Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos Islands

Photo: Galapagos Safari Camp
Photo: Galapagos Safari Camp

You’re waiting for a giant to appear. From the verandah of your hillside tent, you have a panoramic view. Scalesia and guayabillo trees are in front of you. The water is beyond them. Darwin’s finches sing to one another in the distance. And you’re scanning the ground from your hammock. Slowly, ever so slowly, the low branches start to part, and the tall grass is crushed. A head peeks out. Then a 500-plus-pound body.

The giant isn’t an elephant, a hippo, or a giraffe. You’re not even in Africa. You’re at an old cattle farm that’s been turned into a luxury camp on Santa Cruz Island. Your view includes Isabela, Santiago, and Pinzón Islands. They’re all surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean. It’s your first day on the Galápagos Islands. And the giant is a Galápagos tortoise.

The volcanic islands, which are part of Ecuador, are off the west coast of South America. They straddle the Equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The islands are considered a national park, a marine reserve, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to their unique ecosystem and the large number of species not found anywhere else in the world. No wonder they’re called the Enchanted Islands.

Photo: Galapagos Safari Camp
Photo: Galapagos Safari Camp

Your afternoon has just been commandeered by a tortoise. Multiple tortoises, once two more wander over from the tortoise reserve near the Galapagos Safari Camp. They slowly walk around the tents, grazing as they go. Your camera’s memory card is filling up quickly. When they finally move on, swim in the infinity pool, sip fresh strawberry juice, and do yoga as dusk starts to fall. Then move to the main lodge for cocktails, a gourmet dinner, and amazing views of the starry sky.

Tomorrow, explore the rest of Santa Cruz Island. Tour huge lava tubes that formed when surface lava cooled and solidified while hot lava continued to flow underground. Hike through the mist to Los Gemelos, two sunken volcanic craters. Keep an eye out for bright red Vermilion Flycatchers along the way. Swim in Las Grietas, a canyon with crystal-clear water where lots of little lizards hang out. Walk along Tortuga Bay, a white-sand beach, with red rock crabs and dragonlike marine iguanas. Whitetip reef sharks swim just offshore. Or ride an engineless panga through Black Turtle Cove to see sea lions, sea turtles, and hundreds of brown pelicans.

Day trips over the next few days include Bartolomé Island to hike to Pinnacle Rock and snorkel with Galapagos penguins, the only penguins that live north of the Equator. See Galapagos land iguanas and prickly pear cacti on South Plaza Island. The ground is covered with purple Sesuvium this time of year. And bird lovers shouldn’t miss North Seymour Island that blue-footed bobbies and magnificent frigates call home. You’re even more enchanted now than when you first arrived.

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