Ecuador: Exploring the Galapagos Islands
Located about 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are an archipelago of 19 volcanic islands that were formed more than five million years ago. Scientists and researchers have long visited the Darwin Research Station in Isla Santa Cruz, but adventurous travelers can explore the islands as well.
The Galapagos are known as the "laboratory of evolution" due to the number of endemic and indigenous species on the islands, which makes the area a dream for naturalists, photographers, bird-watchers, and the like. The mammals, birds, and reptiles inhabiting the islands lack natural predators and therefore are fearless, allowing visitors to interact with them in a way that is impossible anywhere else. Giant tortoises, Darwin's finches, marine iguanas, and boobies are among the animals unique to the Galapagos.
Island-hopping boat cruises are the best way to explore the Galapagos. These cruises are on small ships and sailing vessels without the typical onboard entertainment and dining options found on mainstream cruises. Cruises generally visit several islands, and daily activities include snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and hiking.
While photographers will likely be happy visiting any of the islands, some are better than others in terms of activities. San Cristobal and Santa Cruz have some of the best hiking trails, through hardened lava fields and past dormant volcanoes. The best diving can be found in the waters off Darwin and Wolf islands, where the clear waters allow divers to get close to hammerhead sharks, sea lions, dolphins, penguins, and turtles. Snorkeling is also a popular pursuit, and the waters off Bartolomé Island are teeming with fish and other wildlife. Española and Genovesa islands have a wide array of birds for bird-watchers.
Dozens of providers offer Galapagos tours. Ecoventua offers seven-day luxury cruises from $2,300 including all meals and shore excursions. Thomson Family Adventures has nine-day tours geared towards families starting at $2,690. Big Five Tours and Expeditions offers three-, four-, and seven-night luxury cruises from $2,399, while Inti Travel and Tours has numerous different itineraries on tourist-, deluxe-, and first-class ships from $938. GoVisitGalapagos.com has a treasure trove of information about visiting the Galapagos.