Penguins and dolphins, sea lions and iguanas, tropical birds and giant tortoises—this bizarre collection of species comes together in a single destination on the equator. You can walk right up to most of them and look them in the eye. There aren't many places in the world where you can swim alongside a family of sea lions. The Galapagos Islands are one of those places, and so 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 as much as 600 lb/272 kg and live 150 years. But you'll also see marine iguanas (they resemble small dragons and are 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; 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 scores of lesser) islands whose terrain is mostly stark and barren, consisting primarily of a lava rock- and cacti-filled landscape hosted by an arid climate. However, the highlands of the larger islands are dominated by cloud forests, with lush vegetation and cooler temperatures. The islands themselves are interesting geologically, although most people go to see their rare fauna and flora.
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 as a result of their environment, and over time evolved into distinct species. His famous book 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, often accompanied by curious sea lions, sea turtles, an occasional penguin and scores of tropical fish. The marine environment of the Galapagos is also a protected area; it is the largest marine reserve in the Western Hemisphere, and the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef.
Outside of the inhabited areas of islands (which include portions of Isabella, Floreana, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal) you cannot wander about on your own—it is not allowed. Though it may seem unlikely, some people have died after venturing off on their own and becoming dehydrated or eating fruit of poisonous plants.
Strict rules imposed by the Galapagos National Park require that licensed guides accompany all visitors and that you stick to the 60 designated sites on the islands, most of which are uninhabited. You may walk only on marked trails, and you cannot touch or feed the animals—even allowing a bird to drink from a water bottle is forbidden to avoid making the animals the least bit dependent upon humans.
As you'll soon discover, however, some contact cannot be avoided: You'll be amazed at how close some of the animals will come to you. Darwin's famous finches occasionally land on your shoulder, and sea lions lounge next to you on the beach.
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