The Galápagos Islands are a visual wonderland.
Think “Jurassic World” minus the theme park and dinosaurs. That’s a good start at getting your head around this place.
While you won’t find giant-sized reptiles on the roam, native marine iguanas periodically projecting seawater from their nostrils offer a certain degree of scare factor. Maneuvering around hundreds of them piled atop one another is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies.
Galápagos marine iguanas live on underwater seaweed and algae. Can you imagine one of these guys swimming up to you in the ocean? Fortunately, none of them did.
Land of contrasts
From land to animal, the Galápagos Islands ooze contrast. Arid and wet. Prickly and lush. Cuddly and bizarre.
On one island, you might be scrambling though a rocky, cactus-covered stretch of land filled with volcanic parasitic cones. Another island later, you are marching through moss- and fern-covered rain forests and peering down into tree-filled collapsed craters.
Our starting point for hiking Bartolome's summit as our ship awaits
One of many beautiful beaches found throughout the Galápagos Islands
From desert to rain forest, we were boot- and rain-gear-ready to tour this tortoise sanctuary during one of our excursions.
Then there are the animals – playful, adorable sea lions, those freakish-looking marine iguanas and magnificent blue-footed boobies. I'm not talking smut here, but I could ogle at the blue feet, pincushion head and mesmerizing eyes of this signature Galápagos bird for hours.
Lay of the land
Located about 600 miles west of Ecuador, the Galápagos Archipelago comprises 18 main islands and about 100 smaller islands, islets and rock formations. Volcanic activity millions of years ago laid the foundation for some of the most unique and diverse plant and wildlife now covering some 3,000 square miles.
We were lucky enough to get to visit the islands during a seven-day Silversea cruise. From what we saw of the more rustic cities, a cruise is the best option if you’re wanting to mix luxury and exploration.
10 reasons to go Galápagos
Here are 10 reasons you should make the Galápagos Islands a travel priority.
1. The clock is ticking
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to some seriously diverse and interesting wildlife. Weather pattern changes, increased tourism, a growing population and introduced predatory species threaten the fragile ecosystem that makes Galápagos special.
Before conditions change, the time is ripe to explore Galápagos and all its wonder.
2. Witness Charles Darwin’s inspiration
The Galápagos Islands spawned Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
During part of a larger trip surveying the coast of South America, a stopover on Galápagos caused Darwin to contemplate how similar species were perfectly adapted to their environments from island to island. Several years later, he consolidated his ideas into his famous book, “The Origin of Species.”
Tap your inner biologist. What better way to get to know Darwin’s theory than to walk in his shoes at the place of his inspiration.
Darwin's study of finches like this one helped form his theory of evolution by natural selection.
3. Fearless wildlife
Tour operators advised us to bring our binoculars. Except for looking skyward, they’re a pretty pointless accessory. You practically trip over wildlife in Galápagos.
Thanks to not being hunted by humans, the animals are fearless. That makes up-close and personal encounters the rule rather than the exception. It’s up to you to keep your distance at the recommended six feet, which is sometimes hard to do when a sea lion is sprawled across a narrow walkway. They barely open their eyes to acknowledge your presence as you make your way around them.
Don't mind us, Mr. (or Ms.) Sea Lion. We're just passing through.
4. No day is the same
Every day is different. While the cruise does a great job of laying out your daily itinerary with multiple excursion options such as hiking, kayaking, snorkeling or zodiac boat touring, there are plenty of surprises along the way.
One night we watched dozens of eight-plus-foot sharks gather beneath the ship’s lights as they competed with sea lions lurking in the shadows for flying fish. It was a feeding frenzy and the sea lions were winning the prey.
That’s part of the thrill that comes with a Galápagos adventure. Nature is unpredictable so you never know exactly what’s in store. I have no doubt another trip to the islands would deliver a new experience.
To prove the point, a few days after our trip we read the headlines that Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island erupted, marking its first time in 33 years. You never know what will happen on Galápagos.
One thing you can expect every night is a beautiful sunset to wrap up your day.
5. Birds galore
If you’re a birder, you will be in orthinology heaven on Galápagos. A plethora of finches, flycatchers, hawks, doves, mockingbirds, flightless cormorants, flamingos, frigates, albatrosses, petrels, penguins, boobies and more await birding enthusiasts.
Even better, you can watch them ride the wind currents of the ship, hovering overhead as if frozen in flight.
There are more than 85 different bird species on the Galápagos Islands, according to our Silversea Expeditions Chronicles, which briefed us daily on what we'd be seeing.
6. Your new bestie could be a sea lion
Snorkeling with schools of fish, sea turtles, stingrays, sharks and penguins is cool enough. But nothing compares to swimming with curious, gregarious sea lions in the wild.
As we arrive in our zodiac boats, it's almost as if they anxiously anticipate our arrival. From their rocky perch, the sea lions begin diving in to check out all of the excitement and their strange new ocean companions.
One minute you're bobbing along and the next you’re staring face mask to sea lion eyeball before the slick-bodied guy darts around your body. It’s scary and exhilarating at the same time.
Hands down, it’s a trip highlight. Whatever you do, do not miss the opportunity to swim with the sea lions.
My new bestie sea lion friend
7. Eat lobster every day
Lobster was an everyday menu item on our cruise. For a girl from land-locked Oklahoma, this is a big deal.
We’re not talking any measly inferior lobster. Ecuadorean lobsters are the bomb.
Ordering lobster is always a good call.
We kicked off our lunches with the ceviche of the day topped with popcorn, fried plantains and red onions. Thank you, chef, for introducing us to the best way possible to dress our ceviche.
8. Java that speaks to you
Admittedly, coffee is an important part of my day. I had no idea Galápagos was known for its quality java. It’s strong, clean-tasting and low in acidity. Even the coffee served on the plane tasted great.
Move over Starbucks. Actually, we were told the chain is now purchasing these fine beans for its coffee. Hello Starbucks. Now you’re speaking my new coffee language.
9. Tortoises large enough to ride (but don’t do it)
Galápagos’ name came from its massive tortoises, which are what caught the eye of visiting Spaniards. The saddleback shape of their shells reminded them of a type of riding saddle back home called a "galapago."
The Galápagos tortoises – the world's largest – are endemic to the islands. You won't find them anywhere else. Some weigh in at more than 500 pounds and most live well into their 100s.
Despite their longevity, many were killed off to the point of near extinction between the 17th and 19th centuries by hungry sailors. Tortoises could live up to a year without food or water, making them a source of fresh meat for the sailors during their long voyages.
Now sanctuaries throughout the islands are protecting and rebuilding the population of this endangered species.
This giant tortoise seemed to have something to say. Unfortunately, I don't speak tortoise.
10. Family trips don’t get much better
If you’re looking to spend some stimulating quality time with your family, this trip is a great choice. All you need is a little sense of adventure – emphasis on the “little” because you really are pampered enough that nothing feels difficult.
Because someone else is doing all of your daily organization, it’s virtually stress-free. You show up, choose your activities and just enjoy each other’s company in the process.
Filled with a day of adventure, there’s plenty to talk about by mealtime – and lots of memories to savor for years to come.
Moments like these are what family trips are all about.
Hey Galápagos graduates, what are your top reasons for visiting these islands?