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The Galapagos - the unmissables

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1 September 2008 by Pete Mathers

There are many great travel experiences, but something beyond the ordinary is needed to make a trip truly unmissable. Would swimming with sea lions in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, or travelling across Africa from Cape Town to Cairo make your ‘to do’ list? Here’s why we think they should.

The Galapagos Islands

It was on the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, that the process of evolution was first understood. Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos in 1835 and stayed for just five weeks. In an eerie, moonlike landscape, among an amazing roster of all-but-tame wildlife, he developed his Theory of Evolution. Not much has changed since 1835. The 13 endemic finch species that inspired the theory are still there, and the wildlife is as trusting as ever.

2009 will be a special year in the Galapagos. Not only will it mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, but it will also be the 150th anniversary of his most famous publication: On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. It’s a perfect time to see the islands for yourself.

Each one is individual in its topography, flora and fauna. The first species arrived about three million years ago riding rafts of vegetation from the shores of Central and South America. These early immigrants had to adapt to a peculiar new environment and slowly evolved in a different direction to their continental ancestors. The Galapagos are still home to the highest proportion of endemic species in the world; 400lb land tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies and of course Darwin’s finches are all peculiar to the islands. A side-effect of this isolation is that the animals have no instinctive fear of man. If anything, their curiosity will surpass your own.

But to call them tame is to belittle the experience of visiting the islands. They neither have the limpness of pets, the listlessness of animals in zoos nor the twitching terror of those you might see on safari. There is nothing but a deep sense of calm in a world without big predators – and it makes for some extraordinary encounters. Imagine the scene if you will.

A huge land iguana with skin like chain mail and what looks like a broad smile waits under a prickly pear cactus on the off chance that a fruit will drop. A baby blue-footed booby comes up to you, fluffy and curious on its floppy, foot-like flippers. Albatrosses perform extraordinary bill-circling displays of courtship. Scarlet crabs scuttle sideways across a mass of black lava, en pointe like ballerinas. Male frigate birds show off with the ultimate party trick – turning their wrinkled throat sacks into fully inflated red balloons. A giant tortoise lumbers past quite contented, for little has changed in its 150-year life.

Below the water is an equally magical world. A glossy young sea lion twists and twirls in the current as if nothing in the world could be better than being him. Sea turtles cruise majestically along the edge of a coral reef. A humpback whale guides her calf to the surface with a great gust of exhaled air. And at the base of Pinnacle Rock, on the north side of Bartolomé Island, Galapagos penguins zip past you chasing fish, using you and your fellow snorkellers as a barrier against which to herd their dinner. The 12 main islands and several smaller ones are difficult to visit independently. One of the best ways to explore them is aboard a three-, four- or seven-night cruise with Metropolitan Touring, our preferred local tour operator in Ecuador and the Galapagos. Multilingual naturalist guides lead shorebound expeditions, and the only thing to match their expertise is their contagious enthusiasm.

Groups sizes are always small and Metropolitan Touring is mindful of its commitment to sustainable tourism. Non-renewable resources are kept to a minimum and the company’s own Galapagos Foundation, founded in 1998, runs programmes to support social development and environmental stewardship.

Wexas has arranged a seven-night Galapagos cruise aboard Metropolitan Touring’s latest yacht, La Pinta, combined with a two-night stay in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. La Pinta is probably the most luxurious vessel to take to the waters of the Galapagos. Its 24 cabins are located mid-ship, in the Upper Deck, and have double beds, private bathrooms and air conditioning. Staterooms and suites all have ocean views, and public areas include fore and aft observation decks, a well stocked natural history library, a jacuzzi, and a window-lined dining room, though when the weather’s fine, an alfresco BBQ on the sundeck is an even better option.

Landlubbers wary of a stay on a pitching boat can opt for an all-inclusive package at either the Finch Bay Hotel or at the Galapagos Safari Camp in the highlands of Santa Cruz. An excellent shore-based walking programme on the island of Isabella, the largest and least visited of the islands, takes in five active volcanoes and the second largest volcanic crater in the world.

Whether exploring them on foot or cruising between them, the Galapagos offer a privileged insight into an untouched world – an unmissable opportunity to see a living laboratory of evolution.

Tailormade travel: Discover the Galapagos on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Call a Latin America specialist on 020 7838 5966 or email your enquiry to [email protected].

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