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
These photos will give you an impression of what you will see if you care to take a trip to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. It covers a little of the landscape, the ships you might travel in, and a lot of the animals and birds you would meet around and about - sea lions, penguins, iguanas, giant tortoises and many, many species of bird.
Not a pretty sight but the Galapagos Islands still have a bleak, rocky appeal, with wall-to-wall lava carpets and striking sandstone formations. Visitors to this wild World Heritage Site come by cruise ship with many cost, size and style options, though all end up in a small dinghy for the final trip to shore. Depending on the island, often the visitors' first sight will be bored and beached sea lions, though rampant males may become animated by the sight of potential mates, especially when they are dressed to impress. Number of legs unimportant.
Best weather: December-May. Mainly warm (average high of 25C/77F) and sunny with occasional showers. Calmer, clearer ocean because the winds are light.
Worst: June-November due to frequent fog, drizzly rain, wind, rough seas and less services available (average high 22C/72F).
Probably the most spectacular island in the Galapagos, Bartolome, featuring 'The Pinnacle'. Pinnacle Rock is a well known landmark in the archipelago and the surrounding area has some good beaches and snorkeling. Penguins and seals can often be seen at the base of the rock.
The islands, officially known as 'Archipélago de Colón' (1892), were visited by Charles Darwin in 1835 and the inter-island variations of the giant tortoises and finches (small birds!) inspired his revolutionary and controversial 'The Origin of the Species by Natural Selection', Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
Since then the islands, 1,000km (620 miles) off the South American coast and claimed by Ecuador in 1832, have hosted mainly fishermen, whalers, pirates and prisoners, only evolving into a National Park in 1959, precisely 100 years after Darwin's publication.
Galapagos Islands Map. See information on main islands.
Tourism in the area is strictly controlled and guides are mandatory, so there's no way to do this trip on the super-cheap.
You can reduce costs by organising your own flights to Santa Cruz island from the mainland and finding accommodation and boats when you get there, but most of the yearly 60,000 visitors bite the bullet and pay the price, knowing that they are guaranteed a unique close-to-the-claw wildlife experience that few places in Africa can match.
When is a seal a Sea Lion?
Answer: When it swims with its front flippers (not its rear) and you can see its ears.
The Sea Lions of the Galapagos Islands are the welcoming party of the islands, whilst also keeping the penguin population down by munching on them now and again.
Males butt heads on the beaches over significant harems of females but otherwise they are generally quite friendly and inquisitive. On land they are ungraceful, so are best experienced as deft companions in the waters, diving, snorkeling, and kayaking along side them.
Their prominence is misleading however, as their numbers are relatively small for the species; fishing nets and hooks of an ever greedier humanity are affecting their numbers, particularly the pups.
Much of the wildlife on the Galapagos Islands lives around the coastline, in and out of the water as needs must, so a cruise ship is the best way to see many animals efficiently.
If seasickness is a problem for you:
- choose the quiet season to visit the Galapagos, when waters are likely to be calmer (January-March).
- try acupressure wrist bands.
- keep chemical suppressants for emergencies.
- choose the biggest cruise ship you can find!
- if a cruise is impossible to stomach stay in an hotel on Isla Santa Cruz and take short trips offshore. Even just onshore there are wildlife sights in plenty, particularly for those interested in making friends with giant tortoises, flamingoes, seals and other bird life.
Galapagos Giant Tortoise, Geochelone elephantopus, on Santa Cruz. Next, more Galapagos animals.
Further inland lurch the giant tortoises, fabulous mobile, self-sufficient meat lockers for sailors in the not-so-distant past, now mostly just impressively slow juggernauts, though protein deficient local people are known to enjoy deep-fried tortoise steak if they think they can get away with it.
Giant Tortoises are the animal most associated with the Galapagos Islands and indeed the namesake of the islands, as the original Spanish explorers named the islands after them. Around six feet long fully grown, this reptilian juggernaut ambles along at near zero miles per hour. It is likely that the tortoises descendants originally floated to the islands, making it also a supertanker!
This casual approach to movement means that they make excellent photographic models, whilst conserving energy for more important tasks like living for around 100 years on a diet of shrubbery.
Of the several species still extant there are two distinct shell types, the dome-back and saddle-back, the former being found more in the lush highlands, the latter using its greater neck reach to get to the harder to get leaves of the lowlands.
For those looking for finches, these can often be found pecking atop a grateful tortoise, whose neck and legs are stretched fully to assist their feathered friends in this symbiotic field hygiene and lunching exercise.
However their great size and 'retreat back into shell' escape and evasion methodology made them an easy target for hungry 17th century sailors, later oil makers and hungry settlers, but more sadly shell collectors and the like. Even today they are killed at a rate of around ten a year.
Next, more Galapagos animals