed away in 2012. However, the American Museum of Natural History in New York preserved him and, after a five-year dispute, he was flown back to the Galapagos in 2017 and installed as the star of his own exhibit at the centre.

Afterwards, head to the hillside El Chato Tortoise Reserve, where tortoises roam wild. They spend an average of 16 hours a day resting, but time your visit in the early morning in the warm season or midday during the cool season, and you have a good chance of seeing them extend those accordion-like necks to graze on the grass, Galápagos finches rodeoing on top of their time-worn carapaces. The archipelago is, in fact, named after these endangered vegetarians: Galapágo is the old Spanish word for tortoise and when the first map was created by Mercator and Ortelius in 1570, it was simply known as Insulae de los Galopegos (Islands of the Tortoises).

To the west, spreads the largest island in the archipelago, Isabela, shaped like a seahorse and with its head nearly severed off by the equatorial line. It’s populated by Galápagos penguins, the scarlet and delightfully named Sally Lightfoot crab – rumoured to have been named after a Caribbean dancer – and the iconic blue-footed booby. They get their name from the Spanish ‘bobo’, meaning ‘silly or ‘clown’, after their cartoonish bubblegum-blue feet and elaborate courtship dance, which involves lots of exaggerated stomping and splaying of wings. The aqua tint cannot be made if the birds are in poor health, so the brighter the blue, the better the mate. And mate they do. In fact, boobies are big flirts and can often be seen copulating with their neighbours while their partners are off fishing.

To the south, lies Floreana, named after the first president of Ecuador. It’s a great spot to see green turtles, which nest here between December and May, as well as flamingoes and the wide-roaming Galápagos petrel that can spend years at sea feeding before returning to breed on the islands. On the north side spreads the unusual Cormorant Point beach, whose sands glitter green thanks to rich deposits of olivine crystals. Floreana also has one of the most fascinating human histories; a stash site and stopover for 16th-century pirates, and later whalers and colonists, it still has a working wooden barrel post box, set up in 1973 by British whalers. Scribble a note and your address and the next traveller passing near to its destination will deliver it – no stamp required!

Looping east is Española, the oldest of the islands and one of the only places to see waved albatross. With a wingspan of up to two and a half metres, they spend their first six years of life out at sea. Punta Suarez is a hotspot for lava lizards, Hood mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls and three species of Darwin finches, but travellers that aren’t cuckoo for all things avian will prefer Gardner Bay. Voted one of the world’s best beaches by CNN in 2016, it’s a favourite sunbathing spot for sea lions. They may lounge on the sugar-white sands like granddad after Christmas dinner, but once they slip into the clear waters they morph into missiles. If you’re feeling adventurous, don a snorkel, dip below the waves and watch them surround you with streams of bubbles.

Indeed, three major ocean currents converge at the Galápagos islands, infusing the waters with nutrients and attracting more than 400 species of fish and considerably larger cetaceans, too. Bryde’s whales, sperm whales and dolphins cruise around the archipelago year-round, while blue and humpback whales, as well as whale sharks, can be spotted between June and December on their annual migration. Interestingly, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was inspired by reports of a sperm whale sinking the HMS Essex in western Galapagos. Those who venture far north to Wolf island will witness vast schools of hammerhead sharks and, back on land, the endemic vampire ground finch that drinks blood by pecking the skin of blue-footed boobies.

Such diversity requires all the protection it can get, so it’s important to travel around the islands in smaller vessels. Travelling in small groups means you won’t be struggling to hear what’s being said by the naturalist guide, or risk stepping off the paths to snag photos without other tourists in them. But, primarily, the lighter footfall puts less pressure on the environment and reduces any noise that might disturb the wildlife. There’s only one Galápagos – only one place where a lizard will sneeze on you and you’ll never want to wash your boot again.

 Recommended C&K tour:

Ecuador & Galápagos Experience / 11 Days & 8 Nights

Experience the Galápagos islands and observe their remarkable wildlife at close quarters. This private journey includes a 4-night cruise on an expeditionary catamaran with opportunities to spot giant tortoises, sea lions, land iguanas, boobies and other fascinating birdlife. Combine with a visit to the old colonial centre of Quito and the ‘Middle of the World’.

Alternatively, if you are interested in a tailor-made itinerary, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.