The most pristine and conserved archipelago in the world, the Galapagos Islands are only 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The islands called my name.

In addition to being home to to Darwin’s famous finches, a population of around 25,000 human inhabitants share the lush islands with hundreds of endemic species. From Albatross to giant turtles, the paradise islands in the Pacific draw people from all over the world.

The chain of volcanic islands keeps business and tourism local, only allowing people born on the islands to work, live, or own property there. Out of all the volcanic islands, only four are inhibited by humans — the other 9 major islands are only accessible for day trips with certified park rangers, and some of the smallest aren’t accessible at all.

On a recent trip to the islands with my best friend Florencia, and my parents, who flew in from the US to spend spring break with me, we spent a week discovering three of the islands and the clear, rich waters of the Pacific.

San Cristobal Island

“Zoom out,” I said to Florencia.

She lay back in the grainy white sand and stared up at the pink tinted sky. Her legs bent up and arms stretched out like at the end of a yoga class, she had never looked so content.

Florencia had grown up knowing this island, her childhood memories before she moved to the United States are embedded in the sandy streets and deep waters of San Cristobal. She learned to scuba dive off the coast at Kicker Rock and knew the town like the back of her hand.

She introduced my parents and I to the traditions of the island and some of the best seafood in the world. The hostel we stayed in welcomed her back with open arms and the scuba shops interrogated her about life while she had been away. The longer we spent on the island, the more I understood how this place was a home to my best friend. If you had asked me a year, or even four months ago, I never would have thought I’d get to share a ‘homecoming’ quite like this with her.

“Woah, just think where we are in the world right now,” she whispered back to me.

I lay back in the scratchy sand with her and stared up at the pale sky. ‘Zoom out,’ is something we did often. We would imagine where we were in the world compared to everything else and, no matter where were were, it always seemed to evoke a spirit of wanderlust and put everything in perspective.

On a small, remote island in the Pacific, as the sun set over the ships out at sea, I could faintly hear my parents splashing in the water like two flirting teenagers. I lay next to my best friend and watched the sky turn from fairy dust colors to a deep blue, welcoming the night. The mosquitos nibbled at our arms, but we didn’t  mind as we imagined our place in the world. Maybe it was the romance of the beach or having the people I loved most right next to me, but as night settled in, my worries faded away and left me lying next to my best friend, like two sea lions on the coast of San Cristobal Island.

Isabella Island

We arrived on Isabella island in the heat of an early Tuesday afternoon, and the pick up truck that picked us up from the one room airport kicked up dust as we drove into the small town.  

The biggest of all the islands in land size yet the least-inhabited, Isabella had a welcoming feeling in the salty air the other islands seemed to lack.

The small downtown street held a total of seven restaurants to choose from and entire local families cruised by on dirt bikes or mopeds while children kicked soccer balls in the streets, their persistent giggles a seemingly crucial sound of the town. The true, blissful happiness the locals possessed as they walked around without shoes and, I assumed, without worries may have been because they call paradise “home.”

Our three days on Isabella consisted of kayaking around the island, snorkeling with sea turtles and neon fish, hiking the Sierra Negra Volcano (the second largest diameter volcano in the world), visiting 100-year-old Galapagos turtles and vibrantly-colored flamingos, quenching our thirst with fresh coconuts by the beach, walking the perimeter of a fruit farm while eating fresh mangos off the trees, and slipping into the chilling ocean for a dip from sunrise to sunset.

If a perfect life existed, I’m sure it would be on the tranquil island of Isabella. Maybe that’s why my love affair with Isabella wasn’t found in the kayaking or the snorkeling or eating mangos in the shade (even though mangos are my favorite food).

No, I fell in love with this lonely paradise at six in the morning, as clear waves rushed over the crab-covered rocks and the white sand danced at my ankles in the dreamy morning breeze.  

Florencia and I had decided to start our day with a morning run.. Running the length of the beach near town, our bare feet melted into the grains of the sand with every step and we ran in silence, as sweat began to drip down my lower neck.

With every step, I fell deeper in love with the lack of distraction and how it was just me, my thoughts, and the wide open island.

Florencia and I hardly spoke, yet we both knew what the other was thinking. As we neared the end of our run, we slipped off our shorts and shirts and splashed into the silky morning water to cool off. Closing my eyes, I laid back in the waves and let myself be still — still enough to listen, still enough to think and still enough to, even if only for a second, feel like I was a small part of this mysterious, lonesome paradise.

Espanola Island

Espanola Island is on the southeastern end of the archipelago and is the oldest of all the islands.

Visiting for a single day, we hopped on a boat at seven in the morning with a Galapagainian guide and tourists from all over the world: a filmmaker from Canada, a lawyer from Washington D.C., a student from Colorado, an adorable older couple from Venice, and a native from just an island away.

The trip was to spend a few hours hiking around Espanola and use the rest of our time to snorkel in the surrounding clear waters with some of the best marine life in the world.

Our first dive went smoothly. Everyone on the boat hopped in the water and spent an hour discovering small caves and coral near the foot of Espanola Island. Much to my dismay (but in answer to my mother’s prayers), we didn’t see any sharks.

After about an hour, we got back on the boat to head to a new location for a little more snorkeling before lunch. As we pulled up near a small rock protruding out in the middle of the sea, a few of the most daring people on the boat (Florencia, my dad, and I included) scrambled to get our snorkel gear on.

The guide was yelling over the crashing waves and telling us to swim away from the rock once in the water. My dad and I were the first to jump in and, right as the refreshing water hit my torso, I let the current take me down shore and away from the rock. I looked back and no one else was in sight except my dad.

Not worried, my dad and I dove deeper and deeper each time, swimming alongside schools of fish and sitting with dozens of starfish on the ocean floor.

About 15 minutes had passed and Florencia still wasn’t in sight … we were getting concerned.

I pointed to the surface and my dad and I emerged, looking toward the boat in the distance. We saw the inflatable rescue boat near the rock, the crashing waves, and the captain pulling a tall, brown-haired girl in a pink bathing suit into the boat. Florencia.

The current had taken Florencia and the Italian couple in the wrong direction and, in just a few minutes, the quick snorkeling excursion had turned into near-death experience.

A few minutes later, the inflatable boat came to take my dad and I back to the main boat and, as we climbed back in, everyone began telling us about what had just happened.

The Italian woman shook with shock and her husband stared into the distance, trying to comprehend what had just happened.

I put away my snorkel gear, and walked to the front of the boat, where I found Florencia looking out at the sea I prepared to comfort her and make sure she was feeling okay. “Hey Flo,” I said softly.

Inching my arm toward her shoulder for comfort, I expected to see her shocked face but, much to my surprise, Florencia whipped around with the biggest smile on her face and eyes full of wonder. “That was awesome, let’s get back in!” she exclaimed.

I should have known she would love it. As a child of the tide, this was what adventure was all about and after just a taste of some true adventure, we couldn’t help but crave more.

Thank you Galapagos Islands for filling my heart and head with a new love for endless adventure. You were a paradise unlike any other.