12 comfortable ships at 3 price levels with guides and activities - snorkeling, hiking, kayaking - make a memorable Galapagos holiday: Galapagos/Machu Picchu; Multisport; Hiking Galapagos; Galapagos/Amazon Wildlife
The geology of the Galapagos Islands is essentially that of rocky basalt islands formed from shield volcanoes which have risen up to 10,000 ft from the sea bed due to continental plate boundary movements. Also fissure eruptions of these volcanoes created other, flatter islands.
Still very much apparent is the fact that the islands are one of the most volcanically active places on earth, a strange backdrop to the unique wildlife on show.
For humans with any lizard experience, the marine iguanas of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands is a casual and unusual entertainer, even if they are not the most attractive creature in the vicinity.
The only marine lizard in the world, they feed on algae growing on the abundent rocky outcrops of the islands, and also small crustacea. They grow up to about four feet long, half tail, with an impressive scalyiness.
Their time is largely spent lazing about on the rocks until optimum temperature is reached, then into the water for up to an hour to feed, only to get cold again, requiring a rapid heat exchange with the sun on the rocks again.
Mass heat sharing cuddles are common, though male dominance and defensive aggression is demonstrated by head bobbing displays, and if necessary a physically harmless head pushing contest. Emotional scars only - followed by more togetherness.
Marine Iguanas often have crusty heads, which is actually salty bogies which they have sneezed out.
Approximately half a planet away from where one expects to see penguins in the the Antarctic can be found one of the most tropical resident of all the species, the Galapagos Penguin, Spheniscus mendiculus. They survive in the Galapagos thanks mainly to the chilly waters of the Cromwell Current. This banded penguin type can also be found along the shores of South America and southern Africa.
Most of these penguins can be seen on Fernandina Island or Isabela Island though some adventurous critters can be found on other shores too.
However, it's not one long equatorial holiday for these guys, as when they go in search of a sashimi lunch or just cooling off in the water they are pursued by sharks, fur seals and sea lions, while on land (where they stand with their wings up in the air to stay cool) owls, hawks, cats, dogs and varied vermin present an alternative threat.
Neolithic standing stones? Nope, the remains of a shipwreck.
The first people known to have visited Ecuador's Galapagos Islands were exploring Spanish sailors, and later pirates, buccaneers and whalers, using the islands as an outpost and food supply (mainly Galapagos Tortoise steak), but it was an exceptional naturalist from England who appreciated the significance of the Galapagos birds and turned traditional religious and scientific thinking on its head - Charles Darwin.
The voyage of the HMS Beagle was to turn out to be a rather special cruise. When Charles Darwin first stepped onto St Cristobella Island in 1835 (gladly, as he was constantly seasick), he first dismissed the place in generally unfavourable volcanic terms, only to soon discover that it held the conceptual key to the vast differentiation of life on Earth - evolution.
The key to that discovery was finches. Darwin brought back a selection of unidentified birds and asked a famous ornithologist to examine them. John Gould identified 12 'peculiar' new species of finch which eventually led Darwin to believe that finches evolved differently according to the differentGalapagos island geographies.
Darwin published his findings in 'The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life', 1859. It is so fundamental in its findings that it still remains banned, particularly due to religious belief, in some sections of society today.
It is this significance - a concentration of related species that have locally evolved distinct differences - which is one of the best reasons to take a Galapagos Cruise, in addition to the proximity that human visitors can achieve to truly evolutionary creatures in this little Ecuadorian outpost.
Scuba diving is a popular activity option for some Galapagos tourists. For others scuba is the raison d'etre. Next, Pictures of Galapagos Birds.
Scuba diving is excellent, but mainly for those experienced in underwater travel. You are advised to bring your own regulators and book in advance. Be aware that most of the best sites have strong currents, surge and cold waters. The best dive centre is in Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz.
Snorkelling is also a great way to see the Galapagos' wildlife and is easy to arrange, though even just swimming with sea lions is possible and fun. Equipment is provided by the boats, unless you prefer to bring your own. The islands of Isla Plaza Sur and Isla Bartolome have especially good snorkelling sites.