Jason Dundas and the crew made Getaway
's first ever visit to the amazing Galapagos Islands and found it is one of those places that lives up to its impressive reputation.
The archipelago spreads across the equator off Ecuador on South America's west coast. This living museum of extraordinary animal life is separated from the mainland by a thousand kilometres of ocean and millions of years of history. There are 19 islands and more than 100 islets making up the World Heritage site.
With no predators, the islands' creatures have evolved to their environment so much so they inspired Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution more than 170 years ago.
Each island has its own personality and the more you see, the more you understand Galapagos is unlike anywhere else on earth. As they're spread over 45,000 square kilometres, the way to go is on a cruise ship.
Jason was fortunate enough to join a Scenic Tours four-day cruise throughout the Galapagos' southern group of islands on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. The Galapagos Legend is 92m long and has 58 cabins. Five-star all the way; the restaurant, bar, spa and comfortable cabins are a welcome contrast to your rugged island adventures of exploring and hiking.
Your guides are a blend of historian and naturalist and have invaluable knowledge about each destination.
The adventure begins on the island of Baltra, also known as South Seymour. Small, flat and arid, vegetation consists of salt bushes, prickly pear cactus and palo santo trees. It is a prime nesting ground for seabirds, such as frigates and boobies, and there is a great variety of tame wildlife.
You can carefully walk through their habitat as they are completely blasé about humans. Baltra was a US Air Force base during World War II and evidence of that period can still be seen.
Arriving at Santa Cruz Island in the centre of the archipelago at sunrise was spectacular. Brilliant flamingos made up part of the welcoming party, along with their not-so-colourful cousins, Darwin's finches. They were a breakthrough in his theory as he noticed how their beaks had adapted to sourcing their food supply. Cracking nuts and accessing small seeds ensured their survival.
Santa Cruz, a large dormant volcano, is the second largest island after Isabela and has small villages, where residents raise cattle and work in agriculture. It's believed it last erupted about 1.5 million years ago but two huge holes formed by the collapse of a magma chamber remain.
Española is the southernmost and oldest island at about 3.5 million years. Its remote location has fabulous endemic fauna, including the brightly coloured marine iguana, unique to Galapagos and the only ones of the species that change colour during breeding season. The iguana has taught itself to swim, can hold its breath for up to an hour and, if necessary, can dive 15m for food. Now that's evolution!
Steep cliffs provide perfect runways for waved albatross to take off for their ocean feeding grounds near Ecuador and Peru.
Española has two visitor sites. Gardner Bay has a beautiful beach and is a great spot for swimming and snorkelling. Punta Suarez has migrant, resident and endemic wildlife, including the fabulous marine iguana, Española lava lizards, Hood mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed, red-footed and Nazca boobies, Galapagos hawks and a vast selection of finches.
Twenty-thousand people live on the Galapagos Islands with Spanish being the principal language. Galápago is an old Spanish word, meaning saddle. The large Galapagos tortoise on some of the islands had a shell that resembled an old Spanish saddle, thus the name. San Cristóbal is home to the capital Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a good place to take a break and absorb all that you have seen.
The typical Galapagos tortoise, the most famous resident, weighs in at more than 300kg. With fewer than 10,000 of them remaining, they aren't seen in the wild, but the half-hour trip up the hill to the breeding centre is well worth it. Once almost obliterated as their meat was coveted, they are now protected and numbers are on the rise. There is another breeding centre on Santa Cruz.
The Galapagos Islands, a Pacific Ocean archipelago 972km west of Ecuador.
Scenic Tours has a 28-day South America tour, including a four-night Galapagos cruise, all the major sights of Peru, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and more. Accommodation, most meals, sightseeing and internal flights are also included. They start at $16,195 per person twin share.
Scenic is offering a buy-one-get-one-free return ticket to South America with LAN Airlines a saving of up to $3000 a couple. Conditions apply. The tour departs March 16, 2010, from Quito, Ecuador.
Prices correct at June 18, 2009.
For further information
Ph: 1300 723 642
Visas: Australians must hold a valid passport. No visa is necessary for stays of up to 90 days a year.
Electricity: 110V at 60Hz with United States flat two-point pins.
Time zone: GMT -5.
Currency: The US dollar is the currency of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
Telephone code: +593.
Health advice: It is recommended travellers to Ecuador see their doctor at least six weeks before departure. Prior to travel, travellers should be "up to date" with vaccinations for yellow fever, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis B. However, depending on the time of year of travel and exact destination, other health precautions and preventions are recommended and are best discussed with your doctor.