Situated a thousand kilometres off the west coast of Ecuador in South America, the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of thirteen volcanic islands, is a destination truly unlike any other on earth. It is not simply their barren, unspoilt beauty that makes the Galapagos Islands so special. Nor is it their fascinating history, which really begins with the archipelago's discovery by a Spanish clergyman in 1535 and subsequently features pirates, whalers and fur traders.
As the naturalist Charles Darwin discovered upon arrival in the early nineteenth century, and as fascinated visitors have discovered on trips to the Galapagos Islands ever since, it is the wildlife of the archipelago that makes this destination both unique and unforgettable. Here, sun-kissed golden beaches are crowded not with people but with basking sea lions that are totally unafraid of humans; enter the warm, clear waters that surround the islands and these friendly animals are only too keen to play.
Evolutionary isolation from the attentions of human beings have freed the many rare mammal, bird and reptile species that inhabit the Galapagos Islands from fearing man. Nowhere else is it possible to get as close to wildlife as it is here. But it's not necessary to be a wildlife enthusiast to be profoundly affected by the sheer natural beauty, tranquillity and oneness with nature that trips to the Galapagos Islands elicit in every visitor.
Budding Robinson Crusoes who recline on the pristine sands of Tortuga Bay on the island of Santa Cruz are likely to be joined and inspected by the large and inquisitive iguanas that inhabit the archipelago. Vibrant red, orange and yellow-coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs stand out against the grey rocks that line the shore as they emerge to feed at low tide.
The beach of Las Tintoreras, named for the large numbers of harmless white-tipped sharks that inhabit Puerto Villamil's waters, is perhaps the foremost location for snorkelling in the Galapagos Islands. Here visitors can enjoy undersea encounters with friendly and curious turtles, mischievous sea lions, rays, reef sharks and marine iguanas. On land, the island is home to the rare Blue-footed Booby, a sea bird with feet that are, indeed, undeniably blue. They are joined by penguins, remarkably tame mocking birds and seals.
Formerly the home of Lonesome George, the very last giant Pinta Turtle in existence until his death in 2012, the Charles Darwin Research Station near the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is dedicated to the study and preservation of the archipelago's singular wildlife and ecology. Besides providing a chance for visitors to meet giant turtles and land iguanas the research station houses a museum provides information of the natural history of the islands and of the ongoing conservation work.