Travel editor, David McGonigal stumbles in the footsteps of Charles Darwin and shares why The Galapagos Islands are a must see for naturalists’ who love to travel.

Walking in the footsteps of Darwin
“There's one! No it's gone,” my walking companion declared as we stepped gingerly along a track over a lava bed. The elusive creature she thought she had seen was a Darwin's finch. “Probably just a sparrow,” muttered another in our group who had stumbled and hurt an ankle earlier in the walk.

That was another finch I hadn't seen. We were doing our best, intellectually as well as physically, to walk in Charles Darwin’s footsteps and my admiration for him was growing every day. I’d only seen a photograph of Darwin when he was elderly so I was impressed by his nimbleness. It’s all too easy to stumble over the rough-hewn paths. Later I learned that Darwin was 24 when he arrived in the Galapagos in 1835 and he spent only 19 days ashore and visited just four of the islands. More than 20 years of intense thinking passed before he published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. He was the sort of details man who’d lose sleep musing whether there should be a hyphen between “anal” and “retentive”.

Best seen by boat
Anyone who takes a one-week cruise around the islands covers much the same ground (and more) as Darwin did when he came here on the Beagle in 1835. Making two landings each day we visited ten islands from one end of the archipelago to the other. While some features are common, the variation between the islands is pronounced – and certainly more discernible that variations in finch beaks. Española, the southernmost has a sheer abundance of wildlife while at the northern end of Isabela Island, the largest, you can see the only penguins that live in the northern hemisphere.

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Explore the beautiful Galapagos Islands by cruise

The Galapagos group justifiably has a reputation out of all proportion to its size. It consists of seven main islands that each are over 100 square kilometres in size, 15 smaller ones and some 80 tiny islets. The whole volcanic archipelago is scattered across the equator in the Pacific 1000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador. It is Ecuadorian and visitors fly in from either the coastal city of Guayaquil or the mountain capital of Quito to Isla Baltra, an hour from the main township of Puerto Ayora, or San Cristobal Island to the east.

It’s best to see the Galapagos by boat perhaps with a few days in the main town of Puerto Ayora to do some diving and to make the most of the laid-back Galapagos way of life. However, more companies are offering cheaper land-based holidays with some boat excursions.

The Las Grietas canyon at Puerto Ayora

We booked on the Isabela II through Metropolitan Touring in Quito. The Isabella II carries 40 passengers, which makes it large by Galapagos standards, and is the among the islands' most luxurious vessels (and is recently refurbished). All cabins have views, lots of space, and private shower and toilet. Good meals and service are included in the fare. More importantly, it has highly trained naturalists who speak perfect English. Most important of all, the Isabela II is fast and is equipped to travel by night so we saw islands that slower vessels (or shorter voyages) can't reach. However, the trade off is that smaller vessels are permitted to access sites restricted to groups of 16 or less.

Locals live in a ‘Garden of Eden’
People have lived in these islands for over 150 years and there are now more than 30,000 of them. Yet 90 per cent of the Galapagos is National Park. A few years ago the population was growing fast and more and more tourists were coming. A park management plan has been established and more regulation have comes into effect. Numbers are restricted, there’s a guide-to-visitor ratio, guide accreditation, and smoking and mobile phones are banned for most excursions.

The Galapagos still has that Garden of Eden mood that few animals we encountered showed any fear of humans. In fact, it seemed as if we were completely irrelevant in their lives and they simply ignored us.

Not so the sea lions. The highlight of my fortnight in the islands was snorkeling and diving with these delightful creatures. One swam right up to my face-mask and deliberately blew bubbles in my face. On another occasion I rounded a point to see four young sea lions coming towards me. They were so excited to have company that they were wriggling and squirming upside down through the sand like young puppies. Eventually I had some ten sea lions tumbling and spinning as they followed me – a private troupe of acrobats (or rather, aquabats).

One of the friendly sea lions found on the Galapagos islands

Best time to visit
While there are reasons to visit the islands year round, the busy peak seasons are June-September and December-January. December to June is warm and humid; July to November is windier, cooler and drier. The Humboldt Current keeps the water always cool.

Most diving in the Galapagos is not for the faint hearted. This is the place where warm and cold waters meet and there are very strong currents. Of course the flow transports a lot of nutrients so it's in the more challenging waters that you are likely to find the big rays and hammerhead sharks.

Wildlife galore
No matter how unobservant you are it's hard not to be fascinated by the differences in wildlife between the islands. In some places the marine iguanas are black while in another they are red. Here there are blue-footed boobies nesting on the ground while yesterday we only saw red-footed boobies nesting in trees. Every day was one of discovery – would we find bright flamingoes or more flightless cormorants drying atrophied wings like bedraggled dishrags? Or would we again be forced to slow our walk along a narrow trail to the pace of the waved albatross waddling ahead?

Everywhere we saw frigatebirds, the male of which can inflate a huge red pouch on his breast to apparently double his body size. The number of chicks we saw suggests it's a very effective way of attracting females. Galapagos is Spanish for tortoise but I didn't see any in the wild. The huge and lumbering Galapagos tortoise can weigh up to 250 kilograms and they were killed as food by early sailors and rats from the ships decimated young tortoises. Now only 15,000 tortoises remain and most of these are in the highlands of Santa Cruz. Fortunately there's an active breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station near Puerto Ayora. Lonesome George who lived there was the last tortoise of the sub-species abingdoni. There was a worldwide search for a mate, perhaps forgotten in a zoo somewhere. But it was fruitless so when George died (aged 102) in 2012 so did his line.

See the unique ecosystem and amazing creatures on the island including frigatebirds, sea turtles, iguanas and penguins

It is so easy to become so caught up in the wildlife that you overlook the scenery: the beautiful white sand beaches, the turquoise waters, and the rich tropical vegetation of some areas. I found the flooded crater harbour of Tower Island to be imposing and the beaches and volcanic spire of Bartolome Island are beautiful. The raw black lava beds are divided into two types: the swirling, twisted and smooth pahoehoe lava (from the Hawaiian word for “ropy”) and the jagged and onomatopoeic a-a lava – from the sound that everyone makes as they walk across it.

The Galapagos are little changed since Darwin saw them. They are still Enchanted Isles brimming with strange creatures. Born of fire and developed in isolation it's not a tranquil destination. Rather, what you see and experience here will challenge your perception of who you are.

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