An ecological wonderland of largely endemic wildlife, the Galapagos inspired Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection long before the cruise ships arrived. Dotting the Pacific 960km off the Ecuador coast, this archipelago of 19 volcanic islands is noted for its fearless wildlife, a natural response to the lack of large predators. While human involvement is an increasing threat, the blue-footed booby still performs its mating dance right under your nose and sea lions do figure eights as you snorkel past. Leave nothing behind but footprints at this World Heritage Site.
You'll have no trouble finding an idyllic beach on the Galapagos Islands. On San Cristóbal, the tranquil stretch of powdery white sand on Cerro Brujo invites swimming and snorkeling in calm blue seas. Be on the lookout for turtle nesting sites on Santa Cruz's two Las Bachas swimming beaches; you can spot sharks and manta rays from the shoreline of mangrove-fringed Tortuga Bay. You'll share the coral beach with seals at Genovese's Darwin Bay, once the mouth of a volcano.
Things to Do
Mountain bikers head to the wild, largely uninhabited terrain of Santa Cruz and the off-road trails of San Cristóbal on explorations far away from the tour groups. Snorkelers often share the water with sea turtles and sea lions playing among schools of tropical fish, particularly at Santa Cruz's La Lobería sea lion colony; scuba divers frequently come across hammerhead sharks and manta rays at the archipelago's rich dive sites. Seasoned surfers cruise the Punta Carola waves off San Cristóbal.
Eating and Drinking
Unsurprisingly, ultra-fresh seafood and fish dominate Galapagos menus. Chopped lobster steeped in citrus juice, oil, raw onion and tomato makes a savory ceviche, delicious scooped up with crunchy fried tortilla chips. Try encebollado and viche, thick fish soups with yucca, onions and chili, and join locals breakfasting on fried green-plantain dumplings (bolones) and patties (patacones). The nutritious sea cucumber occasionally pops up on menus, but you may want to forego a taste: Its numbers have been seriously depleted by overfishing.
Visit giant ambling Galapagos tortoises at Isla Isabela's Tagus Cove and babies of varying species at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Penguins swim fearlessly past you, and sunbathing sea lions on Isla Rábida's volcanic terracotta beaches remain unperturbed as you grab a snapshot (keep your distance from the big bulls, however). You'll spot herons, dragon-like marine iguanas and multi-colored Sally Lightfoot crabs on Isla Santiago and marvel at the lunar landscape of volcanic rock formations at Isla Bartolomé.