When it comes to a "Bucket List" destination, the Galapagos Islands is at or near the top for many travelers.
No wonder. After a week's journey to the archipelago of 19 islands 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador, one comes away awestruck by the variety of fish, fowl, mammals and reptiles found on its land, and in the air and water there, and by the pristine visages of nature.
To start the trip, we first flew to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The small, dated airport in Quito is about 15 minutes from downtown. A new, multimillion-dollar airport is nearing completion and is expected to be operating by the end of this year. (The bad news is that there is only a two-lane road that reaches it, and we were told that it will take upward of 2˝ hours to get to the new airport, a situation expected to last for several years, until a new road is completed.)
It was in June 1831 that Charles Darwin, then 22, set sail aboard the H.M.S. Beagle from England on a surveying mission that would last nearly five years. Darwin had begun his studies as a medical student, then became a divinity student at Cambridge. He later became interested in geology and biology. The Beagle spent five weeks in the Galapagos, with Darwin making detailed observations about the geology and biology of the islands.
Darwin's great contribution to science was developing a theory on how and why evolution occurred – what he called "natural selection." The premise of natural selection is that those individuals born with characteristics that make them best-suited for their environment are the most likely to survive and to produce offspring. His book, "The Origin of the Species," was published in 1859 and caused an immediate sensation. (He had earlier published his journals from the trip in "The Voyage of the Beagle.")
Our group flew from Quito to Baltra in the Galapagos. The airport in Baltra was used as a U.S. military outpost protecting the Panama Canal during World War II.
Our vessel for our exploration was a 90-passenger ship, certainly not one of the behemoths that ply the oceans and seas of the cruise world, but not tiny. Unlike other cruises, our ship was not the destination. There were no huge shopping areas, no casinos, no pools, no disco, no nightly Broadway shows, no children's activities and no arcades.
Instead, there were walks on shore during the morning and afternoon, a talk at night before dinner to preview the next day, dinner and time for a drink or sleep. No one on board came to play bingo. The walks are described as easy or hard, and last from 90 minutes to 2 1/2 hours.
The ship would anchor off each island and Zodiacs (rubber boats with high-powered motors), would ferry us to the islands. Sometimes there were "wet landings" during which we were dropped off into shallow water and waded to shore; at other times there were crude cement steps to make the way smoother.
Each group of 16 hikers was accompanied by a guide and naturalist, who would rotate among the groups.
Because travel to the Galapagos is heavily regulated, the wildlife have no fear of humans. On our first day, we arrived on a beach filled with sea lions. We were told not to touch them, for if a baby were touched and the mother picked up the scent, the mother would reject the baby.
The islands are a photographer's paradise. I took close to 1,300 pictures. Perhaps the most unusual came when I was setting up my camera and tripod. A fly catcher saw its reflection in the lens (we think) and set itself down on the lens shade to check itself out. I managed to pull out my point-and-shoot backup camera and got what turned out to be the "Picture of the Week." The naturalist said he had never seen such a thing.
I was not much of a bird-watcher before this trip, but that changed. We had the opportunity to see pelicans and frigate birds up close and in the wild. There also were Galapagos penguins, the only type of wild penguin to live north of the equator.
The walks on the islands could be challenging. On our second day, I signed up for the difficult walk, figuring to see things that wouldn't be seen on the easy walk, despite the guides saying that you wouldn't miss anything on the easy walk. I should have listened. The hard walk took place over sharp-edged lava rocks. There was no real path and after hauling around my 15 pounds of camera equipment and a tripod, the rocks, the 90 -degree heat and high humidity got to me.
The color and variety of animals never ceased to amaze. We saw Sally Lightfoot crabs and the yellow land iguanas found only in the Galapagos. We saw pelicans, frigate birds, flamingos and blue-footed boobies.
We stopped at Puerto Ayora, the population center of the islands, where the National Park Tortoise Breeding Center and the Charles Darwin Research Station are located. About 30,000 people live in the Galapagos, but if you're thinking of settling there, you would be out of luck, unless you married a native.
After Darwin's studies and research, the islands remained untouched except for ships that stopped for water and supplies. Some of them left behind non-indigenous animals, like rats and cats, which had a devastating effect on many native animals.
Galapagos tortoises are still in danger of extinction.
Since 1960 the islands have had the regulations needed to keep them unique. Humans earlier had introduced goats to the islands, which ate the vegetation that had supported the tortoises. A goat eradication program eliminated that threat and further regulations have kept the islands safe and protected this very special place.