Close encounter on the Galapagos Islands

A tortoise seen on the Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. (Dianne Donegan, Special to the Orlando Sentinel / October 26, 2005)

For close encounters of the furry, feathered, or scaly kind, there's no place on the planet quite like the Galapagos Islands.

"You just see some of the craziest things," said Jonathan Brunger, operations manager for Adventure Life, a Montana company that arranges trips to the region.

"While you're out snorkeling, the sea lions will come out and swim with you. … You feel a little nibble on the end of your flipper, you turn around and there's this sea lion wanting to play with you, wanting you to chase it.

"Other times, they'll come up to your face and they're looking at their own reflection in your snorkel mask."

The Galapagos -- 19 islands that lie 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean -- are home to species of animals found nowhere else on Earth. Famously visited by Charles Darwin in 1835, the archipelago played a key role in his theory of evolution.

These days, both tourists and researchers flock to the islands to see giant tortoises that can live 150 years, marine iguanas that dive to find dinner, flightless cormorants, and penguins that somehow thrive near the equator.

With few predators to make them wary of humans, many of the creatures seem tame and curious.

"It's just a fantastically wonderful place," said Herb Wilson, a biology professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who has been to the Galapagos twice.

"One of the most exciting things about it is that just the animals there are so fearless. So you have to step over sea lions and marine iguanas just to get from one place to another."

With their remote location, the Galapagos used to be more of a legend than a destination for most people -- but that's no longer the case.

In the 1960s, just 2,000 tourists a year visited the islands, according to The Charles Darwin Foundation. Today, that number has grown to more than 150,000.

To limit their impact on the fragile ecosystem, Galapagos National Park -- which makes up 97% of the archipelago -- requires tourists to be accompanied by a certified guide when they enter protected areas. There are also limits on how many people can be at any visitor site at one time.

"They seem to be doing a reasonable job of trying to find the happy medium between access and protection," Wilson said.

Here are some tips to consider if you want to pursue your own Galapagos adventure.

What's the best time to go?

You can have a great experience in the Galapagos year-round, Brunger said, so there's really isn't a "best time" to go.

The busiest tourist seasons are during the summer and around Christmas, when kids are out of school and people have extra vacation, he said. The warmest months are between January and May, when average temperatures reach the upper 70s and the low 80s. The driest months are from June to December.

How do you get there?

The first step is to fly into mainland Ecuador and land either in Quito or Guayaquil. A nonstop flight from Miami to Quito takes about four hours.