Tying 620 miles (1,000 kilometers off Ecuador's coast, the Galapagos Archipelago of volcanic peaks is considered a very special place. This, of course, was where Charles Darwin conducted the fieldwork that would form the basis for his theory of evolution by means of natural selection as outlined in his groundbreaking 1859 book, On the Origin of Species. Today the islands attract both specialists wanting to work in Darwin's living laboratory and amateur enthusiasts hoping to explore the island's wealth of wildlife.
Each island can be divided into distinct vegetation zones: mangroves at the coast, cacti and spiny bushes in the arid coastal zone, small trees in the transitional zone, Scalesia forest in the humid zone, and tree ferns in the fern-edge zone. To top it all, the highest volcanoes have the prickly pear cactus above the cloud line.

Some of the animals are unique to the area, and some are quite unexpected: There are penguins at the equator, cormorants that cannot fly, iguanas that swim in the sea, finches that drink blood, and giant tortoises like huge mobile boulders. From island to island, animals of the same species can look quite different, a feature that Darwin himself noted. Locals can tell instantly from which island a giant tortoise originated just by the shape of its shell.

Each island has its own character. Espahola is flat and without a volcanic crater. At Punta Suarez a spectacular blowhole shoots spray 100 feet (30 meters) into the air, and there are huge nesting colonies of waved albatross. Floreana has a post office set up by whalers and still in use today, and there are green- tinged beaches with white and black sand.

A volcano inundated by the sea is a favorite snorkeling and diving site here. San CristObal has a freshwater lake, and just offshore an ancient tuff cone called Kicker Rock is covered with roosting and nesting seabirds. Santa Fe changes color with the seasons, depending on which flowers are in bloom. Santa Cruz has a reserve with giant tortoises and giant lava tubes, and Seymour is the place to see the comical mating dance of the blue-footed booby. A licensed national park guide must accompany all visitors

The Wild and Wonderful Galapagos Islands