A Bucket-List Guide to Seeing the Galapagos

·Managing Editor
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There are few places left on Earth that feel truly isolated. (All photos are by Jo Piazza unless otherwise noted. Jo used a Canon Rebel and a GoPro Hero Silver on this trip.)

Sprinkled in the eastern Pacific, the Galapagos archipelago consists of just over 3,000 square miles of land spread out over 17,000 square miles of ocean.

Hundreds of years ago, sailors referred to this group of islands 650 miles off the coast of Ecuador as Las Encantadas, meaning the enchanted islands. Charles Darwin, arguably the Galapagos’ most famous visitor, christened them both “a little world within itself,” and a “paradise for reptiles.”

With awe-inspiring landscapes and unrivaled beauty, this is a place that truly fulfills the traveler’s primal longing to shed the trappings of civilization. Visitors come here to tick things off their bucket lists — hiking with giant endangered tortoises, swimming with sea lions and penguins, and visiting a place that truly has an aura of mystery and intrigue.

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Sea lions just chill on park benches here. (Photo: Nick Aster)

After visiting in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt penned a memorandum to then Secretary of State Cordell Hull, beseeching him to help protect the land.

“These islands represent the oldest form of animal life and should, therefore be preserved for all time as a kind of International Park,” FDR wrote. Roosevelt died before he saw his dream realized, but in 1959, on the hundredth anniversary of the publishing of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the government of Ecuador declared 97 percent of the land in the Galapagos a national park. And while the majority of the country will remain protected indefinitely, the sense of isolation and stillness experienced by today’s visitors may soon disappear. The Ecuadorian government is planning to increase annual tourism here threefold in the next couple of years. While it will be a boon to the Ecuadorian economy, it will also irrevocably alter visitors’ experience. 

I’m only going to say it once: Visit now, before these islands change forever. 

If you have just seven days to see the highlights of this incredible place, here is the way you should spend them.

Day 1: San Cristobal 

Most visitors fly to the islands through the mainland port city of Guayaquil and land on the larger island of San Cristobal, in the port town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. I had planned a seven-day boat trip with the Ecoventura tour company, whose naturalists Ivan and Orlando picked us up from the airport. Ecoventura specializes in small-boat tourism, with just about 18 passengers per trip, which is the perfect-sized group. Traveling with larger groups makes it difficult to spend a good amount of time on land, since there are strict regulations about how many people can be on any island at once. 

From the airport, we immediately made our way to the boatyards, where sea lions sprawl across the boardwalk to greet you, waving a fin in the air before sliding into the water to cool off. 

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The very first sea lion I saw in the Galapagos (Jo Piazza/Yahoo Travel)

While you’ll be tempted to take at least a hundred pictures of these adorable creatures as they lounge in the sun, it’s just a taste of what is to come. 

San Cristobal is also one of the few places on the islands where you have any hope of getting a phone signal. I wasn’t able to connect to any networks once we were out at sea, and coverage far away from the main village was spotty. 

After about an hour to get settled on our boat, the Letty, our group headed to Corolla Beach. On Sundays, all of the island kids (about 30,000 people live permanently on San Cristobal) play on the beaches. Climbing over black lava rocks to the sand, we spotted dozens of frenetic lava lizards. Sea lions dominated the beach, and they could have cared less about the human visitors. 

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Everybody is friends here. 

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Oh, hello.

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Someone needs a bath.

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Who could resist this face?

I learned quickly that almost all of the wildlife on these islands is entirely uninterested in anyone walking on two legs. To them we are just another species of animal, not a threat or a friend. We just exist. When visiting the island in 1925, the British naval explorer John Byron remarked that “the birds and beasts do not get out of our way… [it was like ] a new creation.” For that reason, there are rules about keeping your distance (at least two meters) from all the wildlife. 

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Trying desperately to keep my distance…

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… and failing miserably. 

This became difficult when I walked out to the old lighthouse on the rocks and up its spiral staircase. I was greeted by a chubby sea lion at the top. He barked in surprise. I barked in surprise. After sharing this moment, he went back to sleep. I have no idea how he got there or how he was designing to get down. From high up in the lighthouse, I spied Brazilian surfers catching the last of the afternoon’s waves. Sea lions also happen to be excellent surfers, and some of the big guys were out there riding right alongside the humans. 

Video: Adorable Sea Lions in the Galapagos

Day 2: San Cristobal 

Days begin early in the Galapagos — there’s a lot to see. We hit land in a small panga boat at Punta Pitt on the northern side of San Cristobal just a half an hour after sunrise. This part of the island is exactly how Kurt Vonnegut described the islands in his science fiction novel Galapagos: “… humps and domes and cones and spires of lava, brittle and abrasive, whose cracks and pits and bowls and valleys brimmed over not with rich topsoil or sweet water, but with the finest, driest volcanic ash.” 

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An exhausting but rewarding hike brought us to the top of this island.

The Galapagos are an exercise in patience. “If you are patient, you will see everything you wish to see. There is no need to run or rush,” our naturalist guide Orlando said to me, as I tried to race up to the highest point on Punta Pitt. Orlando encouraged me instead to weave among the craggy paths that he had marked himself decades before.

At the top of the peak, I realized patience was indeed a virtue, when I was rewarded with a magnificent view of the bay below and a welcome from the elusive red-footed booby, not to be confused with the more popular blue-footed booby, one of three types of these goofy birds found in the islands.

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The red-footed booby

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Enjoying the view

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Years of erosion have carved beautiful cliffs here.

By Day 2, you will probably start to wonder: “What is the tipping point for childlike wonder and excitement over sea lions?” Is it at your 50th sea lion? Your 100th? Or does it just never get old, like reruns of Seinfeld

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I swear sea lions pose for cameras.

In the afternoon, another short boat ride took us to the southern side of San Cristobal, where Cerro Brujo Beach’s powder-fine sand is blindingly white. It gives new meaning to the word “deserted.” 

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Each photo is pretty much a postcard.

Our group of 16 was alone along the turquoise water, with just 50 sea lions and over 100 brightly colored marine iguanas scattered along the half-mile-long beach. These spiny, slithering reptiles are harmless, even though Darwin nicknamed them “imps of darkness.” Vonnegut provided a more apt description of the ugly beast: “It has no enemies, so it sits in one place, staring into the middle distance at nothing, wanting nothing, worried about nothing, until it is hungry.”   

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It’s hard to tell where the rocks end and the lizard begins.

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Taking a rest

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Sharing a moment

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Everyone here is sleepy.

From the beach, I hopped in a kayak and raced my shipmates the quarter-mile back to the Letty. Some curious sea turtles swam right alongside us. 

There’s nothing quite like being on the equator at sunset where the sun melts like an egg yolk into the azure water. This was the perfect spot to watch it, as it sank into the sea alongside León Dormido, a rock formation named for its resemblance to a sleeping lion. 

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A pretty much perfect sunset

Day 3: Española 

Overnight, the Letty cruised to the small island of Española, the southernmost on the archipelago. 

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Landing in Española

We made landing at Suárez Point, beneath a petite and vaguely preppy yellow lighthouse, greeted, as usual, by sea lions body surfing on the beach. Every new inch of these islands is more interesting than the last, proven by a two-hour hike along the dramatic cliffs of Española. We soon spotted the Galapagos hawk, the albatross, and the Nazca boobies. 

Video: Sea Lions Body Surfing in the Galapagos

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Trying to get a better view

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An even better one

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Perfectly perfect water

We stumbled into a Nazca booby breeding ground, where both moms and dads patiently protect their puffball babies. 

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Look closely to see the baby booby. 

Behind them, a blowhole through the lava rocks sprayed water at least 30 feet into the air. Looking closely, I could see a marine iguana caught up and shot into the spray. 

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This happens approximately every minute during high tide.

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Stumbling on this many marine iguanas in one place is nervous-making, despite the fact that they are completely harmless.

The afternoon provided an opportunity for our very first deep-water snorkeling trip on the way to Gardner Beach. With its bright turquoise water and stark white sand, Gardner could easily be mistaken for a beach in the Caribbean, except for one thing — there is absolutely no one here but you and your shipmates. 

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Taking a stroll on an isolated beach (Photo: Ed Wetschler)

Day 4: Floreana 

The history of Floreana is the stuff of trashy novels. The small island on the southern side of the archipelago was a penal colony in 1832, but without enough fresh water for the prisoners, they were soon moved off Floreana to San Cristobal. 

In the 1930s, three groups of German settlers arrived independently on the island. The first was Dr. Friedrich Ritter, a German dentist searching for a place to spend his golden years. Unfortunately for Dr. Ritter, his wife didn’t share his dream, and so he swapped wives with his best mate before setting sail. Both vegetarians, they pulled out all of their teeth before going to the island, to avoid dental emergencies. They brought with them a single pair of shared dentures. 

The next settler was a woman who called herself a baroness, even though she certainly wasn’t descended from noble stock. She arrived on the island with three lovers and irritated her neighbors by bathing nude in one of the island’s natural springs. 

The third settlers were the Wittmers, a young couple from Cologne who were told that the climate of the Galapagos could help cure their sickly son. The Wittmers would be the only group to survive. The others disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances. Margaret Wittmer herself wrote a wonderful account of the family’s time on the island, whose English edition is titled “Floreana,” before she passed away in 2000 at the age of 95.

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Lounging in a black mangrove along the beach

Today, Floreana only has a small village of around 250 locals. Landing here is like arriving on the shores of Jurassic Park, with wild vegetation and lizards lining the beach to great you. 

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The landscape here is completely wild.

We began our visit at the saltwater lagoon, filled with native Galapagos flamingos. On the other side of the small peninsula, you can spy huge sea turtle nests with their tractor-like treads leading out to the sea. 

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Those giant indentations are made by sea turtles.

I watched as a pod of 27 sea turtles bobbed their heads above the surface and a group of sting rays came so close to shore they nearly glided over my feet. During the ride back to the boat, we spied some of the smallest penguins in the world — the Galapagos penguin, zipping beneath us at speeds of up to 22 knots in search of silvery fish. 

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We docked next at the Devil’s Crown — one of the best spots in the world to go snorkeling — where a veritable parade of giant rays, enormous sea turtles, and white-tipped reef sharks wind around the ominous lava rocks. The current is so strong that it whipped me up like sock caught in a washing machine’s spin cycle. Further offshore, I spied a dolphin leaping over the surface. We quickly piled into the boat, and before I knew it, we were swimming above at least 50 dolphins. 

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Shot with the GoPro as we snorkeled

Video: Snorkeling Adventure in the Galapagos

It is at this point in the trip that I learned the virtue of the afternoon nap. I felt that I deserved it. Charles Darwin certainly thought that he did. Stricken with seasickness for most of the two-year surveying trip on the HMS Beagle that brought him to the Galapagos, Darwin, then 22, frequently told his shipmates that he “must take the horizontal” for a bit. 

A couple of hours of the horizontal certainly helped me feel refreshed. We kayaked through Mystery Bay, amidst the sea turtles and sea lions. Then it was onto Post Office Bay, one of the most delightful features of the Galapagos. 

Related: Hand-Deliver a Galapagos Postcard Halfway Around the World

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It looks like something out of an American Western. (Photo: Nick Aster)

It’s a post office only in the loosest sense of the word, but mail does indeed travel from here around the world. Since the end of the 18th century, American and British whalers have been leaving mail here in the hopes that someone traveling in the missive’s general direction would help get it to its rightful recipient, sans postage. It was a cheap, if undependable, way to keep in touch with friends and family during a long journey.

Video: Post Office Bay

(Video by Nick Aster/Triple Pundit)

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Postcards are addressed to far-flung locales all over the world. (Photo: Nick Aster)

These days, tourists leave post cards addressed to their own loved ones and oftentimes to themselves. Visitors gather about 30 meters from the water (as curious sea lions look on in confusion), paging through a stack of cards, some dating back more than a decade. If you find a postcard addressed close to where you live, you’re supposed to go to the person’s house, knock on the door and deliver it.

After the post office, game for some adventure, I strapped on a head lamp and trekked down into one of the island’s lava tube caves to wade through chilly water into an enormous naturally formed black cavern beneath the earth. 

Day 5: Santa Cruz 

This is the day we had all been waiting for — the day of visiting with the giant tortoises that gave their name to the islands. The creatures used to roam free all over the planet, but now they are only found in two places: the Galapagos and the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. 

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You can get this close to these huge reptiles.

Giant tortoises are solitary creatures, but they do tend to congregate in small groups near freshwater ponds. We docked in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz before taking a bus up to the highlands, where they hang out between November and May. The tortoises move between the low elevations and these highlands, creeping very, very slowly along what the locals refer to as “tortoise highways,” each year. 

Video: Up Close and Personal With the Galapagos Tortoise

It is marshy and lush here, much chillier and damper than the low-lying beaches. Thankfully, the local farm in the middle of the tortoise highway provided much-needed rubber boots. While I typically eschew activities that involve borrowing other people’s shoes, I appreciated them as I slunk deeper into the swamp to greet the tortoises.

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Initially believed to be completely deaf, the Galapagos tortoise is simply unfazed by human activity.

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The tortoises eat a consistent diet of cacti, grass, and leaves, but are able to go for up to a year without food and water.

After talking approximately a hundred photographs with the giant reptiles, we headed back down to Puerto Ayora to the Darwin Research Station to see the baby tortoise hatching program. 

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Teeny tiny baby tortoises. They don’t stay small for long, so don’t even think about putting one in your carry-on.

Baby tortoises hatch after four to eight months in the egg. They are extremely small and vulnerable when they first hatch, weighing as little as 50 grams (1.8 ounces), which is why it is imperative that the research center breed them and raise them before releasing them back into the wild. The research center is about a 20-minute walk from town and requires no more than a half-hour to visit. 

The locals are incredibly friendly in Santa Cruz, and you won’t need to bring anything with you, except some cash for the obligatory “I Love Boobies” T-shirts you will inevitably purchase. 

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I bought seven.

Make sure to swing by the small fish market here, to watch as the sea lions and greedy pelicans try to swipe the fish before the locals can buy them.

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These pelicans have no shame.

Day 6: Bartolomé, Black Turtle Cove, Sombrero Chino

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The Chinese hat!

Whichever enterprising visitor named the small island off of San Salvador the Chinese Hat (Sombrero Chino) was perhaps not the most politically correct visitor to the Galapagos Islands, but he was spot on in the description of its conical shape. The sea lion colony in the north shore cove is even more fearless than the ones on Española. They’ll scamper right over your toes. 

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I swear this little guy touched me first.

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The Galapagos penguins are some of the smallest of the flightless birds in the world. There is a small colony of them here in a tiny bay behind Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé Island.

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They are also some of the fastest.

Cactuses stretch 15 feet into the air. It’s like Texas, but with penguins. And indeed, we spy a group of penguins preening before they dive into the water to catch some breakfast. Our guide Ivan is enchanted by everything we see, as well he should be. This place is enchanting. But sometimes I can’t tell if his enchantment is mocking our enchantment. “Flying flamingos, oh my god! Blue- footed boobies. Two of them! Baby sea lions. This is so wonderful!” he exclaims on a regular basis. But the truth is, it’s pretty wonderful. Before we know it, a flamingo takes off from behind us and flies directly over the boat. 

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For some reason, I never thought about flamingos actually flying.

While we snorkel here, tiny penguins dive right past our masks. I see a marine iguana snacking on sea urchin under the water; a ray floats up from beneath a rock. This is snorkeling so good it feels like scuba diving. In the afternoon, we climb the 364 steps to the top of the crater on Bartolomé Island, a volcanic desert that Buzz Aldrin once called the closest thing to the moon he had ever seen on Earth. 

The island was also featured in the 2003 movie Master and Commander. It is one of the most photographed places in the Galapagos Islands, with the island of Santiago in the distance.

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Cloudy, but still beautiful 

Day 7: North Seymour Island, South Plaza Island

Each day unfolds like an episode of the original Star Trek television series, where the crew lands on a new planet each week. Day 7 finds us on Plaza Island, originally formed by lava streaming up from the bottom of the ocean. This rocky terrain, covered in prickly pear cacti and home to the most land iguanas in the Galapagos, is unlike anything we have yet encountered. 

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The cacti here look like they are from another world.

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There are rocks that look like iguanas and iguanas that look like rocks, until they get sneaky and dart across the surface, their exercise for the week. 

Talk about patience. These yellow iguanas sit under cactus plants for days at a time, waiting for a single leaf to drop for a meal. We spend the afternoon, our last here, on North Seymour Island.

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This frigate is a very eligible bachelor. 

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The blue-footed booby wins for the silliest-looking creature in the Galapagos.

North Seymour is the mothership for Galapagos bird breeding, and the home of one of the biggest populations of nesting blue-footed boobies and frigates. It is here that you will see the blue-footed booby male doing his mating dance: He raises one foot and then the other off the ground, wiggles his silly little body about, and prances to show off his bright blue feet.

The male frigates are a bit more reserved, but no less obvious in their efforts to secure a mate. They puff up their scarlet throats into giant red balloons in order to attract the lady birds and show off their prowess as providers for their future families. 

These seven days will offer you just a taste of what the Galapagos has to offer. Each day here promises to be a new adventure. 

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