The Galapagos islands, about 600 miles off coast of Ecuador, are truly special! Penguins, dolphins, sea lions, iguanas, tropical birds, and giant tortoises all live together in this destination on the equator. Their remoteness and the absence of human settlements until the past century allowed the animals to live without fear of humans. As a result, the islands have an abundance of animals, birds, and reptiles that are easily viewed up close without binoculars.
Galapagos Islands are best known as the home of giant tortoises that can weigh up to 500 pounds and live over 100 years. Visitors will also see marine iguanas, scarlet-breasted frigate birds, blue and red footed boobies, tiny penguins, mammoth sea lions, and giant albatrosses. About half of the species are endemic to the islands, found nowhere else on Earth.
This volcanic, arid archipelago has 13 large islands whose terrain is mostly stark and barren, consisting primarily of a lava rock and cacti. However, the highlands of the larger islands are dominated by volcanos and cloud forests, with lush vegetation and cooler temperatures. Most visitors see the islands as part of a cruise tour. Small boats drop travelers off on individual islands, where knowledgeable naturalists introduce the lifestyles and mating rituals of the native species. Swimming and snorkeling are possible at most sites and visitors are often joined by curious sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, and lots of tropical fish.
There are many options of things to do. The Galapagos archipelago is regarded as one of the world's best scuba-diving sites, and the range and number of large marine mammals and fish is amazing. Several operators run dive trips in the Galapagos, and some yachts offer scuba diving as an extra on regular cruises. Tours start early, and active days spent swimming with penguins and sea lions often mean happy, tired travelers! There is shopping in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, where nearly every visitor spends at least part of a day. Avenida Charles Darwin, which runs between the harbor and the Charles Darwin Research Station, is lined with vendors and small boutiques selling items such as carved-wood turtles, boobies, and other animals native to the islands. Postcards, photographs, weavings, jewelry, and other mementos are available. Since most Galapagos hotels are found on Santa Cruz Island, restaurants are limited to a handful of places. Most are located along Puerto Ayora's main street and offer an assortment of seafood, the islands' trademark cuisine. You'll also find street kiosks owned by locals and these are usually the best food deals.
Galapagos is a very safe place to travel. Crime isn't typically a problem and safety is usually more about protecting travelers from bad experiences than from theft or physical harm. There have been reports of dishonest tour operators, so travelers should be sure to use a reputable tour company.
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