The volcanic Galapagos Archipelago is the second largest marine reserve in the world. Comprising 13 major islands and six smaller ones, its position between three ocean currents means visitors will find a unique climate, and many species that don't occur elsewhere. Photographers and nature enthusiasts will relish the experience.
As the Galapagos Islands are a popular vacation destination, the Ecuadorian government maintains strict control over tourist access to preserve the local ecosystem. A certified tour guide accompanies all visitors, and there are additional restrictions around tour-group size and activities in certain areas. Travellers should make bookings ahead of time.
On land, visitors can pass within inches of mating iguanas, walk between nesting frigate birds and watch thousands of brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttle across black volcanic rocks, among other things. In the sea, they can dive with sharks and turtles, and come face to face with penguins and sea lions. Flamingos, masked boobies, lava lizards and giant tortoises are also part of the wildlife population.
As for plant-life, the islands are volcanic and largely bare of vegetation, though they have some dramatic and strangely beautiful geological features. These include a 30-foot (10m) high cactus forest, exquisitely twisted lava flows, spatter cones and lava tunnels, bizarre rock formations, and red, black and white sand beaches.
Puerto Ayora is the most developed town in the archipelago. Located on Santa Cruz Island, it is the centre of the Galapagos tourism industry. Most visitors either stay in this friendly little town while arranging a boat tour to the rest of the islands, or anchor in the harbour during their cruise.