Named by 16th-century Spanish sailors for their endemic giant tortoises, or galápagos, the Galápagos Archipelago ranks as one of the world’s top wildlife destinations. Its remote position, hundreds of miles off the western coast of South America, has allowed species to evolve in isolation and adapt to their environment in unique ways—a phenomenon that Charles Darwin used to illustrate his theory of natural selection. Ninety-seven percent of the islands’ landmass is protected as a national park, and following a survey of marine health by National Geographic’s Pristine Seas team, the government of Ecuador has expanded protection of the archipelago’s surrounding waters to more than 18,000 square miles.
Straddling the equator and forged by lava over millions of years, the Galápagos has nurtured a menagerie of rare creatures that have no intrinsic fear of humans. While exploring these evocative, lunar-like landscapes, you can easily find yourself an arm’s length away from giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies, spiky-headed marine iguanas and magnificent frigate birds, none of which seem to notice you. The undersea wonders are as spectacular as those you’ll find on land, with graceful sea turtles gliding past your snorkel mask and sea lions performing playful pirouettes. Unlike many other nature destinations, there are few migratory species in the Galápagos, which means that the wild denizens of the islands can be viewed year-round.
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