Before my voyage to the Galápagos, I imagined stark landscapes and blue waters against rocky shores. I’d heard about up-close wildlife encounters, knew its islands were born entirely from volcanic eruption, and was reading Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species to try and wrap my arms around the rare wildlife that called it home. Yet, nothing quite prepared me for the surprises and adventures that happened every day in the Galápagos.

Wonder what it’s really like to explore this magnificent wildlife preserve? Here are the top highlights from my A&K Galápagos cruise.

 

Galapagos-Exploring

Exploring Wild Shores

Forget what you think you know about volcanic rock, because the scope and wild variety that make up the Galápagos are a true feast and surprise for the eyes. Every day, our pangas and naturalist guides led us ashore to explore a new island, and every place was different from the last. We hiked the rocky, desert-like terrain of North Seymour Island with its red-chested frigate bird, blue-footed boobies and palo santos (holy stick trees); the fantastically ropy pahoehoe lava flow that covered Isabela’s Punta Moreno; and around the giant, Oreo-colored bomb rocks of San Cristobal, which had arrived via explosion from another island. But here’s what really surprised me: the jungle-like Cormorant Point on Floreana with its lagoons and flamingos, the white sand beach of Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal (where Darwin made his first landing) and the stunning cliffs that fronted the deep blue waters of Espanola.

 

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Photo by Martin Loyola

Snorkeling in a Wildlife Wonderland

I had never before snorkeled among such a profusion of massive and unafraid wildlife at the same time that I felt entirely at peace. It was absolutely exciting to have sea lions zip curiously underneath and above us, and wild to swim with several Galápagos green sea turtles just off the shore at Floreana and Post Office Bay, where a long tradition let us participate in the mailing and delivery of postcards from visitors to the island. And did I mention the thrill of seeing white tip reef sharks swim from a cave below? Even still, there was always a feeling of being in harmony with nature, and of safety and peace.

 

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Cruising on a Beautiful Ship

Veteran naturalist Karina Lopez said that it’s “cruising that takes you to the real, authentic heart of the Galápagos.” Experts on the archipelago agree, including A&K, which carries guests on its Luxury Small Group Journeys aboard ‘La Pinta.’ The highlight for me wasn’t just cruising through the blue Pacific in a comfortable, well-equipped adventure yacht or waking in some of the largest cabins in the Galápagos, but also kicking back after adventurous mornings ashore with an alfresco seafood BBQ or a siesta nap in the shade on the top deck.

 

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Kayaking amid Penguins and Mangroves

Kayaking in the Galápagos often plays second fiddle to hiking and snorkeling, but it didn’t for me, especially on Elizabeth Bay off Isabela Island. I loved being out on the water with schools of eagle and golden rays swimming right below me. Mangroves line the shore here and you can paddle right into them, and with some luck, spot penguins popping in and out of the water in the shade of the trees. Meanwhile, the island’s famed marine iguanas slip in and out of the water.

 

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Strolling Exciting Port Towns

I’d never imagined towns with human populations in the Galápagos, let alone thriving and vibrant communities with 20,000 residents. Find it on the island of Santa Cruz, one of four islands in the archipelago with a permanent human population, and especially in lively Puerto Ayora. Stroll the main drag that lines the waterfront, opting for lunch at one of its restaurants and find excellent souvenirs in its jewelry shops and local art galleries.

 

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Discovering the Land of the Giant Tortoises

Another permanent resident of Santa Cruz? Some 3,500 Galápagos tortoises, which you’ll find in their natural habitat in the island’s Highlands, just a drive from Puerto Ayora. It’s quite special to walk slowly alongside these prehistoric giants, while they lumber through tall grasses and plunk down in muddy waters. And, like the rest of the Galápagos, the Highlands reveal more than mere tortoises, including lava tunnels below ground that you can actually walk through, and Jurassic Park-like landscapes punctuated by sunken volcanos and green scalesia forests.

 

Galapagos-Stargazing

Stargazing with Naturalist Guides at Sea

It’s dreamy to end full days in this wild place with a cocktail, a recap of the day’s events and the plan for the next with your naturalist guides — whose stories go beyond nature to include the Galápagos’ fascinating human history — and a beautiful dinner served outside with balmy ocean breezes. But on nights with clear skies, it was even more amazing to take in the panoply of stars, which stretched all the way from the heavens to where the horizon met the sea. Frigate birds rode the wind alongside our boat, which rocked gently with the waves. Our guides pointed out constellations at their peak, such as the Taurus, now pointing its brightly illuminated horn toward the earth.