Ever since Charles Darwin first reported back to the civilized world of a strange cluster of barren Pacific islets, the Galapagos Islands have been sparking fires of adventure in travelers. Most school children study Darwin but few understand just how remote these islands where the famous naturalist made observations are, at 960kms off the coast of South America.

The Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador, but that’s hardly relevant. They are a world unto themselves, with wildlife running amok all over the 13 main islands of the Galapagos Islands and hardly giving the gawking humans who make it here more than a cursory glance. The Galapagos Islands are one of the great pilgrimage destinations for wildlife fanatics, and it’s quite an odyssey to get here.

For the most part, the only reason to make the journey to the Galapagos Islands is to witness an animal society in its purest form. There are strict rules regarding where visitors can go and what they can do. A licensed park ranger or guide must accompany visitors to any designated nature preserve area on the Galapagos Islands, so don’t come here expecting to discover new species or hidden valleys. Everything is tightly controlled.

Charles Darwin reached the Galapagos Islands in 1835, just three years after Ecuador claimed the archipelago for itself. Few people bothered to live here until 1959, when the Galapagos Islands were designated a national park. When UNESCO gave the islands World Heritage status in 1978, tourism began to pick up. Today, around 30,000 people live on the Galapagos Islands full time and support the 150,000 tourists who arrive by plane or boat each year.

Besides taking guided tours to witness sea lion colonies at play or car-sized tortoises lumbering around, visitors to the Galapagos Islands can enjoy world-class scuba diving, snorkeling, mountain biking and even surfing. There are lovely Galapagos Islands beaches to lounge on like Cerro Brujo, where resorts, restaurants and beachfront bars provide all the creature comforts of a classic island holiday.

Most people live on Santa Cruz Island, and most tourists fly into neighboring Baltra Island. The main town on Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora, is where the accommodation and amenities are found. Visitors have a heady choice of lodgings at resorts or they can sleep on luxury boats while cruising around the Galapagos Islands. A little of both is perhaps the best way to go since a boat cruise is the only way to really get around the 20-plus islets of the Galapagos Islands and truly experience its depth of wildlife.