Think Galapagos Islands and an image of giant tortoises will likely come to mind; the most famous being Lonesome George - the last Pinta Island tortoise who sadly became extinct in 2012. Abundantly rich with unique flora and fauna, Charles Darwin’s visit to the islands in 1835 led to his observations of the natural adaptation differences in Galapagos finches, mockingbirds and tortoises (depending on the island they inhabited), which consequently shaped his Theory of Evolution. Aside from tortoises and Darwinian theories, the Galapagos Islands’ location in the Pacific Ocean and close proximity to the equator, also make it famous for having 12 hours of daylight, every day of the year. This equal length of day and night-time makes it possible to see both diurnal and nocturnal creatures roaming around; the best of both worlds for wildlife enthusiasts. What’s more, these animals are naturally curious and often happy to get right up close to visitors.
Why not begin your South American adventure with a journey to the Galapagos Islands?
Although relatively unspoilt by humans, evidence of inhabitants dating back to the 1700s can be found on Post Office Bay, where a makeshift barrel that was once used by sailors and whalers to send messages back home is a site still in use today.
It goes without saying that observing the incredible wildlife in their natural habitat is an absolute must in the Galapagos Islands. Snorkelling and diving are both wonderful ways to take in the aquatic life surrounding the islands. In contrast, the trail to Frigate Bird Hill will give keen birdwatchers a fabulous outing. Santa Cruz Island offers a number of attractions, including the Charles Darwin Research Station, Turtle Bay and the main town, Puerto Ayora - perfect for dining, shopping and evening entertainment. On Luxury Gold’s ‘Quito & The Galapagos Islands’ 7-day trip, you can enjoy multiple wildlife encounters and be transported to what feels like another world, while still enjoying the luxury and comfort of first-rate travel.
Not surprisingly, seafood is a big hit in the Galapagos, with fresh lobster and crab being popular choices. A dish called ceviche is recommended, consisting of shrimps or fresh raw fish, marinated in onions, chillies and lemon or lime juice. Encebollado is a national dish that can be eaten at any time of day – even breakfast! This fish soup is typically made with fresh tuna, pickled red onion rings and spices, and served with boiled cassava root or yucca. Another delicacy to try is the exotic sea cucumber, while potatoes, beans, quinoa and corn are common staples in Ecuadorian cuisine. Beef, chicken and pork will be on the menu, along with more unexpected meats like goat and cuy (guinea pig). Plantain, the vegetable-equivalent to a banana (which has to be cooked before it is eaten) takes many guises; you’ll find it in both savoury and sweet dishes, as dumplings, mash and dough can all be made from plantain. When it comes to dessert, tropical fruits are in abundance so smoothies, frozen yoghurts and ice-creams made from passion fruit, mango, pineapple, papaya, granadilla, tree tomato and banana, among other fruits, are readily available.
In addition to desserts, tropical fruit is used to make a variety of juices and drinks. Colada Morada is a spiced berry drink, purple in colour and comprised of corn flour, sugar, blackberries, blueberries, cinnamon and spices, then garnished with pieces of tropical fruit. If you’d rather your beverage had a bit of a kick to it, coconut rum and canelazo (boiled water, sugar cane alcohol, lemon, sugar and cinnamon) will hit the spot. Aguardiente, also known as firewater, is a much stronger spirit with a high alcohol content that comes from fermented sugarcane. It is important to note that tap water should not be consumed and therefore ice in drinks should also be avoided, unless you have certainty that it came from purified bottled water.
Formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago, it’s not surprising that these islands showcase phenomenal landscapes that are like no other in the world. Head to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island for crater pits and lava tunnels; find cloud forests in San Cristóbal Island; and incredible black and white mangrove swamps in Florena Island. Flamingo lagoons, red and black sand beaches, luscious vegetation, sheltered coves and idyllic bays all form part of the Galapagos environment. Persevered and protected in their natural form, many of these islands are without human inhabitants. The perfect white sand looks barely touched; the inviting, shallow, turquoise waters will make snorkelling irresistible; and the striking sunsets that can be witnessed among this exquisite backdrop will stay picture-perfect in your mind, years after your visit.
Given the isolated location of the Galapagos Islands, some of the plants and animals inhabiting them are totally unique to this destination, making it a prized spot for wildlife-lovers to explore. Among these indigenous species are: the giant tortoise – a docile creature that can live for more than 170 years; the colourful marine iguana; the Galapagos penguin – one of the smallest penguin breeds in the world; lava lizards; Galapagos finches, seal lions and fur seals; and waved albatrosses. As far as marine life goes, the unusual merging of major ocean currents brings with it a wide variety of sea creatures; tunas, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, dolphins and several species of whale can all be found here. Additional wildlife that also exist in other parts of the world but exhibit behaviour or genetic traits unique to these islands, include: Sally Lightfoots – stunning rainbow-coloured crabs; magnificent frigrate birds, with their giant red throat pouches that the males inflate to attract attention; and blue-footed boobies, with distinct blue feet coloured by their fresh fish diet. You have most likely seen some of these creatures on wildlife programmes but witnessing them first hand is a breathtaking experience.