Belly down on the sand, I’ve come nose-to-whisker with a sea lion pup. In a kayak, I’ve raced with penguins, though it wasn’t a fair contest. They lapped me about 40 times. With my camera, I’ve tracked a flock of flamingos, a cloud of pink tip-toeing across a lagoon. As surely as anyone who’s ever headed to the savannahs of Africa, I’ve been on safari. It’s just that mine was on the Galápagos islands…on the Classic Journeys trip that AFAR magazine just named the Best Wildlife Encounter for 2018 in their Travelers’ Choice Awards.

Galapagos sealions on a white, sandy beach

If you love wildlife – especially the kind that’s truly living its life in the honest-to-goodness wild – this is the safari for you. In an environment that lacks apex predators, the birds, mammals and reptiles in these islands off the Ecuadorean coast show little natural fear of humans. You will get remarkably close to the fauna, but don’t expect a petting zoo. Our local naturalist guides know where and how to put you in close proximity and can answer any question you have about the natural wonders you’re witnessing. But our guides are also guardians of these singular islands. They help you understand and respect the boundaries…though you will be absolutely amazed by how near to the animals you can get.

Blue footed booby in the Galapagos

On any wildlife trip to the Galápagos, the elephant in the room is a giant land tortoise. A healthy specimen can weigh half a ton and be 100 years old. And you can see a whole herd (group? flock? passel?) of them at once, near enough to hear their raspy breaths that my sons still insist sound like Darth Vader. Blue-footed boobies are happily blasé if you catch them in the middle of their mating ritual. Marine iguanas won’t even give you a second look when you float by in your snorkel mask. (Doesn’t everybody like bobbing in the Pacific?)

Galapagos giant tortoises on the beaches.

There’s no question that a Galápagos safari is a finch of a different color. First, there is the aforementioned Pacific Ocean. It creates an altogether mellow climate where many of the star attractions live or play in the waters. On safari here, so will you. There are plenteous opportunities to snorkel, swim, kayak, and body surf – with the added benefit that it’s frequently the best way to encounter species like penguins and sea lions.

Snorkeling in the Galapagos

Our Galápagos safari is island-based, meaning your accommodations will be in luxury boutique hotels. The properties nuzzle right up to the beach where you can go for a moonlight stroll if you like. There are great swimming pools and elbow room that the many cruise-based visitors to the islands can only dream about. (Okay – many African safari camps also have luxury accommodations, and they swear that the lions that roar at night almost never eat the guests. Give me a friendly iguana any day.)

And what a stellar family experience you can have on an expedition in the Galápagos. In our everyday lives, squirrels and pigeons are about as wild as it gets. Kids are mesmerized by the super-cool natural display in the Galápagos. You all learn a lot without ever feeling like you’re in a biology class. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the opportunities for included activities—like mountain biking or paddling into caves in search of pirate gold—make the trip downright fun.

If the Galápagos is on your bucket list, you should go. You. Will. Not. Be. Disappointed. You have to love a safari that goes so far beyond your expectations.

The Big 5 of the Galápagos

On an African safari, you hope to spot the Big Five: lion, elephant, leopard, Cape buffalo and rhinoceros. It often doesn’t happen and sometimes you have to be satisfied with a quick look through binoculars. But that’s never an issue on a Galápagos safari where the star attractions are anything but camera-shy!

1. Giant Land Tortoise
2. Blue-Footed Booby
3. Galápagos Penguin
4. Sea Lion
5. Marine Iguana