Galapagos Islands travel tips and things to do: Twenty reasons to visit the Galapagos Islands

*** Traveller Top Picks

1 DISCOVER: FOLLOW IN CHARLES DARWIN'S FOOTSTEPS

The "father of evolutionary science" is Galapagos' most legendary visitor, who explored some of these captivating islands in 1835. Guests travelling on Aurora Expeditions' Galapagos Odyssey cruise visit three of the islands Darwin travelled to – San Cristobal Island, Floreana Island and Santiago Island – where he studied the environment and collected flora and fauna samples, which in turn solidified his thoughts on evolution.

*** 2 COMMUNE: SNORKEL WITH SEA LIONS

You'll see plenty of Galapagos sea lions lazing about on beaches, snoozing on boats, or swimming close to shore, but getting close and personal with the cute critters is more fun than just observing them. Snorkelling with sea lions is nothing like snorkelling with fish; these playful marine creatures dive, swirl and whirl around you, so you're constantly spinning underwater trying to keep up. The vertigo is worth it.

3 ENCOUNTER THE DARWIN FINCH

There are 14 species of Darwin's finches in the Galapagos, and although the small land birds aren't overly exciting to look at, they helped Darwin piece together his theory about evolution. Their feathers are typically a dull brown or black; their beaks, however, vary significantly in size and shape from island to island – a fact that Darwin recognised related to each species adapting to its specific environment. Get clued up early so you can spot the different beaks as you cruise around.

4 STUDY THE FLORA

Much like the animals, plants differ from island to island depending on the terrain. Some of the endemic species are endangered, but most are resilient and often referred to as "pioneer" plants because they are able to flourish in hostile environments. Some of the plant species also help the animals survive. For example, the most common cacti is the prickly pear cactus, which acts as sustenance for giant tortoises and land iguanas.

*** 5 OBSERVE THE GALPAGOS ALBATROSS MATING DANCE

Once you start watching this lengthy and peculiar dance it is hard to look away. The Galapagos albatrosses – otherwise known as waved albatrosses – display their desire to mate in a rather unique way – a ceremonial sequence of movements including the banging of beaks, piercingly loud squawking and parading around each other. It's a big effort, but once Galapagos albatrosses mate, they are partners for life, so it pays to get the dance right.

6 VISIT THE CHARLES DARWIN RESEARCH STATION

The Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island is a great place to get your footing before cruising the islands. The centre has several enclosures for rescued tortoise and land iguana, so guests can see the animals in different stages of development and learn about conservation efforts to restore near-extinct animal populations.

7 EXPLORE PUERTO AYORA

Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, is the largest city in the Galapagos and it's worth spending a couple of hours strolling the streets. There are a few restaurants with decent Wi-Fi near the water, but your best bet is to simply mosey about. There are plenty of souvenir shops, jewellery boutiques, art galleries and gimmicky fashion ware (in case you're the kind who likes to buy T-shirts with slogans such as "I love boobies"), and you get the opportunity to watch locals and sea lions go about their day.

8 EXPLORE BARTOLOME ISLAND

Bartolome Island is most famous for Pinnacle Rock, an immense spear-headed pillar that dramatically rises from the ocean. It's impressive from the ground but you get a different perspective from up high. Bartolome Island is the only extinct volcano in the region that has a wooden staircase that leads to its summit, and although the hike is somewhat strenuous, the peculiar volcanic landscape and pioneer plants en route keeps walkers engrossed. At the top the views – of Santiago Island and James Bay to the west, and Pinnacle Rock below – are spectacular.

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9 ENCOUNTER GREEN SEA TURTLES

The Galapagos green turtle is generally only seen in the Galapagos, so occasionally swimmers may find themselves among these beautiful, peaceful creatures. They are, however, an endangered species, so certain beaches where turtles nest, such as Las Bachas Beach on the northern part of Santa Cruz Island, are only accessible out of nesting season. Since the turtles spend most of their time in the sea (they only come on land to lay eggs) you're much more likely to have an encounter when you're in the water.

10 LINGER: WATCH THE SUNSET WITH A COCKTAIL

The beauty about cruising around the Galapagos Islands is that the panoramas are constantly changing and most nights you're watching the sun set over a different scene. On Aurora Expeditions' Galapagos Odyssey trip, Isabella II sails to a new location almost every night, so guests are treated to a plethora of different vistas. Sunsets on the deck with a cocktail in hand are as magical as it gets; a kaleidoscope of buttery yellows, fiery oranges and dusky reds dancing over the deep blue sea… bliss.

11 ENCOUNTER THE GALAPAGOS GIANT TORTOISE

Photos don't do these gentle giants justice; only standing beside one allows you to fully comprehend just how big they are. They are so large, in fact, that one of their droppings is the size of an adult human footprint. In the highlands of Santa Cruz Island there are hundreds of giant tortoises meandering about, so join them… albeit very, very slowly.

*** 12 WALK SULLIVAN BAY, SANTIAGO ISLAND

Stepping off the zodiac and onto an uneven grey-black surface is kind of eerie – and for good reason – you're treading on recent lava flow and you would be forgiven for thinking you're on another planet. Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island is made of pahoehoe lava flow, formed after a volcanico eruption in 1897. Today the twisting ropy texture (pahoe is actually a Hawaiian term meaning "ropy") stretches as far as the eye can see. From a distance, it  appears as if it is still bubbling.

13 SPOT IGUANAS

There are three species of land iguana in the Galapagos (including a distinctive bright yellow species that guests can see on Santa Cruz Island, North Seymour Island and South Plaza Island, to name a few) and one marine species found only in the Galapagos. You will see hundreds – possibly thousands – during the tour, especially if you have a good eye. The iguanas effortlessly blend into their surrounds. Sometimes you think you're staring at a rock, then later realise you were looking at hundreds of stationary iguanas basking in the sun. The iguanas differ from island to island and their colours change depending on where they hail from, their age, diet, and whether it is mating season.

*** 14 VISIT POST OFFICE BAY

Ecuador's oldest mailing system is found on Floreana Island. The idea is that you go through the pile of postcards left at Post Office Bay, and if any have an address close to where you live you hand deliver it. You also leave behind a postcard in the hope that somebody who visits in the future hand delivers it to your recipient. It's a fun and quirky concept and some people choose to address their postcard to themselves, optimistic they'll have a newfound friend in the future to reminisce with about that time they went to the Galapagos.

*** 15 OBSERVE BLUE-FOOTED BOOBIES

There are several booby varieties in the Galapagos Islands. Blue-footed boobies reside on the coast and are found on many of the islands; Red-footed boobies prefer to live inland, with one of the largest populations found on San Cristobal Island; while Nasca boobies are the largest of the booby birds (their feet are plain brown-black). Pitt Point on San Cristobal Island is the only place in the Galapagos where you can find all three species nesting near one another.

16 EXPLORE GARDNER BAY

You spend most days cruising and exploring, but sometimes it's nice to just sit back and take in the surrounds. Gardner Bay on Espanola Island is one of those places. The white-sand beach is perfect for lazy strolls and basking in the sun. The sea lions, too, think it's a great spot, so watch where you put your beach towel.

17 LISTEN TO NATURALISTS

It's easy to lose yourself taking hundreds (OK,, thousands) of photos in the Galapagos, but it's worth listening to everything the naturalists have to say and asking plenty of questions. The naturalists have a wealth of knowledge about the islands and you won't find what they tell you on Google.

18 LEARN ABOUT COFFEE AND SUGAR CANE PRODUCTION

In the highlands of Santa Cruz Island workers have been growing crops such as sugarcane, coffee, avocados and bananas for decades. At Trapiche Ecological Farm visitors can learn about traditional sugarcane production and sample sugar cane juice, sugar cane liquor, fresh coffee, and whatever fruits are in season.

19 OBSERVE FRIGATEBIRDS

Often soaring high in the sky, you might lose count of how many frigatebirds you see. There are two species in the Galapagos – great and magnificent – found hovering around various islands and out at sea (great frigatebirds in particular like to stray far from shore). The dark-feathered birds have long pointy wings and forked tails, but the breeding males are the most distinctive, because they have a bright red gular pouch under their beaks. When they want to show off they inflate their pouches, the magnificent sight making quite the impression on the females … and any humans who happen to be watching.

20 EXPLORE: ZIP AROUND IN A ZODIAC

Sure, the zodiacs are there to get you off the ship and somewhere amazing, but there is something exhilarating about jumping into an inflatable speedboat and venturing off on another adventure. Wizard's Hill, on the northern coast of San Cristobal Island, is an ancient volcano made up of compacted ash and is best admired from the sea. Penguin spotting, too, is best done from the water, as the birds hang out on rocky seaside ledges.

You can experience all of the above and much more on Aurora Expeditions' new nine-day Galapagos Odyssey tour, cruising around the Galapagos Islands on Isabela II, a small and elegant expedition ship sleeping a maximum of 40 guests. See auroraexpeditions.com.au

Tatyana Leonov travelled as a guest of Aurora Expeditions.

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