Instead of exploring the Galapagos by cruise ship -- the most common way of visiting the archipelago -- I instead wanted something a little more carefree. So I based on the main island of Santa Cruz, staying at the Royal Palm Hotel, a five-star resort in the tropical Highlands that's hard to leave, and took day trips around the island as well to other nearby isles.
These are some of my favorite activities on Santa Cruz Island:
1. Visit Tortuga Bay with its calm lagoon and fine white sand. You'll see plenty of Opuntia or prickly pear cactus.
2. Hike up the almost 3,000-foot Cerra Crocker, the islands highest point and a volcanic cone. The steep climb is worth it for the panoramic view of the surrounding islands from the top. On the way, I spotted a variety of bird life, including finches, the Galapagos rail and the dark rumped petrel -- it's a key bird watching area.
3. Trek to El Chat, the Tortoise Reserve. You can get extremely close to the reptiles that roam the dirt paths munching on grass.
These are the islands that make great day trips from Santa Cruz:
1. South Plaza where I found the black and white striped hybrid iguanas, born to a female land iguana and a male marine iguana.
2. Santa Fe, an arid land populated with pale yellow-green land iguanas. I wandered a trail that wanders through a forest of Opuntia that actually grow like trees. Some are more than 100 years old.
3. North Seymore where blue-footed boobies mate. We watched their odd dance which is part of their courtship ritual. Then I walked a trail that courses past palo santo trees -- their resin smells like incense -- and lava rocks.
4. Bartolome, three hours from Santa Fe, harkens to a moonscape, splashed with black sand and dotted with volcanic cones. Off of the north beach, you can snorkel with penguins.