The Galapagos Islands are high on most people's travel wish lists, and no wonder. The experience is massively rewarding - especially with creature comforts to return to at the end of each day
The Galapagos Islands are perhaps best known as Darwin's wildlife lab and for Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island giant tortoise. But there's so much more, and the knowledgeable local guides (compulsory) will make sure you find it. You'll stroll along beaches where sea lions snooze in rows like sardines, or push past you as they head for the ocean. They smell salty and crusty, but you forgive them as they approach and give you a nudge.
Trekking over lava rocks or scrub takes you around and across islands, within inches of relaxed families of blue-footed boobies - eye-popping birds found nowhere else on earth (and my main reason for taking this trip). Once seen, they're never forgotten; every souvenir stall has bags, ornaments, hats and T-shirts showing them sometimes beautifully, sometimes in insultingly comical cartoon poses.
Lonesome George plods slowly around his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz. Apparently he has mated but is infertile. The centre is considering cloning him - but is this valid if the result is only another lone infertile male? Anyway, there are other and better giant tortoise reserves - visit on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays to see the tortoises fed with Chinese potato leaves or elephant's ear leaves.
Each island has its own individual geography, flora and fauna, but you should see plenty of vivid red and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs. They're adults - the very young are tiny, black, and vulnerable to predators. The crabs seem to be the only creatures that react to human beings passing by - nothing else takes any notice.
Male frigate birds looking for partners can puff up their huge red throats, and accompany the display with a raucous croaking. When we were there, this display didn't seem to appeal to passing females - but somewhere, somehow, it must...
While trekking, you may have to stop as a land iguana crosses the path. Large lizard-types, they are loners, mottled with yellow, orange and brown, and dotted with dry scaly patches, but they've a facial 'expression' of pure charm. The marine iguanas are far more plentiful and gregarious, often settling in heaps for shared warmth, the purely black ones camouflaged against the black lava rock.
Of course there is much more, including ocean creatures such as giant rays, whales (mainly during the second half of the year), dolphins, penguins, spectacular fish, and huge starfish (look out for the 'choc chip' variety).
Where to stay
Visitors can stay in hotels, for example on Isabela or Santa Cruz, but many people choose to stay on small yachts. Alternatives include a motor yacht, Galapagos Voyager, and a cruise ship, Galapagos Explorer II, for more luxury.
We spent a week on Galapagos Explorer II, which takes 100 passengers. Visits to islands are on inflatable Zodiacs, which are exhiliarating, even for this landlubber. The ship is like a floating hotel, and has all you'd expect and want if you need space and comfort. Food was very good, but drinks were expensive - the cheapest bottle of wine was $28 (currently about £17). It's as well to keep a tally of drinks yourself; you can pay only at the end of the trip, and the bars don't give you any sort of receipt.
The Galapagos Voyager motor yacht, in contrast, takes 16 passengers. It can get closer to the islands than Explorer, and people we met who were based on it said it was pleasantly intimate and felt 'closer to nature'. However, if you're more comfortable with animals than people, this might be a problem!
We visited early in June 09, expecting a heatwave, as the Galapagos Islands straddle the equator. However, with the various currents and occasional light winds, we never found the heat difficult. Still, high factor sunblock is a must, together with hiking boots or strong trainers.
Snorkelling gear is needed to see the sealife at its best (ships usually hire it out but I prefer to take my own). Some people hired wet suits, but we didn't have a problem with the temperature of the ocean.
The islands form a national park, and you are allowed to set foot on them only if accompanied by an official guide - but this is all arranged if you go on an organised trip. Rules include a ban on food, smoking and touching any animal.
I suffered some altitude sickness in Quito (it's 9,000 feet above sea level), but read that taking Diamox can help - a private prescription from the GP is needed.
We went with Llama Travel on their "Galapagos Explorer and a Taste of Ecuador" trip. This involves three nights in Quito, seven on the ship and then two more in Quito, flying back overnight. We flew with Iberia from Heathrow to Quito via Madrid. The basic cost for this trip varied from £2,699 per person in December/January to £3,099 in July/August. There are upgrades available for flights, hotels and cabins; by far the best extra (even if it's only on the overnight flight back) is an upgrade to business class, for an extra £849 each way. The lowest cost for a Galapagos trip with this operator would be in December - £1,999 for three nights in Quito, four on Explorer, and then two in Quito. We found Llama Travel on the internet and I'd certainly recommend them. They're efficient and very helpful, and all the arrangements went perfectly.
And as for the Galapagos - well, they've left us with a set of wonderful memories, not to mention a set of photos we'll return to again and again over the years.