Our 2012 trip to Ecuador included nearly a week on and around the islands of the Galapagos archipelago. This is a photo journal of our visit to this living, vibrant illustration of Nature's greatest achievement - evolution.
Galapagos lies remote - 600 miles off the coast of South America, astride the equator - 13 major islands, hundreds of islets, rocks and reefs.
It is a land born of fire. Galapagos lies on a geologic "hot spot" - a region where land masses have been - and are continuing to be - created by the lava of undersea volcanoes.
The legacy of the islands' violent, volcanic birth and continuing growth is still evident in the black swirls of hardened lava.
This is "pahoehoe" lava from a volcanic eruption just a few years ago. The name means "ropy," reflecting the twisted, rope-like patterns formed when it cools.
The best place to see a pahoehoe lava flow is on the island of Santiago. Just before the turn of the century, massive lava flows covered the southern part of the island, creating a seemingly endless, barren landscape.
Distinctly different from the relatively smooth texture of pahoehoe lava is the rubbly, sharp-edged "ah ah" lava (also spelled "aa"). One reason for the difference is the speed of flow. Flows over steeper terrain move more rapidly and tend to be of the aa type while slower flows tend to form pahoehoe.
But looking closer within the cracks and crevices of Galapagos' lava fields, we saw the first signs of new life taking root.
As the lava rocks break down into mineral-rich soil, the first lava cactus appears. it one of the few plants that survive in this extremely dry, challenging habitat, and is often one of the first plants to colonize a fresh lava flow.
Eventually, as the lava fields break apart over thousands of years, more plants take root. Each Galapagos island takes on its own character, depending largely on its age and the presence of moisture.
The result is a landscape of unworldly beauty.
The islands - all of which were declared a national park in 1959 - are oddly "untropical," their flattish landscapes covered in green gorse spotted with volcanic hills and ridges. Darwin wrote, "the country was comparable to what one might imagine the cultivated parts of the infernal regions to be." Nowadays their appeal lies in that there is something unearthly about these lone outcrops set in a vast ocean.
On our first day in the Galapagos, we were greeted by the islands' most iconic welcoming committee - the Galapagos giant tortoise.
Creaking giants - They were originally thought to belong to just one species, Geochelone elephantopus, with 14 different sub-species, three of which were believed extinct. Now some in the scientific community contend that the Galapagos giant tortoises may actually be different species.
They are, in fact, the creatures that gave the Galapagos its name. Spanish sailors who discovered the archipelago in 1535 thought that the shells of the tortoises resembled Spanish saddles. The old Spanish word for saddle is "galapago."
They can grow to be the size of a small armchair -- 500 pounds or more...
...and live to be a hundred years old or more. Some are known to have lived for 150 years. It is conceivable - though unlikely - that somewhere on the islands lives a giant tortoise that was around when Darwin visited 177 years ago.
The tortoises live an uncomplicated life....
...grazing on grass...
...napping nearly 16 hours per day...
...occasionally giving a welcoming "shout out" to the islands' visitors....
...and willingly (or perhaps unknowingly) posing for photographs....
...including our "Christmas card" photo.
Today the Galapagos giant tortoise is an endangered species. Hunted as food by pirates, whalers, and merchantmen, more than 100,000 tortoises are estimated to have been killed off in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Today only about 15,000 remain.
The most famous - Lonesome George, the last of his sub-species - died a few months before our arrival.
But captive breeding programs by the Charles Darwin Research Station are having positive effects.
This baby tortoise could still be around in the year 2160.
As we moved from island to island, we discovered that Galapagos remains ruled by reptiles. This is what the plant must have looked like tens of millions of years ago.
A few marine iguanas greeted us at the dock...but that would be only a small contingent compared to what we would encounter in just a few steps.
The great masses of these reptiles awaited us on the beaches.
It was hard to tell reptile from rock.
Most were in the open, but at times we were startled when one appeared beneath the foliage.
As many as 300,000 marine iguanas are believed to inhabit these islands, spending their days warming in the sun...
...being attended to by their little lava lizard partners...
... waiting for low tide, and gathering strength for their deep plunges to the seafloor to feed on coastal seaweed.
They are the only true water-loving lizard in the world.
Scientists figure that land-dwelling iguanas from South America must have drifted out to sea millions of years ago on logs or other debris, eventually landing on the Galápagos. From that species emerged marine iguanas, which spread to nearly all the islands of the archipelago.
They are probably the most maligned of the Galapagos creatures...
...so homely even Charles Darwin described them as "hideous-looking" and "most disgusting, clumsy lizards."
Even the sea lions pick on them -- on land...
...and in the water.
But they're really not as fearsome as they appear.