The Galapagos Islands still work their magic. Thanks to their designation in 1978 as a World Heritage Site, they should work it for many years to come. Ecuador, which governs them, wisely has set aside 97% of their area as a national park. The few people who live there permanently make their living fishing and functioning as provisioners and tour escorts, aware that their livelihoods depend on the health of the animals that draw 60,000 visitors per year.
Ecotourism here treads as lightly as possible. Visitors may not go ashore on any of the islands without a certified guide, and they are not allowed to stray from designated paths. There’s a little more freedom underwater, where the Galapagos feature some of the most spectacular scuba diving in the world. Still, even the measures taken to mitigate human visitations to the island group may not be enough. There is serious talk of drastically limiting the number of people who come each year – a possibility that will make the islands even more attractive.
Boat trips in the Galapagos vary greatly, from small-scale, budget yacht charters to luxury cruise ships. When beginning your research, it's well advised to go with an established outfitter, particularly ones that have been in the biz for a number of years; ship classification is far from set in stone, though three levels of class are usually the standard, one being economy, three encompassing all the luxury trimmings.
The basic components of all yacht charters are food, guide and accommodations. For cuisine, the more you spend, the better the chow. A guide's skill level and language ability increases as you move up the spectrum. Likewise, accommodations (and such added attractions as hot water and A/C) get a boost as you ascend the economic ladder—but remember, you'll spend most of your time either on the islands, in the water, or on deck, so a cramped room may be a tolerable hardship for the week or so you're at sea.
Local weather conditions at the time of your departure will dictate the exact itinerary of the cruise, but one-week trips will focus on the eastern and central islands (including the island of Santa Cruz, base for the Charles Darwin Research Station and home to the giant land tortoise) while the two-week trip will take in far-flung western islands. Throughout the trip, the schooner will anchor in sheltered coves for swimming and snorkelling alongside tropical fish, turtles and sea lions.