Located just 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. Each island is a masterpiece of nature. The archipelago is made up of thirteen main islands, six smaller islands, and more than a hundred islets and tiny rock formations sticking their heads above the sea just far enough to support the tenacious lives which cling there.
These ‘Enchanted Islands’ are every bit as miraculous and magical as people have been saying since explorers and pirates first landed on their volcanic shores over 500 years ago. Straddling the equator, these volcanic islands are located in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Wolf Volcano (5, 600 feet above sea level) and Ecuador Volcano (5, 541 feet) on Isabela Island are directly on the equator. The first islands formed here at least 8 million years ago and possibly up to 90 million years ago. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed. The most recent volcanic eruption was in April 2009 where lava from Fernandina started flowing both towards the island’s shoreline and into the center caldera.
In 1959, the centenary year of Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species, the Ecuadorian government declared 97.5% of the archipelago’s land area a national park with the exception of areas already colonized. The Charles Darwin Foundation was founded in 1959 as well. In 1986, the 27, 000 square miles of ocean surrounding the islands was declared a marine reserve, second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In 1990 the archipelago became a whale sanctuary and in 1985 a biosphere reserve.
The Galapagos Islands are an amazing place in that they give people the opportunity to be in such close contact with wildlife, and species found nowhere else on Earth. Because the animals on the islands are not hunted, they are not skittish. Sea lions are found languishing everywhere, unafraid of humans. You quite literally have to step around them on beaches. And it’s not uncommon for them to being lying on benches in port towns. There are land iguanas and marine iguanas that look like they should belong to a heavy metal band, green turtles, Galapagos tortoises (which gave the islands their name), flightless cormorants, great frigate birds, Galapagos penguins (the only living tropical penguin), wave albatrosses, Galapagos hawks, tanagers, finches, and many other amazing species. The underwater world of this archipelago is colorful and varied. Snorkeling will give you the opportunity to see white-tipped reef sharks, manta rays, many kinds of tropical fish, sea turtles, and much more.
There are essentially two ways to explore the islands: by ship or on a land-based tour. The Galapagos play host to a wide variety of seagoing vessels for every pocketbook and every taste: from luxury motor yachts, to catamarans and sailing ships all of which give you an inkling of what it must have been like when Darwin and his pals sailed these very same waters in years gone by. For those wishing to sleep on land, the islands are dotted with little port towns with hotels and lodges as well as bars, restaurants, and some charming boutiques.
Take a look at these photos taken by our Ecuador Country Manager, Maggie Bjorklund, and volunteers Darrell Stanley, Missy Ek, Gloria Chelliah, and Glenn Chelliah on their trips to these amazing islands: