Making Darwin Blush: Sailing the Galapagos Islands
The 13 major volcanic islands that comprise the Galapagos archipelago, 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, lays claim to one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. It houses a diverse array of animals, from the blue-footed booby and the flightless cormorant to the waved albatross, the sea lion, and the fur seal. This is the world that led Darwin to his revolutionary theory of natural selection, and it still attracts adventurous travelers and animal aficionados the world over. You can reach this natural menagerie via airplane or aboard a cargo ship, but once on the archipelago, the best way to experience the full breadth of the Galapagos is by boat, which will let you travel from island to island, traversing short distance across the water during lunch, and longer gaps across the Pacific while you sleep.
Of all the islands, Santa Cruz is the most popular and centrally located. It also supports the largest human population of the five inhabited islands, with some 4,000 residents distributed between the coastal town of Peurto Ayora and the highland cattle-farming communities. To the east sits the Charles Darwin Research Station, where visitors can meet Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises and the Galapagos' century-old celebrity. Hike or hop a bus to the Tortoise Reserve on the eastern half of the island and you can observe some of the nine other remaining races of giant tortoises in their natural habitat.
Approximately 50 miles south of Santa Cruz lies Española, a relatively isolated island housing endemic species such as the hood mockingbird, the lava lizard, and some of the largest marine iguanas in the Galapagos. The western tip of the island, Punta Suarez, is a favorite for birdwatchers, housing three species of endemic Darwin finch and, between March and December, the entire world population of waved albatross. Espanola's eastern shore is also home to a transient colony of sea lions, nesting marine turtles, and the archipelago's longest beach, a popular snorkeling spot.
The lesser-known and largest island, Isabela, is almost undiscovered by tourism. Its human inhabitants are completely isolated and live ultra-simple lives without newspapers or supermarkets. The island is also home to five active volcanoes, including Santo Tomas to the south, where visitors can climb or ride horseback around the rim.
In short, there are loads of things to do, and a boat is the best way to do it. These kind of trips vary greatly, from small-scale, budget yacht charters to luxury cruise ships. When starting your research, first decide on what type of experience you want. A quasi cruise-ship vibe? A luxe yacht with a captain and a private chef? A no-frills schooner that's easy to pilot? Anything's possible. Ship classification is far from set in stone, though three levels of class are usually the standard, one being economy, three encompassing all the luxury trimmings. The basic components of all yacht charters are food, guides, and accommodations and amenities. Food quality and a guide's skill level and language ability increase the more you spend. Likewise, accommodations (and such added attractions as hot water and an A/C) raise the costs as you ascend the economic ladder. But remember, you'll spend most of your time either on the islands, in the water, or on the deck, so a cramped room may be a tolerable hardship while you're at sea. Regardless, always go with an established outfitter, particularly ones that have been in the biz for a number of years. Ecoventura's Sky Dancer (www.ecoventura.com, 305-262-6264) offers an eight-day, 24-person live-aboard luxury cruise with comfortable accommodations, top-quality food, and a flexible itinerary with up to four dives per day at under $3,000.
And don't be afraid to ask any potential outfitters for referencesmost reputable operators won't hesitate to rattle off a long list of satisfied customers, and that's always a good sign. Additionally, inquire exactly what is included in the price, as most "complete" packages do not include roundtrip airfare to Ecuador, or the transfer from Quito to Baltra or San Cristobal, where you'll likely board your boat. Expect to pay an additional $100 entrance feecash onlyto the Galapagos National Park, plus insurance and tips.
Another option is to book a cruise with a local operator either in the capital Quito, or Guayaquil, where most of the booking offices will speak good English. Prices are often cheaper this way, but your options and departure dates may be less varied.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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