When a friend suggested that we take a winter trip to visit his father, who was working in Quito, Ecuador, I hesitated. I knew next to nothing about the South American country or why I might want to go there. But when he said the trip could include an excursion to the Galapagos--the island chain made famous after a young naturalist named Charles Darwin visited it in the mid 19th century--I jumped at the chance.

In the three years that have passed since I visited the Galapagos, I have seen a number of documentary films about the archipelago. Some have been good, but none has been able to express or re-create the magic of visiting the island group 600 miles off Ecuador's west coast. The Smithsonian Institution and Toronto's Imax Corp. have now attempted to muster the marvel and mystery of Galapagos on the Mall in Washington. "Galapagos," a 38-minute film in a spectacular and effective new 3-D format, recently opened at the National Museum of Natural History to critical acclaim.

As a television and video producer, I was curious to see whether this technologically advanced "Galapagos" could capture the experience of an actual Galapagos visit. Stunning visual elements, a smart musical score and the narration of actor Kenneth Branagh combine to provide a wonderful cinematic experience. The 3-D effects are mature and sophisticated, not a kitschy stunt. It's unlike any film experience I have ever had.

Indeed, the Imax format is trumpeted, rightly, as "the next best thing to being there." And it is. But that's also its limitation. Even the finest filmmakers using the best technology can't do justice to the place. To experience the haunting, exhilarating world of Galapagos, you simply must go there.

Ecuador, from where all Galapagos trips begin, is a magnificent paradox. One of the poorest countries in South America and overwhelmed by government corruption, it is also a land of massive and lush beauty, marvelous natural resources and a robust Latin heart that thumps from its urban discotheques to its rural inns and comerias. Trips to the islands originate in either Quito, Ecuador's capital city nestled about 9,000 feet in the Andes, or Guayaquil, the business and commercial hub on the country's Pacific coast.

Quito is the cultural and geographic nexus of the country--sprawling, crowded, lively and wretchedly poor. Electricity is sometimes rationed throughout the city. From the city's guardian, La Virgen del Quito--a gargantuan statue of the Virgin Mary on the top of El Panecillo in the Old Town--a visitor can scan the hillsides of the bowl-shaped city at night and observe a metropolis three-quarters draped in twinkling lights, the other quarter a blackened void. The police say that--no surprise--crime at night is highest in the city's blacked-out sections.

Ecuador's Parque Nacional Galapagos welcomes 60,000 tourists a year from the mainland. For those who cannot afford their own expert guides--i.e., practically everybody, as the lowest price for a private sailboat tour will run you and some friends a minimum of $14,000 for a week--the best way to explore the islands is by tour boat or cruise ship. It is best to make the arrangements beforehand, and a good travel agent in the United States should be able to do so before you head to Ecuador.

Most cruise companies provide eight-day cruises, but to sell more slots on the ship, they often divide cruises into five-day/four-night or four-day/three-night segments. Lucky (or flush) visitors can opt for the whole week, thus seeing all of the worthwhile islands.

Cruise costs include room and board, and most boats will have reasonably comfortable accommodations. (N.B. These trips don't include price of air fare from the mainland to the islands, which will run you about $350 from Quito or Guayaquil.) Rooms usually come with two single beds, and the food can be good.

Remember that the more experienced the naturalists who will be your guides, the better--so find a tour with English-speaking guides who have degrees in biological or marine sciences. Plenty of budding young Darwins throughout South America love to lead these tours, and their knowledge and familiarity with the islands' biological marvels and geological history can make your trip.

After flying from Quito or Guayaquil to Baltra Island in the center of the Galapagos, you will have to pay a $100 entrance fee to the park. Cash or travelers check only, no credit cards. Baltra is a barren and desolate place that looks like a World War II landing strip in the North African desert. There is nothing here to do but pay your fee, have your passport stamped and get picked up by the tour guides. You will be whisked away on small boats called pangas, and taken to your tour boat or to the town of Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, where you will meet up with your ship.

The first feeling that registers about the Galapagos is the haunting sense that you and your compatriots are absolutely alone in the world. It is a feeling not dissimilar to the feeling at the top of a mountain. Miles of Pacific horizon stretch around you. The warm sun hovers, and the black-and-red volcanic rocks of Galapagos lie everywhere. You feel small.

Tour boats will generally pull into a spot several hundred yards off the coast of one of the islands, and passengers are whisked into pangas that take them ashore to explore the archipelago. Most of the islands have no inhabitants. With the exception of some footpaths worn into the land, there is no sign of human interaction with the environment.

I was aboard a Metropolitan Touring cruise ship along with 30 other passengers when we pulled into Isla Santiago, our first island. Winds swirled about as we scrambled up the rocks to the island's plateau and we heard the plaintive croaking of Galapagos sea lions. Scanning sand and rock, we first noticed dozens and then scores and then hundreds of them, sunning themselves, nursing their pups, diving into the water. The males--bulls, they are called--circled in the eddies and pools just a few feet from where the waves washed up on shore. They belted thunderous mating yawps to the females above.

We were frozen for a moment, assuming the sea lions would scamper away as they noticed our presence--two dozen humans in day-hiker boots and sunglasses carting Canons parading up on shore. But they didn't. They went about their business. Several approached fearlessly, waddling across our boot tips. Others craned their necks to get a glimpse of the new commotion, smiling and laughing to welcome us to their home.

The guides let us get adjusted to this spectacle. Most of us had been no closer to wildlife than a petting zoo. To stand in the middle of a pride of sea lions was a startling, invigorating experience.

And our trip had just begun.

After a quick tour around Santiago, we were taken back to the ship to shower and head up to the deck for a preprandial drink. The sun tumbled lazily into the Pacific blue, painting the western sky with pinks and bright oranges and golds. The passengers buzzed about the afternoon's excursion. Dinner was served and a brief lecture by the naturalists on board gave a preview of the next morning's hike. We headed to bed eager for the next day.

Our four-day trip covered the northern and western islands in the archipelago. We would disembark on the islands in the morning after breakfast and in the afternoon after lunch for several hours of exploration and study. The hikes can be physically demanding, with tricky rock surfaces and hilly climbs, but a person in even moderate shape should be able to handle it.

And there is no shortage of interesting species to observe up close and at length: blue- and red-footed boobies, the flightless cormorant, Darwin's fabled finches, owls and frigate birds, with their enormous swollen throat pouches. Marine iguanas lounge on the black pahoehoe--dried lava--soaking up solar heat. Often they are stacked on top of one another. To call them ugly would be charitable. They look like piles of laundry with eyes. But they have an endearing presence, and visitors must tread cautiously over the rocks, since their gray-black hides serve as highly effective camouflage. The delightfully colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs scamper in bunches as they ebb and flow along the rocky shoreline in rhythm with the waves, their claws scratching against the rock.

The Galapagos landscape is about 4 million years old--newborn, in geologic time. The island chain has been formed by the accumulation of lava from undersea volcanic activity. Some of the islands are still growing, their rawness suggesting a Spartan, unformed quality.

Isle Bartolome, for instance, is so barren it resembles a moonscape. There is precious little vegetation to support complicated life forms, though the island's windswept rock is dotted by tiny bits of flora. With this backdrop, one starts to sense what the Earth must have been like as life took shape. It is an eerie and at times troubling sensation. No amount of textbook immersion in the subject of evolution can prepare one for this experience of smallness, loneliness and intimidation.

As our guides led us back from the center of Bartolome, everyone in the group spoke in almost reverential whispers, as if we were in church or some holy place. The islands had seized our imaginations. Galapagos presents some psychological challenges not often found in a travel experience.

In a moment's turn, that all changed. The guides escorted us to the beach of Bartolome, where pangas filled with snorkel gear were waiting. We strapped on our masks and fins and plunged into the chilly waters, some of us expecting, foolishly, that the oceans so near the equator might be warm. As we kicked out into the water, yet another new world opened. Glistening schools of silver fish swirled around us, changing direction with a fluid, military precision. Sleek manta rays lurked below like hovercraft.

As we swam out and around the bend of Bartolome's legendary Pinnacle Rock, the sea exploded with life. The water was clear as Evian. Giant turtles lumbered through the water, looking like morphic jumbo jets. Hammerhead sharks patrolled nearby, menacingly (but, we'd been told, safely). And the legendary Galapagos penguins, which looked so ungainly as they lurched along the rocky coastline, were transformed into acrobatic torpedoes.

The trip's high point came on the last day, as our guides took us for one last snorkel. As we kicked amid the ocean currents, out of the murky waters appeared sea lions, twirling and dipping, swimming fearlessly up to our snorkel masks to bump noses with us. They wrestled each other and skimmed our skin with theirs. They were grinning and laughing.

Just the day before, many of us had found ourselves sobered, troubled even, by the severity and immensity of those seemingly impersonal forces that have shaped and sculpted our planet. And yet on our last day, these goofy beasts with silly whiskers and dopey grins reminded us of those greatest evolutionary gifts: laughter and fun, surprise and discovery.

Nick Schulz is a Washington writer and television producer.

DETAILS: The Galapagos

The Charles Darwin Foundation (703-538-6833, www.galapagos.org), based in Falls Church, is a nonprofit organization promoting education, conservation and scientific research in the Galapagos. The foundation can provide information on travel to the Galapagos, as well as details on various volunteer opportunities on the islands.

TOURS: Numerous companies offer cruises in the Galapagos. Prices cited below do not include round-trip air fare from mainland Ecuador, which is usually an additional $350 or so, or park admission ($100). Operators include:

* Ecoventura (1-800-633-7972, www.ecoventura.com) is a tour company with a 48-passenger boat that will cost you anywhere from $650 to $1,500 for four days/three nights and $800 to $1,900 for five days/four nights. The cost is $1,400 to $3,500 for seven nights. Ecoventura also has three 20-passenger boats whose tours cost a bit more.

* For a less intimate experience, Metropolitan Touring (1-800-527-2500, www.ecuadorable.com) has three ships that accommodate from 40 to 90 passengers. On the larger ship, three nights are priced from $764 to $1,555, four nights at $1,022 to $2,070, or the whole week for $1,784 to $3,625. Prices vary depending upon how luxurious and spacious your accommodations need be.

For a list of other tour operators offering trips to the Galapagos, contact the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (607-273-4321, www.igtoa.org) in Ithaca, N.Y. Its Web site is packed with information on touring opportunities and links to the operators themselves.

INFORMATION: Embassy of Ecuador, 202-234-7200, www.ecuador.org or www.consuladoecuadornj.com .

'Galapagos':The Movie

"Galapagos," a 38-minute 3-D Imax film, is in repertory with "The Mysteries of Egypt" at the National Museum of American History (10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW). Show times are 10:15 a.m. and 1, 2 and 4:40 p.m. every day except Christmas. Tickets ($6.50 adults, $5.50 youths and seniors) may be purchased up to two weeks in advance at the museum box office. For more information, call 202-633-7400.