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Paradise on Earth: Darwin's Galapagos

"Once in a lifetime" may be over-used but it is not an exaggerated description for a holiday in the Galápagos. These are the South Seas paradise islands where Charles Darwin, on board the Beagle, observed the amazing wildlife that inspired On The Origin of Species.

Some of the animals and birds that Darwin saw - and visitors can still see - on these volcanic islands cannot be seen anywhere else on earth. This is the most famous place for wildlife watching on the planet and its reputation is justly deserved. There are Galápagos penguins, Galápagos sharks, albatross, iguanas, the blue-footed booby, sea lions and the famous giant tortoises for starters. Not to mention blue skies full of a large number and variety of birds from cormorants to finches.

The exotic wildlife are happy to let humans get up close. Visitors will always be surrounded by animals but which specific breeds and at what stages of life will vary by island and month of the year. Wildlife has its breeding and nesting times. Every island has its own characteristic landscape from lava formations and forests to tropical sand beaches with turquoise sea.

Part of the magic in seeing - and even swimming or snorkelling with - the wildlife stems from access being tightly controlled. Although the Galápagos are in the Pacific, 600 miles from the western coast of South America, they are part of Ecuador which has made most of the islands a national park. Boats are allowed only at designated landing spots, approved guides must be used and only small areas of land are open to public access.

You reach the Galápagos by flying from Quito to either San Cristobal or Baltra, home to iguanas and only a 10-minute ferry ride from Santa Cruz. Most use a cruise to visit the islands. Boats can travel the long distances between islands at night and let their passengers disembark at new landing sites every day. Dolphins commonly swim alongside these boats. Some boats carry kayaks for the use of visitors for whom mere snorkelling alongside sea lions is not satisfying enough.

You can see the same wildlife regardless of the cruise you choose but your comfort level will vary hugely as the boats range from large ships to relatively small and simple boats which might have room only for a dozen people.

The other option is the stay on land. Island touring packages from the hotels are increasingly on offer so this is becoming a viable alternative for those that prefer not to sleep on boats. All of the four inhabited islands have hotels located near piers (although there are a couple of luxury ones in the mountains on Santa Cruz where hiking is popular). The majority are located on Santa Cruz Island - Puerto Ayora has about 40 hotels varying from hostel standard to luxury properties.

Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Research Centre where George, the famous giant tortoise of the Galápagos, was scheduled to return in January but he died in June at the age of 100. Apparently, that is less than the normal life expectancy for a giant tortoise.

The Galápagos are without doubt the experience of a lifetime.