The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, attract huge tortoises, rare birds and congressional delegations from the United States.

A party of congressional sun birds capped a South American "business" trip last month with two full days of boating, swimming and sightseeing in the enchanting islands just south of the Equator. They were led by the chairman of the House Space Science and Technology Committee, Rep. Robert A. Roe (D-N.J.), and their mission was to improve technological relations with South America.

The visits to Brazil, Argentina, French Guiana, Chile and Ecuador were pronounced a success by Roe's spokesman, Bob Maitlin. The two-week trip for the seven members of Congress, five spouses, an astronaut, 13 staffers and five military escorts was the largest congressional junket we studied in a recent rash of foreign travel at taxpayers' expense.

Maitlin told our associate Jim Lynch the schedule was "heavy," and daily itineraries sent to the State Department confirm that it was -- heavy with leisure.

The trip began and ended with tours of historic islands, starting on Jan. 13 with an excursion to the former penal colony on Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana.

When the delegation flew into Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 15, the members were not interested in all-day planned outings, "but would welcome something shorter," a telegram said. Roe's itinerary planner reported that the delegation wanted to spend "most of its free time on the beach, shopping and looking at gemstones."

The Rio agenda may have, at least in part, followed the desires of Patience Brown, the wife of Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.). She had gone to school in Rio and wanted to visit the American school and other places she recalled, such as the Gavea Country Club. She also recommended the delegation consider the Antique Market, Hippie Fair and the Botanical Gardens.

After hitting Argentina and Chile, the delegation settled into a hotel in the Galapagos Islands. "It's a rough place to be," Maitlin explained. "It's no resort. It's no Club Med."

The sun. The sea. The swimming. The snorkeling. Indeed, it takes a hearty traveler to endure the rigors of the Galapagos in January.

The itinerary called for a brief visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the islands. The agenda devoted the remaining time to cruising between islands on three local yachts. The itinerary also dictated swimming and snorkeling while the members of the party made careful observations of the sea birds, iguanas and giant cacti.

They flew home in the same private Air Force C22 that had leapfrogged them through South America. The total cost of the trip was not reported. Hotel arrangements likely ran more than $20,000. Large conference rooms were rented for as much as $300 a night in addition to the room rates of from $40 to $82 a night. The C22 cost about $100,000 to fly.

Other members of Congress along for the ride with Roe were Manuel Lujan Jr. (R-N.M.), Marilyn Lloyd, (D-Tenn), Robert S. Walker, (R-Pa.), James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Ron Packard (R-Calif.).