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A vacation where he ends up sleeping in the back of his car or huddled with a group in a youth hostel has lost its luster for Bozeman architect Rich Charlesworth.

"Sometimes you just want to travel a little more comfortably," he said.

So this past November, Charlesworth and three Bozeman friends - Jim Madden, Amanda Hardy and Melissa Frost - opted for something a little more swanky. They signed up for a group trip on a 118-foot yacht that would visit 12 of the Galapagos Islands over 12 days.

"I guess it was my first attempt at mature travel," said Charlesworth, 61. "I had never done this kind of thing before - plopped down a big chunk of money and had such a busy itinerary."

He estimated the cost of the trip with Galapagos Travel at about $5,800 including airfare and the $100 park entrance fee. Seven-day trips are also offered.

If you're imagining Charlesworth sipping icy drinks with little umbrellas in them from the deck of the yacht while working on his tan, you're only partially right. Although the nights were relaxed, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. the group hiked, photographed, snorkeled and heard lectures about the unique flora, fauna and ocean life surrounding the 1.7 million-acre Galapagos National Park.

"We were learning at every moment," Frost said, a task made harder for her as she fought sea sickness and travelers' ills for the first four days.

When they weren't cramming their heads full of facts on how old the tortoises are (some are believed to be 125) or the number of different finches on the islands (14), they were napping, drinking juices of exotic fruits or lunching on Ecuadorean-style soups garnished with popcorn. At night, the yacht cruised to the island that would be visited the next day.

Jutting from the Pacific Ocean 650 miles west of the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are considered one of the world's premier eco-tourism destinations.

"Geologically it's a very young place," said Madden, an artist. "The landforms where there wasn't lava looked like they had just oozed out."

"There was life seemingly springing out of nothing," said Frost, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks information officer.

In 2005, more than 120,000 people visited the string of volcanic islands that straddle the equator. The attraction is the diversity of unique species, especially noted for its variety

of birds, some of which are found only in the park and change from island to island.

Species include the marine iguana - the world's only sea-going lizard - fur seals, the Galapagos penguin, the flightless cormorant and the distinctive blue-footed booby.

"You don't really realize until you go there how incredible it is," Charlesworth said. "The wildlife … you can walk through it, they have no fear of mankind. It's truly a wild area."

For Hardy, a biologist working on her doctorate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., the trip was thought-provoking at every turn, as well as camera-captivating. (She took about 8,000 photos.) Hardy said it was exciting to visit the place that helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory on the evolution of species. It was also in the Galapagos where biologists Rosemary and Peter Grant documented environmental changes that led to natural selection among certain finches, she noted.

"It was interesting to think about how the different islands had different features and how that was expressed in speciation," she said.

The archipelago is surrounded by an extensive marine reserve that is home to 3,000 species of aquatic life. So the Bozeman crew spent almost as much time in the 70-degree water as it did on the islands, snorkeling to see manta rays 6-feet across, black fin sharks and have their flipper fins nibbled at by playful sea lions.

Because of the fragility of the islands and its species, access and development is tightly controlled. Paths mark out walking areas. Guides accompany all groups. No facilities, not even outhouses, are built on the islands in the park. The park service controls when people can visit, ensuring a small-group experience and coordinating the tourist-bearing cruise ships.

Despite the restrictions, the park service is struggling with the crush of visitors, which has climbed from about 2,000 people a year in the late 1960s. Since 1991, the park estimates, visitation has increased by about 9 percent a year, supplying a huge boost to Ecuador's economy. As visitation has climbed, the park has noted a decline in visitors' ranking of their satisfaction with the experience. Could people anxious to visit the delicate islands be spelling the end of the blue-footed booby that's laying the golden egg for Ecuador?

The Bozeman travelers felt that their impact was minimal.

Although the park is the main attraction, four of the islands are home to about 28,000 people. The islands were discovered by Europeans in 1535 and over the years were often used as penal colonies because of their remote location. Despite this, the islands maintain 95 percent of their pre-human biodiversity. The Charles Darwin Research Center, also on many visitors' itinerary, conducts scientific research on the islands.

The Bozeman group accessed the islands by flying from Quito, Ecuador, landing at an old World War II airstrip on the island of Baltra, next door to the island of Santa Cruz, the main jumping-off point for cruises.

"The mind-set when you leave Quito, there's a feeling that this is a special place," Charlesworth said. "You feel like from the beginning that this is a special place, and you have to make compromises. You have to behave in a certain way. Those are easy sacrifices. And you get such a reward out of it."

One of the rewards was that when Charlesworth went to bed, he got to sleep in a well-appointed yacht cabin, not the back of his car or in a youth hostel.

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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