It’s early January. I head due west from the coastal shores of Ecuador, navigating along just the precise latitude. I continue for about 1,000 kilometers in the vastness of the Pacific and reach a cluster of small islands that, for decades, has been fundamental in shaping our understanding of biology and evolution, a place we go to learn about our world – and ourselves.

Flying over Isabela Island, Galapagos

Incredible Galapagos Islands

Bartolome Island, Galapagos

I come to the Galapagos, not just once but twice, to marvel at the wonders of nature. Shaped by the layering and lifting of repeated volcanic action and isolated for thousands of years, it’s a world unto itself. The chain of islands, among the most volcanically active regions on Earth, rests upon the Nazca tectonic plate, in perpetual motion eastward over the Galapagos hotspot, being sculpted by the ceaseless dance of geological forces.

Galápagos Islands

Majestic wildlife in the Galápagos Islands

It’s situated in a remarkable position, straddling the equator across both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Here, in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, three powerful ocean currents converge, forming an unparalleled zone where warm and cooler waters intermingle. It’s where magic happens. This geographical setting nurtures an exceptional array of wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. No wonder was Charles Darwin so enamored when he first came here 200 years ago. Galapagos’ endemic species led him to formulate his revelatory theory of evolution by natural selection.

Giant turtles in the Galápagos Islands

Endemic Iguanas of the Galápagos Islands

Iguanas on the beach in the remote Isabela Island, Galapagos

Extraordinary Flamingos, Galápagos Islands

About half of the world’s blue footed boobies live in the Galapagos Islands

Playful Dolphins alongside our boat

Male frigatebirds inflating their red-colored throat pouches to attract the females

With 97% of the territory designated as a National Park, the Galapagos has been traditionally traveled by sea. However, since the 1990s, land-based tourism has surged. I choose to anchor myself on land for a more immersive experience. My journey begins as I touch down on Baltra Island, once a strategic US World War II Air Force base. I venture to Santa Cruz Island, the most populous among the sixteen (only 4 of them are inhabited), where I embark on boat expeditions to uninhabited islands and diving sites. As I navigate the distance of 32 km from Baltra to the city of Puerto Ayora, I’m soon struck by the dramatic contrast in climate and vegetation. The initial stretch adorned with an arid, desert-like landscape suddenly gives way to tropical flora, where I first encounter giant tortoises. “It is a region with three habitat zones: coastal, arid, and highlands”, says Fernando, my guide and driver, “The Galapagos Islands are situated in the Pacific Dry Belt, and in average years only the highest altitudes of the larger islands receive enough rainfall to support tropical plant life.”

The Galapagos is not the type of destination where you go to lounge on the beach; experiences here are akin to the allure of towering mountains, expansive deserts— or an African safari. On a day trip to Santa Fe, I hike across a Cactus forest alongside endemic land iguanas and encounter Flamingos. In North Seymour Island, I observe thriving wildlife such as nesting blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigatebirds, males inflating their red-colored throat pouches to attract the females. Bartolome Island isn’t unknown, but the striking lunar landscape of Pinnacle Rock and the views from its summit are a stark reminder of Galapagos’ geological powers. A feeling that stays with me as a lively school of dolphins frolics alongside my boat on the way back to land.

Yet it’s beneath the waves where I have the most unforgettable moments. The fish around here know how special they are. They shimmer and glow and sparkle like stars in their cinematic spectacle. In a single snorkel session, the ocean comes alive with many creatures. Playful sea lions dart back and forth, inviting me to join their game of tag, while sea turtles and sharks glide gracefully through the water. I swim with penguins thousands of miles from Antarctica – the only penguin species in the Northern Hemisphere. Underwater, they seem to fly through the ocean, flapping their wings and moving fast, swimmers in formal attire.

Sharks in a dive in the Galapagos

Sea lions, Galápagos Islands

Swimming with Penguins, Galápagos Islands

The cold currents carry rich nutrients from the depths, fostering a vibrant ecosystem. These nutrients attract smaller species, which in turn lure larger predators, forming a mesmerizing display of pelagic life. I scuba dive across the strong currents of Gordon Rocks, an extinct volcanic crater with a sandy core at 32 meters and a wall dropping to about 65 meters, which requires divers accustomed to challenging conditions. I come across schools of hammerhead sharks – a sensation hard to put into words. Diving North Seymour reveals a landscape of gradual steps descending to a stunning rock reef. Amidst gentle currents, white and blacktip reef sharks coexist with an abundance of sea turtles.

Big turtles in Isabela Island, Galapagos

This adventure ratchets to a new level when I swap a boat for a light aircraft, which takes me to the biggest and youngest island of the Galapagos chain. Lying in the center of the group, Isabela’s strange seahorse-like shape emerges from the fusion of six distinct volcanoes. I traverse expansive, untamed beaches, where wildlife thrives undisturbed in their natural habitat. As I hike up to the peak of Sierra Negra volcano and swim inside the crystal clear waters of Isabela’s networks of tunnels within the lavas flows, it feels as if I’ve reached the edge of the world—or perhaps, a new beginning.

Galapagos Safari Camp

Bartolome Island, Galapagos

 

We stayed at the Galapagos Safari Camp  Santa Cruz Island