You've heard the comparisons: This island is the Galápagos of this region; that chain is the Galápagos of that country. So why all the fuss? The UNESCO World Heritage List calls this mostly uninhabited chain of 19 islands a “living museum and a showcase of evolution,” citing land iguanas, giant tortoises and assorted finches among the countless varieties. Much has changed since Darwin first theorized natural selection here; invasive species and increased human activity threaten the unique biodiversity of the region. But environmental awareness still reigns. “The Galápagos Islands are the benchmark for preservation,” says Jad Davenport, who spent 10 days exploring the region for an upcoming islands feature. “Step off the trail, and the conscientious guides will reprimand you very quickly.” Eleven-day cruises from $5,695. abercrombiekent.com
THE FAST FACTS
PASSPORT NEEDED? Yes, but no visa required
CURRENCY: U.S. dollar
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Spanish
WHEN TO GO:There's no better time to go than March when warm weather and lots of sun add a tropical feel to this bio-rich destination. The 500-pound-plus female giant tortoises nest across the islands. In general, October to July, when seas are calmest and sea-lion pups are the most playful.
Day 1: Drink It In
Fly to Quito, Ecuador (UIO), and then transit via Guayaquil to Baltra International Airport in the Galápagos. You'll be met at the airport for a quick transfer by taxi and boat over to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Unwind in your Blue Parallel villa. Then, for dinner, catch a taxi to the Red Mangrove Galápagos Restaurant & Sushi Bar on Avenida Charles Darwin (no address, just ask) for some Galápagos fusion cuisine. I suggest the Tortuga rolls (don't worry, no tortoises are harmed) with shrimp, eel, avocado and cucumber.
Day 2: Jump Ship
Embark on a weeklong “Wonders of the Galápagos” cruise with Abercrombie & Kent aboard the luxurious M/V Eclipse. With only 24 cabins (all with sea views), this sleek 210-foot ship feels more like a private yacht; your shore parties are also smaller at 12 people per guide versus the standard 16. After a quick safety briefing and park orientation, you're off for a wet landing on Las Bachas Beach, where you might get lucky and see some Caribbean flamingos in the lagoon or nesting green sea turtles on the beach (November to February). Definitely bring a pair of Tevas for the wet landings and dry, lightweight hiking boots.
Day 3: Play with Penguins
Land at Puerto Egas on Santiago Island, and hike along an old salt-mining road to the Fur Seal Grottos, beautiful tide pools and caves where penguins sleep and play. Ask to see “Darwin's Toilet,” a cool lava tube. This afternoon, sail to Bartolome Island for a hot, hour-long hike up the 40-plus-foot summit for beautiful views of Pinnacle Rock and Sullivan Bay. Afterward, take a panga out to the snorkeling grounds, where you'll spot harmless whitetip reef sharks and Galápagos penguins. Bring bug spray — the horseflies are bad on the beach.
Day 4: Here, There Be Dragons
Explore the cactus forests of Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill) on Santa Cruz Island, and stalk the rare land iguanas. Wear a yellow shirt or hat (land iguanas feed on yellow cactus flowers and will scamper over to you for great photos). This afternoon it's off to the blood-red beaches of Rabida Island to photograph sea lions.
Day 5: On Darwin's Trail
Land at Tagus Cove on Isabela Island (Darwin was here), and hike through the palo-santo forests up the rugged slopes of a cinder cone. Photograph finches and mockingbirds. There's also wonderful kayaking in the cove and a chance to snorkel with penguins again. You won't land again this afternoon, but instead traverse a mangrove swamp by panga at Elizabeth Bay.
Day 6: Explore Eden
Few tourist boats make it to Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island, so count yourself lucky in getting to see a slice of “the real Galápagos.” There are no introduced species on this volcanic island. This is a hot day of hiking over lava flows to a whale skeleton. Wear boots and long pants. In the afternoon you'll sail to nearby Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island for a fantastic few hours of snorkeling with inquisitive sea-lion pups and sea turtles. Sea lions want to play, so don't just sit there; spin, blow bubbles and make noise underwater.
Day7: Track Tortoises
You're back in Puerto Ayora for a morning visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station where you can see the tortoise captive breeding program in action and wander by enclosures that hold adult tortoises. Check out the Lonesome George, and then bus up to the highlands for a beautiful hour-long hike to see the reptiles in the wild.
Day 8: Beach Time
Gardner Bay on Espanola Island is one of the longest white-sand beaches in the Galápagos, and you'll have complete freedom to explore it without a guide (but not into the desert beyond). Leave your boots, but bring your Tevas, swimsuit, towel and snorkel gear; spend the morning swimming in this stunning bay with frisky sea lions. In the afternoon you'll sail to nearby Punta Suarez and hike the 2 1/2-mile trail through colonies of blue-footed and Nazca boobies. Near the high sea cliffs you should pass some of the 12,000 breeding pairs of waved albatross — from April to December the babies are learning to fly. It's truly an amusing and incredible sight.
Day 9: Farewell to the Isles
Have your bags packed for an early morning departure, but there's time for one last panga ride through the mangrove swamps of Black Turtle Cove and a stop at the ship's store for souvenirs.
This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of ISLANDS.