South America: Wildlife watching on Ecuador's Galapagos Islands
You don't need to go to Antarctica to see penguins, travel back in time to witness prehistoric sea monsters, or go to Sea World to swim with sea lions. You can do all this, plus see dozens of animal species that cannot be found anywhere else, on a tour of the Galapagos Islands. Situated 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, this volcanic archipelago comprises 13 major islands and many more islets and reefs. Called "a little world within itself" by Charles Darwin, these islands are home to numerous beautiful and bizarre species of birds, mammals, and reptiles that are uniquely adapted to life on their isolated outposts.
One of first things you'll notice when you visit is many animals approach humans without fear, having lost that instinct after millennia of living without predators. You'll be able to get within feet of dancing blue-footed boobies, sea-faring iguanas, and frigate birds inflating their ruby throats.
"The Galapagos is nature at its very finest, and most visible," says Mark Grantham, general manager of Galapagos Travel. "This is a place where you might well have to step off a trail to go around a nesting seabird because it sees no reason to move in your presence... where finches or mockingbirds may land on your head or shoulder... where playful sea lions frolic with you while you snorkel."
Each island is unique and many species are endemic to only one or two islands, so you the more islands you fit in, the richer your experience. Get the most out of your visit by booking at least a week on a sea-based boat tour. You'll spend your nights aboard the ship and days exploring the islands and snorkeling or kayaking in the sea. All trips include the services of at least one certified naturalist, a requirement by the government designed to help protect the Galapagos' unique flora and fauna.
Ecoventura, a family-owned adventure company based in Ecuador, offers seven-day tours aboard the Eric, Flamingo, or Letty, all 20-passenger first-class motor yachts. Double occupancy rates start at $1,865 per person. Ships sail from San Cristobal and stop at Genovesa (Tower), Isabela, Fernandia, Santiago, Bartolome, Santa Cruz, and Espanola. Airfare, a $100 Galapagos National Park fee, Ecuador departure tax, and gratuities are extra. Shorter five-night trips are also available.
For a longer voyage and a chance to spend more time on more islands, try Galapagos Travel's 11-day itinerary aboard chartered 16-passenger motor yachts. Sailing from Baltra, this photographer-oriented tour visits North Seymour, Espanola, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago, Rabida, Genovesa (Tower), Bartolome, and South Plaza. Double occupancy rates start at $3,850 per person. Airfare, a $100 Galapagos National Park fee, Ecuador departure tax, and gratuities are extra.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from the U.S. to the Galapagos. From the U.S., first fly to Guayaquil or Quito. Round-trip fares from Miami in October start around $300, plus taxes. From mainland Ecuador, you can fly to either Baltra or San Cristobal in the Galapagos. Flights on TAME or Aerogal start at around $334 round-trip, plus taxes.
When to go: Located on the equator, the Galapagos is a year-round destination. The weather is slightly warmer and wetter December through May.