The Galápagos is one of those places whose name is so household it almost takes on an air of legend, Lost City of Atlantis style, as opposed to a place you can actually visit on your next trip to South America.

It’s easy to imagine the typical tourist in the Galápagos standing on the bow of a cruise ship, binoculars glued to face. But as in any other stunning natural destination, your options aren’t nearly so limited. Here’s a sampling of what you can look forward to on a trip to the Galápagos.


Staring evolution in the face

The Galápagos archipelago formed millions of years ago and was never connected to any other landmass. Species that happened upon the islands and made their homes their specialized over time to adapt to the somewhat stark terrain, eventually evolving into completely unique creatures -- for example, the Galápagos iguana pictured above.
Photo: Justin Jensen


Looking up to see frigatebirds right over your head

Though not endemic to the Galápagos, these seabirds do visit the islands to breed. Frigate Hill, on San Cristóbal Island, is a good place to spot them.
Photo: Peter Wilton


Seeing the Galápagos tortoise in its natural habitat at El Chato

One of the most recognized species of Galápagos wildlife, the giant tortoise is native to seven of the islands. These reptiles have been known to reach weights of 880 pounds and live up to 170 years. El Chato, a site on Santa Cruz Island, is one of the best places to observe them in the wild.
Photo: Eric Chan


Glimpsing endangered marine species

Hammerhead sharks are just one of the creatures you might encounter at dive / snorkel sites like León Dormido, a rock formation just off San Cristóbal Island.
Photo: Adventure Life


Snorkeling at León Dormido (Kicker Rock)

Along with sharks, eagle rays like the one shown here make frequent appearances at León Dormido.
Photo: jE norton


Exploring the volcanic landscape of Cerro Brujo

The stark landscape of Cerro Brujo, on San Cristóbal Island, is contrasted by the many animal species that call it home, such as this sea lion. The dive / snorkel site León Dormido is visible in the distance.
Photo: Justin Jensen


Hiking from volcano to volcano on Isabela Island

Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago, is still being formed as magma from deep in the Earth feeds the five shield volcanoes making up its bulk. It's one of the most volcanically active places in the world.
Photo: Harvey Barrison


Swimming with sea lions

The Galápagos sea lion is one of the most easily spotted species in the islands, but if you want to swim with one, the small Isla Lobos, just north of San Cristóbal, is your best bet.
Photo: Mark Rowland


Mountain biking to Muro de las Lágrimas

On Isla Isabela, a cycling trail leads along the coast through mangroves and salty lagoons to the Wall of Tears, a manmade structure that dates to the 1940s-50s, when the island was a penal colony.
Photo: Adventure Life


Kayaking off Santa Cruz Island

Kayaking around Divine Bay and Punta Estrada, you'll see colonies of blue-footed boobies, tropic birds, herons, and marine iguanas -- the only species of iguana in the world that's adapted to life in the ocean.
Photo: blinking idiot


Walking through flora as distinct as the fauna

Plant life in the Galápagos evolved in much the same way as the animals, giving rise to truly unique species like the Galápagos prickly pear, which forms freaky-looking forests on Santa Cruz and other islands.
Photo: Dallas Krentzel


Learning all about the tortoise

The spirit of scientific study and conservation is evident in the several facilities across the archipelago where you can learn about the local animal and plant life. Above, a baby Galápagos tortoise and egg at the Tortoise Breeding Center in Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela.
Photo: sparkpunk


Seeing terrain directly shaped by the elements

From the geologic forces below to the battery of the waves (the archipelago is located at the confluence of multiple ocean currents, which partly explains how life arrived to begin with), the islands are constantly being refashioned. This image depicts North Seymour Island.
Photo: Alan


Standing at the rim of the Sierra Negra volcano

One of the active volcanoes on Isla Isabela, Sierra Negra last erupted in 2005. It is easily accessible from the town of Puerto Villamil.
Photo: Hornik Photography


Going on hikes that lead to views like this

Bartolomé Island, one of the youngest in the archipelago, is also home to the only species of penguin living at the Equator, as well as the green turtle.
Photo: frlgundi


Watching nature unfold in front of you

Thanks to decades of conservation efforts, nature plays out in most of the Galápagos as it has for millions of years. Here, a group of blue-footed boobies dives after a shoal of fish.
Photo: Allan Harris


Learning about the communities that call the islands home

When it comes to the human population, the Galápagos is unique in that it has no indigenous people(s). Most of the current inhabitants are descendants of Ecuadorians who arrived during the 20th century. A total of 25,000+ reside on five of the islands, with the largest town being Puerto Ayora (pictured) on Santa Cruz.
Photo: Harvey Barrison


Visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station

The place to have your questions about the Galápagos answered, named after the guy who started it all. Established in 1964, the Charles Darwin Research Station is located in Puerto Ayora and houses many of the species the islands are best known for.
Photo: Dallas Krentzel