One of our staff members recently spent a week in the Galapagos. Enjoy these snippets from her trip journal about this once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with nature to hear what it's really like.

Day One - July 30

It's funny - another M/V Evolution passenger and I were talking about how many people had asked us, "Have you been to the Galapagos before?" before we departed. These islands are so remote and untouched that it strikes me as a rare treat to ever see the Galapagos once, much less make multiple return journeys.

They aren't a location, they are a destination. And thanks to International Expeditions, I got to visit this once-in-a-lifetime destination.

Once we landed in the Galapagos -- after the smoothest flight ever thanks to AeroGal -- it was obvious how few people really get to come here. San Cristóbal Island's airport couldn't accommodate a large influx of people. The airport isn't even enclosed fully. I guess that's a testament to the consistently nice weather.

The airport doesn't have separate arrival and departure gates. It is just a large area with benches and a roof. No, clearly this is not a place that accommodates huge groups of vacationers.

Yes, this is the most remote place I've ever been. I can tell that already.

We took a quick bus trip to a dock where we could board the pangas. Pangas are these small, flat rubber excursion boats that can navigate very shallow water -- perfect for taking us out to where the M/V Evolution is docked in the harbor.

Just getting to the pangas requires passing by sea lions lounging on steps. Amazing how close the animals come without any fear! We board the M/V Evolution and are immediately given blackberry smoothies to drink while Boli (the naturalist) went over the rules. He stressed how conservation and preservation is important -- we don't want to disturb the ecology of the islands by stomping around, littering and taking over the way people tend to do on vacation. This gave the crew time to sort our luggage and take it to our rooms.

We took a short nap before the required safety drill. I believe this is necessary for any ship, but it didn't take long since there are less than 30 passengers aboard the M/V Evolution. After that, we took the pangas to the shore. Alex (the other naturalist) guided us along the beach to see male sea lions resting all over the place. We also saw blue-footed boobies, yellow warblers and so many other birds that I can't begin to name them all.

We got drinks and snacks on the upper deck, so we were drinking and eating al fresco. Dining outside; watching the sun set over the ocean -- it complemented my berry smoothie nicely. The Evolution cruised around Kicker Rock, a distinctive rock formation that was created by one volcano. We then enjoy an explanation of what to expect tomorrow. I look forward to seeing the waved albatross and the blue-footed booby mating dance.

Andrew and I had a very nice dinner with the Beesons from Delaware. Such a sweet family -- their son is headed to college so this is one final family trip before he leaves the nest (Yes; that bird/nest pun was intentional!) After that, we savored a quick look at the stars. Living in the city, I forget how many stars there are in the night sky away from light pollution!

Day 2 - July 31

We were woken up at 6:45 by music and announcements ("Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning!") which isn't too bad since that is really 7:45 back home. We ate breakfast al fresco and got ready to depart at 8 am. We arrived ashore Espanola (Hood) Island. The Islands have multiple names -- both Spanish and British.

We saw our first Sally Lightfoot crabs and marine iguanas. Espanola is the oldest, flattest island of all in the archipelago. There were lava lizards and mocking birds. We sat by a natural blow-hole that shoots water 50 feet into the air! Blue-footed boobies were on our walking path, and we saw waved albatross parents and babies. The waved albatross was my favorite...except when we were watching this adorable baby albatross; it was wandering away from its parent and getting to close to another set of waved albatross parents protecting their young. They started attacking the wandering baby -- and its parent did nothing to stop them. The baby didn't learn to walk away, so they kept attacking. It is likely that they will kill the young albatross. Andrew started singing "Circle of Life" from the Lion King to make me feel better. He's right -- this is how nature is. We walked away without seeing the ending.

Kitty (the guest lecturer) made a small presentation on how the animals arrived in the archipelago. A lot of species floated over or swam from South America. Those that adapted/mutated once they got here are the ones that survived.

Then we went snorkeling -- my favorite activity so far! We were split up into small groups to swim with the sea lions. They would swim circles and do twists around us -- especially if we mimicked their movements. The ocean was cold but the "shorty" wet suits International Expeditions provided made all the difference.

We came back to the Evolution to drop off our snorkeling gear only to turn around right away to head to the beach. It was really private -- just us and sea lions.

Boli is now telling us what to expect for tomorrow -- we are in the "library" again, where Kitty gave her presentation earlier. Tomorrow we land in Santa Cruz.

Day 3 - August 1

This will probably be my favorite day of the whole trip because we're going to see giant tortoises.We took a trip to the Charles Darwin Research Station -- I thought it was going to be a museum, but clearly it was not. It had a few enclosed buildings, but otherwise it looks more like a zoo. Different areas were used to raise tortoises to ensure they grew large enough to fight off predators (feral pigs, goats, fire ants, etc.) once they are released back onto the islands.

After the Darwin Station we took a bus to the highlands. It is so much greener up north on the slopes of this shield volcano. We walked around a sink hole and saw so many birds -- once again I can't name them. I know we saw finches though!

We bused over to a private property for lunch -- and saw tons of giant tortoises. The crew brought us lunch there so we could stay on the island the whole day. Everyone wandered around taking pictures with tortoises -- they are bigger than me. There was one who loved to be fake-tickled under its chin -- you didn't really touch the tortoise, just waved your fingers near its neck. It reminded me of a cat stretching out so you can pet it.

We drove back to the lowlands to taste some locally-grown coffee (very, very strong) and the sugarcane juice (literally sugar water) in Puerto Ayora. We were able to also taste moonshine made from sugarcane. It is the only hard alcohol made on the island... and it tastes worse than tequila.

We spent a little time exploring the town. The locals I ran into knew very little English so I practiced my Spanish a bit while searching for a Panama hat.

We bought Club beer, a favorite Ecuadorian brew to drink on the dock. Andrew played hacky sack which seemed to surprise the locals. Maybe they've never seen one before. The local men played volleyball nearby, only they use a hard soccer ball. A few women watch, but it is mostly men.

Once we returned to the Evolution, dinner was served outdoors again -- such a nice option. Even if it is dark, seeing the birds flying around the boat is interesting. These birds only hunt at night -- scientists believe they use echo-location to find their food.

Day 4 - August 2

After eating breakfast, we boarded our pangas to head to a black-sand beach. We hiked for two hours, seeing the baby fur seals (although technically, they are sea-lions misnamed. Sea lions have ears). We saw more crabs, herons, and marine iguanas.

Snorkeling came next; this time entering from the shore so it was different. Alex directed us using hand signals so we could understand what he was pointing out. We saw a sea turtle, a ray, beautiful sea stars, and a white-tipped shark. Afterwards we returned to the Evolution, ate three types of ceviche and enjoyed a power siesta.

In the afternoon we snorkeled again. This time we went out with Boli as our guide. We snorkeled around Pinnacle Rock, hoping to spot Galapagos penguins. Sadly, the penguins must have eaten already since they had no desire to join us in the cold ocean. We saw them up close on the rock shoreline. We also swam with a ton of sardines, schools of fish that avoid you just at the last second. I was the only one to witness a blue-footed booby dive for fish. Less than four feet away from me, that was scary.

I was too tired from the second snorkeling trip to do the following hike, so I opted for the panga ride. I'm glad I went on the panga instead since I was able to see the penguins swimming and hunting. They darted around the panga so close they were too fast for my camera! We saw pelicans diving for food and noddy birds that would attack them shortly after they caught a fish -- trying to steal it away instead of catching their own.

Back to the Evolution, it was a drink and snack break. This happened a lot between excursions. Right now I am drinking fresh peach/guava juice. All the food has been quite tasty -- I'm beginning to think I'm going to come back 10 pounds heavier than when I left...

Day 5 - August 3

I didn't sleep well at all during the night. I figured I'd sleep in during the 8 AM morning hike, and join everyone again to snorkel later in the day. Since I still felt under the weather I found our doctor Erika. It's nice that there is a doctor onboard. Andrew joined me on the upper deck where I rested in the sun (and got fresh air).

I figured I could handle the one hour hike after that so at least I could see Genovesa Island a bit. Alex led this hike, although technically we didn't go very far. We remained around the shoreline since that is where most of the birds nest. I took a million photos of red-footed and blue-footed boobies.

I slept so well. I'm excited to start a new day!

Day 6 - August 4

This morning started off with a two-and-a-half hour hike to Fernandina Island. That sounds intense, but we take tons of breaks for pictures. We saw a bunch of marine iguanas sunbathing and snorting out saltwater -- which is quite the sight to see. Marine iguanas can't digest salt, so they snort it out in mists. We got very close to sea lion even crawled across my feet! Alex was imitating their moans (that's the best way I can describe the sound) so I took a video of their "conversation."

We were admiring the pahoehoe and a'a lava, but hiking across it is difficult. Fernandina is one of the "youngest" islands so it still is very lava-like, not sandy and ashy. As the morning progressed the sun reflecting of the black landscape made it awfully hot. We did take some amazing shots of the shield volcano in the background.

Normally we do a second excursion at 10:30, but today we had a few hours to relax on the deck. Andrew and I sunbathed and read by ourselves. Andrew borrowed the book on the Galapagos that he got from the library. He knows so much more now than I do, I need his help when it comes to identifying the birds.

Our al fresco lunch that day was "American" food --- hamburgers and fries -- which we all appreciated more than normal. It's been awhile since we've had such a standard meal, so it seems tastier than it normally would. Perfect timing on behalf of the kitchen staff!

After our power siesta, Andrew and I got to kayak around the cove while others chose to snorkel. We saw at least 15 penguins swimming. We got stuck in an inlet (too cool not to explore) and managed to beat the tide back out.

A quick stop in the hot tub to warm up, and then it was back in the pangas. This time, we were in search of whales and dolphins, but instead we saw more boobies and penguins. It was okay though, since shortly after we got aboard the Evolution the whales came out! They were bryde whales, which I've never heard of before. We saw at least two in the distance, plus a large ray.

We all watched the sun set together -- looking for the "green flash," but only two people claimed to have seen that phenomena. I filmed the horizon, but it didn't show up.

Day 7 - August 5

We slept in an extra half hour today. The sky was overcast, which is the darkest we've seen. It drizzled a bit while we hiked -- otherwise the weather has been pretty much perfect. Today we saw the male frigate birds and their puffy red chests. We saw red-footed and blue-footed boobies and only a few land iguanas. The land iguanas are harder to spot than the marine iguanas, as they aren't on the shoreline en masse.

Snorkeling in the choppy ocean water was a bit challenging -- we were also snorkeling in the deepest waters yet. Swimming against the tide scared me. I had to bail a bit early because I was getting nervous. But I saw a white-tipped shark and got to chat with Beth on the panga while we waited for the others to finish.

It was our final panga ride -- led by Alex -- in search of sea turtles and baby sharks. We found both! We were going through secluded mangrove inlets. The sea turtles almost mated right in front of us...I got it on video. I can now tell the difference between females and males, their sizes are so different! The sharks really were tiny -- maybe only two feet long. They are so colorful, too!

Once we were back onboard, we started salsa dancing -- the crew members were teaching us in celebration of our last night.

Day 8 - August 6

We had one final breakfast on the Evolution, before we went into the town of San Cristóbal. Everyone boarded a bus to head to the Interpretation Center, learning about the history of the islands. Since our naturalists and lecturer were so well educated about the islands, we already knew most of information the Center provided.

Once outside, Andrew led an impromptu hacky sack circle. It was fun to see people try to do it who have never touched a hacky sack in their life. We could've kept going, but the bus driver came back and we had some shopping ahead of us.

We spent the next 45 minutes searching souvenir shops for things to bring back to our friends and family. I was unsuccessful in finding a Panama hat -- they look funny on my head! I bought a few things to bring home as gifts, although I wish I could just take a giant tortoise back with me instead.

The short flight back to Guayaquil was funny because we suddenly knew 25+ people on the plane ride with us. It was another quick but smooth flight on AeroGal. Once we arrived, most of us headed back to the Hotel Oro Verde. The others remained onboard to go to Quito. International Expeditions had everything planned so there was another shuttle waiting to take us back to the hotel, where our check-in was already taken care of. Cold towels and juices were waiting.

I'm sad to go home yet I'm ready. I want to showoff the amazing photos I took and tell everyone how incredible the Galapagos Islands are.