No Place on Earth Quite Like the Galapagos Islands

We recently returned from a trip to the islands where Charles Darwin’s famous theory evolved in the mid-1800s, and – take it from someone who has traveled to all seven continents – this is a destination that’s beyond special. There’s no place on Earth quite like the Galápagos.

My personal goal in the Galápagos was to swim with penguins. I know, penguins live in frozen Antarctica, who would ever get a chance to actually swim with them, right? But the Galápagos Islands are home to a very small, endangered colony of penguins who rode the Humboldt current up from the Antarctic and manage to survive in equatorial waters. Your only chance of seeing one would be on Fernandina or Isabela, two of the 19 islands and 40 islets that make up the archipelago.

On Day 1, my first question to our naturalist guide was, “Will I be able to swim with penguins?” He paused, scratched his scraggly, grey-flecked beard and said, “Hmmm … possibly.”

Near the end of our 7-day, island-hopping cruise, we were snorkeling in the warm water off Isabela. Swirling around my facemask were hundreds of tiny fish darting around in a disorganized school. In the distance, I suddenly caught sight of something larger coming in at high speed – something streamlined, beaked and wearing a tuxedo.

How thrilled I was when my dream came true! The penguin seemed unconcerned about human snorkelers in the water and swam all around us for several minutes, snapping after the fish. He was so close I could have touched him. My husband had his underwater GoPro going and got lots of video of the penguin swimming around us and our traveling companions. The penguin even paused for a close-up, just inches in front of the camera.

Then a sea lion joined the penguin, and although their high-speed water acrobatics looked like play, I’m sure they were just after a nice seafood lunch.

We worked our way back to the pure white, sandy beach and stood in waist deep water, talking about how lucky we were to experience this. Then someone pointed and shouted, “Penguin!” As if he were bidding us farewell, the penguin was swimming rapidly around our ankles. A true lifetime memory.

My blogs are usually critiques or reviews of my travel experiences, intended to help the traveler who might consider a similar trip. So if you’re thinking about a Galápagos expedition, bring a good video and/or still camera and be prepared to move. You might be hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and riding on small, motor-driven, inflatable dinghies they call pangas. The trips here are definitely considered “active.”

You could enjoy the islands as a solo traveler, a couple, with friends, or – and this is always interesting – as part of a multi-generational family group.  The Galápagos offers an unforgettable adventure into a sanctuary of pristine nature.

We went with two other couples, and our age range was late 50’s to early 70’s. We were able to handle the activity level without difficulty, but a few other passengers on the boat who were not physically fit or had health issues were unable to complete some of the hikes, so take that into consideration.

Our adventure started in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. Quito is isolated in the Andes mountain range at 9,350 feet, and international flights generally land here before continuing toward the Galápagos.  We decided to stay two nights and see Quito, one of the largest and best-preserved ancient civilization centers in all the Americas.

We arranged for a private guide through a tour company (which also operates the island ships). She took us on a walking and coach tour, showing us the “real life” of the local people and taking us to the world culture historical sites, as declared by UNESCO in 1978.

I was totally in awe of the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus. The rich gold-leaf interior on almost every inch of this stunning place of worship left me mesmerized. You could easily spend a couple of days in Quito exploring much more than we did, like venturing out in the northern highlands to hike, bike or zip-line. Our goal was the Galápagos, so we moved on after one very full day in Quito.

We boarded the luxury yacht for a seven-day expedition of the eastern and northern islands of the Galápagos. Our cuisine was superb! The staterooms were very comfortable and relatively spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows. Adjoining cabins can connect for families, and the boat has wonderful observation decks.

Let me clarify “luxury yacht.” I would not compare a luxury yacht to a 5-star hotel, but for overall experience, probably a solid 4-star. They say “you don’t spend much time in your room,” and that was definitely true on this expedition.  From 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, we were on the move. This was less pleasure cruise and more expedition. Just what we wanted.

Our first wildlife sightings were the rare marine iguana and the most colorful crab I had ever seen (it’s called a Sally Lightfoot).

We were fortunate to stand next to a sea lion mom and her one-week-old pup as they made their way to the beach, where mom would be heading out to feed. The pup followed her to the shoreline but quickly retreated to the safety of land and started to howl for her. This seemed sad, but the naturalist explained that the pup was too young to brave the waves, and the mom had to eat.

The glory of the Galápagos is that you see nature in its own way, close enough to touch. The animals do not fear humans, and even the many land and sea iguanas will not move as you walk past them on the trails. Once I had to stop myself before I stepped on an iguana tail. These huge lizards are not skittish in the least.

The birdlife of the Galápagos is exotic. The male Frigate is spectacular when he inflates his red sack to attract a mate. The blue- and red-footed boobies just hang out with you as if they were welcoming you into their home. In fact, one blue-footed booby decided to walk along with us as we explored the island. You may ask yourself if they’ve been trained to pose for photographs.

The wildlife is spectacular on land and sea alike. And you don’t have to be a scuba diver to experience this natural aquarium. We were snorkelers and certainly got our share of underwater excitement: schools of golden rays, colorful angel fish, sea turtles, white tip and hammerhead sharks, and a giant manta ray.

Our expedition was a combination of two trips: a three-day option on just the eastern islands and a four-day journey to the northern islands. Most guests just took one or the other, but we decided to stay on for the entire 7 days. Very glad we did. We saw sights and wildlife we would have missed had we only taken one or the other.

photo copyright Galapagos Conservation Trust