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Leaving behind the smog, traffic and fast food of Quito, an airplane flies two hours west and eons backward in time. The Galápagos Islands is a land that time forgot, a rugged and unforgiving paradise where the air, land and sea are home to species found nowhere else on earth. It is a zoo without cages: each island is its own harsh laboratory of evolution, adaptation and competition. The marine iguanas understand this: stoic black dragons that seem to have crawled out of the volcanic rock itself, they share the lordship of these islands with the birds, tortoises and sea lions. They were here first, and they will permit you to visit, but they know that you couldn’t stay even if you wanted to. You’re not tough enough to share their rocky bit of paradise.

 

Fun and sun? Surf and sand? Forget it. If that’s what you’re looking for, go to Cozumel. A visit to Galápagos is an expedition, a chance to walk in the footprints of Charles Darwin. It’s not about the beach, it’s about the birds, fish and animals, and simply put, there is no better place to see them than here.

 

In a sense, there are no species that are purely native to the islands. The islands were never connected to any continent: every resident reptile, mammal, bird and fish arrived after the islands were born of thunderous volcanic upheavals in the deep crevasses of the Pacific Ocean. Once these animals found themselves on these rock-strewn, desolate islands, survival dictated the long process of adaptation. Ages later, the island species no longer even resemble their cousins on the continent.

 

The most famous resident of Santa Cruz Island is about 80 years old, has no teeth, and weighs somewhere around 200 pounds. His face has all the wrinkles you’d expect for someone his age: he has a sort of worn, leathery look about him that reflects a life mostly spent outdoors. He’s in good health for his age, however, and enjoys his vegetarian diet; he has a penchant for papayas. He is a full-time resident of the Charles Darwin Research Station, where they sincerely wish that he would have more sex. They call him Lonesome George, and he is the last surviving Pinta Island giant tortoise.

 

But even George and his sad tale have to share the spotlight in this magical place. There are more than a dozen endemic species on Galapagos: animals that can be found nowhere else on earth. Not counting George, there are ten surviving species of giant Galápagos tortoise: four more have gone extinct. The Galápagos penguin is the only one to live north of the equator. The flightless cormorant has lost its wings to evolution: there are few predators to flee. The iguanas are marvels of adaptation—the land iguanas eat spiny cacti with ease, while the marine iguanas can survive a 15 degree drop in body temperature while they eat underwater algae. Even the nondescript little finches have their share of the fame: Darwin used the thirteen different endemic species of finch as an example to prove his theories (one variety can suck blood!). Even some marine species are endemic: the Galápagos shark is a gray reef shark only found in the islands.

 

For all the rugged vistas and parched, rocky trails, the Galápagos is actually a very fragile ecosystem. In the early days of exploration of the islands, passing whaling ships often took tortoises for food: this resulted in the extinction of four different species. The first settlers released goats into the wild. This did provide food in the short term, but now they’re considered an ecological disaster: they destroy the vegetation and ruin the habitat of other native animals: the tortoises and iguanas in particular have been badly affected. Introduced plants such as the sour apple and blackberry have taken over acres of park area, forcing out native plants in the process. Domestic dogs and cats that escape and breed in the wild are considered a serious problem as well. Efforts to control these animals and plants have met with mixed success: for example, goats have been successfully eradicated from some of the islands.

 

There is hope: concerted efforts of park staff, international organizations and tourism operators have helped greatly in recent years to protect the islands and the animals that live there. And don’t let the gloomy human record in the Islands discourage you from a visit: as long as you closely follow the instructions your specially trained naturalist guide gives you, you’ll not cause any damage.

 

There is a reason why the Galápagos Islands are one of the top three visitor destinations in South America on any list you check: they’re magnificent. Enjoy the white sand beaches, lounge on a luxurious cruise ship, but bring extra rolls of film or digital memory cards for the real stars of the islands: the flora and fauna of one of the last original places in the world.



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