The Unique Experience of Visiting the Galapagos Islands

Tips for travel and what you'll see in this bucket-list location.

Puppy sea lion

Updated April 2017 You know you're in for something unusual the moment you see sea lions greeting you from a platform at the dock on San Cristobal, the easternmost island in the Galapagos. It turns out, a guide explains, the platforms had to be built "because the sea lions kept jumping into people's boats."

The Galapagos Islands, which lie hundreds of miles off Ecuador's coast, only get stranger. You can swim with penguins along the equator, pose with tortoises as big as boulders, watch blue-footed boobies do a silly dance that passes for flirting in booby circles, walk on white-sand beaches, visit a "moonscape," or spot adolescent sea lions yanking iguanas by their tails for the sheer jest of it (the iguanas are not amused).

"Galapagos, Galapagos / I love to be in paradise," sing the guides, and they're onto something: This place is the Holy Grail of ecotourism. Here's what you need to know about it — and why you'd better visit soon.

Volcanoes and currents
When the Wolf Volcano on Isabela, the largest of Galapagos' islands, blew its stack in May of 2015, it was a reminder that these islands are among the world's most prominent spots for volcanic activity. While some are geothermally active, erosion on the extinct ones has created soil and lowered peaks, which in turn affects rainfall. As a result, the islands all have different environments. Thus, you can find 13 species of finches, for example, each with the right stuff for eating the local vittles.

Famously, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, authored in 1859 from his research on the Galapagos, posited that new species such as the 13 finches had evolved from common ancestors because each island's unique challenges favored mutations (e.g., rounder or straighter beaks) that aided survival.

Currents also make the Galapagos special. From June into November, the Humboldt Current cools things down — the water dips to the high 60s; at times it has also swept up creatures from the south who then had to adapt to the Galapagos or perish. From December through May, however, equatorial currents rule, raising water temperatures into the 70s, and allowing you to watch penguins hunt for tropical fish.

Galapagos sunrise

Options for arrival
It's hard to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site on your own: The task of arranging flights, hotels, and guided daytrips, as well as understanding different fees, can be overwhelming. Plus, with 97 percent of the islands designated as a national park, governance by the Galapagos National Park requires guided visits. Organized tours wind up being a better choice for most. Austin Adventures, Galakiwi, Galapagos Alternative, Casa Opuntia, and other companies offer hotel-based packages for people who want to minimize their time traveling.

Since cruises can access more places, they're often the preferred choice. Ships in the Galapagos are small, with even the largest having only about 50 cabins. You'll typically find the best naturalist-to-visitor ratio on the smaller boats. For example, the park mandates one naturalist for every 16 visitors, but yachts operated by Ecoventura carry two naturalists for 20 passengers.

Red-footed booby

Only in the Galapagos
Need convincing that it's the right destination for you? Here are a few more tidbits of what makes the islands so unique.

  • More than 40 of the islands' 56 native bird species, 20 of the 22 reptiles, and 50 of the more than 400 fish species can only be found here.
  • Galapagos marine iguanas actually swim in water to feed on algae. Yes, iguanas. That's adaptation.
  • Some mockingbirds have adapted so well to the dry conditions that they only drink water once a year.
  • The largest endemic birds in the Galapagos, the waved albatrosses, roll their unhatched eggs along the ground. Baffling, but it seems important to them.
  • The world's largest cormorants — and the only ones that can't fly — live here.

The time is now
Thinking about visiting? You may want to start planning your bucket-list experience to the land of the blue-footed boobies soon. As if the invasion of donkeys, goats, tilapia, elephant grass, and Homo sapiens weren't enough of a threat to sustainable tourism, plans are afoot to add more hotels and to attract more tourists to an archipelago that's already starting to get more visitors than its water resources, garbage-disposal facilities, and wildlife habitats can sustain.

Ed Wetschler has written for The New York Times and other major publications.

Image by Thinkstock

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