“Amazing,” “breathtaking,” “incredible”—how often do tour operators and guidebooks use these words to entice us to book a vacation? And how often does the sight actually take your breath away or defy belief?
The Galápagos, however, is one place on earth that lives up to and surpasses expectations, and for which there are insufficient superlatives. It’s unquestionably the best place in the world for wildlife watching, both on land and in the water, not least because in this archipelago, the wildlife watches you as much as you watch them.
If you imagine Eden to be a place where creatures live and play together in perfect harmony, then the Galápagos is as close as you can get. It is not uncommon to see sea lions and iguanas sunbathing side by side on the beach while penguins, stingrays, and turtles swim together offshore.
There’s no fear because there’s no need for it in an archipelago with few natural predators. The only timid species seem to be the fish, the food supply for so many.
Every other species on the islands is at worst unconcerned by your presence—nonchalant marine turtles, sunbathing iguanas, and plodding giant tortoises—and at best they seem intent on communicating. Try a staring contest with a blue-footed booby and, my personal favorite, an impromptu game of peekaboo with sea lion pups, who delight in swimming with humans.
The Galápagos is also heaven for bird-watchers. Here you don’t need to get up at dawn and wait with binoculars for a glimpse of birdlife in the trees. Instead, the birds proudly display themselves—from the male frigates inflating their red chests to the size of a basketball to the boobies gazing at you as you shuffle past them on the paths, so close you could pat them on the head, to the albatross’ circular clacking dance and pelicans dive-bombing the oceans and gulping down lunch.
It’s hard to know which way to turn, and you may wish that we humans had evolved with eyes in the backs of our heads. You’ll struggle to find disappointed visitors to the Galápagos.
The truth is that a visit to these islands does change you, just like it changed the great Charles Darwin, who was inspired to formulate his monumental theory of evolution after visiting. The Galápagos are both a glimpse of what life was like before human beings started throwing their clumsy weight around, and also a timely reminder that we continue to seek out perfection and do our best to mess it up.
Evidence on the Galápagos of human folly is everywhere—the number of endemic species either hunted or driven to near extinction by introduced species is alarming, but equally, the painstaking efforts of conservationists and scientists to restore the balance of the archipelago’s ecosystem are inspiring. You will likely return from the Galápagos slightly different—filled with a sense of wonder and with a clearer view of the fragile beauty of nature.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition