Seems like nearly everyone has heard of the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin formulated his theories of natural selection and evolution promoted in his work, Origin of Species. As with many stories, this one is only partially true, but it does provide a great entry into this fascinating, far-off group of islands which, many people don’t realize, are part of the South American country of Ecuador.
For the record, Darwin did visit the Galapagos in the early 1800s, but he was there only a short time and most of his research and writing were done elsewhere. He did eventually publish his works and got a lot of credit for promoting the idea of natural selection, although now historians also give credit to Alfred Russel Wallace who had shared his research with Darwin.
Whatever the truth, for armchair biologists and nature lovers, the Galapagos Islands are probably one of the most fascinating wildlife destinations in the world! On our family’s recent visit there and to the mainland (the Galapagos Islands are just one of Ecuador’s 24 provinces), we saw great numbers of fish, marine mammals, tortoises, and birds in beautiful and dramatic settings.
Certainly, a book could be written (and they have been) about all the things you can do in mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands and you could easily spend months there. But like many travelers, we were time constrained and squeezed our trip (almost) into the kids’ short Spring Break holiday. Departing in late March, we had to make hard choices about where to visit, so we gave the highlands and the Amazon basin (The Oriente) a skip since we had visited similar areas in Peru a few years ago. With just 8-nights/9-days in country, we spent 2 nights in the capital, Quito; 2 nights on Santa Cruz Island on a land-based trip; and 4 nights on a wonderful adventure cruise with stops at or near 8+ islands.
The highest, or second highest (depending on who you believe) capital in the world, Quito stands at 9,350 feet and impresses with development on high steep slopes and deep valleys; a historic, colonial Old Town; and interesting markets, churches, and other sites. We enjoyed the weekly changing of the guard at the presidential palace (Mondays only) and a visit to touristy equator museums, both public and private, along with brief stops at several churches and plazas. While many visitors find nice hotels in areas like Marisal Sucre, we enjoyed staying in the historic city center. We also loved sampling traditional Ecuadorian food. The quinoa dishes, fresh fish, plantain empanadas, and tamales were all delicious, although they paled in comparison with the outstanding Ecuadorian chocolate. One of our favorite (and priciest) stops was at one of the Republica Del Cacao shops where they show how cacao plants are grown, processed, and turned into mouthwatering chocolate treats.
There are 13 major islands and 6 smaller islands in this isolated, volcanic chain. They are sparsely populated with permanent residents on only 4 islands. Each island looks different – from moon-like barren rock islets; to cactus-covered desert islands; to lush, green islands dominated by volcanic mountains. Many of the islands have species that are endemic, or unique only to them, hence their fame. Some marquee species include giant tortoises (several types), marine iguanas, land iguanas, sea lions, penguins, sea turtles, dolphins, whales, and many bird species like blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, mockingbirds, hawks, and flamingos.
A highlight for us mountain people was certainly snorkeling. Every day, we’d take the small pangas (inflatable 16-person rafts with motors) to the best spot to see the most fish. We saw tens of thousands of fish, some in very large schools. Most exciting were the sharks. While I did not achieve my dream of seeing a hammerhead, which do abound in certain areas, I was thrilled to see numerous large white-tipped reef sharks, which are apparently not a threat to humans. They are said, though, to be voracious hunters of smaller fish, mostly at night. Certainly, the most entertaining were the sea lions which would blast here and there like rocket-powered underwater acrobats, some of whom would swim right at us.
Each island of the Galapagos has something unique, whether it be a bird, a cactus, tortoise, iguana, or something else, so it’s great to visit more than a few. Most visitors take 4-7 night cruises, which is really the best way to see the most islands. There are also great options for land-based stays at several of the islands including Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela.
If You Go: