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The Galapagos Islands, an ultimate getaway

 Date: 01/12/2011 12:36

Escaping from everyday life and winding down is so easy to do in the Galapagos Islands. Actually, it's nearly impossible not to forget about the rest of the world.



From the moment you land in Quito or Guayaquil, you will experience a more laid back pace and will be invited to slow down.

By the time you arrive in Galapagos, you have stepped back in time to a place where the earth is almost untouched by humans. You have entered a dream in which you swim with penguins, manta rays and sea turtles. You have gone to another planet, where the terrain is arid and you tiptoe past alien-like iguanas basking on the rocks.

Cruising on the Galapagos Explorer , making stops at several of the 12 islands about 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador, the rest of the world -- with the exception of the 99 other passengers and 60 crew members -- seems to have disappeared. You see the Galapagos Explorer offers an intimate experience with the Galapagos wildlife, the grand advantage of being small. We were three days into our tour before we saw another boat -- a small sailboat in the distance with no obvious signs of life.

But in reality, about 200,000 people visit the islands each year, and five of the islands are inhabited by about 30,000 people. There are about 85 other boats, ranging in size, touring the Galapagos at any given time.

While tourist traffic is kept to a minimum, it's still amazing to see purity of the islands so well maintained.

"People who visit come for that reason," our guide Billy says, explaining the lack of litter and other damage from human traffic.

Nearly all the islands (97% of the area) are protected by the Ecuadorian government and Billy is one of the guides mandated for anyone visiting.

Rules of the islands are emphatically communicated, and must be strictly followed. Do not touch or disturb any plant, rock or animal. Don't feed the animals. Remain on the path. Do not startle or chase any animal. Do not force your way through dense brush. Do not litter. Do not write graffiti.

There are two shore excursions to an island each day of the cruise -- one in the morning and one in the afternoon -- and the naturalist guides lead small groups to the most amazing spots on the islands ensuring we all stay on course.

Galapagos Explorer cruises range from three to fourteen nights. We were on a modified version of the four-night cruise, starting in Bartolome, which is the centre of the islands and one of the most frequently visited sites.

This tiny island -- a little more than 1 square kilometre -- amazingly has a little bit of everything the Galapagos have to offer. Our zodiac craft passed by a small colony of colony of penguins perched on the shark fin shapped pinnacle rock, as we arrived at the beach we were greeted by a small group of noisy sea lions. On the other side there is a man made zodiac dock, from here groups hike up a boardwalk -- built to prevent erosion -- to a staircase of 365 steps to reach the summit. It's only 114-metres high but it is the most popular view in Galapagos.

The landscape consists mostly of lava tubes, spatter cones and hardened lava. Vegetation is limited to lava cactus and mangroves covering the beach dunes.

From the white sand beach, visitors experience what is described as some of the best snorkelling in the world. Sea lions come up onto the beach to coax you into the water. The calm water makes visibility almost as clear as looking through the glass of an aquarium. Sea lions, turtles and iguanas are oblivous to the people swimming in the water but will sometimes engage them in water games.

All visitors to the islands must return to their boats by 6 p.m., as the sun is going down. On the ship at night, the stars and the moon reflect on the water catching sharks and other large fish with their light.

Sleeping is easy with the gentle rocking of the boat and quiet seclusion.

The next stop in the morning was Urbina Bay (Isabela), where giant sea tortoises slowly make their way through the bushes. Land iguanas duck into the mangroves and cacti, camouflaging their yellowish bodies from visitors.

The wildlife seems incredible until the next stop at Espinosa Point on Fernandina Island.

The youngest, and best-preserved island in the world, there are no introduced species on Fernandina Island. But the stark, barren landscape is home to the largest colony of sea iguanas, a giant population of turtles and playful sea lions. Flightless cormorants build their nests on the point. Pelicans hunting for baby crabs land on the backs of iguanas.

Egas Port (Santiago) -- named in honour of George Egas, who explored the island in 1930s and opened a salt mine at the foothill of a sugarloaf volcano -- is a bird- watchers' paradise. Pelicans, blue-footed boobies, lava herons, yellow-crowned night herons, yellow warblers and finches all build their nests here. Walking along the volcanic ash path, you will see two or three of these species in one bush.

Along the red cliffs of Rabida, the water crashes but makes snorkelling no less amazing than the calm waters of Bartolome. Here you're more likely to swim with manta rays, swordfish and sharks, as well as sea lions and turtles.

With so many plants and animals that don't exist anywhere else in the world, it's easy to forget you have not read an e-mail, checked news sites or watched television in four days.

Small but diverse

Ecuador is the second-smallest country in South America -- about a quarter the size of the state of Colorado -- but it is one of the most diverse countries in the world.

Here visitors can swim with sea turtles in the Galapagos, admire the snow-capped Andes and explore the Amazon rainforest.

Other highlights include:

Museo Solar Inti Nan: Built on the equator near Quito, guides here demonstrate the clockwise draining of water south of the equator and counterclockwise just two steps over. It's also one of the few places where you can have one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other in the north.

Nariz del Diablo: The only way into this valley is by train from Alausi. The train travels slowly, zigzagging along the highland mountains. At the base of the valley, visitors can see the Devil's Nose and shop at a tiny market.

Ciudad de Guayaquil Historic Park: In addition to displays of historic artifacts, the park houses animals rescued from illegal traffickers and endangered species. The main goal of the park is conservation and to reintroduce animals into their natural habitat. Visitors can also stroll through a recreated plantation and old city buildings.

If you go to the Galapagos

GETTING THERE

We flew to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on Avianca airlines, and then made our way to Guayaquil, where we flew to Baltra in the Galapagos. See avianca.com.

TOURS

For details on cruises aboard the Galapagos Explorer, see www.galapagos-explorer.com. The company has tours of the region priced in U.S. dollars. Other Galapagos Islands travel options are available: www.galapagoscruise.com.ec


MORE INFORMATION

For additional details on travel to the Galapagos Islands, visit the Ecuador Ministry of Tourism at ecuador.travel.

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