In fact, these famous Ecuadorian islands — which British naturalist Charles Darwin visited 155 years ago to develop his theory of evolution — were chosen as the best destination in Central and South America by Travel+Leisure magazine in its 2016 World’s Best Places to Travel competition.
What’s most significant about this award is that it is selected by that publication’s readers themselves. And on top of that, this past year was the seventh year in a row that the Galapagos archipelago earned this honor – ranking it seventh place among the best islands in the world.
Here we present our own top-10 list of reasons to enjoy these “enchanted islands,” so that you might select them as your own vacation destination in 2015.
1. Still Pristine Islands The Galapagos Islands are one of the most valued and important national parks in the world. (Not everyone knows this, but the archipelago is part of Ecuador, a country located in South America and on the equator. Located at 600 miles (1,000 km.) from mainland Ecuador, the Galapagos are composed of 13 islands and more than 100 islets and minor volcanic islands)
Despite being a tourist destination, the isolation of the islands has allowed them to retain their pristine state. When walking along its trails and beaches, including in the inhabited islands, you feel like you're in a newborn world where the power and generosity of nature is manifest at every turn. This is because only 3% of the archipelago is inhabited, while 97% of the area belongs to the Galapagos National Park.
Adding to this is the fact that the archipelago is home to endemic wildlife such as iguanas, Giant tortoises, Galapagos penguins and variety of species of finches.
2. A Natural Laboratory The Galapagos Islands are considered a natural laboratory for several reasons. One is that — being comprised of volcanic islands of differing ages — they clearly show examples of various stages of the earth’s geological formation. Similarly, varying types of endemic flora thrive on the differing islands, including plants that grow in the middle of lava fields.
However, it’s the diverse and unique wildlife of the archipelago that is the star attraction to the islands. As the animals there have adapted to different climatic environments, in the islands you can find iguanas that have become accustomed to desert climates, sea lions that frolic on the beaches, tropical fish, all kinds of birds, giant tortoises and more. One of the most representative species is the finch, a bird that allowed Darwin to observe the adaptation strategies of this species and then develop his theory of evolution.
One advantage is that the Galapagos Islands offer visitors the opportunity to observe from up close how life on the planet has evolved.
As each island has its own particular species, the Galapagos archipelago is the best place for scientists wanting to learn more about evolution and nature. The Charles Darwin Foundation, along with the Galapagos National Park and other foundations, carry out scientific activities on the islands, always under the banner of conserving nature there.
3. Birdwatching Ecuaodor is a paradise for bird lovers While Ecuador covers only 1.5% of South America, it is home to more than 50% of all species inhabiting the continent. Moreover, 18% of the nearly 9,700 species of birds known in the world live in this tiny country.
In the archipelago can be found 24 endemic species that can be observed from almost an arm’s length, and when armed with a pair of binoculars, tourists can observe precious species that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. Magnificent frigates, Blue-footed boobies, pelicans and even penguins can be seen in the islands. Living there are more than 10 species of Galapagos finches, in addition to Flightless cormorants, albatrosses, herons, three species of boobies, terns and more.
When touring the Galapagos Islands, you need to also look up at the trees, cactuses and the sky, because up above you’ll certainly spot birds that you’ve never seen before.
Note: The best islands for bird watching are Espanola and Genovesa (with this latter one known as La isla de los pajaros, or “Bird Island”).
4. Marine Reserve The Galapagos Islands possesses the world's second largest marine reserve and the first in a developing country. The Galapagos Marine Reserve, created in 1988, is a protected area located 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from mainland Ecuador, and 40 nautical miles from the baseline of the outermost islands. The reserve covers 51,000 square miles (133,000 sq. km.), of which about 27,000 sq. miles (70,000 sq. km.) are inland waters of the archipelago. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this is one of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in the world.
By going to the Galapagos Marine Reserve, it will make you feel like you are in a huge aquarium where life unfolds in special colors and at its own pace. Diving with benign sharks, whales, manta rays, turtles, sea lions and thousands of tropical fish of various sizes and colors is an experience that will leave you speechless.
5. Unique landscapes On the thirteen principal islands of the Ecuadorian archipelago, declared a Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978, one can find all types of unique species coexisting within stunning natural landscapes crowned by erupting volcanoes.
Imagine walking through lava tunnels formed just below the surface of the islands or under the sea. Similarly, try to picture yourself swimming in the turquoise water of caverns in which the sunlight forms mysteriously colored shapes beneath the water. Think of standing on the rim of one of the world’s largest craters or trying to figure how far away one of the closer islands really is. Here, you can marvel at the contrasts of red beaches, turquoise sea, lush green landscapes and rich brown cliffs. Or, you can observe amazing (seemingly impossible) rock formations jutting out of the middle of the ocean. Witness the coexistence of different species in a unique environment and end your day enjoying inspiring sunsets on a sandy beach. This is a small sample of a few of the sights that will surprise you during every moment of a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
6. Beaches Each beach in the Galapagos Islands is amazing. On these long stretches of white sand you’ll find everything from comically shuffling sea lions to prehistoric iguanas that are more than content to simply bask in the sun. Many beaches are oases in which you can submerge in their water as if in a giant outdoor swimming pool. In addition, while walking through these spots you’ll feel the immense power of the sea and its relaxing breezes.
Some of the beaches you just can’t miss are found in the following locations:
Tortuga Bay: Located in the archipelago’s southwestern of the town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, here you’ll discover a beautiful white-sand beach that is home to sea turtles, iguanas, pelicans, seagulls and flamingos. Getting here is an hour's walk from Puerto Ayora following a well-signed road that is easy to travel. For many people this is the most beautiful Galapagos beach – one that’s perfect for swimming, surfing and watching the sun set.
Gardner Bay: The beach here is known for its population of playful sea lions calmly stretching out in the sand to sunbathe. This is a great place for snorkeling and an ideal locale for admiring dive-bombing pelicans, brilliantly colored tropical fish, and sleepy Galapagos reef sharks.
Conway Bay: Located on Santa Cruz Island, on this bay’s Bachas Beach one can also observe colonies of sea lions as well as groups of land iguanas from close up. Though not very well known, this beach is located on the northeastern coast of Santa Cruz Island. Meaning “barge,” this beach is another good place for spotting migratory birds, sea turtles and flamingos. Its crystal clear waters invite you in for a dip and some sunbathing.
7. Highlands The beaches of the Galapagos Islands are not the only magical spectacles. The highland areas of each island have their own magic. In these zones you can find the volcanic craters of the islands, many located in volcanic depressions. On Isabela Island, for example, you walk up and peer inside the crater of the Sierra Negra Volcano, the world's second largest shield crater. You’ll also notice lakes like El Junco, in San Cristobal, and solidified lava tunnels in Santa Cruz. From the highlands, it’s even possible to see the nearby islands across the straits.
These are a few of the highlands that you can’t afford to miss:
The Highlands of San Cristobal Island: On San Cristobal Island — the location of the provincial capital of the Galapagos Islands, the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno — in the highlands you will find Lake El Junco at an altitude of 700 meters above sea level. The archipelago's largest freshwater lake, it has a depth of six meters and a diameter of 300 meters. Located in the mountains on the south of the island, Lake El Junco is surrounded by ferns, making it great for a scenic stroll. On a clear day, the view of the lake is nothing less than spectacular. Here one can see Darwin's finches, gulls and boobies. Before reaching the lake, you can stop at the Galapaguera Tortoise Breeding Center, where you can come to appreciate the growth process of the famous Galapagos giant tortoises.
Santa Cruz Island: The highlands of Santa Cruz Island offer are a host of fascinating sights. For example, you can visit Los Gemelos (“The Twins”), two mountainous depressions surrounded by abundant escalesia-tree vegetation. Undoubtedly you’ll sight some Short-eared owls and Darwin's finches. And near the towns of Santa Rosa and Bellavista you will come upon solidified lava tunnels. Plus, nearby is the El Chato reserve, where you can see humongous Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat. The highest point of the island is the Croker or Puntudo Hill, rising a half mile (860 meters) above sea level. This is where you’ll come across several species of birds and miconia forests. On a clear day in the of Santa Cruz highlands, you can even see some of the nearby islands.
The Highlands of Isabela Island: The largest island in the archipelago, Isabela Island has a grand total of six volcanoes. Its Sierra Negra Volcano is the highest but most accessible. From there, the more adventurous can trek for an hour to the Chico Volcano and be astounded by the petrified lava cones along the way. Inside the volcanoes themselves are their own worlds of lush vegetation and varieties of birds. Note that access is restricted to the other volcanoes on the island.
8. Climate Galapagos has great weather year round, so these islands can be visited at any time. From December to May is the warmest season; this is when the sky is clear and the sun beams down the strongest. But, if you’re looking to scuba dive in some amazing places, the best time to visit the Galapagos Islands is between June and November. The weather might be a bit cool during these months, but this is when you can enjoy the best of the islands’ famous marine reserve.
The two seasons in the Galapagos Islands clearly mark the beginning and end of the reproduction of many species. There is a transition period between the hot season and the dry season (April to June), followed by a transition period between the dry and hot season (November to January).
These are six months of the year in which the climate of the Galapagos Islands is conducive to a mixture of natural events that occur at the same time. Some of the happenings that you can witness in these transitional seasons are:
But during all seasons of the year, it’s possible to tour the islands and enjoy their unique natural events.
9. Surfing Its well-formed waves and pleasant year-round temperatures make the Galapagos one of the best destinations for surfing. San Cristobal Island is perfect for this sport, with its Tongo Reef and Carola Point, though other islands such as Santa Cruz and Isabela aren’t far behind.
10. Diving Because of the great diversity of marine life and underwater geological formations that can be found in the marine reserve, scuba diving is one of the principal activities in the Galapagos Islands. There are even several cruise ships exclusively for diving, and on these one can go diving four to five times daily in different parts of the archipelago to discover all its richness. Likewise, for those people who want to learn to dive, courses are available on the inhabited islands.