It's the trip of a lifetime, but how do you get the most from the Galápagos? Steer your way around this pacific paradise with the help of our expert guide
Discovered by chance in 1535, this remote archipelago was named Las Encantadas (the Enchanted Isles) by passing Spanish seafarers because the mists made the islands appear and disappear as if by magic. A beguiling and timeless world, the Galápagos Islands have never lost their enchantment.
Straddling the equator 1,000km west of mainland Ecuador, the Galápagos were pushed up out of the Pacific Ocean by volcanic eruptions four to five million years ago, and theyounger islands remain very active.
The scenery is arid along the coast, with lush forested highlands and turquoise lagoons, while the beaches are some of the finest in the world (though the sea lions have grabbed the best spots).
Fog often shrouds the larger islands, creating a fertile home for dense vegetation, and both cool and warm ocean currents swirl - which is why penguins and sea lions can be seen alongside flamingos and iguanas.
These climatic conditions, coupled with the lack of dangerous predators or tropical diseases, few human inhabitants and protected status (97% of the archipelago has been declared a national park), make this Pacific paradise an utterly unique wildlife destination.
Because the islands rose from the ocean, they have never been in contact with the mainland. Tenacious creatures arrived by flying, swimming or floating. Isolated in this way, they have evolved and adapted to their inimitable local conditions.
And they are fearless: you can walk among reptiles and swim with sea lions, watch iguanas sit motionless like sentinels on black lava, step over nesting boobies, be licked by curious seal pups and come face to face with giant tortoises.
Four islands are inhabited and have basic facilities for tourists, but by far the best way to explore is by boat. A cruise is not cheap, but the cost keeps tourism under control and reduces the impact of humans; these precious islands must be treated with care.
The year 2009 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the man who, in 1835, put the Galápagos firmly on the map. The islands' most famous visitor's stay was brief - just five weeks - but the archipelago remained in his thoughts for years, eventually inspiring his evolutionary theory.
But scientist or not, a trip to these isles - a mini world of bizarre and close wildlife encounters - is always hard to forget.
You can take a three-, four- or seven-night tour by boat - though if you're going halfway around the globe to see the islands try to stay for a full week. Much of the first and last day is spent travelling, so on a four-day trip you'll only get two full days within the islands. Also, be aware that some trips make a mid-week stop at the airport to drop off or pick up passengers.
The best three visitor sites are Española, Genovesa and Fernandina. A good itinerary includes two of these islands; a brilliant one all three.
The less time spent on inhabited islands the better as you will have a greater chance of seeing the wildlife. However, nearly all cruises call in at the Research Centre on Santa Cruz as this is the only place that you can guarantee to get close to tortoises.
Three- and four-night cruises will give you only a taste of the varied Galápagos habitats. On these trips small boats tend to stick to islands in the central or southern archipelago. The big 100-passenger ships can travel much greater distances in a shorter time, so may go to more distant islands.
In a week you can see a good number of sites. A classic seven-night trip might follow this route:
Day 1 am: land on Baltra Island (north of Santa Cruz), transfer to boat; pm: sail to Santa Cruz (Bachas Beach)
Day 2 am: Plazas; pm: Santa Fe
Day 3 am: Floreana (Punta Cormorant); pm: Floreana (Post Office Bay)
Day 4 am: Española (Gardner Bay); pm: Española (Punta Suárez)
Day 5 am: Santa Cruz (Research Centre); pm: Santa Cruz (highlands)
Day 6 am: Rábida; pm: Santiago (James Bay)
Day 7 am: Bartolomé; pm: Santiago (Sullivan Bay)
Day 8 am: Seymour; pm: Baltra
A more complete itinerary would incorporate the western islands as follows (if you are interested in sea birds, a route that included Genovesa would be even better).Day 1 am: Baltra; pm: Seymour
This itinerary would enable you to see the impressive volcanoes of Isabela and Fernandina plus penguins, cormorants and the huge land and marine iguanas. There's also a greater chance of spotting marine mammals such as whales and dolphins.
A few charters offer ten- to 14-night trips or combine cruises with land-based hotel stays. After a week on a boat you might crave a steady night, so only super-keen wildlife watchers should contemplate these options.
The Galápagos is one of the world's best dive spots, but diving is strictly controlled - only two live-aboard operators are licensed to offer full-time diving: the Aggressor and the Sky Dancer. These are the only ways to reach northerly Darwin and Wolf islands, where thousands of hammerheads gather.
The authorities may change the rules in the near future. One idea is to employ fishermen in this industry to wean them away from non-sustainable fishing. It has also been suggested that sport-fishing trips be allowed (at present this is illegal). In the old days both crew and passengers fished off the back of yachts, but now this has been banned, the idea being that tour boats buy more from the local fishermen.
Some tour operators also offer themed cruises such as photographic, bird-watching, women-only or family cruises.
Probably the fastest-growing option is to spend a few nights at an island hotel. Hotels can be found on the inhabited islands: Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and, to a lesser extent, Floreana. However, the problem with sleeping on dry land is that the best wildlife spots are on the uninhabited islands, so you have to take a day-boat, which is likely to arrive during the hottest part of the day - when most of the wildlife is inactive.
There are other trips aimed at more active clients, including biking, kayaking, hiking and horseriding - see www.ecuadoradventure.ec and www.walkingalapagos.com. Such land programmes may include visits to two or three islands with either a light aircraft transfer or a fibreglass speedboat trip between them. The latter can be rough in the cool season and very hard on your back.
Ten years ago there were only four hotels on Isabela, now there are 40. While this is undoubtedly bringing more revenue to the locals, it is not necessarily the best thing for the environment.
In fact, until the 20th century Isabela was uninhabited; controlling migration from mainland Ecuador is now one of the islands' biggest challenges.
There are some cheaper hotels but there's no such thing as a really cheap hotel here. And the 'camping' options are more like the luxury camps of African safaris (see www.galapagossafaricamp.com or www.galapagoscamping.com). Independent camping is forbidden.
Some tour companies combine a week on a boat with a couple of nights in a hotel, so you get a feel for human life as well as wildlife - the best of both worlds.
What sizes are the boats, and which are best?
There are broadly three categories. Small boats take 12 to 20 passengers, but the majority carry 16, the maximum that can go ashore with one guide. Medium-sized boats take about 50 passengers - these include some of the dearest and most luxurious vessels, while large boats, all of which are first to luxury class, carry about 100 passengers...
The cheaper boats are generally the smallest and least spacious, although the standard has improved dramatically over the past two decades and all but the very cheapest cabins now have private bathrooms.
One advantage of a small boat is that you spend less time embarking and disembarking, so you get more time ashore.
Sadly there are few sailing boats still cruising - these have the best atmosphere, although they still rely on engines to get around. If you're after comfort and a firm hull for unsteady sea legs, opt for a bigger vessel.
How can I ensure I get a decent guide?
The standard of your naturalist guide can make or break a tour. Though they're all trained and licensed by the national park, guides are freelance or employed by boat owners. Generally, you get what you pay for and the higher the quality of the boat the better the guide and their command of English.
For the best chance of a good guide, opt for a first-class or luxury boat. But this doesn't mean you won't have a great trip in an economy boat: you could visit the Galápagos in a tub and still be overwhelmed by the wildlife - just take a good guidebook as well.
What equipment is provided on board?
Most boats have a supply of masks, snorkels and fins (either free of charge or for hire). In the cooler season, from June to November, it's advisable to wear a wetsuit - check in advance if your boat will have any and let them know your size. If you're a keen snorkeller, bring your own mask to save time trying to find a good fit.
Many of the better boats have a few kayaks, and passengers can take it in turns to go for a paddle.
Drinking plenty of water is a must in the equatorial heat. Most boats provide mineral water in plastic bottles, and are now being encouraged to provide purified water for refillable bottles.
What sort of clothing do I need to bring?
Dress is casual - shorts and T-shirts are the norm. At dinner on the more luxurious ships you might want to wear a polo shirt with long trousers or even a jacket - but certainly not a tie. Bathing costumes at meals would be frowned on. On most small sailing boats barefoot is de rigueur. Ladies might find it useful to bring a sarong or wrap.
What can I expect from the accommodation?
In the past 25 years even the cheapest boats have been converted to provide en-suite bathrooms. On some small sailing vessels you may still have to pump the loos manually, but the trend is to push-button flush. Air conditioning is found on first- and luxury-class boats. On bigger boats it is easier to find a quiet corner to yourself - they have libraries, bars and sitting areas in the shade and sun. Dinner is usually a communal affair; some boats serve meals al fresco during the hot season.
Can I sail my own boat to the islands?
All tour boats are locally owned and operated, and strictly licensed. It is possible to sail your own yacht, if, for example, you are sailing across the Pacific, but you will need permits prior to arrival, you'll have to pay expensive mooring fees and will be restricted to the four inhabited islands only.
Author David Horwell has visited the Galapagos dozens of times, and is a director of tour operator Select Latin America which specialises in visits to the islands