The Galapagos Islands
Ever since Charles Darwin described the Galápagos incredible wildlife in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, this isolated Pacific archipelago has been famous for its natural wonders. If it hadn't been for their extreme location, 966km (600 miles) off the west coast of Ecuador, mass tourism would have spoiled the islands years ago.
Well, don't speak too soon. Tourism has become Ecuador's fourth-largest industry and the Galápagos its most popular tourist draw by far, with the number of tourists mounting by 12% a year. Immigrant workers have smuggled in goats and pigs that compete with native species for food; invader rats come ashore with cruise ships. The sleepy main town, Puerto Ayora, is rife with trendy hotels and restaurants. Visitors zip around in pick-up trucks madly snapping photos of everything they see.
What's most remarkable about Galápagos's wildlife is how little they fear humans -- and why would they, since they've never had to worry about predators. Young sea lions will show off their best moves as you snorkel among them; mockingbirds will peck at your shoelaces; the blue-footed boobie will perform its famous two-stepped mating dance right under your nose.
An astounding number of unique species thrive on these 19 small volcanic islands (plus about 40 islets); boat travel is essential to view them all. At the Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora (tel. 05/526146) on Santa Cruz, visitors can get an up-close view of the gentle giant tortoises. Santiago's rocky tide pools are home to rare fur sea lions and many beautiful heron species; Española has albatrosses and blue-footed boobies; in Fernandina there are vivid marine iguanas and flightless cormorants; Isabela is home to Galápagos's penguins (the world's only tropical penguins); Genovesa has frigate birds and red-footed boobies.
Getting There: With rare exceptions, travelers come by plane to the Galápagos Islands. Tame (tel. 02/2909-900; www.tame.com.ec) and Aerogal (tel. 1-800/2376-425; www.aerogal.com.ec) now offer daily flights to both Baltra Airport, right off Santa Cruz island, and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on San Cristóbal island.
Upon arrival you must pay a US$100 fee (US$50 for under 12) to the National Park (www.galapagospark.org), which is good for the duration of your stay. This fee must be paid in cash, so be sure to plan ahead and have it ready. Children under 12 pay $50.
Where to Stay: Royal Palm Hotel, Via Baltra Km 18, Isla Santa Cruz (tel. 800/528-6069 in U.S. or 05/5527-409; www.royalpalmhotel.net). Finch Bay Hotel, Pinta Estrada, Island Santa Cruz (tel. 05/5526-297; finchbayhotel AT spsinter.net).
Tour Companies: Tour Ecoventura, 6404 Blue Lagoon Dr., Miami (tel. 800/633-7972). Klein Tours, Av. Eloy Alfaro and Caralina Aldaz, Quito, Ecuador (tel. 888/50-KLEIN in the U.S.; www.kleintours.com).