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Your guide in the Galapagos Islands is called Darwin

Sign up for one of the cruises that take in the planet's least spoilt archipelago, and spend a few days of Darwin's bicentenary year in the ecosystem that served as 'laboratory' for the great English naturalist.

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The cataclysmic geography bears no resemblance to the picture-postcard islands one expects to find in the tropics. The Galapagos Islands are not known for luxury hotels and spas for hedonists, and yet they are one of the most exclusive destinations on the planet. The reason is their isolation and their location - almost a thousand miles off the coast of Ecuador at a point where major ocean currents cross - which have, over millions of years, led to the creation of a unique combination of terrestrial and ocean ecosystems. Here, as Darwin was the first to observe, many species have evolved differently, with notable differences even between different islands of the archipelago.

In 1835, the English naturalist landed, aboard the Beagle, on this volcanic archipelago lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and frequented only by pirates and whalers. He spent barely five weeks in the Galapagos Islands, but it was time enough to complete his then revolutionary theory of evolution, and to reopen debate among the scientific community about the need for animals and plants to adapt to their habitat as the only chance of survival.

The Galapagos Islands are totally unique and, although a few warning voices insist that still more steps should be taken to protect them from the dangerous effects of human presence, today 97% of the territory is considered National Park. The archipelago was also awarded the title of World Heritage Site in 1979, and was named as a Biosphere Reserve in 1985.

There are fourteen large islands, six smaller islands and some forty islets surrounded by a Marine Reserve of 138,000 square kilometres. The main access is by cruise ships carrying, at most, a hundred passengers. Aboard these, and during the occasional excursions onto land, the absolute highlight of the trip is the privilege of admiring the abundant and unique wildlife: the land and marine iguanas that are capable of diving underwater for up to an hour, the giant tortoises, penguins and sea lions, as well as vast colonies of frigate birds, albatross, gannets, the thirteen endemic species of finch, and the only cormorant in the world that has lost the ability to fly because of the process of evolution.

The blue-footed booby, one of the most coveted sightings by bird enthusiasts, is also found here, as well as an incredible variety of marine life, with hammerhead sharks, the huge whale shark and many other species including many pelagic species (those native to the open ocean) that make the Galapagos a mecca for divers. Almost as surprising as the apparently unending inventory of fauna, is seeing how the Galapagos animals don't view man as a danger and so behave in his presence with the most incredible ease.

In this year that marks Darwin's bicentenary and the 150th anniversary of his seminal work, The Origin of Species, the archipelago is hosting a handful of special cruises. Among these is the expedition, led by conservationist Randal Kenya, great-grandson of Darwin, which, from October 22nd to November 1st, will explore these Pacific lunar landscapes accompanied by just fifty fortunate visitors, each of whom, in addition to the cost of the cruise, will donate $1,000 to the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos Conservation Trust, to support the on-going preservation of this, the world's best preserved archipelago.

Getting There:
Iberia flies to Quito and Guayaquil at certain times of year. From both these cities there are daily flights to the Galapagos with Tame or Aerogal. Nuba, the agency specialising in exclusive breaks, suggests an eight-day cruise around the archipelago in the company of an experienced naturalist guide. These include such delights as crossing the Los Gemelos craters, visiting the turtle farm at Primicias and the Charles Darwin Research Laboratory, as well as the chance to scuba dive at Gordon Rocks, walking or snorkeling near the playgrounds of sea lions, iguanas and giant tortoises, and the nesting sites of huge colonies of seabirds. The price of the trip, including the flight from Quito, one night in a hotel in Quito and a week's cruise (full board), starts from around £2750 excluding international airfare.

The Darwin Year Cruise

The most spectacular cruise planned for this year, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, will be that of the MV Eclipse, from October 22nd to November 1st. The Eclipse is a luxury vessel operated by the prestigious Sanctuary Retreats company. It offers naturalist-guided cruises in the Galapagos year round. This particular week, though, the expedition will be headed by conservationist Randal Keynes, great-grandson of Darwin himself. In addition to talks given by Keynes and other experts, the 48 guests on-board the Eclipse will enjoy a private visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station and other unique activities, including a reception at the British Embassy during their stay in Quito. The price of the week on-board, with all meals and activities included, starts at about £3,760, excluding flights and the donation - $1,000 - that each passenger will make to the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos Conservation Trust.

Where to stay:
The most usual - and the most recommended - way of visiting the Galapagos Islands is on a cruise, where all nights are spent aboard the ship. However, if you want to extend your stay in a hotel, the Royal Palm, an exclusive five-star hotel with only 8 rooms, 3 suites and 10 villas, promises top quality service coupled with scrupulous respect for the environment.

More information:
Ecuador Tourist Office and the Galapagos National Park website.

Don't miss:
Scuba diving in the Galapagos, where the seabed is among the most spectacular on the planet. Combine the days spent in the archipelago with two other settings in mainland Ecuador, the Amazon and the Andes. Here, small gems such as Hacienda Zuleta, owned by former President Galo Plaza Lasso and a perfect base for horse riding, exploring the legacy of pre-Inca cultures and an ample selection of native markets show an almost untouched and little known face of this exotic country.

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