What They Don’t Tell You About the Galápagos

Sea lions were the first to welcome me to the Galápagos Islands. There they were, lounging next to parked motorcycles and cars on the island of Santa Cruz, splayed out like they were at a luxe beach resort.

I knew before embarking on this National Geographic Expedition that animals were not afraid of humans in this “enchanted archipelago of fearless creatures,” as the Galápagos are described in the trip literature. I also knew that this is where Charles Darwin was inspired to write his theory of evolution. But aside from these basic details, I knew virtually nothing about where I was headed.

I spend a lot of time exploring big, dynamic cities. But these isolated islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador grew on me in such a way that when I left, I felt as though I was taking some of the characteristics of the landscape and animals—fearlessness, energy, equilibrium—home with me.

At the airport on the way home, a new friend told me, “The way I feel after this trip is like when you’re a kid and you come out of the pool shivering a bit and completely exhausted in a wonderful way, having just had the best time playing.” There is no better feeling.

Here are a few other things I learned about the Galápagos along the way:

It’s not a vacation. Though I returned tanned and happy, this trip was not relaxing in the way that sitting on a beach and vegging out is. Instead, it was a journey of discovery, as that’s exactly what each day brought. All five senses were engaged at any given time, culminating in the best kind of physical and mental exhaustion imaginable.

A young sea lion pup makes its way along the beach. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)
A young sea lion pup makes its way along the beach. (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

One morning, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. for a hike on Bartolomé Island, where we climbed 326 steps to take in one of the most iconic formations in the Galápagos—Pinnacle Rock. A naturalist who was traveling with us reported that the landscapes we were seeing are the closest proxies for what the islands looked like when they were first formed from volcanoes—with little vegetation.

He also reminded us that evolution is not all about Darwin’s finches. “The pioneer plant is changing the landscape here to make it more suitable for future generations,” he reported, pointing out evidence of species evolving in real time to protect themselves from new threats.

Your heart will stop at least once. The albatross is a mystical symbol dating back to ancient times. Walking on Española Island, our resident naturalist explained how the seabirds mate for life. After spending time apart in the ocean, the pair returns to the island, recognizing each other by performing a ritualized dance.

“When they have obligations like eggs and babies, the dancing is not as frequent. But during mating season…” he trailed off and winked. Next, we rounded a corner, entering an open field embellished with red rocks and brush, and there they were, as beautiful as a pair of Olympic gold-winning ice skaters—two albatrosses clucking, kissing, and dancing in perfect synchronicity. The timing was so perfect it seemed staged.

Therapeutic scenery on Santa Cruz Island (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)
Therapeutic scenery on Santa Cruz Island (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

And your heart might break once, too. The sea lions that grew to mean so much to all of us on the trip generally had the look of well-fed, husky happiness. But we also saw more than one skeletal baby sea lion, dragging itself lethargically across the beach. The naturalist explained that if a baby’s mother disappears and it’s not taken in by another female, it cannot survive in the wild. Naturally, we wanted to cuddle the pup and help, but could of course only watch.

The landscape is therapy. I had heard about the animals in the Galápagos, but never about the landscape. For me, it turned out to be a source of greatly healing beauty, from the wise cacti dotting the black lava rock against a background of the deep aquamarine sea to the blazing red Sally Lightfoot crabs adorning the islands like Christmas ornaments.

Photos take a backseat to being present. Of course, I have hundreds of incredible photos that I took in the Galapagos. It is difficult to snap a bad picture there, partly because the lighting is so conducive to great photography. Each day, we left our ship and boarded Zodiacs bound for various excursions—kayaking, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and more. But I started leaving my phone and camera behind and truly immersing myself in isolation travel, those rare times when you are absolutely in the moment and your nerves feel like they’re on fire.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

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  1. erick gonzalez
    February 17, 2015, 6:50 am

    I hope visiting Galapagos in march 2015 expecting see a lot of places, thinks and animals on only 4 days. thanks for all information.

  2. Eleanor Hardy
    United States
    January 19, 2015, 10:55 am

    Dear Annie: This was a wonderful post, and urges me to head to Galapagos as soon as I can. http://www.irtsociety.com

  3. Michelle
    January 15, 2015, 4:08 pm

    I can relate to the authors’ daily feeling of awe and wonder. The Galapagos is truly a magical place. I went on a very small boat (11 people) so when we visited various sites it felt so private.

    For me, one of the top moments was swimming and snorkling with the animals, especially sea lions and sea turtles. You aren’t allowed to touch them, but that doesn’t stop them from touching you! The sea lion pups nipped at us like puppies would, and did flips and dives all around us. Amazing.


  4. Mara Antony Dasilva
    January 3, 2015, 6:26 pm

    Ficaria feliz se pudesse conhecer Galápagos…

  5. Mara Antony Dasilva
    January 3, 2015, 6:23 pm

    Seria um dia feliz quele em que eu pudesse conhecer Galápagos….sonhar é preciso….que as pessoas continuem respeitando esse santuário….

  6. Eduardo Diez
    December 20, 2014, 11:51 am

    It is within all of us to help conserve and protect this natural wonderland. The Galapagos Conservancy (a US based non profit) has partnered up with Free World United (a clothing brand based in the US and born in Galapagos) to protect Galapagos for future generations. The campaign is turning out to be a huge success. Watch the story behind this partnership in a video found at:


  7. Clay
    Michigan, United States
    December 15, 2014, 1:12 pm

    Wonderful post, but I feel so bad for the young pups that lose their moms! The hiking and kayaking seem like they would be one of a kind. :)

  8. Anne
    December 15, 2014, 6:56 am

    I recently went to the Galapagos Islands as well and similarly saw a fragile/skinny sea lion pup. Our guide told us that if sea lion pups are touched by humans, the scent will remain on the pups and it will be rejected by its mother and all other sea lions. It was really sad to hear.


  9. tejolatha
    December 12, 2014, 8:47 pm

    Awesome writing. For me Galapagos is a synonym for Darwin & evolution. Your description compels me to go there. Maybe someday, God willing.

  10. Elissa
    December 12, 2014, 5:24 pm

    I thought I would love close encounters with the sea lions the most, but the blue-footed boobies were the most amazing to me. They accepted us just steps away from their nests with eggs. When I was a kid, bluejays nested in a tree in our backyard, and they dive-bombed us whenever we came anywhere near.


  11. Crystal
    December 11, 2014, 9:11 am

    My husband proposed to me almost 2 years ago on our Ecuador/ Galapagos trip. The trip truly was inspiring in many ways. Its sad that only a small percentage of people in the world will ever visit the islands. There is truly so much to see and learn. We loved snorkeling with the penguins and other sea life. This trip will live in my memory forever, and not just because I said “yes.”

  12. Emma
    December 10, 2014, 11:01 pm

    This sounds like an amazing experience. I really want to go to the Galapagos Islands some day.