Millions of years in the making, the volcanic Galápagos Islands are scattered across the Pacific Ocean off the western coast of South America. Most likely discovered and inhabited by chance, the archipelago is best known as the site of Charles Darwin’s 1835 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. It was here that Darwin noted small differences between near-identical species on different islands – a discovery which led to his theory of evolution. His theories on natural selection were detailed in the famous publication ‘On the Origin of Species’.
Now protected for their unique value and numerous endemic species, the Ecuadorian islands and their waters comprise the Galápagos National Park and the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Strict control of visitors enables the continued conservation of the environment so any chance to explore this special place is a treasured opportunity.
Not all of the 21 islands and additional islets are accessible to the public, though each of the 100+ official visitor sites offers unparalleled experiences to intrepid explorers. Trek across barren landscapes and recent lava flows, explore mangrove forests, visit cliffside colonies of endangered birds and snorkel through crystalline waters teeming with marine life. Lay on black sand beaches with nonchalant sea lions, watch vibrant marine iguanas go for a swim and come face-to-face with courting blue-footed boobies.
The vast array of wildlife across these tranquil islands includes 1,900 unique species. The highlands of Isla Santa Cruz are one of the few places you can spot giant tortoises in the wild, and the southernmost Española is the only nesting area of the colossal Waved Albatross. The seahorse-shaped Isabela Island is the only natural Northern Hemisphere habitat of tropical penguins, and home to the Flightless Cormorant while tiny South Plaza has a colony of prehistoric Galápagos land iguanas loitering around prickly pear cacti.
As the seasons change, so too does the wildlife. During September and October, for example, the drop in temperature of the waters surrounding Champion Islet transforms it into a thriving hub for plants, which attracts marine life and, in turn larger creatures such as rays and turtles.