About ten million years ago, volcanic activity created a few specks of land 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador. This tiny, remote set of islands developed a unique ecosystem as animals drifted in on air and water currents and adapted over thousands of years to their isolated new home. The result is a set of species that is not seen anywhere else in the world.??The Galapagos Islands were made famous by Charles Darwin, who came upon them by accident, studied the unique characteristics of the animals, and published his theory of evolution, thereby changing biology and science forever. These days, the islands are a UNESCO Heritage Site and bustling tourist destination, since it is the only place in the world where you can see the giant Galapagos tortoise, the Galapagos penguin or Darwin finches.
There are a few things you will want to know about these culturally significant, rocky little islands. Firstly, they are not a tropical paradise. The islands features fascinating volcanic landscapes, but very little vegetation making them a bit desolate for those who were expecting lush and verdant jungles. Secondly, there are about 30 000 people living on the islands, and that population continues to expand. This is thanks mostly to the tourism industry, but you will find a remarkable (and possibly unexpected) amount of development. Hotels and resorts have sprung up on some of the islands, however most of the land remains dedicated to wildlife.
Keep in mind, when planning your Galapagos tour, that you will mostly get what you pay for. There are several low-cost tours available – especially by boat – and the quality varies greatly between tour type. Economy and tourist boats will indefinitely have you in cramped (sometimes shared) quarters and bathrooms with low quality food and untrained guides. One first-class and luxury trips you will have private quarters, air conditioning, hot water (not guaranteed on lower cost boats) and high quality food and guides. Think about the size of boat you want to travel on – large boats mean that all passengers will be up on deck struggling to see the pack of sealions on shore. Smaller boats offer a little more elbow room.
One benefit of the tourism industry is that it has provided the infrastructure to allow visitors to swim with sealions – the puppy dogs of the Galapagos – and snorkeling with fish and sharks. There are opportunities to get up close and personal with the namesake giant tortoises of the island, explore colonies of birds and experience the only place on earth where animals have no fear of humans. There are even a few picturesque beaches on the islands to relax on, or you can take a walk to one of the volcanic peaks for a glimpse into how the islands were formed.