Where to go in the Galapagos Islands
Visiting the Galapagos comes at a price due to its remote location and travel restrictions. Many opt for island-hopping cruises, but you can also fly from Quito or Guayaquil on the mainland to explore independently. Four inhabited islands, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana, and Isabela, offer various accommodations with day trip options to other islands.
The Galapagos Archipelago spans 3,093 square meters across 17,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, comprising 21 islands grouped into regions: Northern, Southern, Western, Eastern, and Southeastern. All itineraries include Baltra Island, home to the airport, and Santa Cruz, the main hub.
Preferred islands vary by interests. Bartolome boasts stunning landscapes and the iconic Pinnacle Rock. Espanola teems with diverse wildlife and is the sole site for Galapagos Albatross sightings. Fernandina, a young island, offers mesmerizing volcanic vistas and exceptional wildlife. Isabela, the largest, hosts a broad spectrum of species. North Seymour is renowned for nesting birds, particularly frigates and blue-footed boobies.
San Cristobal Island
The easternmost island in the Galapagos, San Cristobal can be visited on a cruise or by staying in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the archipelago, with direct flights from Quito into San Cristobal airport. This is the lushest of the Galapagos islands, with high grounds covered by Scalesia forests along with dense bush that make it an ideal habitat for the Galapagos giant tortoise. There’s also a freshwater lake and green highlands, while the coastal region features cactus, arid scrub, mangroves and coral beach. The island is also inhabited by plenty of wildlife in addition to the giant tortoise, including Galapagos sea lions, dolphins, and all sorts of birdlife, like red footed boobies and frigate birds. If you’re a diving enthusiasts and diving with hammerhead sharks is on your list, San Cristobal is home to one of the best dive sites to do so in the archipelago, Kicker Rock.
Santa Fe Island
Covering a relatively small area of 9.3 square miles, Santa Fe is just south-east of Santa Cruz Island, easily reached from there for a day trip. The picturesque landscape includes giant pricky pear cactus forests and a stunning turquoise bay, while wildlife is impressive. It’s home to large numbers of Galapagos sea lions, as one of the best spots to dive with the animals. It’s also inhabited by the endemic Barrington land iguana and many different nesting sea birds like the famous blue footed boobie. There are three dives sites – both snorkelers and divers can enjoy an impressive underwater world with Galapagos reef fish, rays, and sharks. As the oldest of the islands, dating back at least four million years, it has the widest variety of endemic wildlife species than any other, including creatures that can’t be found anywhere else on Earth. Visitors can also enjoy kayaking and hiking.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is the central hub of the Galapagos, the most populated of the islands, with a population of about 15,000 residents. Most live in the main town of Puerto Ayora, although there are small settlements scattered across the island. The majority of tourists arrive and depart on tours and cruises here, with plenty to do, making it worth staying at least a couple of days. In town, there is vibrant social life, fine dining, and boutiques. This is also where the Charles Darwin Research Station is hosted, continuing Darwin’s scientific research and conservation efforts, with a tortoise breeding center. Visitors can enjoy spectacular landscapes that include beautiful reserves where giant tortoises roam, swimming holes with calm, brilliant blue waters for diving into, and huge volcanic craters. The unspoiled beaches are home to a variety of wildlife too, like the tortoise, sea lions, marine iguanas, lava lizards, and blue-footed boobies.
The largest island in the Galapagos at 1,771 square miles, Isabela is also one of the most popular with its idyllic mix of magnificent landscapes and diverse wildlife. It’s possible to visit on a land tour, a cruise, or own your own. The small town of Puerto Villami is a wonderful spot to spend a few days, enjoying the friendly locals, laid-back vibe, and wildlife watching. Isabela is home to the greatest numbers of Galapagos penguins along with five different giant tortoise species. The island is one of only two where flightless cormorant birds nest as well as being inhabited by large colonies of marine iguanas. It’s the only place in the world you’ll find the pink iguana, which lives on the slopes of Wolf Volcano. There are sea lion and Galapagos fur seal colonies on the west coast along with opportunities for snorkelling with white tip reef sharks at Los Tuneles.
The westernmost of the Galapagos isles, Fernandina can only be visited on a cruise that includes the western islands. Due to recent volcanic activity, the island has a somewhat barren appearance, with little vegetation, mostly cacti that are able to survive in these conditions. As it isn’t inhabited by humans and is quite remote, it’s managed to stay incredible unspoiled, bringing the opportunity to witness the evidence of significant volcanic activity. There was a large eruption in 1968 that led to the collapse of the caldera, another eruption in 2005, and in 2009. It’s also possible to watch all sorts of unique wildlife like flightless cormorants which are only found in the western islands. Galapagos penguins, blue-footed boobies, land iguanas, fur seals, sea lions, Galapagos hawks, and Sally Lightfoot crabs can all be spotted here as well.
One of the smaller islands in the Galapagos, Floreana is a 67-square-mile island that’s a popular stop on many cruises, although it’s also possible to visit on a day trip from Santa Cruz Island. It has a small population of about 100 residents, most of whom work in agriculture. The highlights of a visit include Post Office Bay which has a fascinating history that begins in the 19th-century when whalers in the region would leave letters here. Boats making a return to their home country would collect and deliver them. People still place postcards and letters in the wooden barrel today, with visitors from the relevant country taking them back and mailing them. Wildlife can be seen on an unusually colored green beach too, including green sea turtles, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and pink flamingos. There are also blue-footed boobies, penguins, and many other birds that might be spotted throughout the island.
The southernmost island in the Galapagos, Espanola is typically visited on a cruise as there are limited options for day trips, although it may be possible from San Cristobal Island as it’s just a two-hour boat ride away, compared to 12 from Santa Cruz Island. Just 23-square-miles in size, it’s home to a surprising range of endemic species. One can spot the Espanola mockingbird, waves albatross, the Espanola lava lizard, and the Espanola giant tortoise which came close to extinction with only a handful left in the 1960s. Thanks to conservation efforts, there are now nearly 2,000 tortoises living here. There are also blue-footed and Nazca boobies, Galapagos hawk, and sea lions. Gardner Bay is a highlight with a white sand beach filled with sea lions soaking up the sun. Humpback whales inhabit the surrounding waters from June through October, bringing the chance to see them on your journey to the island.
North Seymour Island
Tiny North Seymour Island is just .73 square miles, located near both Santa Cruz and Baltra islands. It’s one of the best for spotting the blue-footed booby, and with luck on your side, you might even get to witness a male performing a courtship dance to try and win a female, a sight you’ll likely remember for a lifetime. With so many birds here, this island offers the best chance to watch the spectacle. You’ll also see male frigate birds showing off their bright red, puffy throat that looks like a big balloon, also designed to attract a mate. While birds are the focus here, it’s also possible to see marine iguanas, land iguanas, and sea lions. There are several outstanding dive sites too, bringing the chance to view underwater life that includes sea turtles, rays, reef sharks, and garden eels.
Bartolome is considered a must-visit with its iconic volcanic landscapes that make it one of the most photographed islands. Head to the Bartolome viewpoint for a 360-degree panoramic view of the lush vegetation, golden sands, black and red lava, all contrasted by the sapphire blue sea. The island is often recognized by its landmark, Pinnacle Rock which looks like an arrowhead emerging from the land. It was spotlighted in Russel Crowe’s “Master and Commander” film in 2003, with the final battle taking place in Galapagos waters. Bartolome is one of the best islands for snorkeling, bringing the opportunity to swim around with friendly sea lions, penguins, rays, green sea turtles, colorful fish, and reef sharks. On the golden beaches, green sea turtles come to nest between January and March while Galapagos hawks can often be seen soaring above.
Uninhabited Santiago Island is located to the north-west of Santa Cruz Island, known for its stunning lava flow formations. At Sullivan Bay you can even walk across a fairly recent lava flow, while Puerto Egas boasts a long shoreline of lava and formations inhabited by all sorts of wildlife, including the Galapagos fur seal. Watch for sea lions, marine iguanas, land and sea turtles, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and pink flamingos too. In the water, look for sharks and dolphins. The island was once used by whalers and pirates as a source of food, freshwater, and salt. While it was almost colonized in the 1930s, the effort failed but the introduction of donkeys, pigs, and goats decimated wildlife populations, including Galapagos giant tortoise nests. Today, the island has been eradicated of those animals and the only humans it sees are generally tourists who come on guided day trips.
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