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By Barbara HorngrenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 1982

The Galapagos Islands

According to T.C. Swartz, president of Society Expeditions, trekking in the Galapagos Islands, officially known as the Archipelago de Colon, would be ''easy.'' ''You should have no trouble,'' he said, adding that people of all ages sign up for Project Galapagos and handle it well.

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I discovered for myself that Mr. Schwartz was right. But for the cause of my concern, I refer you to the following passage from Melville, who described these islands in ''The Encantadas'':

''Take five and twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot; imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea; and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect . . . a group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration.''

I've wanted to go to the Galapagos for years - since school days, I suppose, when I got a glimpse, in geography books, of all the weird and wonderful animals and birds that dwell in this island group that straddles the equator some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Yet I knew little more about it than that.

That's where Society Expeditions came in. Mr. Swartz founded the company eight years ago because, he said, ''I thought there had to be people who really wanted to learn something about the places they visited.'' So, in the main, when you sign up for one of Society's ''projects,'' you'll go to one place and study it thoroughly - its culture, its geography, its history, its geology. And before you go, you will be provided with a reading list - in the case of Project Galapagos, some 16 books - so that when you get there you will have a good idea of what you're looking for - and what you're looking at.

In the Galapagos, what you're looking at appears very much as Melville described it. It is a bleak-seeming jumble of craters, caves, and rocks.

Pam and I and the others who made up our group - the two Lindas, Carol, Kristie, Scott, Tressie, Libby, Cathy, and Paul - were following our naturalist-guide Jaap Schoorl on a tramp over Tower Island's lava landscape past frigate birds and boobies - this is the most likely island for seeing the red-footed booby, which uses its bright-red webbed feet to cling to tree branches much like a high-wire walker.

Tower was our second island stop. The Galapagos include 13 major islands, 6 minor islands, and 42 islets that have official names. Scores of smaller rocks and islets dot area waters too. Only a few thousand people live here, and they only on three or so of the islands.

All the main islands have at least two names, one Spanish, the other English. Since the Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador (they are, in fact, an Ecuador national park), that country's government considers the Spanish names as ''official,'' even though those names are not always the ones more commonly used.

We flew into Baltra from Guayaquil, Ecuador, after doing a few days of touring on the mainland, and immediately transferred to the ship that would be our base for the next week, Galapagos Cruises' Yacht Isabela. City clothes and excess baggage were left in storage at our mainland hotel. With us were the casual shorts, jeans, T-shirts, swimsuits, and sneakers we would need here. In the South American winter season, a sweater would be good, too, and, in both seasons, a sun hat.

There are any number of boats and ships that cruise these waters, some under sail; one, a fullfledged cruise ship that takes some 100 passengers. But Isabela feels just right. At 104 feet, she is small enough to wend her way through shallow waters to reach some islands the bigger boats can't reach, yet she is large enough to give some stability even in the rough sailing months. (From December to June, when the sun is very hot, the seas are calm; from June through November, though the temperatures moderate some, the seas can be quite rough). Plus you have the added advantage of small-group shore trips.

The Isabela has sleeping accommodations for 16 in twin- and four-berth cabins and four bathrooms with showers (no private cabins or facilities). There is a dining room - the meals, which included fresh lobster one night, were basic, but good and varied - a small saloon, an afterdeck with benches and tables and some covering from the sun, and a flying bridge on the upper deck that is just right for watching sunrises or sunsets, or for letting the motion lull your senses.

While it's true that this is a cruise, the word isn't used in the same sense it would be to describe most voyages to the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. It requires somewhat more energy than does donning your long gown or tux to meet the captain.