Crowning most adventurers’ bucket lists is a trip to the Galapagos Islands. The archipelago of 19 islands is a spectacular paradise of sight, sound, and activity. Each island offers something special, from plush white sands to exotic birds to deep lava tunnels.
There’s an otherworldliness about these islands. It’s the unofficial animal kingdom of South America, and its placidity is challenged only by the peculiar call of the blue-footed booby, the screech of a hawk, or the crashing waves as sea lions cut through shimmering azure waters.
Yet it’s also a tourist’s haunt—if you know where to go. The Galapagos Islands capture a unique mélange of native and modern, and there’s more to it than meets the eye. Here, 10 reasons to spend your next vacation exploring Ecuador’s famed volcanic islands.
1. Wildlife Know How to Live
It seems mere humans could learn a thing or two from the long-established residents of the Galapagos Islands. Birds, reptiles, aquatic wildlife, insects, and mammals alike all shine in their natural habitat, freely wandering along beaches, lazily resting on rocks, gazing wistfully at the mountains. The giant Galapagos tortoise spends hours soaking up the sunshine, oblivious to his surroundings. Is it any wonder they live for over a hundred years? You may even encounter a pair of waved albatrosses performing their signature courting ritual, in which they bow and excitedly tap beaks together.
2. Diving Is the Ultimate Challenge
If you’ve mastered diving simpler waters, your next stop is the Galapagos Islands. Challenging dives, limited to 50 minutes, are the stuff of thrill seekers’ dreams, while organized tours include at least two dives per day. Wild currents are the norm, and groups of hammerhead sharks swirl in the distance. The beauty of this undersea world is so majestic, you may be tempted to take up diving just for its sake—so beguiling are the schools of colorful fish, the broad-winged manta rays, the marine iguanas skittering across the ocean floor.
3. Epic Hiking Trails Take You Deep
Veer off the beaten path or explore well-traveled trails as you navigate the islands. Craggy footpaths line the idyllic beaches and take you through dense Scalesia forests, offering brilliant vantage points of the archipelago’s virgin white sands and endemic daisy trees. A climb to the world’s second largest volcanic crater, Sierra Negra, brings you to the six-mile caldera. Head west across the preternatural landscape of lava fields to the Sulfur Mines, an isolated yet hauntingly stunning area often shrouded in mist.
4. Pink Flamingos Hold Court on Floreana Island
The lagoon at Cormorant Point on Floreana Island is a major draw for pink flamingos, who eagerly probe the brackish waters for shrimp—in fact, their signature hue comes from ingesting the pink marine animal. They often travel in flocks, building their mud nests and holding their necks high as they gaze regally across the water. The Galapagos flamingo is endangered, due partially to intense weather conditions that rob them of their food supply and natural habitat.
5. Santa Cruz Shapes the Tourist Experience
Highly developed Santa Cruz is one of four inhabited islands of the Galapagos. A tour of Puerto Ayora, its main town, may seem a bit alien at first, what with its hodgepodge of waterfront hotels, shops, and nightclubs along Avenida Charles Darwin. But the seafront road along Academy Bay tells a story more familiar: You’ll spot sea lions lounging at bustling fish markets and pelicans soaring over the harbor. The nearby Charles Darwin Research Station features giant tortoises and land iguanas—both endangered creatures are the focus of major conservational efforts.
6. The Dining Scene Is Surprisingly Vast
You expect to eat well while on vacation, but the dining options on the Galapagos Islands venture into adventurous culinary territory. The inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela are home to some of Ecuador’s most venerable eateries. Fresh seafood—particularly ceviche—is a staple, while exotic Ecuadorian fruits and vegetables give meals local appeal. And no meal is complete without a dash of Aji, a fiery sauce made with tamarillos and hot peppers.
7. The Yachting Experience Changes Everything
Virtually untouched by man, the Galapagos Islands are an area of natural integrity, and visiting them by yacht puts everything in perspective. A tour of Tortuga Bay Beach takes you from the rocky coastline of La Loberia to the shark ponds of Playa de los Perros. Offering unfettered views of sea, sand, and species, boat excursions capture the natural essence of the islands.
8. Even Shadowy Lava Tunnels Seem Inviting
A labyrinth of subterranean lava tunnels run deep through the Galapagos Islands, all characterized by rugged walls and pebbled floors. Some are artificially lit, their dim golden glow casting a flickering light over the darkened, heavily textured caves. A pair of sturdy shoes and a flashlight wouldn’t go amiss, and you can explore the length of these caves unguided. A tour, though, will take you to the tunnels in the village of Bellavista, just outside of Puerto Ayora.
9. It’s a Birdwatcher’s Paradise
Birds put on quite the show in the archipelago—a whopping 80 percent of them are native to the islands. Isolated populations of the charming Galapagos penguin are concentrated on the islands of Fernandina and Isabela. The nocturnal swallow-tailed gull, with its gradated grayish-white feathers and occasional ruby-rimmed eyes, emits a harsh, piercing call. And the flightless cormorant shows how well wildlife adapt to changing environments. They no longer fly, but males gallantly present female cormorants with seaweed as they nest by the sea.
10. Beach Life Is Unsurpassed…and a Little Bit Different
You may be used to throngs of tourists, tropical drinks with mini umbrellas, and the general chaos of a crowded beach, but you’ll find none of that on the Galapagos. What you can expect is a more cultivated seaside experience. The red sands of Rabida Island contrast starkly with the clear blue waters, while secluded Puerto Chino beach is a veritable paradise shaded by coastal mangroves.
The Galapagos Islands are an UNESCO World Heritage site. This global treasure is the type of far-flung destination most travelers only fantasize about—but with so much to do, there’s no reason not to visit one of the planet’s last remaining spots of pure preservation.