Straddling the equator, some 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador lies perhaps the planet’s most fabled archipelago. To many of us the Galapagos signify a paradise of sorts, but when Charles Darwin famously arrived there aboard the Beagle in 1835, he wrote: “Nothing could be less inviting – the country is comparable to what one might imagine … the infernal regions to be.” Among sailors the islands were known as “Las Encantadas”, or “the Enchanted Isles”, as they were believed bewitched, often with a mysterious mist (“garua”) hanging over them. Some even postulated that the land here was not anchored to the ground, but rather floated about at sea, confounding navigation. Indeed, everything present arrived via wind, water, or wings, and though the avenues are few, the proliferation of unique lifeforms is beyond remarkable.
Forever fascinating, this is one of Earth’s most active volcanic areas, and the beautiful volcanic formations, together with the matchless wildlife and natural history, make for an utterly unique destination. Perennially popular among birders for the island endemics and stunning seabirds, nearly all the birds are tame, allowing for outstanding photography. In places one must be careful to avoid stepping on a Galapagos Sea Lion, a Marine Iguana or a Blue-footed Booby. The latter is perhaps the islands most iconic bird, and seeing pairs of them, bow and sway, whistling and honking, as they wave around their cobalt blue feet, is not something one forgets. Equally the thrill of watching a pair of Waved Albatross performing their intricate dance moves is another of the Galápagos highlights. The snorkelling is a wonder as well, with swimmers at times encircled by sea lions, sea turtles, and even Galápagos Penguins on occasion. The islands are named after their endemic Galápagos Giant Tortoises (‘galapagos’ means tortoise in Spanish) and seeing these magnificent beasts striding about, or sighing deeply as they wallow in the mud, one feels transported to another time, or even another world.