For travelers who love wildlife, a Galapagos cruise should be at the tippy-top of the bucket list. Not only is this remote chain of Ecuadorean islands home to some of the world's rarest animals -- tropical penguins, anyone? -- but its relative isolation has also engendered a community of creatures who are strikingly unafraid of humans. Forget the telephoto lens; on these islands, you'll be up-close and personal with hundreds of animals during a weeklong cruise.
Round a curve, and you might come upon a waved albatross right in the hiking path, sitting serenely for several minutes while you and your fellow tourists snap photos just a few feet away. Hop in the water with a snorkel and mask, and you might find yourself swimming alongside a mother sea lion and her pup. Walk along the coast, and you might spot Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttling along the rocks, a blue-footed booby preening its feathers and a pile of marine iguanas soaking up the sun.
I spotted all of these animals and many more during a week aboard International Expeditions' 32-passenger Evolution. The bulk of this cruise is focused on wildlife and the ecosystem that supports it, from daily hikes and snorkeling excursions to evening lectures on the islands' conservation and climate, all led by experienced naturalist guides. By the end of the week, we'd learned why certain species were in danger, how to tell the difference between older and younger tortoises and what creates a flamingo's dazzling pink color. (Curious? The slideshow has the answers.)
Click through our gallery for a checklist of 12 amazing animals to keep an eye out for during a Galapagos cruise.
--By Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor, IndependentTraveler.com