In these islands we seem nearer to the great fact – the first appearance of life on earth.

These words, written by Charles Darwin after he visited the Galapagos in 1835, only hint at the magic that lies in this cluster of islands. On a weeklong trip last year, my family had a taste of the magic, coming face to face with incredible wildlife and the unique personalities of each island we visited.

Organized by Geographic Expeditions, who’s been bringing travelers to the Galapagos for more than 25 years, our trip took us aboard La Pinta, a state-of-the-art, 48-passenger vessel that would transport us – mostly at night – to 8 of the archipelago’s 19 islands. Equipped with wetsuits and snorkeling gear that were ours to use for the week, we began each morning and afternoon boarding a panga (inflatable zodiac boat), built to hold about a dozen passengers. Always escorted by a naturalist, the panga delivered us – via dry or wet landing depending on the shoreline – to one of the islands, or to a specific destination where we’d slip into the chilly waters.

Like a safari on the sea, our adventures under water and on guided hikes were an eye-opening opportunity to get up extraordinarily close to numerous types of iguanas, sea lions, giant tortoises, frigate birds, the legendary blue-footed boobies, yellow warblers, flamingos, Darwin finches, doves, sharks and penguins.

I was amazed by the lack of fear in the animals when we approached. Respecting their habitat, we often stood silent, watching in awe of their trust and grace – even the iguanas. Our visit in late December was during the sea lions’ birthing season, so we’d often come across throngs of sea lion babies, suckling their mother or trampling one another along the beach in search of her.

First known to the whalers, traders and pirates of the Pacific as Las Islas Encantadas (the Enchanted Isles), the Galapagos were eventually given the name of the galapago, meaning tortoise, by Spanish explorers. The islands’ topography varies greatly – from white, sandy beaches to black volcanic rock to red, lava terrain. As
we hiked across volcanic craters and pristine beaches, there were frequent surprises – a sea lion bull aggressively chasing off his competition, two albatrosses doing a complex mating dance, or a blue-footed boobie tending to her white, fluffy newborn.

We saw firsthand how each island has its own ecology and unique population of species and sub-species – as Darwin saw in the historically pivotal finch, which has evolved into 13 species, each adapted to a different island environment.

Sitting on the deck of La Pinta eating lunch one afternoon, the captain announced over the loudspeaker that we might want to take a look over the starboard side of the ship. We put down our ceviche, and there, below, were scores of dolphins, performing for an enthusiastic crowd while escorting us to our next destination.