In 1835, a 26-year-old exploring naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin landed on the shores of a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, some 1 000 km (620 miles) west of the mainland. Interestingly, this archipelago, now known as the wildlife-rich Galápagos Islands, was never directly connected to Ecuador.
Four million years ago, these volcanic islands were devoid of life. It is believed that the now resident wildlife must have swum or flown across from the mainland, which explains the current dominance of sea birds, reptiles and marine mammals. It is suggested that the reptiles floated across on rafts of vegetation, given they can survive long periods without food. This, in turn, brought certain plants and insects over as well.
The islands are now teeming with life, and perhaps most fascinating is the fact that all predators were somehow left behind on the mainland. This has resulted in a bizarre scene of fauna existing totally free and fearless of predators, and likewise, humankind. The National Park does enforce that guests cannot come within 2 m (6.5 ft) of the wildlife, however, the animals have developed complete trust and often approach without you even knowing it due to the sheer density of life around you.
The Galápagos Islands are without doubt one of South America’s greatest attractions and should be on the bucket list of any wildlife and nature enthusiast.
Care of the land & wildlife
The diverse wildlife on these extraordinary islands has evolved in complete isolation, making many species endemic to the area. Guides are well versed in the area’s history and they do a fantastic job in bringing Darwin’s theory of natural selection to life.
Having been declared a National Park in 1959 and a UNESCO World Heritage Marine Reserve in 2001, the islands are protected, however, despite the hard work being done by authorities, conservationists and scientists alike, Ecuador has decided to further preserve this unique environment by limiting tourism. The wildlife’s trust in humankind seems to be holding up thanks to the vigilance of the guides and the seemingly limited environmental impact by the inhabitants (solar panels, recycling, environmental education, etc.).
Each year, an estimated 225 000 travellers visit the world-famous islands. For this reason, rules are strict and itineraries are inflexible, but this does mean you will see few other people. On arrival in the Galápagos, guests must pay an entrance tax and purchase a transit control card, which aids authorities in protecting the precious environment (this is all pre-arranged by your &Beyond travel specialist).
The population of the Galápagos Islands is approximately 26 000 people (on five of the islands) and all of whom are directly or indirectly involved in tourism. Even residents of Ecuador are limited to a three month per year permit and all visitors’ passports are stamped through immigration.
Where to stay
There is something to suit every kind of traveller. You can opt to stay on land (in a well-appointed lodge on one of the larger islands) or you can cruise among the islands by yacht or catamaran. Typically, given the sheer size of the archipelago (it consists of 13 islands and approximately 50 islets), you would opt for either an east/south or north/west option lasting three to five days. Those wanting to spend more time discovering the varied landscapes of each island should consider back-to-back cruises aboard the same vessel. Click here for more information about our various accommodation options.
Our seven-day Magical Ecuador and the Galápagos adventure is the ideal way to explore these iconic islands, with an additional stay in Quito (the world’s second highest capital city) to appreciate its cultural and historic highlights.
No shortage of adventure
If you are expecting a relaxing holiday or if you suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out), best you adjust your expectations as it can be a busy schedule. That said, all activities are optional. Don’t imagine a beach holiday either, as your tanning session could very well be interrupted by marine iguanas and sea lions cavorting around you.
This is a destination for wildlife enthusiasts, birders, photographers and those keen on experiencing the great outdoors. Explore this watery wonderland with knowledgeable guides on a ‘panga’ (inflatable motorised dinghy), land-based walks, sea kayak or glass-bottom boat (for those not keen on swimming). Snorkelling is also a great option that will keep you entertained for hours and scuba-diving can be arranged at prior notice as most vessels don’t carry the necessary equipment.
Here are just a few fun facts about the curious creatures of the Galápagos:
- 58 resident bird species have been recorded, 28 of which are endemic
- Arguably the most photographed resident in the Galápagos, the blue footed booby’s courting display is quite a sight as it dances about spreading its wings, and bowing and raising its head up to the sky (the islands are also home to the red-footed and Nazca boobies)
- The Galápagos lava gull is said to be the rarest bird species on earth with only 400 pairs left in the wild
- The giant tortoise, probably the most emblematic species of the Galápagos, can live up to 150 years and can weigh up to 595 pounds; just 20 000 remain due to the fact that thousands were killed by whalers in previous centuries
- The world’s entire population of yellow-billed (waved) albatross nest on a single island called Española; if you’re lucky, you may witness their intriguing courting display, which involves waddling about like a drunken sailor and literally ‘fencing’ with its beak
- Snorkellers and scuba-divers can witness up to 541 species of fish with more being discovered every year; inquisitive, playful and acrobatic young sea lions are another highlight in the warm Galápagos waters
- The marine iguanas are the only known species of iguana in the world that are able to swim
- Despite what many people might think, although his name is inextricably linked to the islands, Charles Darwin didn’t actually discover the Galápagos
There are two seasons in the Galápagos: the hot/wet season from January to May (average temperature 28°C/84°F) and the cooler/dry season from June to December (average temperature 18°C/64°F). The reality is that despite these minor differences, because the archipelago is located so close to the equator, it is a year-round destination and there really is no ‘best’ time to visit. Water temperatures average 22°C/71°F to 26°C/80°F.
What to pack
It is not necessary to carry much to the Galápagos, so aim to pack light and pack smart. Lightweight, fast-drying cotton is recommended. Over-and-above the normal items, you may want to also consider packing the following:
- Long-sleeved shirts
- A windbreaker or light sweater
- A hat that covers the ears
- Comfortable walking shoes
- A small backpack
All images © Andrew and Christopher Nicholson.