I stared at the blue-footed boobie and he stared back. It’s day two of my Galápagos cruise and I’ve already learnt that in these islands you don’t know who is watching you. Charles Darwin landed in the Galápagos in September 1835 as part of a five-year expedition on HMS Beagle to chart the southern South American coastline and was hoping to find an active volcano when he went ashore.
Instead, he discovered birds and animals that had adapted to the different island environments in which they lived. There were iguanas that swam, finches that had evolved different-shaped beaks, giant tortoises with shells that differed in shape from island to island and much more.
Fast forward almost 185 years and I’m guessing very little has changed. Well, apart from all the vessels docked off Baltra Island when our plane from Quito landed waiting to whisk people off on what has to be one of the most memorable holidays ever. Most were small boats holding just a handful of people but there were also a few bigger, rather luxurious vessels (none allowed to carry more than 100 passengers) including Silversea’s Silver Galápagos and Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Xpedition.
This summer, anyone arriving in the Galápagos will spot another Celebrity Cruises ship. Celebrity Flora, more mega-yacht than cruise ship, arrived on the islands in June from Holland where she was built. I was lucky enough to get a peek at her before she left the shipyard and she looks fabulous with light Scandinavian-style decor and all-suite accommodation.
A cruise is a wonderful and easy way to see the Galápagos Islands. As you get ono board, try and unpack before visiting the different bays and islands where you can hop ashore and get close to everything from impish lava lizards to lumbering sea lions on walks with Ecuadorian guides registered by the Galápagos National Park. They travel with the ships and talk about the flora, fauna and history of the islands while ashore and during evening lectures.
The wildlife you see depends on where you go. There are pelicans, sea lions and blue-footed boobies on Daphne Island and North Seymour, which is also home to frigate birds, easily identifiable from their puffed-up red chests. On Rabida Island, you’ll see Darwin’s finches, lava lizards (who communicate by a series of press-ups) and Galápagos mockingbirds. In Santa Cruz, trips to the highlands take groups search of the giant tortoises and usually allow free time in Puerto Ayora, the islands’ capital.
On my cruise, the guides also took us out in the Zodiacs to see the wildlife from the water (this added Galápagos penguins to my wildlife ticklist). On several afternoons we went snorkelling with the playful sea lions, you can borrow snorkels and wetsuits on both Flora and Xpedition for free.
Although there are a lot of tourist boats around the islands, itineraries are managed so there is only ever one at each landing site and never more than 100 people ashore at one time. That’s important to avoid stressing the animals (Santa Cruz is an exception because it is a town) and means visitors get a real sense of how special these islands are. As I watched the boobie looking at me, I wondered what it must have been like for Charles Darwin arriving in this remote spot, some 600 miles from the nearest mainland, all those years ago and discovering what, to this day, still feels like the land that time forgot. I really hope that never changes.