Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands in 1835 and wrote in his Voyage of the Beagle a description of the place that so far has eluded most tourist brochures:
"Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. . . . The dry and parched surface, having been heated by the noonday sun, gave the air a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove: we fancied even the bushes smelt unpleasantly. Although I diligently tried to collect as many plants as possible, I succeeded in getting only ten kinds; and such wretched- looking little weeds would have better become an arctic, than an equatorial Flora."
Little has changed (although I must confess that I did not notice that the bushes "smelt" badly). These are desert islands and it is hard to believe at first glance that they possess the varied and fascinating wildlife that they do. For me, the Galápagos was a magical place that I cannot recommend too highly to anyone interested in nature or evolution, which is readily visible here. It is also a World Heritage Site.
The best way to see the islands is to spend at least several days on a boat. I spent a week on the M.V. Beluga and I can highly recommend it. We generally traveled from one island to another either at night or after dinner. The boat carried Monica, a very knowledgeable guide, who conducted both onshore and snorkeling expeditions. As far as I know, it is mandatory that one be accompanied by a licensed guide before going ashore on most of islands. Also, the areas that one can hike to on any given island are strictly controlled. I think the Ecuadorian government is serious about preserving these unique islands (which I, for one, was happy to see).
One of the creatures you will certainly meet if you visit is the Sally Lightfoot crab, can be seen almost everywhere scurrying over the lava rock. One of their main predators is the octopus, which lies in wait among the rocks for a crab to venture into the water. For this reason, the crabs are very reluctant to enter the water and, when forced, will paddle so furiously that they are actually able to "run" a short distance across the surface.
Another easily-seen creature is the Galápagos tortoise, after whom the islands are named ("Galápagos" means "tortoise" in Spanish). The tortoises differ in various ways on the different islands, having evolved to take best advantage of their particular surroundings.
The islands are also well-known for their land and marine iguanas, sea lions and a wide assortment of birds. Many species of animals and plants in the Galápagos are found no where else in the world.
If you go to the islands, I highly recommend the snorkeling. We saw white tipped sharks (which were harmless), various rays, starfish, sea turtles, sea lions (which were a lot of fun) and thousands of colorful fish that I couldn't begin to identify, let alone list. There are several underwater photos among the photos on the Galápagos pages. These photos were taken by Russ Lesko, one of the guests aboard the Beluga during my visit, and are used here with his kind permission.
The photos above offer a quick overview of the islands and some of the inhabitants. For more detail on specific subjects check out the following pages: Galápagos Birds, Galápagos Marine Life, Galápagos Reptiles and Galápagos Landscapes.