The Galapagos Islands which belong to Ecuador (600 miles off the coast) are made up of 13 main islands and numerous smaller ones, all the result of volcanic activity. It was here that Charles Darwin visited as a naturalist on HMS Beagle in 1835, and started to form his theory on evolution. His book "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection" brought the world’s attention to the islands, and since then they have been a focus for the interest of scientists and wildlife enthusiasts alike. Also known as "The Enchanted Isles" the Galapagos have always stunned visitors with their unique ecology.
The best way to visit the Galapagos Islands is by boat and there are different types of itinerary available, some with, some without diving. It is possible to stay on some of the islands and dive from the land, but this will severely restrict your opportunities. The islands are all very different and they each have specific landing sites and visitor sites. The nature trails are carefully marked out to avoid disrupting the wildlife, and tours are strictly guided.
The islands straddle the Equator and there are large distances between some of them. It is best to plan a longer itinerary to make the most of your trip. The boats are generally extremely comfortable and most of them take small parties - it is best to book well in advance.
Baltra is just to the north of Santa Cruz, and is where the first landing strip on the islands was built. It is still used for daily flights from the mainland.
Bartolome is the best place to get an overview of the archipelago. There is an extinct lava cone with a walkway to the summit. You pass volcanic ash fields and splatter cones, with pioneer plants and lava cactus in a moon-like landscape. From the top there is a dramatic view across the islands.
Española (Hood Island)
Punta Suarez is one of the most interesting visitor sites in all of the Galapagos. The landing point is covered with sea lions and their young, and thousands of marine iguana bask on the rocks. The marine iguana here are unique, displaying copper red patches and keeping some red all year around. This is the only island where you find Waved Albatross and there is a large breeding colony of them here during the mating season (April to December). The island has a large blow hole around which hundreds of marine iguanas congregate. There are blue-footed and masked boobies nesting here, oystercatchers and swallow tailed gulls. The island's other visitor site is a long white coral beach at Gardners Bay. The beach is frequented by sea lions and the endemic long billed mockingbird or Hood mockingbird, and dozens of colourful lava lizards.
Fernandina (Narborough Island)
West of Isabela, the island is rarely visited except on longer itineraries. It is the westernmost of the islands and is the most volcanically active. At Punta Espinosa you can see flightless cormorants, and there is an abundance of marine iguanas, pelicans and sea lions.
Floreana (Charles Island)
At Point Cormorant there is a lagoon where you can usually see flamingoes and other species of shore birds. There is a submerged volcanic cone called the Devil's Crown which is a fantastic place for snorkelling. At Post Office Bay there is an old wooden barrel 'post office' originally used by 18th century whalers, but now a quirky feature for all visitors.
Genovesa (Tower Island)
It is a long sailing distance to Genovesa and it is quite a long way from other islands, so it is not included in many short itineraries. It is, however, home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies and there are lots of frigate birds here too. There are also masked boobies, lava gulls, night herons, mockingbirds and many finches.
Isabela (Albemarle Island)
The largest island in the archipelago, but usually only visited on the longer itineraries. It has the biggest volcanoes and largest tortoise population. The four landing sites are on the west of the island, a long way from most of the other islands in the archipelago. However, between them there is lots to see - flamingoes, ducks, waders, moorhens, martins, penguins, brown noddy terns, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, herons and of course blue-footed boobies and sea lions.
North Seymour is very close to Baltra Island and is one of the most popular visitor sites. It has the largest colony of magnificent frigate birds, which look spectacular when inflating their bright red throats in display. There are also blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls.
Rabida (Jervis Island)
This island has bright a red sandy beach, formed by the erosion of cinder cliffs. There are sea lions on the beach and behind a backdrop of saltbush there is a hidden flamingo lagoon. Several species of Darwin's finches can be seen on this island. Palo Santo trees and Opuntia cacti cover the volcanic rocks.
Puerto Ayora, located on Santa Cruz, is the capital of the Galapagos Islands and has the largest human population. It has some of the few shops and hotels on the island. The Charles Darwin Research Station is located here, where you can see giant Galapagos tortoises and learn about the conservation issues facing the islands. You can also see Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat in the interior. The highlands have some interesting geological features such as lava tubes and pit craters. It has more endemic plants than any other island and the Scelesia forest and Miconia vegetation zone form some interesting habitats.
Santa Fe (Barrington Island)
This island has a well protected cove which makes a perfect location for snorkelling and swimming. There is a white sandy beach and shallow turquoise waters. There are plenty of sea lions here which makes for some interesting snorkelling. On the small land trail, the main feature is the unique giant prickly pear cactus. The land iguanas here are much lighter coloured than those elsewhere and are endemic to the island. You might see them feeding on fallen pads from the cacti. Galapagos mockingbird, magnificent frigate, brown pelican and several species of Darwin's finch are common sights here.
Santiago (James Island)
Puerto Egas is perhaps the most interesting visitor site on Santiago. There are fur seal grottoes here - natural pools surrounded by black lava, where both sea lions and fur seals can be found playing in the water or basking on the rocks. There are also some interesting geological features, such as lava tubes and eroded tuff cliffs. You may see vermilion flycatcher, Galapagos hawk, Galapagos dove, and at the Espumilla landing site flamingoes and white-cheeked pintail ducks
This island was formed by uplifted lava and is like a massive tilted plate with one side dipping into the water and the other raised into the air to form a cliff edge. It has tall tree-like Opuntia cactus and the ground is covered with Sesuvium (a succulent plant). The main attractions here are land iguanas, sea lions including a bachelor colony, swallow tailed gulls, red billed tropic birds and Audebon's shearwaters.
This is a very scenic little island consisting of a huge cinder cone shaped a bit like a Chinese hat. There are all kinds of interesting lava formations. The brightly coloured sally lightfoot crabs are in stark contrast against the black rock. It is a good spot for snorkelling with sea lions and there is also a chance of seeing Galapagos penguins here.
One of the great diving adventures: vast schools of hammerheads mysteriously appear out of the gloom, marine iguanas cling to rocks under the surf, circus troops of sea lions suddenly surround you! Despite being on the equator the water temperature can be pretty cold, with the Antarctic Humbolt current sweeping north creating a strange brew of tropical and temperate life: penguins and angelfish, sea lions and turtles.
The islands are also renowned for the staggering number of creatures unique to the area - endemic as the scientists say. About a third of the marine life you come across is only found in these waters, making the Galápagos a truly unique experience.
From November to June, the water temperature averages 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with February to April the warmest time. Water temperature from July to October averages 70 degrees Fahrenheit and falls well below 70 degrees in August and September.
In general, visibility ranges from 5 to 25 metres (16 to 82 feet), but most of the time it is restricted to between 12 and 18m. A large submarine current (Equatorial Undercurrent) coming from the West Pacific hits the largest island of the archipelago (Isabela Island) and is deflected upward reaching the surface, bringing up the cold and nutrient rich water; this can change the water temperature by as much as 6 degrees Celsius, and change the visibility in a matter of one or two days.
Ecuador is not an easy place to get to; there are no direct flights from the U.K., and it is impossible to get there without at least one plane change. Most people travel via Madrid with Iberia or Amsterdam with KLM or Houston with Continental Airlines. KLM routes via Amsterdam to Quito (normally with stops in Guayaquil and/or Bonnaire). Continental Airlines normally have one plane change at Houston, Texas. Be aware that transit times are longer if you choose a U.S. gateway because of the requirement to clear U.S. Customs. This will put you on the ground for at least 3 hours. The usual gateway for Ecuador is Quito, but those who don't like altitudes should consider Guayaquil on the coast.
Flights to Galapagos from Ecuador are with either TAME or Aerogal airlines. From the mainland to Galapagos it take one and a half hours, but from Quito add at least another hour as the plane stops in Guayaquil.