The Galapagos are an archipelago. A series of 14 main islands and several islets located over 600 miles from Ecuador’s mainland. Thousands of unique plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world live on these islands. This special species variation inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
To help you understand the geography and features of the numerous Galapagos islands, the following is a mini-guide to the main islands of the Galapagos visited by SA Expeditions.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos and home to the archipelago’s largest city, Puerto Ayora. Its central location, diverse landscape, and human population (roughly 12,000) make Santa Cruz the best base for tourist activities, especially for solo travelers or those on land-based excursions.
Sites on Santa Cruz include:
The Highlands & Giant Tortoise Reserve – The highlands refers to the lush, tropical area in the center of the island. This misty area is home to various land animals, as well as small local farms. Giant Galapagos tortoises live here both in the wild and on reserves.
Charles Darwin Research Station – Just outside Puerto Ayora, the Charles Darwin Research Station is the main scientific research center in the Galapagos. This is where Lonesome George lived before passing away last year.
Unique Landforms – Santa Cruz was once volcanically active. This has left behind some interesting landforms such as Los Gemelos, two large pit craters formed by the collapse of old magma chambers. Lava tunnels, large enough to walk though, were also left behind.
Dragon Hill – A conservation site connected with the Charles Darwin Research station, Dragon Hill features a walking path around two small lagoons to see a lively population of land iguanas and birds.
Black Turtle Cove – Accessed by boat, Black Turtle Cove is a mangrove forest home to marine animals such as sea turtles and sharks.
Las Bachas – Once of the nicest swimming beaches in the Galapagos, Las Baches is a white sand beach with a nearby flamingo lagoon.
Most people visiting the Galapagos arrive at Baltra Island, home to one of the two commercial airports in the Galapagos. The Baltra airport handles about three-fourths of all incoming flights to the islands, which began arriving in 1963. Before then the island hosted a US military base, placed to protect the Panama Cannel. After WWII, the base was given to the Ecuadorian government. Visitors taking a Galapagos cruise will take a bus to the dock, and then ride to their ship in a zodiac.
Photo by H Barrison
Greater in size than all the other islands combined, Isabella is by far the largest island in the Galapagos. This young, volcanically active island is the result of 6 volcanos that eventually joined together. Isabella is one of the few islands with a permanent human population (Puerto Villamil) and the largest population of Galapagos tortoises.
Sites on Isabella include:
Sierra Negra Volcano – To see the crater of Sierra Negra, you’ll have to travel by car and then foot, but the view is worth it. The caldera is believed to be the second largest in the world.
Tagus Cove – A landing spot historically used by pirates and whalers, the walls are still covered with pirate graffiti. The saltwater Darwin’s Lake is nearby, a good place to see finches.
Urbina Bay – A loop trail that goes from the beach into the arid midlands, through the habitats of Galapagos tortoises and land iguanas.
The Tortoise Center - Located just outside of the town Puerto Villami, this tortoise conservation center lets visitors see tortoise eggs and hatchlings.
Wall of Tears – Accessed by a 6 mile walk from town, the Wall of Tears is a historic human site. In the 1940-50s, Issabela had a penal colony. Prisoners were forced to build the wall to stay occupied.
Tintoreras – A cluster of tiny islets just offshore, Tintoreras is a good place to see sharks, as well as sea lions and marine iguanas.
North Seymour Island
North Seymour is an arid island, home to extensive seabird nesting grounds and well-populated with sea lions. Visits here center on a walk around the small island for up close views of blue-booted boobies, frigates, and land iguanas.
Photo by Brian Gratwicke
San Cristobal Island
San Cristobal is the easternmost island and home to the oldest human settlement in the Galapagos, El Progreso. It also contains one of the two commercial airports in the Galapagos and provincial capital city, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
Sites on San Cristobal include:
Isla Lobos – Located offshore and visited by boat, Isla Lobos feature a sea lion colony, blue-footed boobies, and occasional fur seals.
Interpretation Center – The official visitor center of the Galapagos National Park, the Interpretation Center is a museum focused on the islands’ history, including geographic formation, flora and fauna, and human impact.
Kicker Rock – A memorable rock formation one mile offshore.
Cerro Brujo – A lovely coral sand beach ideal for swimming. A good place for avian wildlife.
Bartolome Island is the most photographed island in the Galapagos thanks to the striking Pinnacle Rock, a jagged volcanic rock that jut up like a shark fin. This otherworldly landscape is desolate, scattered with a few cacti and scurrying lizards. Visitors ascend an extinct volcano via a wooden staircase for the classic view of Pinnacle Rock and the expansive black lava fields of Sullivan Bay.
Espanola is estimated to be over 4 million years old, making it one of the oldest islands in the Galapagos. It is the southernmost island and largely isolated, which has enhanced its diverse wildlife. In the 1960s the population of tortoises on the island dropped to 14. Thanks to a breeding and repatriation program the current population is strong and stable.
Sites on Espanola include:
Gardner Bay – One of the largest beaches in the Galapagos, Gardner Bay is a white sand beach ideal for swimming. You’re likely to be sunbathing next to a sea lion. Finches, sea turtles, iguanas, and boobies are common.
Punta Suarez – Perhaps the best place in all the Galapagos for wildlife, Punta Suarez is home to sea lion colonies, marine iguanas (that unlike their relatives on other islands, stay brightly colored all year), Galapagos doves and finches, and a Waved Albatross breeding colony. There is also a natural blowhole where water is forced 30 feet up into the air.
The youngest and most volcanically active, Fernandina is located on the western edge of the archipelago. Its most recent eruption was in 2009. A cold current upwells off shore, making the waters around the island rich with nutrients. Fernandina is one of the most naturally pristine places in the Galapagos.
Sites on Fernandina include:
Punta Espinosa – Two hikes stem from this point, one along the coast, and another that heads inland. At Punta Espinosa you’ll see numerous lava flows and the hardy lava cactus growing on the black surface. Marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, snakes, and penguins are common.
Photo by H Barrison
This island once hosted a salt mine, which can still be visited today. Santiago is the fourth largest island in the Galapagos and popular with visitors for its numerous paths that connect sandy shoreline, volcanic rocks, and interior lagoons.
Sites on Santiago include:
Espumilla Beach – A sea turtle nesting ground with a trail that leads inland to lagoons, usually populated with flamingos.
Puerto Egas – A landing point with two paths. One heads toward the old salt mine, while the other visits a cove popular with Galapagos fur seals.
Sullivan Bay – A surreal lava field, formed in the 19th century.
Chinese Hat – An islet named for its shape located just offshore Santiago. The waters between the two land formation are good for snorkeling.
Photo by H Barrison
Santa Fe Island
Santa Fe is an old and arid island, home to a beautiful bay and the endemic Santa Fe Land Iguana. A wet landing at Barrington Bay is the only way to enter; the beach is usually frequented by sea lions.
Photo by C Pence
Shaped like a horseshoe, this northeastern islands is sometimes called “Bird Island” for its numerous avian wildlife.
Sites on Genovesa include:
Darwin Bay -The beach is an ideal place for snorkeling; hammerheads are typically seen. A path to an overlook features red-footed boobies, sleeping wallow-tailed gulls (they're nocturnal), frigates, and lava herons. The bay is formed by the sunken side of a volcanic crater.
Philip’s Steps – A steep stairway up black lava cliffs. During the climb up visitors are likely to see Nazca boobies nesting in the cracks. The plateau reveals a volcanic landscape with storm petrels and short-eared owls.
Photos by uncorrectedproofs
Thanks to Paul Krawczuk for the title image of this blog.