Galápagos Islands Main

Peter Sobolev

No, Charles Darwin didn't discover the Galapagos Islands - it just seems that way. Although that most famous of scientists only spent five weeks here, he managed to see enough to keep him thinking for a half-century. And if you don't have at least a passing acquaintance with Darwin and his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, this archipelago probably isn't your cup of tea. On the other hand, if natural history is your personal connection to the world around you, by all means set sail for this volcanic cluster off the coast of Equador.

Today, many tourists visiting this "living laboratory of evolution" travel on small cruise ships staffed with naturalist guides. Most ships provide beach- and dive-time (you can snorkel with the local penguins at Bartolomé Island), but a Galápagos visit is centered on land tours that get up close to wildlife.

The seabirds are bountiful and the iguanas always interesting, but the most famous of the natural attractions are the giant tortoises, best seen on Santa Cruz island, which also happens to be the site of the chain's main town, Puerto Ayora, and the Charles Darwin Research Station. The tortoises, which often graze alongside cattle, are believed to live about 150 years - which means that some of the real old-timers you see may have watched Darwin as he first stepped ashore in 1835. Now that's natural history.