The more remote the island, the higher the level of endemism – meaning that these two often overlooked islas have species even curiouser than the rest of the Galápagos. Tiny Genovesa is formed by the lip of a submerged caldera, and hosts the world’s only nocturnal gull species. Espanola’s marine iguanas change colours in different seasons, and its steep cliffs are perfect departure points for the enormous waved albatross.
Remote and rarely visited, the islands of Wolf and Darwin are a scuba diver’s dream. Given the distance and the lack of infrastructure, once here, diving tours are based off the boat, making for an entirely marine experience. 28 shark species live here, including hammerhead and whale sharks, and barracuda, yellowfin tuna and seahorses are common.
The archipelago has been inhabited over the centuries by maltreated prisoners, hiding pirates, a flamboyant, fake Baroness and mysterious murders and disappearances which remain unsolved to this day. The Wall of Tears is a reminder of the islands’ brutal past, while the Post Office Barrel symbolises the kindnesses that have occurred – visitors can sort through the letters left here to deliver by hand once back on dry land after their Galápagos vacation.
The Galápagos’ strange and still-active geology has created semi-submerged calderas, lava fields and tubes, black sand beaches and puffing volcanic peaks, while its rich volcanic soil feeds weird and wonderful flora. Its 560 endemic species include unique fruits, “daisy trees” and lava cacti, along with exotic orchids and mosses clinging to twisted tree limbs.
“Galápago” means “giant tortoise” in Spanish, and it’s clear why these characteristic creatures, up to 1.6m long – were the ones to give the archipelago its name. It’s likely that the islands’ 15,000 tortoises – in 14 “races” – all descend from a single individual who washed up here thousands of years ago, and it’s possible that some of the hatchlings seen by Darwin may even be alive today.
The Galápagos’ tame wildlife is not its only astonishing sight. The 9km-wide, 91 metre-deep crater atop Volcán Sierra Negra is the second largest active caldera on earth, and hiking around the rim offers spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes and ocean, and you can continue on to the bizarre, smoking lava landscape of Volcán Chico, which last erupted in 2005.
Ecuador’s beaches are generally pretty underwhelming – so this is the place to kick back for some beach time. Staying at Puerto Ayora gives access to some excellent little bays during your Galápagos vacation, which will be all yours (save the sea lions!) once the cruise ships leave town, but others are reached along forest trials or by hiking through atmospheric mangroves.
Island life is only one part of the story – what inhabits the surrounding waters is a very different one. Nowhere else in the world can you splash about in lava tubes, while green turtles paddle nearby and sea lion pups swim up and look you in the eye. Marine iguanas are on the prowl, Galápagos penguins dive in, and hammerhead and white-tipped sharks lurk in the depths.
A Galápagos vacation is fascinating, but the tortoises all begin to look the same after a few days and only the most obsessive biologists are going to enjoy more than ten days here. Additionally, cruises leave little space for independent exploration. If you do want to stay longer, consider spending additional onshore days near a beach once your tour has finished.
The assumption is that hugest vessels – carrying up to 100 passengers – must be the best equipped and the most stable. However, larger ships cannot dock at all the islands, boarding and departing can involve long queues, and you’ll be paying a premium for a slightly more spacious cabin which, in reality, you’ll be doing little more than sleeping in during your Galápagos vacation.
The station does impressive work, and has been vital for the reintroduction of some incredibly endangered species. But it is first and foremost a research centre, and visitors can leave distinctly underwhelmed by the non-interactive exhibits and wildlife in concrete enclosures. Visit at the beginning of your Galápagos vacation to build up to the wild creatures – you’ll be much less disappointed.