It’s been about a week since I last posted, and I’m fairly certain it would be impossible to recount everything that happened in the past 7 days … but I’ll give it a try because I’ve got to share one of the most incredible trips I’ve ever experienced.

This past week – during the long weekend for Carnaval celebrations – my BCA group made its way to the Galapagos Islands. Yes, I was blessed to walk along the same gorgeous beaches and breathtaking volcanic formations that made Darwin start a little hypothesis about the origin of man. The entire trip was one amazing landscape after another. From the back of a few small speedboats, my group and I observed penguins, sea lions, iguanas, giant sea turtles, and even a few of those infamous finches.

The days were long and extremely busy, but time flew by as we filled our days with exciting activities and tours. Here are a few highlights: snorkeling off the coast of Isabela Island, swimming with sea lions, hiking the Sierra Negra volcano (this included a 5-hour hike in a rainstorm, but was 100% worth it), cliff jumping on Santa Cruz Island (the bruises that resulted from the water impact weren’t too great, but it’s quite a memory), exploring lava tunnels, observing Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat, walking among thousands of iguanas at the nesting beach, celebrating Carnaval with locals until absurd hours of the night, watching the sunset from a quiet beach behind our hostel, cheering on the local horse races, and of course lots of seafood dinners and quests in search of ice cream.

Despite all the once-in-a-lifetime activities, I think that my favorite part of the trip was actually the peaceful time spent getting to know the local people of the Galapagos. Due to the program’s focus on sustainability, local development, and indigenous rights, we always try to focus our spending on local initiatives owned by long-term residents of the places we visit. This trip was no exception, and our stay on Isabela Island was an important decision in determining how we viewed tourism and development on the islands.

Although the island of Santa Cruz is quickly becoming a globalized tourist hub filled with pizza places, gift shops, and English-speaking tour guides, the island of Isabela is still relatively untouched and remains under the traditions and customs of its small 2000-person population. Our two guides, Julio and Maximo, had lived on the island their entire lives, and they spoke only in Spanish to our group. We stayed in a tiny hostel operated by a lovely woman who basically added onto her house to create the lodging place, and all of our meals were prepared by one very kind family who lived a few houses down from the hostel. We got the real picture of the Galapagos – a picture of a community struggling to find the balance between the profit-earning industry of tourism and the preservation of local wildlife and culture.

There are few places on Earth with as much beauty and mystery as the Galapagos, and the unique experience to live among its people for a week will undoubtedly remain one of the greatest privileges of my life. Yes, the beaches are beautiful and you must see the turtles, but the hidden gems of the islands are truly its people and its traditions.