Dancing with sea lions, walking with giants: Unmissable Galapagos highlights

“The boat moved noiselessly over the calm surface, the water so clear it was almost imperceptible, as if we were gliding over emerald green air. The captain steered expertly, close enough to the stony islands to look pelicans in the eye, far enough to never scratch the boat on the surreal lava bridges. We passed over turtles and parrot fish, by blue-footed boobies and palo santo trees. None of it felt real…”

Galapagos highlights are never just things to do or see on the islands; they are visions, emotions and enduring memories. Below are some of the most unmissable Galapagos experiences, and the favorite moments of those who have encountered them.

Hike an active volcano


From the moment you touch down in Galapagos you are treading on the land of volcanoes: the 13 main islands and six islets were spluttered out from the depths of the Earth itself over the course of millions of years of eruptions. And although the results are abundantly obvious in the strange lunar scenery and spiny rock formations, a true immersion in the archipelago’s geologic history comes when you hike the Sierra Negra caldera on Isabela, one of the most eye-opening, adventurous things to do in Galapagos. This island is something of a work in process; formed from an eruption just one million years ago, the volcano remains active. Walking along the rim of the caldera, the now-blackened lava seems to have frozen in time, rivers and gorges of molten magma from its last activity in 2005 cooled into eerie rock forms. If you haven’t tired once you’ve reached the highest point, continuing on to Volcán Chico holds further insight into the volcanic past, with eruptions from different eras cooled into a palette of rich shades. Still in evolution, the landscape huffs and puffs with fumaroles, telling of the awesome power and heat below the Earth’s surface.

Stumble upon marine iguanas


When Spanish ships first approached the shores of the Galapagos Islands, the sailors were terrified of the nightmarish, blackened monsters crawling along the rocks and darting through the seas. Marine iguanas, the creatures that Charles Darwin named “imps of darkness”, are a mainstay of the Galapagos scenery, apparent on every island in different colors, shapes and forms – stumbling over a scaly tail or being startled when a perfectly motionless one suddenly creeps into action once it’s warmed under the equatorial sun are part of any Galapagos day. The only sea-diving lizard on the planet, these creatures are wonders of evolution, their mouths, teeth, skin and respiratory system adapted to feast on vegetation in the ocean. They can hold their breath for more than a minute, using their tails to propel themselves through the waves. Though two-a-penny on the islands, marine iguanas are truly a marvelous thing to see in Galapagos.

My Galapagos Highlight

“My most amazing Galapagos moment was when we went snorkeling round Los Tuneles in Isabela. My guide beckoned me over to a spot and when I put my head underwater, I was face to face with a white-tipped shark. It darted out of the cave where it had been hiding in, and suddenly, loads of them followed it, maybe 10 or 12 sharks streaming out of the hole, swimming all around me. Of course I knew that this kind of shark is totally harmless, but it was still an incredible thrill.”

Christian Trepaud, regular visitor to Galapagos since his teens.

Attend the spectacle of the dancing birds


We often talk of the theatre of nature, the elements and wildlife conspiring to put on a show to beat anything on Broadway. Never is this truer than with the mating rituals of Galapagos birds, too elaborate, too choreographed and too entertaining to be a coincidence of nature. There are the blue-footed boobies and their solemn stomp, a left to right two-step of a routine that can be seen wherever there are colonies around the archipelago. The deal is sealed when the female accepts a twig that the male passes to her, a signal that they will build a home together. The waved albatross, which breeds on Española Island from January to March, has its own courtship jig, a dance of circling and bowing while rhythmically tapping beaks. It is a delightful spectacle.

Witness the plight of the bird that can’t take off


It seems like a cruel joke: a bird that can’t fly, trapped on the lava shorelines of Isabela and Fernandina by its shriveled, deformed wings, as if they’d foolishly swapped theirs with a finch. But the flightless cormorant is anything but hopeless. In fact, what they lack in flight, they make up for in remarkable swimming ability, and those stunted wings come in handy for balance when jumping from rock to rock. Their unique skills allow them a diet of kings: octopus, eel and fish are all on the menu. Witnessing their swimming prowess is a memorable thing to do in Galapagos and watching their courtship ritual even more so, an intricate process of intertwining their necks while spinning in circles.

Stroll among giants


Some things to see in Galapagos are pure, dreamlike surrealism; cycling past a lumbering giant tortoise or spotting their great shells from the main highway is one of them. More humbling still is visiting the great Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat, in the sanctuaries set up around the national park to preserve these endangered species. To stroll among these gentle giants is to stroll among the most dignified of prehistoric beasts, their expression condescending as they munch rhythmically through greenery up in the lush highlands. Look out for the 14 species divided into two main shell groups: the domed and the saddle backed, shapes that dictate how much they can raise their heads. A trip to see the tortoises in the Santa Cruz highlands or on San Cristóbal (among other places) is a stark reminder of the fragility of our ecosystems and the necessity of our protection: it is due to human interference that the Pinta tortoise died out completely with the death of the species’ last known survivor, Lonesome George, in 2012.

See evolution in action


Finches, the fist-sized birds with a knack for staring at you with an air of deeply judgmental curiosity, are absolutely key to the significance of the Galapagos Islands and allow us to see the process of evolution working in real time. It was these birds that inspired the seminal theories of Charles Darwin, as he noted the extraordinary differences in the sizes of beak in 13 different species of finch around the archipelago. And the evolutionary process is far from over: evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grants have continued to observe the birds over a period of two decades, noting the incredible rate at which they “evolve” and “adapt”. Of all the things to see in Galapagos, the finches provide the greatest insight into how the natural world works.

Share oceans with extraordinary beasts


If the terrestrial part of the Galapagos National Park is a living nature documentary, what lurks beneath the waves is pure science fiction. The underwater world (and a ‘world’ it truly is) is home to a party of rare beasts: massive whale sharks and endemic Galapagos sharks, graceful Pacific turtles, manta rays soaring like aquatic eagles, orcas, eels, and the absurd sunfish, otherwise known as the mola mola. This last monster from the blue has no tail, and instead propels itself along with a fin above and below its body. Weighing up to 1,000 kg and big and rounded like a rock, the sunfish is a bizarre thing to see in Galapagos, around Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island. Scuba divers reach their Mecca when they take to the Galapagos waters, but even the most inexperienced snorkelers can be rewarded with rainbow-colored fish, golden rays, turtles, white-tipped sharks and speeding Galapagos penguins, to name but a few of the ocean’s eclectic community.

Make friends with Galapagos sea lions


Just like marine iguanas, sea lions provide much of the backdrop – and soundtrack, and scent – to a Galapagos adventure. Whether you’re stepping over them as they sprawl and groan like old drunks on the wooden walkways, narrowly avoiding sitting on them as recline on benches, or swimming with their curious pups in the shallows of beaches, these endemic species are entwined into any Galapagos experience. See them in hundred-strong groups with their pups resting in coves, or throngs of unfortunate, lonely bachelors sticking together for company. The trick is to learn how to tell a Galapagos sea lion from a fur seal: both slick and sleek when wet, it’s all in the ears and tail…

My Galapagos Highlight

“Every time I go to Galapagos I always look forward to swimming with the sea lions. With nothing but a mask, flippers and snorkel, you can dance with them, swirl around with them, even blow bubbles at them. That connection with an innocent, wild animal, behaving almost like a dog, who wants to play, looking you in the eye. When we go out to Las Tintoreras, seeing the joy that other visitors get, including my family, is always an exciting, memorable moment.”

Dominic Hamilton, Director of Ecuadorian travel communications agency, Ñan Comunicación.

Bike through an ever-changing natural wonderland


The cycle route beginning in Isabela Island’s Puerto Villamil and ending at the eerie Wall of Tears feels like a Galapagos nature museum, as if it were a landscaped installation engineered to display the archipelago’s diverse ecosystems and environments. But, save for the very much manmade wall of lava rocks built by inmates of the former penal colony in the middle of the 20th century, this spectacle is all Mother Nature’s doing. Pass through the fabulous Humedales Reserve with its smattering of pink flamingos, past roaming giant tortoises, stopping off to marvel at the delicate sands of La Playita, the coralline Playa del Amor with its blood-red crabs, the lava tunnels and mysterious mangroves, the surreal lagoons surrounded by cacti and palo santo, and the Orchilla viewpoint, from which you make out the five volcanoes that created the stunning island. It’s as if all of the things to see in Galapagos were condensed into one, stunning path.

Kayak and paddleboard where no one has been before


The idea of exploring the unknown, touching the untouched and seeing things never seen before just like the great adventurers of the past is an allure for many but a reality for few. And though with the flow of tourists in the Galapagos Islands this can seem more unattainable than ever, there are moments when kayaking or paddle-boarding around the northern coast of San Cristobal when you feel like, just maybe, you’re the first human on Earth to have ever to have set foot, or oar, there. Paddling almost noiselessly through tunnels and islets, on your kayak or board you’re just another marine creature, treated with nonchalance by frigate birds, penguins, sea lions and turtles. It’s a thrilling thing to do in Galapagos: to feel like you’ve been where no one has before.

My Galapagos Highlight

“I love the Galapagos; every corner of the archipelago has its magic. La Ratonera is a beach that I am really fond of because it is near my office in the National Park in Santa Cruz: it’s my escape and relaxation place where I love taking photos after a day of work.”

Diego Bermeo, The Galapagos Photographer

Take it all in on the world’s best beaches


With so many animals to see and adventures to be had, you may think that downtime is off the agenda here. Yet the Galapagos Islands offer some of the most magical locations on the planet in which to relax: their utterly perfect beaches. There’s Tortuga Bay, a gentle walk across Santa Cruz leading to the gorgeous stretch of white sand, easy surf and a cove backing onto a peaceful lagoon. There’s the great expanse of creamy sand dotted with the black of iguanas all along Puerto Villamil, the main settlement on Isabela. There’s postcard-perfect Carola Beach on San Cristobal, where you’ll share the turquoise waters with sea lions, sea turtles and marine iguanas. And there are even more to discover when you hike, bike, kayak or paddleboard around the coastline.

Stargaze like nowhere else on Earth


The great majority of the Galapagos Islands remains untouched by man; the same goes for its night skies. With so few settlements, light pollution is kept to a bare minimum, meaning that stars are amazingly radiant and clear. As the islands straddle the equator it is possible to pick out constellations from both hemispheres; the Big Dipper, Tres Marias and the Southern Cross blinking on the velvety sky. Isabela Island is one of the best spots for stargazing, as is anywhere where you can get away from streetlights. Download the free apps Star Chart, SkyView Free or Night Sky Lite to help you identify the stars, constellations and planets. Of all the things to see in Galapagos, the stars are the most magical.

Learn from Galapagos locals


The Galapagos Islands would not be the extraordinary natural sanctuary that they are were it not for the incredible people who live there, working each day to protect it and find green solutions to the challenges of a developing community. These are people from far and wide, Ecuador and beyond, who moved to the archipelago as pioneers and have built their homes here, each one with incredible stories and projects. There are the fishermen who sell their catch in Puerto Ayora, whom you can accompany on trips on the open waters. There are the organic coffee and cacao farmers who explain their unusual agricultural experiences. There are chefs performing magic with the fresh seafood. And there are the dozens of local guides and people working in the Galapagos National Park who are passionate about conservation. All these people are waiting to share their experiences and island tales. All you have to do is ask.

The Galapagos Islands are full of wonder, with so many incredible things to do and see that however long you stay it never seems like enough. As Diego Bermeo points out: “every corner of the archipelago has its magic.”

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