FROM EASTER Island we flew back to Santiago. After one night's rest, we headed by plane, bus, boat, more buses, more boats, more planes, down through the Chilean and Argentine lake country, with a two-day stop at the famous ski resort of Bariloche, then onward to Lago Argentino and Patagonia.

First there was the magnificent mountain scenery of the south Andean Cordillera: snow-capped volcanic cones, summer snowline on granite peaks and ranges, lush rain forest vegetation highlighted with wildflowers, glaciers that terminated in rivers choked with ice floes or in lakes on which blue and white icebergs floated majestically.

Then the abrupt change to the steppes, dry and flat with sparse vegetation, something like our own Western sagebrush or mesquite country. Crossing from steppes to mountains along the lake, we saw an enormous variety of birds: eagle and condors, two kinds of hawks, ibis, three kinds of geese, lapwings, several types of ducks, widgeons and teal, plus flamingos in the lagoons and thrushes, green finches and hummingbirds near the hotels.

Tierra del Fuego with its evergreen beech forests, its Straits of Magellan, its tiny (pop. 5,000) town of Ushuaia (at 55 degrees south latitude, the southernmost in the world) with a harbor on the Beagle Channel and the snowcapped Darwin mountains as backdrop, offered the feeling that we were at one of the ends of the earth. Beyond us lay only the island on which stands Cape Horn and then the 2,500-mile sweep of ocean and ice to the South Pole.

The biggest thrill: the two days on the Valdez Peninsula. From the town of Trelew, founded by Welsh settlers in 1855, we rode the first day through desert brush country, alert to spot new types of wildlife -- groups of guanacos (cousins of the Ilama), even flocks of rheas (cousins of the ostrich), numerous tinamous (like a cross between a roadrunner and a guinea hen). Patagonia hares and armadillos -- before arriving at the seashore. Leaving the bus, we climbed the cliff and looked down on sea lions.

Hundreds of sea lions. Three great rookeries on rocky peninsulas below us, separated by stretches of water on which a few solitaries could be seen. But in the great groups there were crowds of a hundred or more, pups frolicking, babies nursing, sleek mamas, great bulls with the manes that give these sea mammals their name. The bulls in particular had the round heads and blunt faces that distinguish the South Atlantic sea lions from their California cousins and testify to their common ancestry with the bears. Sea lions have external ears unlike the true seals but like the sea elephant (also known as elephant seals), whose beach we visited next.

Here we were right down to sea level, held back by a wire fence from the beach and what looked at first to be just another smaller group of sea lions. They surrounded what appeared to be a scattering of great, light gray boulders, from 10 to 20 feet long. We wondered where the sea elephants were.Then one of the "boulders" stirred, resembling no longer an enormous rock but a shapeless mass of gray blubber -- which is about what a sea elephant amounts to. Each weighing several tons, these mammals yield an average of 1,500 pounds of pure oil. Whalers hunted them almost to extermination before they were finally protected. Farther up the shore we came to sea elephants lying apart from the sea lions so occasionally could approach one more closely. Not too close, however, for then the great creature would lift its head in annoyance, blow out its proboscis (more like a tapir's than an elephant's), emit a roar and start the shuffle to the beach, leaving in the sand a trail that looked as if it had been scooped out by a small bulldozer.

Next day came the second Valdez highlight -- the penguin rookery, which struck us as another of the world's great sights, comparable only to the East African animal herds. (Related story appeared May 1 in the Travel section.)

We continued on from Trelew to Buenos Aires, spending part of a day there before the long afternoon and night flight across the Andes and up the coast to Ecuador, then a day in Quito before flying to the next distant place, the Galapagos Islands.

Most groups stay at the tourist hotel at Academy Bay, Santa Cruz Island, and go out daily on the "Delphine" to the various islands. Our group, however, spent the entire week on the 70-foot, auxiliary schooner "Encantada." We 10 passengers had five double cabins but had to share two toilets, one of which soon broke down. There were no showers; we bathed by swimming in the ocean. Other than at the dining table, there was only the deck to sit on. We climbed down a ship's ladder to the dinghy for all landings, jumped from the dinghy onto the beach, generally ankle deep in water, to get to shore, then clambered back as best we could when reboarding. Okay for kids, but most of us were grandparents.

However, except for the toilet facilities, which were a real nuisance, the problems were overshadowed by the pleasure of being on our own. The group of some 50 hotel -- "Delphine" people, whom we encountered at the airport, enjoyed their stay also and had more comforts. On the other hand, they didn't get to stop off for daily swims at the beaches and they had to spend as much as 10 hours a day (round trip) traveling on the "Delphine" in order to visit, for an hour or so, some island where we were able to put in a good part of our day.

The owner of the "Encantada," which has a five-man crew, assured me that better toilets, folding chairs for the deck, electric fans, fly screens and an apparatus for making fresh water were all on order. When they arrive the schooner will be a fun way to visit the islands.Meanwhile, there are at least two other ways: one is to go out on one of the tiny fishing boats that carries perhaps up to four passengers; I think this is a sleeping-bag operation. There's also a 90-passenger ship, the "Iguana," which does have cabins so presumably it combines the comfort of the hotel with the convenience of our schooner (except for having 90 ashore at a time instead of our 10. We never saw the "Iguana" and I could learn very little about her.

Like most of our group, I had thought of the Galapagos as a series of small islets inhabited by tortoises, iguanas and birds --volcanic cones like that, but the islands actually cover an area of perhaps 125 by 150 miles of ocean and range in size from mere rocks to Isabela (Albermarle), which is 70 miles long. Santa Cruz, second largest, is about 17 miles by 22, approximately 350 square miles in area, and has a population of about 2,500, of whom 1,000 live at Academy Bay, the capital of the islands. My tiny map shows 31 islands big enough to have names, some of these barely dots on the map but several others about as big as Santa Cruz.

Now, why go there at all, other than the "something there beyond the horizon" syndrome?

Taking the words "marine life" to include everything in, on, near and above the ocean, the Galapagos Islands must offer the greatest array of marine life you can hope to find so concentrated anywhere. We saw (and sometimes caught and ate) flying fish, groupers, barracuda, angel fish, bacalao, tuna, mullet, wrase, puffers, sea horse, black fringed shark, white shark, leopard ray, sting ray, lots of dolphin (that is, porpoises), green marine turtles, rock lobster and fur seals.

Just as "mass" was the mark of the Valdez, with its hundreds of sea lions and millions of penguins, so was "variety" the keynote of the Galapagos. We saw fewer sea lions but shared the rocks, beaches and waters with them instead of being fenced off. Only three penguins instead of millions, but they were swimming across the bay with heads and beaks out of the water, looking like swimming dachshunds. There were nesting bluefooted boobies on the cliffs where you could walk through the rookery, and nesting frigate birds in the cliffside trees to be seen only from the offshore dinghy. We identified four of the seven kinds of finches whose differentiation gave rise to "The Origin of Species."

We saw several dozen bright-rose flamingos with other wading birds in a lagoon as expected, and spotted a solitary flamingo winging across one island where none had ever before been reported. Green marine turtles popped up beside our drifting dinghy in a hidden mangrove lagoon, while in the sand above the beaches we spotted the great wallows that marked where they had just laid their eggs. The giant land tortoises, no longer to be found easily out on the islands, are kept for breeding and restocking in great pens of natural rock and vegetation behind the Darwin Experimental Station so as to be seen there exactly as if in the wilds. The geological features range from volcanic peaks to collapsed craters. Vegetation varies from equatorial jungle to astonishing tree cactus, and of course there are the beaches.

The other Ecuadorian name for the Galapagos is "Islas Encantadas," Enchanted Islands. Go see for yourself.

Address of the tour operator, Society for the Preservation of Archeological Monuments, is P.O. Box 5584, University Station, Seattle, Wash, 98105. T. C. Swartz is the director. For Galapagos information write to Sr. Fausto Alzamora, tourism manager, Galapagos Cruises, Guayquil, Ecuador, or to Metropolitan Tours, Quito Ecuador.The Chilean airline, LAN-Chile, has information about Easter Island tours. Somewhat different Patagonia expeditions, featuring a cruise into the Antarctic, are offered by Lindblad Travel of New York City.

England has many surprises for visitors swinging out of the usual tourist orbit, and one of the nicest is Norwich. It is a real discovery. Ancient but not decrepit, up to date where it matters, it is still an old-fashioned country town unsullied by industry and pests like the automobile.

It is one of those towns that say much more about England's real character than instantly accessible places like London or Stratford-Upon-Avon.

More and more discerning tourists are searching out such places. Some are beginning to find Norwich. It takes some discovering. Norwich lies among the rich farms of England's eastward bulge, 120 miles northeast of London. It is not on the way to anywhere else.

It is not a place to flaunt itself, or even to advertise.

"Norwich is not a contrived showplace," wrote Bernard E. Dorman in a recent book on Norfolk, Norwick's county. "It is not commercialized. It is just what it has developed into in the course of centuries, and it is how its inhabitants like it to be."

One way they like it is small. Once Norwich rivaled Bristol as England's second city. But the industrial revolution passed it by -- one reason for the city's present charm -- and its population of 120,000 hasn't changed much in years.

Norwich's people admire ancient buildings, but as practical types they insist that antiquities must be useful.

Three 15th-century churches that have lost their congregations are now a museum, a headquarters for a Sea Scout troop and a hospital wing.

The grim square keep of the 800-year-old Norman castle at the town's center is a museum now. Modern wings display landscapes from the town's 18th-century "Norwich School" of painting.

Stranger's Hall, a private house begun in 1320 and a jumble of architectural styles, is a beautiful museum of furniture and applied arts.

In the crypt under St. Andrew's Hall, once a royal mint and now a concert hall, is a modern coffee bar. The elegant 18th-century Assembly House now holds a movie theater, another concert hall and the best place in town for tea.

Within England, Norwich is best known for its magnificent cathedral. Long and lofty and gloriously preserved, it was consecrated in 1101 and soon finished by the Normans.

Behind the surrounding stone walls, their massive gates still capable of resisting armies, is an oasis of peace and beauty that the English call a "close." Most English cathedrals are set in a close -- often the remains of the monasteries King Henry VIII dissolved. Stonebuilt houses around Norwich's upper and lower close span the centuries but are united by a lovely dignity. Hook's Walk, a curving walkway off the lower close, is as picturesque as Norwich's most famous street, the block-long cobblestoned beauty called Elm Hill.

On a more mercenary level, Norwich is a shopper's delight. Its center is a spider's web of medieval lanes and courtyards with names like Back of the Inns Street and St. Lawrence Little Steps, Lower Goat Lane and Cow Hill.

This curious maze puts the car in its place -- which is outside the town center --craftsmen to flourish at time-honored trades. Shops that seem to belong to another century specialize in saddle-making, or baskets, or fishing tackle. One such shop, on a pedestrian-only lane, sells nothing but mustard. A quaint little museum at the rear of the mustard shop describes J. and J. Colman, the company that has milled mustard from its Norwich base for 163 years.

For so small a place, Norwich seems inexhaustible. Its churches are amazing --century and built of flint.

Its pubs are even more mind-boggling. Once it was said that Norwich had a pub for every day in the year, and scores remain -- like the Adam and Eve, a miniature stone building dating from 1249.

Its open-air market, a teeming tent city between the Tudor guildhall and an antique pink pub, is one of the few city-center markets still in daily business.

At almost every turn is a new discovery, a colorful courtyard or an unexpected surprise -- like the home of Sarah Glover, who first gave musical scale notes the "do, re, mi" names.

In every way that counts, in fact, Norwich lives up to the quiet boast it makes at every entrance to town.

"Welcome to Norwich," the signs say. "A Fine City."