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Tortoises and Turtles of the Galápagos

Giant Tortoises

Of the 20 species of endemic reptiles, these slow giants are the most famous. They also gave the islands their name—galápago is an old Spanish word for a saddle similar in shape to the tortoise shell. They are only found on the Galápagos and in smaller numbers on a few islands in the Indian Ocean.

Giant tortoises at La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado on San Cristóbal. Photo © Lisa Cho.
Giant tortoises at La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado on San Cristóbal. Photo © Lisa Cho.

The shell of a giant tortoise reveals which island its owner originates from. Saddleshaped shells evolved on low, arid islands where tortoises needed to lift their heads high to eat tall vegetation, while semicircular domed shells come from higher, lush islands where vegetation grows closer to the ground.

Of the original 14 subspecies, 10 remain, and 3 species (Santa Fé, Floreana, and Fernandina) have been hunted into extinction. The giant tortoise population has plummeted from some 250,000 before humans arrived to just 20,000 now. Today, the main danger comes largely from introduced species, but there is a comprehensive rearing program to release tortoises back into the wild, most recently on Pinta Island.

Five of the remaining subspecies are found on the five main volcanoes of Isabela, and the other species are found on Santiago, Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Pinzón, and Española.

Where to See Giant Tortoises

Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz is the most famous place to see these amazing creatures. There is a breeding center with 11 subspecies and a walk-in enclosure. Lesser known but with a larger population is the Centro de Crianza breeding center on Isabela, which has more than 800 tortoises in eight separate enclosures. The best places to see tortoises in their natural environment are La Galapaguera, a reserve on San Cristóbal where tortoises reside in 12 hectares of dry forest, or the larger El Chato Tortoise Reserve, which fills the entire southwest corner of Santa Cruz.

Sea Turtles

There are four species of marine turtles in the archipelago. The eastern Pacific green turtle, also known as the black turtle (tortuga negra), is the most common species. Also present but rarely seen are the Pacific leatherback, Indo- Pacific hawksbill, and olive ridley turtles. Green sea turtles are rarely seen in large numbers, preferring to swim alone, in couples, or next to their young. They usually weigh about 100 kg but can weigh up to 150 kg. The females are actually bigger than the males and can grow to 1.2 meters long. The mating season, November to January, is the best time to see them. Sea turtles must come ashore to lay eggs, and females often do this as many as eight times during the mating season.

Sea turtle near La Lobería on Floreana. Photo © Lisa Cho.
Sea turtle near La Lobería on Floreana. Photo © Lisa Cho.

Where to Spot Sea Turtles

With a little luck, sea turtles can be seen swimming all over the archipelago, but the best-known nesting sites are Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz, the beaches of Bartolomé, and Gardner Bay on Española.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Galápagos Islands.

North India’s Architectural Marvels

After dusk, the lights in the palace illuminate the stone walls and reflect in the water.
Jal Mahal, the water palace. Photo by cprogrammer licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

North India is home to a vast array of architectural treasures, many of which fuse a variety of influences, both domestic and imported. Agra’s famed Taj Mahal, with its gargantuan onion-dome roof, its glistening white marble inlaid with semiprecious stones, and the perfect symmetry of its construction, is arguably the most spectacular of them all. It’s no surprise that this bedazzling tribute to romantic love is among the New Seven Wonders of the World.

[pullquote align=”right”]Jaipur’s water palace, or Jal Mahal, is yet another of the city’s stunners, blending Rajput and Mughal architecture with a few Bengal-style elements.[/pullquote]Near the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort is yet another architectural masterpiece. It was built primarily of red sandstone, although there are also plenty of white marble structures inside its walls. Many of the buildings are prime examples of the convergence of Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture and silently illustrate the way the meeting of the two philosophies shaped the culture of the region for centuries to come. Just outside Agra, the now abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri is filled with magnificent Mughal-era architectural treasures. The most stunning sight is the massive Buland Darwaza, believed to be the largest entryway in the world. The red sandstone gate sits atop a perilously steep flight of stairs and features intricate black and white marble inlay work.

As India’s capital, it is only natural that Delhi is home to many fascinating architectural wonders. It has an amazing selection of Lodi-era tombs; those found in the city’s verdant Lodi Gardens are among the city’s most spectacular. The 16th-century Humayun’s Tomb is considered the first major example of Mughal architecture. The highly ornamental architecture and adornment of Old Delhi’s Lal Qila (Red Fort) borrows from Indian, Persian, and Western European schools of design to create a style that was unique to the era of architecture obsessed Shahjahan (who also commissioned the Taj Mahal).

Delhi also has its fair share of more recent architecture. One notable example is the Baha’i House of Worship, known colloquially as the Lotus Temple, built to emulate the sacred flower from which it takes its nickname; it features 27 marble-coated “leaves.” The more recent temple at the Swaminarayan Akshardham Complex is made of intricately carved pink sandstone and is supported by 10-meter-high pillars.

Much of the architecture of Jaipur incorporates Rajput, Islamic, and British elements. The pink-sandstone Hawa Mahal is among the city’s iconic structures and features nearly 1,000 tiny latticed windows in an arrangement often likened to a beehive. The windows are positioned in such a way that breezes can pass through, cooling the building’s interior. Jaipur’s water palace, or Jal Mahal, is yet another of the city’s stunners, blending Rajput and Mughal architecture with a few Bengal-style elements. It sits right in the middle of Man Sagar Lake and can only be accessed by boat. The 19th-century Albert Hall was modeled after the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and is among the world’s finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture, a style that blends Indian and Mughal styles with the neo-Gothic architecture that was all the rage in Victorian England.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Taj Mahal, Delhi & Jaipur.

Taking a Trip of a Lifetime with Margot Bigg

View of the Taj Mahal across the river.
Photo © Daily Travel Photos.

What really sets a trip of a lifetime apart from just a trip is that it changes the way you see the world, forever. To me, a trip of a lifetime relates to an experience you’ll never again be able to emulate. The destination might be somewhere you know you’ll only get to see once, perhaps because it’s far away or expensive to get to. The style of travel might also be something special—for example, most of my travel is of the budget variety, so a luxury cruise for me might be a trip of a lifetime, even if it’s to a destination I’ve seen many times before.

[pullquote align=”right”]Once you’ve been to India, you’ll never see the world in the same way again.[/pullquote]There’s an old adage that most people who have been to India are familiar with. It goes something like, “There are two types of people in this world: those who have been to India and those who haven’t.” Once you’ve been to India, you’ll never see the world in the same way again. I know my adoration for India makes me a bit biased, but there is truly nowhere else like it on Earth. It’s one of the most history-rich places I’ve ever been, and the “Golden Triangle” of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) has some of the most stunning, varied, and well-preserved architecture I have ever come across, anywhere.

The Taj Mahal is undoubtedly the world’s most romantic and stunning monument to love and easily one of the most iconic structures in the world. Plus, once you’re in the region, you can easily go on a tiger safari, spend a weekend at a yoga retreat, or immerse yourself in the urban life of Delhi, one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing cities.

The Five Best Beaches in the Galápagos

Soft waves lap on a light sand beach with rocks jutting out of the water at a distance.
View at Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island. Photo by Aaron Logan licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Most travelers don’t come to the Galápagos to lie on beaches but rather to watch animals lying on beaches. However, many of the visitor sites are located around beautiful sandy stretches, and you may welcome the chance to sun yourself like a lazy iguana after a hard day of watching wildlife.

Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz

The longest beach in the archipelago is a 45-minute walk from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. The first beach has strong currents and is popular with surfers, but walk to the end and soak in a sheltered shallow lagoon at Playa Mansa, where marine turtles lay eggs at night.

Bachas Beach, Santa Cruz

This beach is named for the remains of wrecked U.S. military barges from World War II, and the rusty metal parts remain visible, jutting out of the white sand. The beach is otherwise pristine and covered in sally lightfoot crabs, while the lagoons behind are home to flamingos.

Puerto Chino, San Cristóbal

San Cristóbal has many beautiful beaches — Playa del Amor, La Lobería, and Cerro Brujo — but this beach is one of the quietest. Used as a cool-off after a trip to the highlands, the small beach is backed by mangroves and is also good for surfing.

Puerto Villamil, Isabela

The main port on Isabela is the most laid-back town in the archipelago, with a peaceful position on a long white-sand beach that is home to a small colony of marine iguanas. Far quieter than other resorts, you may find it difficult to leave.

Post Office Bay, Floreana

This brown-sand beach is hardly the most photogenic in the islands, but the history behind it is interesting. The post office barrel has been running since 1793, so leave a postcard and pick up any mail for your local area. A visit is usually combined with the green-tinged beach of nearby Punta Cormorant, colored by olivine minerals.

A Perfect Toronto Day

Midday view of a ferry and across the water the dramatic Toronto skyline.
Toronto’s spectacular city skyline. Photo © Carolyn B. Heller.

Making a quick trip to Toronto? Whether you’re in town for business, a conference (like the upcoming TBEX travel bloggers conference), or a short holiday, you’ll want to know how to get the most out of your visit to Canada’s largest city. And if you have more time in Toronto, then you’re lucky! There’s plenty to see and do in this multicultural city by the lake.

Here are some of my favorite Toronto activities and experiences that you can fit into one perfect Toronto day:

Get oriented by taking a free Toronto Greeter tour, a city-run program that matches visitors with a knowledgeable local guide. You can ask to tour one of Toronto’s historic districts, explore one of the many multicultural neighborhoods, or opt for “guide’s choice,” where your guide takes you around his/her favorite area.

If you have time before lunch, visit one of Toronto’s museums. My favorites are the Art Gallery of Ontario, located in a striking Frank Gehry building, or the quirky Bata Shoe Museum, which exhibits Elton John’s platform shoes, Napolean’s socks, and all sorts of eclectic footwear—tracking the history of various cultures by what people wore on their feet.

Next, wander through the international shops in Kensington Market or stroll around Chinatown. Either neighborhood makes a great stop for a quick, inexpensive lunch.

In the afternoon, head toward the lakeshore. You can see what’s going on at Harbourfront Centre; watch the artists at work in the craft studios, check out the exhibits at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, or simply soak up the sun along Lake Ontario. You could also wander over to the Distillery District, where the restored buildings house a variety of galleries and shops, including Toronto’s first sake brewery, the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company—and yes, you can taste the brews.

If the weather is particularly fine, hop on the ferry to the Toronto Islands, making sure to turn back and snap photos of the skyline along the way. Once ashore, go for a stroll, enjoy one of the beaches, or rent a bike to make a full island circuit.

Back in the city, catch the streetcar to West Queen West, an artsy district on Toronto’s west side. You can check out the galleries, have dinner in a contemporary bistro on Queen or along nearby Ossington Avenue, and then see what’s happening at either the Drake or Gladstone hotel bars. If you’d rather top off your adventures with a sunset drink on top of it all, go back downtown to the CN Tower, where you can enjoy the panoramic city views and toast your perfect Toronto day.

The Wonder of the Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos is one place on earth that lives up to and surpasses expectations. There are insufficient superlatives. This archipelago is unquestionably the best place on earth for wildlife watching because the wildlife watches you as much as you watch it. The lack of natural predators has left the animals fearless, and the only timid species are the fish, the food supply for so many. Every other creature on the islands is either unconcerned by the presence of visitors or is intent on communicating.

Photo © Ksenia Ragozina/123rf.
Photo © Ksenia Ragozina/123rf.

[pullquote align=”right”]The Galápagos is a glimpse of what life was like before humans threw their weight around, and a reminder that when we seek out perfection, we throw a wrench in nature’s works.[/pullquote]The Galápagos is also heaven for bird-watchers. Here you don’t need to get up at dawn and wait with binoculars for a glimpse of birdlife in the trees. Instead, the birds proudly display themselves — the male frigates inflate their red chests to the size of a basketball, the albatross entertain with their circular clacking dance, and pelicans dive-bomb the ocean in search of lunch.

A visit to these islands changes you, as it changed Charles Darwin, who was inspired to form his monumental theory of evolution after visiting in 1835. The Galápagos is a glimpse of what life was like before humans threw their weight around, and a reminder that when we seek out perfection, we throw a wrench in nature’s works. Evidence of human activity on the Galápagos is everywhere — the number of endemic species hunted or driven to near extinction by introduced species is alarming. But the effort of conservationists to restore the ecological balance is equally inspiring. You will return from these islands filled with a sense of wonder, and a clearer view of nature’s fragile beauty.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Galápagos Islands.

Observing Galápagos Wildlife and Protecting South American Jungle

A sea lion with its head and neck raised on the beach.
Photo © Ben Westwood.

The Galápagos Islands are the best places in the world to get close to wildlife. Because the islands have hardly any natural predators, the creatures have traded fear for friendliness—from blue-footed boobies who peer at you as you pass so close you could pat them on the head, to sea lion pups playing peekaboo with snorkelers. The Galápagos give a glimpse of what the world must have been like at the dawn of time. Reptiles (such as giant tortoises and iguanas) rule the land, and a magnificent array of fish, rays, sharks, sea lions, turtles, and penguins present a natural spectacle underwater. The rugged volcanic landscapes—blackened lava trails and smoldering craters —make the geology as fascinating as the wildlife. The Galápagos remind us of both the power and playfulness of nature.

[pullquote align=”right”]There is an ongoing struggle in the South American jungle, with ecologists and indigenous tribes on one side and corporate interests on the other.[/pullquote]I have also been lucky enough to visit the Amazon jungle in Ecuador several times. Nowhere is the importance of tourism more apparent than in this unique environment. Waking to a dawn chorus of thousands of insects and birds, gazing over the endless forest canopy from an observation tower, and hiking through primary jungle were all reminders of how insignificant a person is in the face of the jungle’s sweeping grandeur. A whole host of creatures were on view—preening parakeets, mischievous monkeys, creepy caimans, scary spiders. But the experience of seeing such natural wonders was chastened by the all-too-visible activities of oil companies in the rainforest, their trucks shuttling across rivers, dwarfing the tiny tourist boats.

There is an ongoing struggle in the South American jungle, with ecologists and indigenous tribes on one side and corporate interests on the other. Fortunately, tourists can play their part in helping to protect one of the last wildernesses on Earth, and seeing it for myself helped me to understand that going on vacation is so much more than just relaxation time—it allows us to seek out what is special in the world and recognize what must be preserved.

Learning Patience on a Trip to India

Moon author Margot Bigg stands in the foreground with the stunning form of the Taj Mahal behind her.
Moon author Margot Bigg at the Taj Mahal, what she calls “undoubtedly the world’s most romantic and stunning monument to love” and a location worthy of being a “Trip of a Lifetime.” Photo © Margot Bigg.

My first trip to India completely transformed the way I saw the world. I’d already spent a fair bit of time traveling abroad by the time I first set foot on Indian soil, but except for a trip to Egypt and a night of drinking in Tijuana, I had very little experience with the developing world. I’m also a very impatient person; I talk fast, walk fast, and am most comfortable when things happen with speed and efficiency. However, in India things happen when they happen, and time and time again people would tell me to “just chill.” Circumstances consistently forced me to relax and go with the flow much more than I ever thought possible.

[pullquote align=”right”]Circumstances consistently forced me to relax and go with the flow much more than I ever thought possible.[/pullquote]During this first trip, I rode in the non-air-conditioned section of an overnight train from Varanasi to Jaipur. The already long train ride ended up being delayed by an additional 20 hours. Had this happened in the West, people would have been furious or demanded alternative transportation. While there was certainly a fair bit of annoyance on the part of my fellow passengers, people were accepting of the change of fate and took the time to catch up on sleep, read or socialize. This experience, and the many seemingly frustrating experiences that would follow, taught me that patience, acceptance and a general ability to roll with the punches can make difficult situations easier to deal with.

My family played a major role in turning me into a serial traveler. My father is British, and I spent much of my childhood going back and forth between the US and the UK. Long-haul flights on the now-defunct Pan Am feature heavily in my early childhood memories, and my transatlantic youth provided great training for a lifetime of globetrotting. At an early age, my mother taught me how to live out of a carry-on, how to minimize jet lag, and how to communicate with people with whom I didn’t share a common language. It’s to my parents that I owe my curiosity about the rest of the world, and it was they who instilled in me the confidence to go out and explore this incredible planet of ours.

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