||Published Nov/Dec 2005
Left: Visiting the Galapagos Islands is an opportunity to view fascinating wildlife and landscapes.
Below: A Frigate bird AAA National photos
The Galapagos Islands continue to intrigue visitors.
By Sarah B. Davis
|merging from the Pacific Ocean's abyss of salt water is a series of islands with creatures that opened their wings, paws and claws to a famous visitor in 1835: Charles Darwin.
The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador, is where Darwin studied natural selection after observing the various birds and reptiles that call these volcanic islands home.
Early mariners called them the Enchanted Islands, and it remains true to the name with animals that lackadaisically bask in the sun while humans step over them. In a providence with just a few thousand residents on its most populous island (Santa Cruz), humans pose little threat to the daily life of the inhabitants, making the area a wildlife lover's dream.
Darwin enjoyed the islands for their isolation, and it is easy to see that a visit to the Galapagos would become an educational experience in a modern day Garden of Eden.
Resting on the black sand beaches of James (Santiago) Island are seals that can be easily enticed to join you for a swim in the clear waters. Marine turtles amble along the shores and marine iguanas and oversized lava lizards meander through brush near the beaches of Espanola (Hood Island).
The Galapagos are also a birdwatcher's paradise. Masked boobies prance around Tower (Genovesa) Island's cliffs. The waved albatross, with its six-foot wingspan, can be seen nesting on Espanola. Other fowl include the red-footed and blue-footed boobies, frigates and pelicans.
Flamingoes show off their penchant for standing on one foot in the salt lagoon on Floreana Island.
The Galapagos animals create their homes in unusual environments that make the islands one of the most mysterious places in the world. White sand beaches, black sand beaches, pebble beaches and red sand beaches are the norm in these islands. But even more spectacular is Floreana Island's volcanic beach composed of olivine crystal, which gives it a greenish tinge. Where beaches aren't present, birds make their homes in the cliffs that withstand the constant gush of waves.
Volcanic craters are on almost every island. Nowhere else is the earth's renewal process more evident than on the eastern coast of James Island at Sullivan Bay. A large area of pahoehoe (ropey) lava flows dating from an eruption in 1897 spread their fingers over the land. A walk over this glazed black rock gives the impression of molten lava, as every ripple, swirl and bubble in its surface has been preserved.
Outsiders can journey to the largest island, Isabela, which was created when lava flows from six volcanoes merged into one land. Graffiti dating to the 1800s is written on the rocky cliff left from buccaneers and whaling ships. Or guests can hop over to Espanola to see a blowhole that spews water 30 yards high.
The sea and the volcanic activity of the islands are the two biggest influences on the area's ecology. The waters, part of the Humbolt current from Antarctica, are cool and therefore affect the amount of rainfall the area receives.
The islands are part of the Pacific Dry Belt so most of the archipelago's land area is covered by semi-desert or desert vegetation. Higher parts of the larger islands receive enough rain to be considered tropical, offering a variety of ecological experiences for those who venture to this isolated never-never land.
Diving gives the waters its chance to show off tortoise, sharks, rays and multicolored fish. Exploring underwater is best done on the eastern part of the chain since waters west of the providence can hover around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cruises are one of the best ways to see the islands, but it is possible to fly to them as well. The U.S. Army occupied the small island of Baltra during World War II and built the first landing strip, which is presently used for daily flights from either Quito or Guayaquil to the islands.
Sarah B. Davis is a contributor for AAA “Going Places” magazine in Tampa, Fla.
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