Visiting the Galapagos Islands, which are home to throngs of unique animals, used to be difficult and expensive, but affordable flights from the Ecuadorian cities of Quito and Guayaquil are now available.
The Galapagos are one of the world’s main showcases of the drama of evolution, and the Pacific islands, about 1000 kilometres west of the South American coastline, are visited by more than 200,000 tourists a year.
The plants and animals on the archipelago of around 130 islands were able to evolve for five million years without major predators.
Those who want to go hiking amid the booby and albatross nests on otherwise uninhabited islands are best off booking a ship excursion, which can range between $US250 ($A325) and $US800 ($A1040) a day.
But travellers with small budgets can get accommodation for around $US14 ($A18) a night, and can get to see the giant tortoises, seals, pelicans and monster terrestrial and aquatic lizards virtually for free.
Santa Cruz, the most important island for tourism in the archipelago, has a population of the giant tortoises, which weigh up to 300 kilograms and can be well over 100 years old.
Sometimes the animals simply withdraw, emitting a hissing sound and retreating into their shell when a tourist gets a little too pushy and wants to touch them.
The island capital of Puerto Ayora is home to nearly 15,000 inhabitants, more than half of the Galapagos population. In the harbour, seals doze, while water taxis ferry people back and forth in the bay.
Fishing boats, freighters, and high-speed ferries ply the waters, heading to the other three inhabited islands, San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana, while a number of cruise ships lie at anchor here most months of the year.
Galapagos guides are emphatic in repeating to the guests before they arrive at the nature reserves on the islands: “Nobody may leave the marked path, or touch an animal, or use their flash when taking photos.”
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The Galapagos battle to stay pristine