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The Islands
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Stepping onto a beach on one of the Galapagos Islands you could well find yourself surrounded by dozens of sunbathing sea lions lying about on the sand like so many sacks of potatoes. As you approach, they don’t blunder off into the sea or shuffle behind a rock, as you might expect; they keep on sleeping in the sun or stare at you with studied indifference. If you stand within a meter or two they might snarl or bark with a sound that’s a cross between a pig’s oink and the klaxon of antique car, as if to say, “This is my space.” But they are unlikely to be aggressive towards you, nor frightened.

Walking along rocky shorelines, you encounter blue-footed boobies laying eggs on the pathways who show not the slightest concern at your presence. They don’t bat an eye if you approach within a meter. Prehistoric marine iguanas, which look like miniature dragons or extras from a science fiction movie, eye you languorously from jagged lava rocks and hardly deign to move if you poke a camera lens within a few inches of their glistening heads.

For hundreds of years human visitors have commented on the abundance and tameness of the wildlife in these remote and isolated islands that straddle the equator in the Pacific Ocean, about 1,000 km [625 miles] off the coast of Ecuador. In fact, the word tame isn’t quite accurate since it implies domesticated wildlife. For the most part animals of the Galapagos have evolved and lived without fear of predators common in other parts of the world, neither human nor four-legged. This absence of fear on the part of the birds and animals, make human visitors feel an extraordinary, uplifting harmony with nature that cannot be experienced anywhere else on earth. It’s for good reasons the Galapagos Islands have often been called the Garden of Eden.

For equally good reasons, the archipelago is also known as the world’s greatest natural laboratory of evolution. Ever since Charles Darwin’s visit in 1835, scientists have been drawn to the islands to study creatures that evolved in isolation from their cousins on the mainland. Darwin was interested in the various species of finches, all of which had adapted to local conditions and evolved in different ways. The islands continue to attract scientists from all over the world, and the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz is an important center for their activities.

In 1959, responding to a growing awareness of the environmental and scientific importance of the archipelago, Ecuador designated 97% of the 8,000 sq km [3,088 square miles] land area of Galapagos as a national park. In 1986, the Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve was established, protecting the water around the archipelago. UNESCO has also recognized the islands as a Man and Biosphere Reserve, and as a World Heritage Site.

Ecuador manages the islands through the Galapagos National Park Service, which has offices in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Nearby is the Charles Darwin Research Station, run by the Charles Darwin Foundation. The Research Station carries out scientific research and assists the Park Service.

The Galapagos National Parks Service has designated more than 60 visitors’ sites on the islands, enabling visitors to see all the interesting wildlife; the rest of the park is off limits to tourists. At each visitors’ site a discreetly marked trail provides excellent views of wildlife, vegetation and landscape of the island. Most of the trails are less than a mile long but can be difficult underfoot, leading over rough lava or uneven boulders. There are also one or two longer hikes in the highlands.

The different sites are varied in their scenery and vegetation but some animals are common at nearly all of them. These include Galapagos sea lions, marine iguanas, lava lizards and a variety of coastal birds. In addition to the visitors’ sites on land, the Galapagos offer excellent scuba diving, though these aren’t recommended for beginners. However, many snorkeling spots offer anyone the chance to see the colorful underwater life of the Galapagos Islands.

Almost without exception, visitors are extremely impressed with what they see and do on the Galapagos Islands. “The trip of a lifetime,” they say, “Like nowhere else on earth” or “ Paradise on this planet.” The only negative things you’ll hear anyone say will be about increasing threats to the environment and wildlife, and fears that the fragile ecosystem will be further damaged.

|Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||
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