Few places in the world provide as distinctive an experience as Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. Located about 600 miles off the mainland, the 19 isles of this volcanic archipelago feature fascinating geology, unique endemic wildlife, and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure. In late March 2016, photographer Don Biresch and his camera set sail with UnCruise Adventures, bringing back a treasure trove of stunning imagery highlighting the archipelago's biodiversity and geological splendor.
Most travelers to the Galapagos are attracted by the unusual wildlife, and they're never disappointed. Galapagos animals are generally unalarmed by humans, making it easy to approach frigatebird nesting grounds or walk right up to a sedate Galapagos tortoise. (By the way, the islands are named for these iconic centenarians – "galapago" means tortoise in Spanish.) Other must-see creatures include blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and tiny Galapagos penguins. And, of course, you'll spot the finches that inspired Darwin's Origin of Species.
The islands are categorized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as such are under strict protection, so licensed Ecuadorian tour guides must accompany visitors on all excursions. It's more a help than a hindrance, though, as guides are quite knowledgeable and have a great eye when it comes to spotting rare wildlife.
In the Galapagos, almost every adventure involves some element of fauna-spotting: many of the region's best hikes bring you close to nesting grounds, and a leisurely paddle through the waves will bring you nose-to-nose with sea lions. Even a stroll through San Cristobal's busy Puerto Baquerizo Moreno gives you the chance to get up close and personal with barking fur seals, who have been known to hop right up onto benches beside unsuspecting tourists!
Although the Galapagos are best known and loved for their unusual land critters, there's no shortage of diving and snorkeling opportunities for the seaworthy. Stop off in Genovesa Island's Darwin Bay, a submerged volcanic caldera , to glimpse hammerhead sharks, rays, and colorful tropical fish. During the summer and fall months, mingle with massive whale sharks near Wolf and Darwin Islands at the northwestern tip of the archipelago.
But animals aren't all the Galapagos have to offer. As an active volcanic archipelago, new islands are constantly in formation, and the larger, newer islands to the west boast dramatic formations such as Pinnacle Rock, an oft-photographed volcanic cone on Bartholome Island. Further west, Isabela Island is home to Sierra Negra, the second largest crater in the world. Come here for an unforgettable hike across a landscape dotted with steaming fumaroles.
Because each island has its own unique geology and wildlife, the best way to experience the Galapagos is on a sponsored cruise like the one Biresch took with UnCruise Adventures. Such cruise lines provide access to hard-to-visit islands and cover distances overnight so you lose no time on your adventure. They also double as floating hotels that serve three delicious Ecuadorian meals a day – one less thing for you to worry about booking! If you prefer to become intimately acquainted with one island, hotels such as the Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz offer beautiful accommodations and access to a variety of exciting local excursions.