Swathed in the Pacific Ocean, almost 1,000km (620 miles) from mainland Ecuador, the charred volcanic landscape and other-worldly inhabitants of the peaceful Galápagos continue to enchant those who visit. But while the venerable form of the Galápagos giant tortoise is the famous face of this carefully protected archipelago, the islands that Charles Darwin called “a little world within itself” offer many other fascinating creatures and unexpected activities that make it one of the most unique and memorable holiday destinations on earth.
1. World-class surfing
Its waves might not have received as much press as its tortoises, but Galápagos is a prime surf destination. San Cristóbal is the place to go, with world-class and consistent waves luring a steady stream of surfers throughout the year; top surf spots include La Carola, El Canon and Manglecito. While taking to the waves, surfers frequently find themselves in the company of tropical fish, rays and (harmless) reef sharks.
2. Shark diving
Crystal waters and a myriad of vibrant marine life make Galápagos a popular scuba-diving destination; and, for many, sharks are the stars of the show. The deep waters surrounding Darwin and Wolf islands are particularly popular, being regularly visited by Galápagos sharks, whale sharks, whitetip reef sharks and hammerheads – all harmless to humans, and all spectacular to observe. The latter two species can also be spotted during deep-water snorkelling trips near North Seymour and Española Island.
3. Bask on glorious beaches
Those with a penchant for pristine sand and bright turquoise waters won’t find a more satisfying stretch than Gardner Bay on Española Island. This idyllic slice of coastline is made all the more spectacular by the local colony of sea lions that join visitors in basking on the sands and frolicking in the water. Another beach worth taking a dip in is Post Office Bay on Floreana, which is also a prime site for snorkelling.
Running between Fernandina and Isabela islands, the Bolivar Channel is a hotspot for whales. Numerous whale species frequent the Galápagos waters – some native, some passing through – with two of the most impressive being the colossal sperm whale and the acrobatic humpback species. Visit during July, August and September for the best chance of glimpsing these oceanic giants.
5. Snorkelling with sea turtles
Snorkelling in the Galápagos is always rewarding: the porous lava takes on a role similar to that of a coral reef, providing a habitat for a vast array of marine life. There is no sight more breathtaking, however, than a Galápagos green sea turtle calmly gliding just a few inches below. Two reliable locations to glimpse these endemic turtles are the waters off Post Office Bay on Española, and at Devil’s Crown near Floreana, a deep-water snorkelling hotspot.
6. Live on a luxury yacht
The best way to experience the Galápagos in all its glory is by spending a night on a boat. And they don’t get more comfortable than the newest addition to the Galápagos’ waters, the Sea Star Journey. Accommodating up to 16 guests, this sleek yacht offers spacious and air-conditioned suites, all with far-reaching ocean views. The top deck features two spa baths, plus sun loungers the size of double beds – ideal for sunbathing in the day and star-gazing at night. There will often be a chance to spot hammerheads, seabirds, rays, sea turtles, flying fish and dolphins, while relaxing onboard. Splendid breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets are served in the restaurant, and sunset swims off the boat are positively encouraged – often featuring a sea lion or two.
7. Pick up a postcard for Granny
A few yards back from Post Office Bay, on Floreana Island, find a well-used post box that has been connecting travellers with their loved ones since the 18th century. Whalers once left addressed letters in the wooden barrel to be picked up by another travelling to the desired destination. Tourists keep the tradition alive today, filling the barrel with postcards to be collected and posted by hand by other tourists passing through.
8. Swim with the planet’s only sea-going lizard
Smoky black and dotted-red Galápagos marine iguanas look as though they’ve emerged, charred and glowing, from the depths of a volcano. But, contrary to their fiery appearance, these prehistoric creatures, endemic to the Galápagos, are just at home in water, and they are the planet’s only sea-going lizards. In one single breath they can dive up to 30 minutes, battling against the waves and feeding in the waters. Visitors can swim with Galápagos marine iguanas in the shallows of Fernandina.
9. Meet the only penguin north of the equator
The small and swift Galápagos penguin is the only penguin to exist north of the equator in the wild. Thanks to the cooling waters from the Humboldt Current and shady nesting areas provided by jagged volcanic rock, this endangered species can exist quite happily here. There are sightings throughout the Galápagos, but the penguin is found in its highest numbers on Fernandina, and to the west of Isabela Island.
10. Contribute to the ongoing protection of the Galápagos
Simply by going to the Galápagos, visitors are contributing to the ongoing protection of this world-renowned nature reserve. The US$100 entrance fee paid on arrival might seem a little steep, but a large portion of the money goes directly towards preserving the Galápagos National Park and the Galápagos Marine Reserve, and to the Ecuadorian Navy, which ensures these majestic islands and their waters remain protected for a many years to come.
Ruth-Ellen Davis travelled to the Galápagos with:
Adventure Life (tel: +1 800 344 6118; www.adventure-life.com) which runs a range of Galápagos cruises, with boat capacities ranging from 12-100, and cruises ranging from 4-15 days. Adventure Life also arranges flights to and from both Quito and Guayaquil to the Galápagos, with hotel pick-up and drop-off included.