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Galapagos Islands

The remote idyllic Galapagos Islands form part of the territory of the tiny Andean nation of Ecuador in South America and are famous for their unique indigenous wildlife.

The archipelago, over 1,000km to the west of Ecuador, was made world famous by the 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin, who visited it on The Beagle in 1835. The islands are believed to have been first visited by a Peruvian tribe, but remained largely uninhabited by human beings for centuries.

In 1535, the islands were "discovered" by the Bishop of Panama, whose boat floated off course. They later became a favourite haunt for pirates in the region and marine hunters, who brought many species close to extinction.

Officially known as the Archipelago de Colon and named in honour of Christopher Columbus, the islands became Ecuador's first national park in 1959, the 100th Anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. The non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation runs conservation and research efforts on the islands and the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Galapagos Islands are home to a dizzying array of species of flora and fauna and the volcanic territory is a paradise for nature lovers and evolutionists. The archipelago consists of 13 main islands and six smaller ones, spread across 50,000 sq km (19,500 sq miles) of the Pacific Ocean, and around 70,000 tourists visit each year.

Right on the equator, the islands are a year round destination for tourists. Home to just 16,000 permanent inhabitants in eight settlements, Puerto Ayora is the island's biggest town and generally the first point of call for travellers.

It is on Santa Cruz, the largest and most volcanically active island, has some of the few shops and hotels in the archipelago and is the base for the Charles Darwin Research Station, where tourists can learn about conservation of the islands and the wildlife.

The fascinating species inhabiting the Galapagos Islands and the surrounding waters include fishes, birds, mammals and reptiles and many are found nowhere else in the world.

The animals on the Galapagos Islands have no fear of humans, as most have no natural predators, and visitors can get close up to some of the more famous inhabitants, including the blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, flightless cormorants, pelicans, orange ghost crabs, the Galapagos Waved Albatross, fur seals, land and marine iguanas, finches and the giant Galapagos tortoise.

Darwin's famed theory of 'natural selection', expounded in his 1959 book 'The Origin of the Species', suggests that species survive by gradually adapting to environmental conditions. His observations of the Galapagos creatures and the differences in species between the islands were key to the development of 19th century evolutionary ideas.

The Galapagos Islands have more than 50 designated visitor sites, most reached by boat, and a licensed guide must accompany visitors, as all tourism is monitored closely in line with conservation policies.

Cruises, tours and trips to the islands are available from mainland South America and a number of companies also offer scuba diving courses, sea kayaking trips and watersports breaks. The Ecuadorian capital Quito provides a good, lively base for exploring and flights are available to many of the closer South American countries.

Holidays to the Galapagos Islands are expensive, as annual visitor numbers are limited, but the archipelago presents a truly unique holiday for anyone interested in the natural world and the sparsely inhabited, silent, barren islands offer a refreshing change from the trappings of modern life.