Previous Article WWWiz Home Next Article



Visiting Darwin's Evolutionary Laboratory: The Galapagos Islands

by Rita Cook (

Visiting the Galapagos Islands is an adventure that includes breathtaking views and a chance to experience a world lost in time.  From the moment Charles Darwin wrote about the Galapagos Archipelago, people have been both mystified and eager to visit the islands often called the ``Laboratory of Evolution."  There aren't many places in the world where it is possible to find such a variety of species, plant and animal, with so many degrees of evolutionary changes.

Nowadays, there's a Charles Darwin Research Center where you can find all kinds of information about his discoveries as well as current happenings on the islands.

Located on one of the most active volcanic regions on earth, Galapagos consists of 13 large islands, six smaller islands and 40 islets.  The Galapagos are secluded; the closest country, of which Galapagos has been a part of since 1832, is Ecuador–600 miles away.  From space it is especially easy to see Galapagos' seclusion.

Various forms of wildlife are dominant on the islands: the fur seal, sea lion, marine iguana, lava lizard, giant tortoise, Galapagos penguin, blue-footed booby, flightless cormorant and flamingo. 

Galapagos was made a national park in 1959 and since then hiking groups have been limited to no more than 15 at a time. All groups must be led by a certified naturalist guide from the Galapagos National Park Service. Many of the islands you'll visit are uninhabited and you'll have to take a small boat to get there, usually furnished by the tour you have chosen to take.

            Most visitors fly into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno Airport located on San Cristobal Island.  From there the visitor either picks up a tour, yacht or cruise. There are many types of tours or cruises–popular ones usually revolve around ecotourism.

            Half of San Cristobal Island has been inhabited since 1860.  There are diverse trails to hike here and the inhabited part of the island is full of lush vegetation.  The other half is flat and dry and not the best hiking choice.

            San Cristobal also has a wonderful Interpretation Center with guided or self-guided tours. Don't miss Kicker Rock; it's a rocky islet off the west coast of the island and a nesting place for different species of sea birds.

I flew into Guayaquil, Ecuador, and spent the night in the city's Oro Verde Hotel.

The next morning I flew into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno Airport, about a two-hour flight on San/Saeta Airlines, on a large airplane that flies to and from Galapagos several times a week.  From there I was whisked away to the Galapagos Explorer II.  It was here that I would sleep, eat and explore the Galapagos Archipelago with a naturalist who had grown up on the islands.

Wake-up calls came early, but with two expeditions a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, there was no time to sleep the day away. 

The Galapagos Explorer II was built in Italy in 1990 and it's the newest and most elegant of vessels that cruise the waters off the islands.  With accommodations that hold up to 100 passengers in 52 suites, the ship is designed for comfort and also for scientific research.

The suites are all air-conditioned and elegant.  The bathrooms are a nice size and the rooms have televisions, VCRs, refrigerators and full-length wardrobes.

The Galapagos Explorer II is a cruise ship, but it's adapted for ecotourism and the guide on board gives lectures pertaining to the daily shore excursions, also giving brief details of the history of the islands.

It didn't take long to settle in and that's when the fun began in Galapagos. There are two types of shore excursions, the wet landing and the dry landing.  The ship is never able to get very close the islands so groups are taken ashore aboard a smaller boat.  A wet landing means you might have to wade in water up to your knees to get to the island.  It's definitely worth it once you arrive. Various other islands tours are also available if a cruise ship is not to your liking.

Here's a closer look at some of the islands:

 ·        Santa Cruz Island is inhabited by the giant tortoises that Galapagos is well known for. Santa Cruz is the second largest island of the archipelago, colonized since 1920 and there are several hotels you can stay in while on the island, The Red Mangrove and Hotel Delfin.  The island includes all forms of life ranging from coastal to pampa.  Hiking in the highlands is easy and there are lava tunnels equally easy to hike, but over rough terrain.

 ·        Bartolome is a tiny, uninhabited island with the most spectacular view of the archipelago.  The island is located near the west coast of Santiago. Arriving at Bartolome is a wet landing.  The climb to the top of the island is 114 meters, looking out over green grass, arid rocks and the endless ocean.  This hike is rigorous.  There's an easier hike with a trail that will take about 1½ hours to complete.  There's also swimming, snorkeling and diving from the island.

 ·        Rabida Island requires a wet landing and the hiking trails are easy.  Rabida is a small island covered by dry and coastal vegetation.  The island contains a large variety of lava types that are red in color.  Don't miss the occasional flamingo sightings near the salt-water lagoon.  There's also snorkeling, swimming and diving and the hiking trail takes about 30 minutes to explore.

 ·        James Island, a wet landing, is the fourth largest island of the Galapagos.  An extinct volcano rises out of the ground offering wonderful views from both easy and moderate hiking trails.  Coastal and humid vegetation zones are represented here and both feral goats and fur seals can be found on the island.   The hiking trail to the fur seals is a 30-minute walk from the water.  Again there is swimming, snorkeling and diving from the island.

·        Fernandino Island features a very active volcano.  It's one of the most untarnished islands with small pockets of vegetation that haven't been affected by lava.  The arid island is home a large community of marine iguanas.  You'll also find sea lions and flightless cormorants here.  The hike at Punta Espinosa, the only part of the island open to visitors, is easy and takes about 1½ hours.

 ·        Five volcanoes came together formed Isabela Island, the largest of the Galapagos. The southern tip is inhabited and the northwest coast is a whale sanctuary.  Tagus Cove was once a favorite among pirates and whalers and graffiti representing names of the ships that sailed into the cove can be seen on many cliff walls.  It's a moderate hike to Darwin Lake, but the landscape and vegetation are scenic and worth the two-hour trip. This island offers snorkeling, diving and there's even a dinghy ride.

 ·        Espanola or Hood Island is a flat island that features some of the oldest rocks from the archipelago.  The vegetation on the island is arid with some transition zones.

 ·        Charles Island offers an easy hike of about 20 minutes and some swimming.  At Devil's Crown there's snorkeling and diving.  Parasitic cones dominate Charles Island.  This island was the first one inhabited by people and it is still populated.  It's also one of the few Galapagos Islands where you'll find flamingos.

 Interestingly, none of the flora or the fauna on the islands is native to the land.  Galapagos was originally a group of volcanoes that peeked above the ocean's surface some three to five million years ago; the islands were originally devoid of life.  There is speculation that birds and aquatic creatures might have ended up on Galapagos after being displaced from their migratory routes, over the years making Galapagos their new home and adapting to survive on the islands. Man arrived on Galapagos in the 1600s introducing goats, cats, pigs, rats and other animals that in some cases went wild and became feral populations.    

 The weather on Galapagos is nice year round.  Relatively cold waters that are brought northward by the Humboldt Current surround the islands.  There are two seasons on the islands; the warm and wet season from January to June and the cool and dry season from July to December. During the cool and dry season water temperature is about 71 degrees; it's 77 in the warm and wet season.  The temperature is usually pleasant, but the warm and wet season can be very humid.

Prices on trips to Galapagos vary depending on the cruise you choose and the number of days you stay.  At the high end, the Explorer (which includes food, accommodations, park entry fee, excursions to the islands, etc.) costs $2,800 for seven days; this also includes roundtrip airfare from Quito, Ecuador, to San Cristobal.

From the United States you can fly Continental Airlines or fly an Ecuadorian airline, and depending on the time of year, specials abound.  One more note:  there's an airport departure tax in Ecuador of US$25.

Overall, a trip to Galapagos is both educational and fun.  At every turn you'll hear people from all walks of life talk about the Galapagos Islands and how Charles Darwin formulated his theory of natural selection while studying them.  But you can also go and just enjoy a quiet, small place on Earth where you know that everything is at peace and in its proper ecological order.  Animals are as interested in studying humans, and they're not afraid to come up to you.

Rita Cook is a freelance travel and entertainment writer, as well as the freelance editorial director of ``Insider" magazine.  She lives in Los Angeles and her most recent project, besides traveling, was producing a feature-length mockumentary called ``Marty & Virginia."



Copyright (C) 1998 WWWiz Corporation - All Rights Reserved
Phone: 714.848.9600 FAX: 714.375.2493
WWWiz Web site developed and maintained by
GRAFX Digital Studio

Previous Article Next Article
WWWiz Home