Wild, weird, and wondrous, the islands of the Galápagos teem with friendly animals unlike those anywhere else on earth.
Less than an hour after stepping off a plane and onto the sandy tarmac of San Cristóbal, the easternmost island of the Galápagos, I was happily snorkeling along a cindered shoreline, spying on iridescent parrot fish and chocolate chip sea stars. Fifteen feet away, a marine iguana the size of a dachshund slipped away from its sunbathing clan and slid into the water to gather its lunch. With sharp claws and teeth, the Mohawked reptile gulped huge mouthfuls of bright-green seaweed from submerged boulders. Then it noticed me. Giving its long, thick tail a languorous swish, the iguana dragon-paddled like a retriever directly toward me.
“What’s it want?” I burbled through the snorkel, quickly back-pedaling through the water and trying not to sound alarmed to the local naturalist swimming alongside. “Nothing,” he said, and laughed. “This is the Galápagos. The animals are friendly.”
Sure enough, before my week of island-hopping was done I would safely snorkel amid twirling sea lions and swooping sea turtles, and watch a four-foot-long whitetip reef shark benignly dart beneath my feet. It’s hard not to giggle at the otherworldliness of the Galápagos, an Ecuadoran archipelago of 19 islands and countless islets 600 miles off South America’s Pacific coast. Here you can while away a morning watching pint-size penguins enjoy an early swim off Isabela, the largest island, or see long-beaked blue-footed boobies flapping and marching about the edge of a lagoon on Santa Cruz Island like gleeful Seuss characters in cornflower-blue galoshes.
Of course, it’s not just the welcoming spirit of the wildlife that has made the Galápagos a place of pilgrimage. In the years since Charles Darwin stepped off a ship here in 1835 and began mulling the oddities he saw, the islands have come to be treasured as a living illustration of evolution in action. Leaving behind most predators, the species of plants and animals here survived a long voyage from the mainland and eventually thrived and diversified, filling every ecological niche and cranny the rugged volcanic terrain offered, from desert coast to humid highland. The results include swimming lizards, wingless cormorants, and forests of sunflower trees.
And there are the several species of coffee table–size tortoises that can live 150 years and go up to 12 months without food or water. In the uplands of Santa Cruz, one of the four islands that are inhabited, I watched a slow-moving, surprisingly tall specimen stretch its leathery neck so that its E.T. face and gaping, toothless mouth could nab bristly paddles off a prickly pear cactus. Nearby, a few wizened tortoises ambled slowly, slowly down the hill to escape the noonday heat in a muddy wallow, nostrils up, hippo style. They had been easy to find—the owners of a cattle ranch adjacent to the Tortoise Reserve have dedicated fields to the roaming creatures and well-behaved human visitors.
“We have about 20,000 wild giant tortoises in the islands now,” a guide told me proudly, as we hosed off our muddy boots. Starting in the 18th century, whalers, pirates, and others—even Darwin—killed and ate more than 100,000 without misgiving, she explained; in 1959, an estimated 15,000 remained. But with the help of breeding centers (three of which are open to visitors) and protective measures, the giants are making a comeback. Guarding the unusual wildlife has become a point of pride and source of economic security. One warm evening by the beach in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the provincial capital on San Cristóbal, I spied a snorting sea lion stretched out on a bench in a bus shelter. Above it, an ad for the national park commanded in bold, conservemos lo nuestro, which can be translated “Preserve What’s Ours.”
One day, with local guide Jairo Torres, I hiked around the rim of Sierra Negra, a magnificent 3,700-foot volcano on Isabela Island. Along the way we passed through several distinct ecological zones, including undulant fields of sharply pocked and hardened lava, as Torres pointed out birds and plants I might have missed—a soaring Galápagos hawk or a leafy scalesia, a tree-like member of the sunflower family.
Torres’s grandfather, father, and uncles were fishermen, and he remembers trading fish for avocados with farmers as a kid. He got a job guiding instead of fishing because it’s pretty good money and he loves living on the island. Sometimes, on days off, he teaches students at his old elementary school about why the islands are so special.
Later at the airport, among the many souvenirs, a T-shirt caught my eye. A portrait of a white-bearded Charles Darwin adorned the front, with these words on the back: it’s not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most adaptable. Darwin himself never actually wrote that—consider it an interesting mutation in his legacy, right here in the Galápagos.
Galápagos: Adapting to Tourism  Organizations like the Galápagos Conservancy and Galápagos National Park are doing what they can to protect the unique ecosystem.
Photography by Susan Seubert (crab and sea lions); courtesy of David Adam Kess/Wikipedia (giant turtle); courtesy of Charlesjsharp/Wikipedia (marine iguana)
This article was first published in September 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For information about traveling to the Galápagos, visit AAA.com/travel  or visit a AAA branch.