Penguins and dolphins, sea lions and iguanas, tropical birds and giant tortoises—this collection of species comes together in a single destination on the equator. It's no surprise that these islands, 600 mi/970 km off the coast of Ecuador, are so special. Their remoteness from other landmasses and the absence of human settlements until the past century allowed their animal inhabitants to live with little fear of predators. As a result, the islands have an abundance of animals, birds and reptiles that are easily viewed, with or without binoculars.
The islands are best known as the home of giant tortoises that can weigh up to 500 lb/227 kg and live over 100 years. Visitors will also see marine iguanas (the only seagoing lizards in the world); scarlet-breasted frigate birds; blue-footed, red-footed, masked and Nazca boobies; tiny penguins at home in the tropics; mammoth sea lions; and giant, graceful albatrosses. About half of the species are endemic to the islands, found nowhere else on Earth.
Volcanic in origin, the archipelago has 13 large (and six lesser) islands whose terrain is mostly stark and barren, consisting primarily of a lava rock- and cacti-filled landscape in an arid climate. However, the highlands of the larger islands are dominated by volcanos and cloud forests, with lush vegetation and cooler temperatures.
One of the most famous visitors was Charles Darwin, whose five-week stay in 1835 led him to note that some species of birds had changed both physically and behaviorally because of their environment and evolved into distinct species over time. His famous book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and the theory of evolution were influenced greatly by what he saw there.
These days, most visitors see the islands as part of a cruise tour. Small boats, or pangas, 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 are often enhanced by curious sea lions, sea turtles, an occasional penguin and scores of tropical fish. The marine environment of the Galapagos is a protected area; it is one of the largest marine reserves in the world after the Great Barrier Reef and newer reserves in Antarctica and Hawaii.
Strict rules imposed by the Galapagos National Park require that licensed guides accompany all visitors and that visitors stick to the 60 designated sites on the islands, most of which are uninhabited. Visitors may walk only on marked trails and cannot touch or feed the animals, even though the animals often come close.
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