Even though it is primarily a science and conservation facility, just about every tour of the islands sooner or later washes up at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), twenty minutes’ stroll from the town centre at the northern end of Avenida Charles Darwin. Past the information booth at the entrance, a path leads between some giant cacti to the Van Straelen interpretation centre, exhibiting information on geology, climate, conservation and many related aspects of Galápagos nature. A short video about the CDRS and the islands, introduced by a staff member, can be seen on request (daily 9am–noon & 2–4pm); details are available here about joining Galápagos conservation organizations. Past the visitor centre, you’ll come to the tortoise-rearing pens, where predator-proof enclosures hold batches of miniature giant tortoises divided by age; the creatures are best seen when the covers are off. Since 1965, a programme of tortoise repopulation has been ongoing, with eggs being carefully extracted from the wild and incubated here. After two or three years the hatchlings graduate to larger enclosures with the kind of terrain they might find in the wild; after four to six years they are deemed to have grown to an uneatable size (as far as predators are concerned) and repatriated to their home islands.
From the pens, a raised boardwalk weaves through the scrub past the tortoise corrals, where you can see fully grown giant tortoises. The most famous resident is Lonesome George (Solitario Jorge), the last surviving tortoise of the Pinta island subspecies, considered by many to be the rarest animal in the world. From 1906 until 1971 (when George was found) it was thought the Pinta tortoises were extinct; since then the search has been on to find him a Pinta partner, with a $10,000 reward on offer. At the moment, George is paired up with a couple of females from Volcán Wolf on Isabela, though – except for one fruitless liaison in 2008 – the unfortunate reptile has shown little interest in love. Recent research has suggested tortoises from Española – another subspecies from the opposite side of the archipelago – may in fact be George’s closest relatives, so he may get on better with them. Despite his 75 years or so (with about another 75 to go), he’s quite a shy animal, and the best time to see him is when he’s being fed, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9am.
At the end of the walkway is an enclosure with half a dozen friendly tortoises, mostly former pets donated to the station. This is the best place to get up close and take photos – but be careful not to touch them or walk on their feeding area. Near the exit, you’ll pass the CDRS kiosk, selling t-shirts, videos and souvenirs; this is the only place on the islands you can buy CDRS logo clothing, the proceeds of which go straight to the station. Near the exit you’ll see a sign for a little beach, a hidden spot for lazing about and looking across the bay.