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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.

Activity Level 1:

1 2 3 4 5


Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 2:

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Moderately Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 3:

1 2 3 4 5


Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

Activity Level 4:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

Activity Level 5:

1 2 3 4 5


Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

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Recommended Viewing

Watch this video showcasing what makes this country so unforgettable

ReelEarth: Veronica the Storyteller Produced by Daniel Yépez Brito and Irina López Eldredge

Get to know Veronica, a Quito woman who embraces traditional oral storytelling, and works to keep Ecuador’s myths and legends alive.

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Ecuador: Month-By-Month

There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.

Ecuador in January-February

The Galápagos are pleasantly warm and clear in January and February, making for the best snorkeling season. The mainland at this time is experiencing almost daily thunderstorms and fog coverage—temperatures are lower, making for a comfortable climate.

Holidays & Events

  • Mid February: El Dia del Oriente, the anniversary of the "discovery" of the Amazon River

Must See

In Floreana, January and February mark nesting season for the majestic Galápagos flamingo. Green sea turtle hatchlings begin taking over the beaches heading toward the sea.

Watch this film to discover more about Ecuador

Women's Work Produced by Lorien Nesbitt

Learn how the crafting talents of one Ecuadorian woman empowered hundreds in her community.

Ecuador in March-April

Sun exposure in the Galápagos is most intense in March and April. The rains begin to subside, but torrential downpours are still possible. For many, this is the best time for surfing off the Ecuadorean coast. 

Must See

The eggs of flamingos, marine iguanas, and sea turtles begin hatching. As the summer solstice draws closer, the waved albatross begins arriving in Española. Many avian species, including Darwin's Finches, are in mating season so energetic songs fill the air. Penguins also start coming out during March and April. 

Watch this film to discover more about Ecuador

Women's Work Produced by Lorien Nesbitt

Learn how the crafting talents of one Ecuadorian woman empowered hundreds in her community.

Ecuador in May-June

May marks the end of the rainy season. Many roadways in Ecuador are drenched in water, so detours and closings are common. The dry season is peak bird-watching time in the rainforest, with beautiful species like the gray-headed kite, yellow-tufted dacnis, and guira tanager more common. With strong winds hitting the Andes, the resulting moisture pushed to the lowlands creates thick cloud forests over the jungle. The mainland climate tends to be muggy with overcast skies.

Holidays & Events

  • Late June: Inti Raymi, an ancient Incan festival featuring indigenous people dressing in brightly-colored costumes. Typically they "invade" the plazas of cities and towns, signifying the endurance of their cultural heritage.

Must See

The iconic blue-footed booby begins its courtship ritual, and several species such as the waved albatross and giant tortoise start nesting. The giant tortoise will continue nesting season through November. This is also prime season for oceanic voyages as dolphins and humpback whale sightings are more frequent. 

Watch this film to discover more about Ecuador

Women's Work Produced by Lorien Nesbitt

Learn how the crafting talents of one Ecuadorian woman empowered hundreds in her community.

Ecuador in July-August

July and August is winter in Ecuador, so high-altitude hikes are comfortable in mid-70's temperatures. With stronger currents in the seas, visiting bustling Quito or charming mountainside villages are popular.  

Holidays & Events

  • Mid August: The Festival of the Corn, a festival in Tarqui, involves the much-anticipated Corn Queen Competition, and energetic local music and dance fill the streets.
  • End of August: The Yamor Festival, held in the communities of the Otavalo people, pays homage to Mother Earth. Music and dance in brightly-colored geometric designs fill the streets, and chicha—a fermented corn drink—is widely popular.

Must See

While the currents are strong in July and August, the colder waters make for peak whale-shark sightings. The Galápagos Hawk, with its spotted golden plumage, begins courting on the islands of Española and Santiago. Nesting season for masked boobies and swallow tail gulls begins on Genovesa.

Watch this film to discover more about Ecuador

Women's Work Produced by Lorien Nesbitt

Learn how the crafting talents of one Ecuadorian woman empowered hundreds in her community.

Ecuador in September-October

September is the best time to visit the Amazon. Less rain means fewer mosquitoes, lower rivers, and better trail access. Through September is the Ecuadorean winter—cooler temperatures mean high-energy excursions are more manageable. October is the beginning of the rainy season, dropping regular rainfall until May.

September marks the end of a vacation season, so by the end of the month there are generally fewer tourists. Prices will be lower, and popular tours and attractions—especially the Galápagos Islands—will be less crowded.

Holidays & Events

  • End of September: The Festival of the Virgen de Las Mercedes sees plazas and streets all across South America filled with people wearing black masks and sporting brightly-colored religious dioramas on their backs. 
  • October 9: Ecuador celebrates the independence of Guayaquil, the city in which its revolution began. The streets are filled with ornate dancing, music, and fireworks. 

Must See

During the coldest season in Galápagos, several species including penguins and sea lions are most plentiful. Blue-footed boobies and other seabirds are hatching, while stony-plumed lava herons and giant tortoises are nesting. With the coming of nutrient-rich sub-Arctic waters carried by the Humboldt Current, colorful marine life like the Burrito Grunt Fish begin schooling in the region. 

Watch this film to discover more about Ecuador

Women's Work Produced by Lorien Nesbitt

Learn how the crafting talents of one Ecuadorian woman empowered hundreds in her community.

Ecuador in November-December

A couple of months into the rainy season, vegetation is now lush and thick everywhere. Insects are more plentiful and wildlife is harder to spot amid the increasing rains. 

Holidays & Events

  • November 2: The Day of the Dead brings families in rural Ecuador to their loved ones' graves for picnics, while city dwellers drop flowers at the graves and enjoy a family meal at home in memoriam of their passed relatives. 
  • Early December: The Foundation of Quito Festival celebrates the founding of the city with streets and plazas flooded with dancing, music, and frenetic street parties. 

Must See

Sea lion pups with their upturned snouts and gleaming black eyes are born, and the beaches are rife with tortoise hatchlings making their way to sea. Mating season begins for green sea turtles and elegant brown noddies.

Watch this film to discover more about Ecuador

Women's Work Produced by Lorien Nesbitt

Learn how the crafting talents of one Ecuadorian woman empowered hundreds in her community.

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Ecuador Interactive Map

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The Galápagos Islands

Peppered in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of 20 volcanic islands, each home to a diverse array of wildlife, flora, and landscapes—from white sand beaches to black and red volcanic rock. Known as the “Enchanted Isles,” the Galápagos is home to some of the highest levels of endemic flora and fauna on Earth. Due to not having any natural predators, animals on the island, such as sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises, and others, can be playful or downright oblivious, allowing visitors to get up close and personal.

Galápagos Produced by Dariusz Sepiolo

Dive deep as you explore the unique marine wildlife found under the waters of the Galápagos islands.

Discover the Galápagos Islands with O.A.T. on:

Tracing Darwin’s Steps

In 1831, a 22-year old Charles Darwin convinced Captain Robert FitzRoy to allow him to sail aboard the H.M.S. Beagle as the ship’s naturalist on a voyage around South America. It wasn’t until 1835 that the Beagle arrived in the Galápagos, where Darwin collected geological and biological specimen on several of the islands. During Darwin’s excursions, he noted that the endemic creatures were similar from island to island, with differences that perfectly adapted them to their unique environment. More than 20 years later, Darwin would gather his field notes from the Galápagos and publish his book, The Origin of Species.

Trace Darwin's steps with O.A.T. on:


A sprawling city standing at attention in the Andean foothills, Quito is vibrant mix of Spanish colonial and modern Ecuadorian in just about every way. With an elevation of 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito is the highest capital city in the world, and second most populous city in the country, with 2.7 million residents. Raucous marketplaces are packed with local produce and fresh meats, while artwork, native handcrafts, and hat makers present their bounty in city plaza pop-up shops. Quito’s shining gem, however, is its Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and home to La Ronda, a historic neighborhood that gives way to preserved, ornate cathedrals, monuments, and Carondelet Palace, where the seat of Ecuador’s government resides.

Explore the cultural gems of Quito with O.A.T. on:

Amazon Rain Forest

Home to thousands of rare and endemic species, the Amazon Rain Forest of Ecuador is an astounding study in biodiversity. A step inside Ecuador’s rain forest, known as the Oriente, is a unique glimpse into a seemingly undiscovered pocket of the world. There are 1600 species of birds alone, including the toucan, macaw, and tanager. Native mammals such as tree monkeys, jaguars, and sloths can be found, as well as river dolphins and the infamous fanged predators, piranhas. Ecuador’s 2% stake of the Amazon is not only home to fascinating nature and wildlife, but also shares a habitat with several indigenous tribes, some of which remain uncontacted by the modern world.

Timelapse from Deep in the Amazon Jungle: Ecuador Produced by Alex Rivest

Witness the poetry of passing time as this timelapse captures stars dancing across the night sky and rivers of the Amazon jungle.

Experience exotic nature and wildlife with O.A.T. on:

The Andes

The world’s longest mountain range rims the western edge of South America in a continuous sweep of highlands, mountain peaks, and valleys that extend throughout Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. In Ecuador, the Andes tends to be one of the most visited regions in the country, with natural and cultural diversity—from active volcanoes and cloud forests, to Incan sites, colonial towns, and Indian markets. The Andes, which loosely translates to “high crest” in Quechua, is also home to 99% of the world’s tropical glaciers—rivers of ice which are permanently frozen due to the high elevation.

Take in the majestic vistas of the Andes with O.A.T. on:

Devil’s Nose Train

Some would call it thrilling; others may use the term harrowing. The Devil’s Nose Train in the southern Andes is a 7.5 mile train ride that climbs 1640 feet up from Guayaquil to Riobamba and Quito. An impressive engineering feat, this section of the Trans-Andean Railroad is constructed of hairpin zig-zag turns that offer stunning views of Chimborazo and Carihuairazo. This mountainside that was once-thought impassable now provides travelers with a breathtaking (sometimes quite literally) hour and 15 minute train ride through gorges and valleys, and passed waterfalls and rivers.

Take the thrilling Devil's Nose Train ride with O.A.T. on:

Featured Reading

Immerse yourself in Ecuador with this selection of articles, recipes, and more


Learn more about the world’s only living swimming lizard: the marine iguana.


Read about Dispatches' editor-in-chief's harrowing tale of overcoming her fear of bugs in the Amazon.


Islands whose wildlife inspired a great naturalist


Set sail with Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle on an excursion that changed the face of biology.


We’ve got you covered for your next Galápagos adventure with the wonders you can expect to see and packing essentials.


Don’t worry: Bats aren’t here to suck your blood—they will protect you from insects though.


Discover a woman’s experiences with a local shaman in Ecuador as he performs a cleansing ceremony.

Marine Iguanas of the Galápagos

Where Darwin meets Godzilla

Tom Lepisto, from Dispatches

In the age of dinosaurs, giant aquatic reptiles like the ichthyosaurus ruled the seas. But today, if you want to see a swimming lizard in its natural habitat, you can only do so in the Galápagos Archipelago.

Located 600 miles west of mainland Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, this volcanic chain of islands is far removed from other land masses. Existing in such splendid isolation for millions of years, these islands have been a breeding ground for several kinds of endemic wildlife, including the world’s only living swimming lizard: the marine iguana.

These water-loving reptiles differ physically from their terrestrial cousins in having a horizontally broader tail that aids in swimming. The dorsal spines on their back have developed to play a role like the dorsal fins of fish, helping with stability while moving through the water. And because immersion in ocean water causes the marine iguana to take in more salt than it would be healthy to retain, another of its unique adaptations is a gland in the nasal area that removes excess salt, which is then expelled through the nose. The ejected salt is often visible as a white “frosting” on the faces of iguanas after they’ve emerged from the water.

Because they are cold-blooded, marine iguanas have to warm themselves in the sun after each interval of immersion in cool ocean water. This makes them easy to observe, but be warned that—to paraphrase the old saw about dogs—it’s best to “let sunbathing iguanas lie.” Though they may appear to be docile, as a defense mechanism they will respond aggressively to any perceived attack while they are warming up.

The largest marine iguanas are more than four feet long from nose to tail, but this remarkable creature has been given an even larger profile by Hollywood. The computer-generated monster in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 remake of Godzilla was modeled on a marine iguana— transformed, in the film’s concept, into a city-crunching giant by a radiation-induced mutation. While that scenario is (thankfully) fictional, the real-world story of marine iguanas is a notable evolutionary tale.

Biologists believe that about ten million years ago, marine iguanas and the land iguanas that also live in the Galápagos today both evolved from a common ancestor. Although the islands where that took place have since eroded and now lie underwater, volcanism produced newer islands in the Galápagos which have continued to provide habitats for the archipelago’s unique wildlife.

All marine iguanas are classified under the scientific name Amblyrhynchus cristatus. But in a testament to the continuing role of the Galápagos as a crucible of evolution, scientists recognize seven distinct subspecies that have developed on different islands. The smallest marine iguanas inhabit Genovesa Island, while those found on Fernandina are larger. On Española, the iguanas have patches of red and green that make them some of the most colorful.

When Charles Darwin sailed to the Galápagos in 1835, the unique fauna of the islands and the way that different species had developed on different islands sparked his theorizing about evolution. But he did not find the marine iguana particularly attractive, calling it “a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in its movements.” Though not enamored of the iguanas’ appearance, Darwin observed them extensively, and their distinctiveness as species certainly influenced his thinking about natural selection. And in fact, iguanas appear slow-moving only while warming up on land; in the water, they are quite agile.

So whether you find the most intriguing thing about the marine iguana to be its evolutionary distinctiveness, its turn as a model for Godzilla, or its resemblance to a little dragon with more of a knack for treading water than breathing fire, it is one of the creatures that make the Galápagos truly unique.

Where Darwin meets Godzilla

Welcome to the Jungle

Confessions from the Amazon

Laura Chavanne, from Dispatches

“I’m staying in Quito.”

My coworkers laughed at me, but in that moment, I wished I could be serious.

“No, really. I’ll find a hostel somewhere, and the bus can pick me up on the way to the Galápagos.”

My friend Krysten gave me a smile. “You know, you might encounter more bugs in the hostel than you would in the Amazon.”

I considered this thoughtfully. “Good point,” I said. “I’m sure my Trip Experience Leader has a perfectly fine couch that he’d let me sleep on.”

Readers and fellow travelers, I have a confession: Your editor-in-chief—world traveler, nature enthusiast, and wishful Serengeti expat—suffers from a crippling fear of insects. Not the disease-carrying kind, despite the fact that these could potentially kill me. That would at least be rational, and not ridiculous in the slightest. No, my fear is rooted in the fluttering and the creepy crawlies. Moths and beetles are of particular concern.

So, the Amazon seemed like the perfect place for me to spend a few days before fulfilling my dream of exploring the Galápagos. What could possibly go wrong?

“Do you know how many species of beetle they found in the Amazon on just one tree?” My coworker and former friend Dylan spent the day before my departure scouring the web with glee, tormenting me with factoids like this.

The answer? 700.


Surviving and thriving
Had I stayed in Quito, my story would have ended there—along with my tenure at O.A.T., as I’d have no business helming this publication after such a lily-livered move, and would have had to tender my resignation.

Instead, I share this story for those who may feel even slightly the way I did. If you’re familiar with our destinations, you already know that there are two different ways to see the Galápagos with O.A.T. You could combine the islands with Machu Picchu—a tempting combination, save for one fact: that trip only spends three or four nights cruising the Galápagos. Perfectly acceptable for plenty of travelers, but not me. I wanted a full week on that catamaran, plying the crystal blue waters of a wildlife paradise. And to get it, I was willing to spend three nights in the Amazon Rain Forest, Unofficial Bug Capital of the World.

I’m here to tell you that not only did I survive the Amazon, but I’d happily go back. In fact, I plan to repeat the entire journey someday; I left my husband behind and I can’t leave him consumed by jealousy forever.

And as saner travelers already know, the Amazon is a wildlife paradise in its own right. I tempered my fears with the promise of lush jungle scenery, a rainbow of birds, and the chattering of monkeys that I fondly recalled from Costa Rica. I got all of this and so much more—albeit with a few embarrassing shrieks along the way.

Into the woods
We arrived in the Amazon basin after a stunning drive, descending from the altitude of Quito along a winding route through the Andes. We picked up some vital accessories before boarding a motorized canoe for our lodge: rubber boots, life jackets, and rain ponchos.

We could see the wall of dark clouds approaching as we climbed into our boat. Marco, our Trip Experience Leader, surveyed them with amusement. “Remember, you are adventure travelers,” he told us as we got underway. “And adventure travelers love getting wet!”

Over the next few days, I would become adept at knowing when it was appropriate to eschew the poncho, and when I would welcome it more warmly than a parka during a Boston winter. On this particular ride, I had no such knowledge, and scrambled underneath it as the torrents gained strength. I had underestimated both the force of the rain and the water resistance of my mascara. Time to leave the city behind.

Before dinner, Marco briefed us about some lodge rules—including the fact that mosquito nets were provided for a reason, and that that the responsibility for keeping our cabins bug-free lay squarely upon us. Mosquito nets are not new to me, nor is the disastrous
combination of an open door with a well-lit room in the darkness. However, I wish he hadn’t enlightened me as to the existence of micro-moths; the very phrase continues to haunt my dreams to this day.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. We didn’t see a single bug in our cabin for the duration of our stay.

If only I’d had this foresight when it was time to settle in for the first night. As a habitual night owl, my internal clock hadn’t reset to its nature travel mode yet, and even the promise of 5:30am birdwatching wasn’t getting me to bed at 8:30pm. My roommate, Jim, had already turned in by the time I attempted to go to sleep.

He heard me open the door, step in, and promptly step out.

“I can’t do this right now,” I said.

He still makes fun of me.

Embracing the adventure
After that first night, the next morning was a new dawn, in every sense of the word. I had not been consumed by micro-moths, and could therefore embrace the Amazon like a mature adult. Just don’t ask me about the infamous Stick Bug Incident. In my defense, a walking tree branch is not a natural sight to see upon one’s own shoulder, and that scream was completely justified.

As was the scream that accompanied the visit from the giant tarantula, who quite rudely interrupted a briefing at our lodge one night. Of course, I had to be the one who spotted it first. I still maintain that I yelled Marco’s name at an acceptable decibel level;
Jim is clearly deluded in his recollection of a bloodcurdling, unintelligible howl.

These were not my finest moments.

I did not scream, however, when we took canoes into a lagoon in the dead of night—an experience that I approached with intense trepidation. Not even with the bats darting around us, or the general sense of the unknown lurking in every ink-black direction.

“Flashlights off,” said Marco.

The lagoon sparkled in the darkness, constellations of bio-luminescent larvae competing with the piercing stars above. Between the two displays, fireflies twinkled.


We went back to our cabin and looked up at a spreading patch of stars. I swayed in a hammock along with the palms across the way. They gently rustled in the breeze above thatched roofs, as visitors slept and the tree frogs began their chorus, reasserting their nightly domain.

I did not scream during the muddy hike, when we put our boots to the test after a particularly rainy  afternoon. I squelched along the trails, seeking out the messiest spots like a child, and stomping into them with satisfaction. I slipped and fell square on my butt once, wearing the resulting stain as a badge of honor.

I did not scream when Jim used raw meat and fishing line to catch puffer fish from the river, and (with the help of the lodge staff) gently encouraged them into full bloat before tossing them back to the water. Nor was I bothered when Marco picked up a piranha with his bare hands and marched around the lodge with it, displaying its formidable teeth. (No wildlife was harmed during this portion of our program.)

Later that day, our final afternoon, I experienced my quietest moments. Alone, I walked down to the birding platforms—a network of wooden walkways splayed over the water. I was buzzing off the mudblack coffee they served us at lunch (who could siesta after that?), yet I managed to stand perfectly still.

I listened to the water-drop song of the yellow-tailed oro pendula, and the sound of the actual water splashing periodically from god-knows-what.

A woodpecker provided rapid percussion. A trogon that had deserted my binoculars that morning, resplendent in yellow and blue, returned for a private showing.

I jotted down a note just as the rain began—I knew, by now, that it would be a big one—to remind me to tell you to come here.

Confessions from the Amazon

Darwin’s Galápagos

Islands whose wildlife inspired a great naturalist

by Jessie Keppeler

Six hundred miles west of mainland Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean lies an archipelago of huge scientific significance—the Galápagos. When these volcanic islands formed roughly five million years ago, they were devoid of all life. The creatures that make the Galápagos famous today crossed hundreds of miles of open ocean to get there. Some flew or swam, but others reached the islands by less conventional methods—carried in animals’ stomachs, attached to the feathers or feet of birds, or floating on rafts of vegetation.

Because of these circumstances, the wildlife on the islands today consists primarily of birds, sea mammals, and reptiles. The Galápagos giant tortoise crawls slowly along the rocks, land iguanas scurry across ledges, and playful sea lions and penguins swim offshore. Since the islands were never inhabited by large predators, the animals of the Galápagos have little fear of visitors.

A naturalist arrives in the Galápagos

These fearless creatures caught the attention of a young naturalist named Charles Darwin when he arrived in the Galápagos aboard the HMS Beagle. On September 16, 1835, Darwin first set foot on San Cristobal Island. Initially, he was not impressed. He wrote in his journal, “The black rocks heated by the rays of the vertical sun like a stove, give to the air a close and sultry feeling. The plants also smell unpleasantly.”

Darwin referred to the marine iguanas that he found scurrying along the shore as “hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in their movements.” He conceded, however, that in the water the iguanas swam “with perfect ease and swiftness,” and he was amazed by how tame all the animals and birds were.

Darwin was further impressed by the wildlife of the Galápagos when he first saw the islands’ giant tortoises. When the Beagle sailed on to Floreana Island, the governor of the Galápagos told Darwin that he could identify the island of origin of any of the giant tortoises simply by the shapes and markings of their shells. The governor’s comment stayed with Darwin, and its full impact struck him later.

A theory is born

Soon after Darwin had returned to England in 1836, he formulated his idea of “natural selection” as a mechanism for the creation of new species. In his own words, “Natural Selection … leads to the improvement of each creature in relation to its conditions of life; and consequently, in most cases, to what must be regarded as an advance in organization.” But it wasn’t until 1859—over two decades after his time in the Galápagos—that Darwin finally released his masterpiece: The Origin of Species. The scientific community embraced Darwin’s theories, and the general population was quick to follow. The book has remained in print since 1859 and has been translated into more than thirty languages.

Although Darwin was not the first to theorize about the topic, he is credited with laying the foundation for the modern theory of evolution. He achieved this by linking natural selection to biological evolution in a way that no one else had before, based on his thorough study of the subject.

For the research that led to his theories, Darwin had the perfect location in the Galápagos Islands, whose geographical isolation made them ideal for studying evolution. Separated from the mainland by 600 miles of deep water and swift currents, and isolated from each other, these islands allowed species to develop independently, making differences across populations—like those of giant tortoises—more apparent to an observer.

The Galápagos today

In the Galápagos Islands today, visitors still arrive by boat, stepping ashore much as Darwin did nearly 200 years ago. The geology has changed little—the islands’ surface is basalt volcanic rock, with many lava flows. And the islands are still bustling with rare animals and birds—from the playful fur seal to the bright red vermilion flycatcher. In 1979, the Galápagos were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for their incredible wildlife.

There are 58 resident bird species on the Galápagos, and another 25 species that migrate to the islands. A visitor to the Galápagos today could find over 40 species of birds during a week of careful observation, and everyone sees at least some of the famous Darwin’s finches, of which there are 13 different species.

Among sea birds, the charming and playful Galápagos penguin is notable. The waved albatross stands out for its courtship ritual of 20 minutes of bowing, honking, and whistling, as do the boobies, who fly fast and plunge deep into the ocean. There is also plenty of reptile viewing. Just like Darwin, visitors today can observe the marine iguana, the only sea-going lizard in the world, and the larger land iguana.

Because mammals had fewer chances to survive a great ocean crossing, there are fewer of them on the Galápagos. There are, however, two bat species, two species of rice rat, and the Galápagos sea lion. These mammals, a subspecies of the California sea lion, are generally curious and will join snorkelers at play. Fur seals, whales, and dolphins are also found in the waters offshore.

In 1964, the Charles Darwin Research Station was established on Santa Cruz Island, and today, its more than 100 scientists, educators, and volunteers work to preserve the natural heritage of the Galápagos. Named for the naturalist who brought the world’s attention to the unique wildlife of these isolated islands, the Research Station helps to ensure that Darwin’s legacy will endure.

Islands whose wildlife inspired a great naturalist

Darwin’s Finches

The little birds that rocked the world

by Tom Lepisto, from Dispatches

In September of 1835, a 26-year-old British naturalist named Charles Darwin sailed into the Galápagos Islands aboard the HMS Beagle. Traveling at his own expense as a gentleman’s companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy, Darwin was part of a five-year naval mission to survey the geography and natural history of little-explored locations along the ship’s round-the-world course, including the coasts and islands of South America.

In the Galápagos, an isolated archipelago some 600 miles west of Ecuador, Darwin noticed some darkfeathered birds that ranged from four to six inches long flitting around on the four islands that he visited over the course of five weeks. Darwin was not a specialist in ornithology, but he made careful observations of these birds, which he thought were a mixture of finches, blackbirds, and grosbeaks. He noted their differences in overall size, thickness of beak, and feeding habits, which varied from island to island.

Although Darwin focused even more on the mockingbirds of the Galápagos than he did on the finches, he skillfully gathered data on all the species that he encountered. He noticed a common thread in the variations he was seeing: Similar species on different islands had developed different characteristics. And he began to wonder why.

In the isolation of the Galápagos, the local variations between species stood out with particular clarity. The thought process that this inspired for Darwin eventually led him to a single phrase that shook the world of science: “natural selection.” The idea of evolution had actually been advanced before Darwin’s time, notably by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, but it lacked a mechanism to explain how species evolved over time.

As Darwin analyzed all the observations he had made during the Beagle’s voyage, including his birdwatching in the Galápagos, he was the first to propose that variations that helped members of any species to adapt best to their environment facilitated the survival and reproduction of the individuals possessing them, leading to evolutionary changes in whole populations. In hindsight, it seems almost obvious that, for example, a bird with a large beak would out-compete birds with smaller beaks among plants that have large seeds. But at the time, proposing this as the basis for evolutionary changes was a big leap even for Darwin—who had studied to become an Anglican parson and accepted the Biblical account of Creation.

When Darwin got back to England, he shared his information about the birds of the Galápagos with John Gould, a leading ornithologist of the time. Gould had the expertise to refine Darwin’s identifications, and to confirm the discovery of what he considered to be twelve new species of finches. Since then, modern research using DNA analysis has classified all of Darwin’s “finches” as members of the tanager family (Thraupidae), comprising about 14 species. So perhaps they could more properly be called “Gould’s tanagers”—although in popular usage, this description is not likely to displace “Darwin’s finches” anytime soon.

Visitors to the Galápagos today have the chance to see some of these birds, whose common names still use “finch,” while scientifically they fall into the genera Geospiza (six species of cactus finches and ground finches), Camarhynchus (five species including three kinds of tree finch), Certhidea (two species of warbler-finch), and Platyspiza (one species called the vegetarian finch, P. crassirostris).

For example, the large cactus finch (G. conirostris) is a dark-colored bird about six inches long. As the name implies, its favored food is the opuntia (prickly pear) cactus, and it lives only on Española, Darwin, Wolf, and Genovesa Islands. The smaller common cactus finch (G. scandens) lives on most of the other islands, so as Darwin observed, the populations of these species are mutually exclusive.

Although observing these little birds was just one part of the larger process of data collection that led Charles Darwin to his historic insights, their fame is well deserved. Like a jigsaw puzzle, without this piece, the picture of how Darwin arrived at his theory of evolution by means of natural selection would not be quite complete.

The little birds that rocked the world

Must Go Galápagos

4 signature experiences—plus, what to pack

by Amanda Morrison

Melville dubbed them the “Enchanted Isles,” and travelers routinely describe their visits as “otherworldly.” But what is it about the Galápagos Islands that makes them so enchanting?

Find out by delving into the highlights below—and get a jump on what’s essential to bring with you.

Snorkel in a sea of stars

Galápagos sea stars are stunning. They range from jumbo-sized with cherry red “pin cushioned” bodies to small, stout, and darkly dotted—lending them the nickname “chocolate chip starfish.” And depending on the coves you venture to, you may also spot marine iguanas, sea turtles, and even white-tipped sharks.

What to pack:

  • 2 swimsuits (so you can wear one while the other is drying)
  • Waterproof sunscreen
  • Underwater camera

Island-hop with ease

While your ship is on the move, you can relax in the lounge, take a catnap in your cabin, or kick back on the Sun Deck. Since half of the deck is canopied, you can catch a breeze—and take in your sublime surroundings—in the comfort of the shade.

What to pack:

  • Shorts, T-shirts, a light jacket, and casual active wear
  • Sea bands (if you’re prone to motion sickness)
  • Reading material
  • Playing cards

Ride the waves in search of wildlife

While dinghy-touring along the edges of islands, you’ll bob mere inches from species like Sally Lightfoot crabs, oystercatchers, penguins, and perhaps the most beloved icon of the isles: goofy blue-footed boobies.

What to pack:

  • Sun protection essentials (sport performance sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and lip balm with SPF)
  • Camera
  • Binoculars

Walk on lava

The Galápagos is so well-preserved that on each island, you can spot traces of its beginnings. Lava trails are especially revealing: As you walk on them, you’ll notice rough, dry aa (ah-ah) rubble that has long since crumbled apart, and smooth, swirling pahoehoe (paw-hoey-hoey) that has flowed more recently.

What to pack:

  • Trekking sandals
  • Walking stick (optional)
  • A reusable canteen

4 signature experiences—plus, what to pack

Bats of the Amazon

Flying mammals that benefit the rain forest

for O.A.T.

“Are we in any danger while we are sleeping from the bats that are flying around us?” I've been asked this question more than once while sitting with a group around a campfire in a wilderness area after dark. After explaining that there was almost no danger from the bats, I've also heard questions along the lines of “So they will not get into the tents and suck our blood?” and “Aren’t all bats vampires?”

After answering (“NO. No. And no.”), I began to explain that of the more than 1,200 bats in the world, only three were parasitic on mammals, and instead of sucking blood as portrayed in horror stories, the vampire bats make small incisions in the skin of the animals that they prey on and lap the blood up—much as a cat would do when drinking milk. Bats prefer almost any other mammal over humans as prey, so bat bites are rare. All three parasitic bats are found in Central and South America, and in particular the Amazon rain forest, where, incidentally, more than 1,000 of the world’s species of bats are found.

Many species, many diets

Seventy percent of the bats of the Amazon are insect eaters. (Here and elsewhere, they most notably feed on mosquitoes—as many as 1,000 an hour—and are therefore critical to keeping many areas comfortable and disease-free.) The rest of bat species typically feed on nectar, fruits, or small vertebrates such as birds, lizards, and frogs. The frog-eating bats are able to distinguish the sound of frogs amid a cacophony of other sounds—and can even distinguish among particular frog species—and then zero in on the selected target.

The fruit-eating bats are important in the ecology of the Amazon rain forest in that they disperse the seeds of the fruits they eat by spitting out the pulpy portions containing the seeds, while the nectar-feeding bats scatter pollen necessary for the survival of plants. Pollen gets stuck to the bats when they are feeding and scatters into the air when they take off, thereby pollinating flowers in the vicinity. It is said that more than 150 species of plants in the Amazon rain forest depend on bats for their survival through pollination and dispersal.

Masters of nature’s radar

Echolocation is the process whereby many bats negotiate the forest at night (a very necessary adaptation in the deep dark of the Amazon jungle) and how they locate their food. The process has only been confirmed in the last 100 years, although in the 1790s it was discovered that bats use their ears for flying and hunting.

A researcher released bats into a dark room with silk threads strung from side to side and discovered that they navigated the hazards with ease. It was only when he plugged their ears that the bats lost much of their flying skill, and from this he deduced they used their ears when flying and hunting, but how it worked eluded him. It was only in the 1900s that it was discovered that bats use echolocation—whereby high frequency sounds are emitted by the bats and when these sound waves hit prey they bounce back to the bat, thus enabling him to calculated the size, position, and distance of the prey.

The Amazon is certainly the best place on Earth to study bats—but do not be disappointed if most bats in the world find your blood offensive to their senses.

Flying mammals that benefit the rain forest

The Shaman and Healing

by Lois Huffines, from Dispatches

The shaman smoked a loosely rolled cigar made up of leaves from the rain forest surrounding his home. The smoke was not as pungent or sickening as that I have smelled from the old men who used to smoke in restaurants and poison the atmosphere of a nice dinner. Shamen are known to smoke mild hallucinogenics in order to delve more deeply into the spirit or suffering of those who come seeking help. It was said the smoking helped them achieve greater insight, propelling them further into the mysteries of healing and cleansing. We did not come seeking help but were offered a cleansing ceremony and now sat on tree stumps as the shaman worked around us.

Sweeping the dust from our souls
He cleansed four of us at a time. First, smoking his cigar, he blew smoke around each of us, from behind our heads and shoulders and then in front of us, over our heads and around our chests. It was not unpleasant as I had expected it to be. Next he held a bunch of leaves on stems, like a bouquet. I do not know the bush or tree that had sacrificed the ends of its soft branches.

Although he would touch us occasionally, as if incidentally with the leaves, he spent considerable time shaking the leaf bouquet over our heads, along our spines, and in front of our chests, chanting softly now and again. I imagined that the leaves were sweeping the dust from our souls and the dirt from our spirits, as we sat mute, eyes closed, our palms facing upwards and resting on our knees. He worked around us again and again, perhaps three separate times he shook the bouquet rhythmically over, behind, and in front of us. Then one last time, as if this were the crux, the purpose that he had been working toward, he thrust the leaf bouquet, almost violently, as he held on to it, stretching out the full length of his arm, making the sound of a forceful wind. It was as if he were throwing all our individually collected evil particles into the darkness of the rain forest, into the ethers of the universe.

The ceremony lasted about ten to 15 minutes. I was aware during the time of other people from our group whispering, taking pictures, walking quietly, and observing us now and again. I could hear the sounds of the rain forest that surrounded the clearing and the food preparations in the background. Incongruously, I heard modern pop music from a radio coming from a neighboring clearing not far away. Tomorrow was market day, and the tribal people were gathering their produce to send it up or down the Napo River for selling.

Yes, it was noisy. But I also became aware of the back of my eyelids where a light show played, as if through my lids I stared at a light which changed variously into shadows. This is not to say that the cleansing ceremony caused this experience of light and shadow play, but I followed it with quiet interest. There was no regular pattern, but my eyelids glowed warm and bright, then shaded and dark. Perhaps it came from movements of those around us or from clouds passing in the sky.

Then slowly it was over. We rose from the tree trunks, somewhat bewildered as to what we were supposed to feel, somewhat embarrassed. But I was pleased and grateful. The shaman had given us what he could, in addition to inviting us to his home and sharing his produce and teaching us his tribal ways.

Connections to nature ... and each other
The afternoon was one of learning and discovery, a motto of Overseas Adventure Travel. Our host, born a tribal member himself and learned in tribal ways from his grandfather’s teachings, introduced us to blow guns. By providing the hand-made darts, we tried to hit a target, a feat which three in our group managed to do. We learned to throw the javelin, as if hunting game. He painted some of our faces with symbols to give us luck. He pulled up the root of the yucca plant which we peeled, cooked in palm leaves, and ate along with a fish from the river also cooked in palm leaves over an open fire. I declined to eat the fat creeping grub roasted alongside the flames. The tribal people clearly knew the secrets of the land and river, how to eke a living from them, and how to understand their own connections to nature.

The shaman, as a spiritual and medicine man, also knew the limits of his medical knowledge. His wife, proficient as she (and perhaps every adult in the tribe) was with wielding a machete, had injured her hand severely. While working in the forest, she had swung the knife to cut a bush, but it had caught the branch of a bush close by, and that deflected her aim. She sliced her hand between the thumb and the index finger to the bone. They took her up river to a medical doctor who treated her, gave her an antibiotic, and examined her for infection—there was none. That had been over two weeks before we arrived. Still she protected the hand by holding it close to her body, and it was clearly swollen.

Among the members of our group was a physical therapist. Sitting with the woman and the guide as a translator, she explained to her how to massage the swelling and emphasized exercising the hand in order to regain usage. The therapist also massaged her shoulder and neck which were sore from the way she had been holding the hand to protect it. Otherwise, her wound was healing nicely, but she needed to exercise it regularly to regain usage. As the cleansing ceremonies proceeded, the therapist and guide spoke quietly with the woman until she understood what she had to do. We were all grateful that our group could provide that specific expertise.

We left in our motorized canoe, a very long one that held all 16 of us plus a driver and a Trip Experience Leader. We had spent the whole morning learning from this family. Much further down the river, an oil well pumped in a large clearing, the rig towering above the trees. I worried about the health of the rain forest, about the wellness of its tribes, and about this family as modern oil corporations edged closer to them. It was warm and humid. We were at the equator in Ecuador. I wanted to stretch out my arms and hold away the evils of corporate development, but I also wanted the family to experience some of the leisure and advantages of modern life. It is not my decision, and no matter how long and how strongly I would hold up my arms to stop it, I would not halt modernity in any of its guises.


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