This is where Charles Darwin found lots of inspiration for his evolution theory. Darwin placed these remarkable volcanic islands firmly on the map.

The remote Galápagos Islands helped Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution. A living zoo with dozens of exceptional species. Where as recent as 2009 a new species of iguana was discovered. This is a place where the animals have no fear of people, simply because they were never hunted by man. However, indirectly people caused many great problems. When they arrived, they brought household pets and rats with them, which soon became a plague. And now man needs to give evolution a hand.

The name derives from the name the Spaniards. Galápagos means saddle, they were amazed by the giant tortoises who walked here. The Galápagos consist of thirteen volcanic islands, 960 kilometers east of South America. Officially they belong to Ecuador.

The islands are about 8.000 km2 in size altogether. The island Isabela takes up more then half. This island has the highest volcano of the islands, the Cerro Azul with a height of 1,689 meters. It is the symbol of volcanic activity here. It’s a magic place where you are a guest in a strange, but amazing world.

The famous Darwin finches. Corno van den Berg

The islands are so remote that the animals living here adapted to the local circumstances. The Darwin finches, a family of birds of the same kind, named after the English scientist Charles Darwin. He came here on the research vessel ‘Beagle’ in September 1835 and examined the geology and biology of four of the islands for about five months.

During his visit he saw the many black birds and he noticed they looked very much alike, yet still were different from each other. One would have a smaller bill, while another would have a very narrow bill; one bird would be small, while others would be big in comparison; upon further study he saw one would look for seeds on the ground, while another would look for insects in a tree.

Following his research, Darwin concluded this had to have developed for centuries to turn out like this. The location of the islands offered little other alternatives. The strongest, being the one that was most able to adapt, would survive and provide offspring. This is how new species came to be and the theory of evolution was born, at least in Darwin’s mind. It would take more than a century for his body of thought to be generally embraced.

The Galápagos cormorant is probably the best evidence to support Darwin’s theory of evolution. This species that is unique to this place, long ago lost its ability to fly. The wings are little stumps with disheveled feathers. However, these waters, fed by the Cold Gulfstream, contain so much fish, the bird doesn’t need to fly and there also are no predators here it needs to flee from.

Sea lions on the beach.

Despite the islands being in a remote location, man’s hand is apparent here. Although no traces of humans were found from before the 16th century. Historians argue about a lot here. Like who was the first white man to set foot on these islands. According to stories this could have been the Spanish bishop Fray Tomas de Berlanga, who discovered the islands in 1535. It was pure coincidence, as he drifted off course in bad weather.

The islands remained unknown for a long time, mainly due to their location. It was only known to sea pirates who used the Galápagos as a refuge base in the 17th and 18th century. They took the tortoises they found here with them as live provisions. Whalers also lived here, until Ecuador annexed the islands in 1832. After this, Galápagos was slowly colonized. The colonists arrived here with goats, pigs, dogs, cats and horses in their wake. And rats. Some of the house pets turned into wild animals, disturbing the balance of nature.

Like the uninhabited island Santiago, where at the end of the 1990s, more than 100,000 goats, donkeys and pigs were running around. They had once been brought there for their meat and milk. They gradually grew to be a real plague, among other things, because they were eating the endemic plants. Other islands are inhabited by wild dogs, cats and even horses. It caused various subspecies of the world famous giant tortoises, the slow motion calling card of the Galápagos, to become extinct.

A Northern Gannet. Corno van den Berg

Scientists have calculated that the arrival of man (up to now) has done in five percent of all animals and plants, causing a love-hate relationship between human and animals on Galápagos. Now mankind has to intervene more and more to lend evolution a hand, so that the islands and its inhabitants may survive. Nevertheless, a lot of the riches of the islands still remain and can be seen up close, because the animals here are still not afraid of their greatest enemy.

Many tourists overlook the flora of the islands, while this is equally as extraordinary as the animals. The islands are very dry, so it’s not easy for trees and plants. In many places, the volcanic soil makes it possible for only specialized plants to maintain themselves here. A large part of coastline is covered with mangroves, but inland is mostly empty. There are some high places with dense broadleaf forests, especially on the bigger islands. In several locations you will also see cactus forests.

On Galápagos you can look for various species of cactus (opuntia cactus, lava cactus and candelabra cactus), mangrove (red, black, white and button mangrove) and a family of plants that goes by the name of ‘scalesia’, which scientists consider to perhaps be the best evidence for evolution. This plant adjusts itself strongly to the conditions. Many islands also have red ice plants.

A typical Galápagos scene. Corno van den Berg

The Galápagos is in fact a hotspot. Underneath the earth’s crust there is an extremely hot spot, which the crust slowly slides over. When the pressure becomes too high, there is a volcanic eruption. Most of the time, this will be small, sometimes it can be a large eruption. Following tens of thousands of years of flowing lava and eruptions, this will result into new islands in the sea and after a greater time-span (think of millions of years) there will be a chain of islands.

As the tectonic plates continue to slide, the oldest, lowest and smallest islands now form the eastern side of the archipelago. According to scientists, most of the islands are no older than five million years. The largest, youngest and (even now) volcanically active islands lie to the west.

Must-do! tips:
Volunteer to help the Galápagos tortoise
They are the status symbol of the Galápagos Islands. And you can work with these impressive animals as a volunteer. At the Tortoise Breeding Center on Isabela Island you can assist with measuring and weighing young animals. You can feed them and document their behaviour. You will also learn a lot about the other animals that live on these islands and about the challenges they face.
More information: www.realgap.co.uk/galapagos

See Darwin’s theory of evolution in action
Darwin’s finches are seen regularly here and they are almost never alone. Most of the time, you will see various species together, which will enable you to clearly see the differences of their beaks. If you take the time, you will notice a difference in their feeding pattern as well. Charles Darwin also noticed this; it helped him to develop his famous theory of evolution.

Try to get a close-up photo
Many animals on the Galápagos Islands are excellent to get close-ups of. They don’t mind the tourists, only if you get to close. So you can sit down, relax and study sea lions as they go about their daily life. Or maybe marine iguanas. And particularly boobies (species of birds), as they frolic around each other. This is the moment to get a close-up of these animals.
More information: www.bythom.com/Galapagos.htm

Watch pelicans and boobies dive into the sea
This is a remarkable scene: dozens of birds, diving into the water like torpedoes, in order to catch fish. Particularly boobies (but also pelicans) are known for the way they drop themselves from dozens of meters up, only to draw in their wings at the last moment and shoot into the water at high speeds to quickly snatch a fish in their beaks. So focus on the sky and watch the flocks of birds, because they will dive down in rapid succession to confuse the fish. A well-known spot for this is North Seymour.

Snorkel with sharks
Bartholomé Island has various sandy beaches with a unique feature. The isthmus between the beaches in the central part is only a hundred meters. However, at one beach you can go snorkeling, while at the other it is extremely dangerous. Because of the sharks.

With a bit of luck, you may see dozens of sharks (or at least their fins) as they hunt for fish. After witnessing this, you will need to take a deep breath, before you go into the water at the other beach to go snorkeling.

Dive into the unique marine life
For scuba-divers, the Galápagos Islands are one of the hotspots in the world, only more so for the experienced divers, rather than for rookies. There are many locations, all with their own special features. Think of sea iguanas, sea lions, green sea turtles, whiptail stingrays, coral, whale sharks, cave-diving, night-diving, etc.

The best time is from December until March, visibility will decrease after that. The average water temperature lies between 18 and 24 degrees. A 7 mm wetsuit with cap is recommended, while diving gloves are by no means an unnecessary luxury here. The underwater landscape is rocky and contains many sea acorns.

Enjoy the funny marine iguanas
Marine iguanas are extraordinary animals. These are the only iguanas that swim and they do so in salt water, for that matter. If you encounter these animals, you will probably hear a weird sneezing sound. They literally sneeze the salt water out of their noses. They are extremely photogenic and they have no fear. Take your time to view these lovely creatures, this is the only place in the world where you will see them.

Discover the Galápagos penguin
The Galápagos penguin is perhaps the most exceptional penguin in the world. It is the only species of penguin that lives in the tropics. They got used to the warm climate at the Galápagos Islands and survive on the abundance of food in the sea. The best place to see them is at Isabela Island, but they are also found at Fernandina and Santa Cruz. A remarkable encounter.

Best time:
The Galápagos Islands can be visited all year long. It all depends on what you wish to do. For snorkeling and diving, the perfect time is the end of January, all of February and March. In these months, the sea is relatively quiet and the view is good. Therefore, this is the best time to go snorkeling with sea lions, sea iguanas and even penguins, if you’re lucky. The water temperature varies from 20 to 24 degrees Celsius.

The busiest (and most expensive) time is in July and August. Temperatures are still above 15 degrees then, but the wind causes the seas to be rough.

It is overcast quite often as well.

September is the real low season, when it is relatively cold and most of the time you will encounter ‘rugged’ seas. There will also be less tours on offer.

Be aware!
A cruise is the best way to explore the Galápagos Islands. You sail from one island to the other and sleep on board. From the various hotels it is also possible to make all sorts of trips. The downside is that you have to travel to a certain location every time, so you will not be able to visit all the places. Keep in mind that small boats do not sail as fast, while larger boats are not able (or not allowed) to dock everywhere.

For the Galápagos Islands, tourists are required to purchase an admission ticket on the spot. This must be paid in US dollars.

How do I get there?
There are various direct flights to the Galápagos Islands from Ecuador out of Quito (1,5 hours) and Guayaquil (1 hour) and from Lima in Peru (1,5 hours).

More information: www.farecompare.com/flights/Galapagos_Islands-GPS/city.html#quote