The Galapagos Islands, off the western coast of South America, are among the world's most popular adventure destinations. Ever since Charles Darwin investigated the islands and its animal inhabitants while sailing on the HMS Beagle nearly 180 years ago, amateur scientists and nature lovers have flocked there to see the rare species such as giant Galapagos turtles, blue-footed boobies (shown in the photograph), sea lions, seals, and flightless cormorants.
But with success has come concern. Thousands of visitors have invaded the islands in the last few years, forcing the government of Ecuador to restrict the number of travelers and limiting the companies that can bring in groups. Still, a few tour operators are licensed to conduct land and sea expeditions and to do so in a way that doesn't harm the fragile ecosystem. Here are a few of them.
Ecoventura, a family-owned company based in Guayaquil, Ecuador, runs a fleet of four vessels—one exclusively for dive trips—that brings about 4,000 passengers a year. The company recently announced its schedule of 2011 cruise dates, which features a sliding scale of discounts on bookings made more than 90 days before departure.
According to Ecoventura, the best time of year to see the abundant animal life is the end of the year, September to December. That's when the islands and surrounding seas are most likely to be full of pilot whales, bottlenose and common dolphins, various types of rays, sea turtles, sea lions, boobies, albatrosses, and much more.
Ecoventura also has teamed up with a charitable organization called Pack For A Purpose, which encourages travelers to leave room in their suitcases for school and medical supplies. The tour operator has a list of needed supplies, everything from pencils to soccer balls, and will help passengers decide what to bring.
Austin-Lehman Adventures, which has more than 35 years of experience running active vacations from Yellowstone National Park to Africa, has begun bringing small groups to the Galapagos. Designed to promote in-depth exploration of the region, ALA's trips are eight days/seven nights: For those who want to stay on land, trips include stays in three lodges on three different islands; going by sea, accommodations and travel are on 20-passenger luxury motor yachts that stop at different islands, sailing among them at night.
Red Mangrove Galapagos and Ecuador Lodges
ALA is one of the many tour operators that book visitors into Red Mangrove Galapagos and Ecuador Lodges, which opened two dive lodges late last year, bringing their total to six.
Red Mangrove Santa Cruz Divers Lodge and Isabela Divers Lodge are all-inclusive spots for staying and diving. (A dive academy will open at the Santa Cruz property this spring.) Packages include meals, excursions with English-speaking guides, use of diving and snorkeling gear, and can be booked from two days to a week.
The five-year-old company was the first to introduce land-based excursions to the Galapagos, which had been a cruise-only destination. All of the lodges are small—5 to 14 rooms or cottages—and located close to water. Some are near villages, some have hot tubs and other creature comforts, all offer the highest quality accommodations in the islands.