Galapagos Islands Guide

The Galapagos – every island has its own highlight and reason to visit.

There are volcanoes to climb, sea lions and turtles to swim with, magnificent birds to see and of course the iguanas and giant tortoises.

Every holiday here brings a lifetime of memories and below is a detailed guide and description of the best sites across this amazing archipelago.

Each visit provides a myriad  – the archipelago is the ideal holiday spot for wildlife, nature and adventure travel lovers.

Don’t forget to read our weather section.

 

Island by Island guide to Galapagos

The Galapagos archipelago comprises over 50 islands of volcanic origin spread over 4,500 square kilometres, approximately 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador.

You can cluster them into five rough geographic areas; central, north, south, east and west.

 

Central islands: Santiago, Bartholomew, North Seymour, Daphne Island, Mosquera Islet, Santa Cruz, Rabida, Santa Fe, Plazas Islands, Pinzon Island

Southern islands: Floreana Island, Española

Western islands: Fernandina, Isabela

Eastern islands: San Cristobal, Kicker Rock

Northern islands: Genovesa Island, Marchena

 

Central Islands – more information

Santa Cruz tortoise Charles Darwin Centre

Tortoise on Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) is the most populated island and Puerto Ayora the archipelago’s main town and harbour, and is the only island with six different vegetation zones.

The Charles Darwin Research Centre, within walking distance, is worth a visit. It is dedicated to scientific research and the conservation of the Galapagos National Park. From town you can walk to Turtle Bay (3km) to the Centre, home to Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise and symbol of the Galapagos conservation efforts.

Tortuga Bay is a vast white sandy beach, whose name derives from the black sea turtles (Tortugas) that lay their eggs here. It’s a 30 minute walk along a flat path from the town, and on arrival, you can swim in the sea or have a go at surfing in the waves, or go for a leisurely walk to the salt lagoon behind the mangroves which is often frequented by flamingos. It’s also an excellent spot for birdwatching and spotting white tipped sharks and marine iguanas.

Black Turtle Cove is an inlet situated in the northern part of Santa Cruz, surrounded by mangroves and only accessible by dinghy. Blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, sea turtles, and a variety of rays are often spotted here, and occasionally Hammerhead shark babies.

Some 10km from Puerto Ayora lie the Santa Cruz Highlands. There are lava tubes which can be entered, a surreal experience. These tubes were formed when the outer layer of flowing lava cooled, leaving molten lava still inside. As the lava flowed on, it left a space behind it, thus creating a tunnel. Another interesting visit is to the Tortoise Reserve near Santa Rosa.

Cerro Masa offers great views of the Galapagos. At 490m/1,607ft above sea level, and with a persistent drizzle (‘la garúa’) that falls horizontally throughout 8 months of the year, it feels like a different land to the coastal strips often visited on Galapagos.

Also recommended is a trip to the island’s interior to see the Los Gemelos twin volcanic craters amid lush highland Scalesia forest. These formations were created when underground fissures and chambers collapsed, and the site now affords great views.

Situated on the north coast side of Santa Cruz, El Garrapatero is a gorgeous sandy beach surrounded by mangroves and with turquoise waters. A fresh water lake behind the beach is home to flamingos, herons, stilts and other shore birds, while the sea provides a great place for swimming and snorkelling.

El Chato Tortoise Reserve is divided into two areas; Caseta and Chato. It features a 22km trail linking Santa Rosa to Puerto Ayora. The Caseta route is the more challenging, but both trails allow hikers the chance to observe giant tortoises in the wild during the dry season. The area is also a good place to spot short-eared owls, Darwin’s finches, yellow warblers, Galapagos rails and paint-billed crakes.

 

Baltra is the island where most travellers will land, by plane, after the flight from the mainland.

Finch Bay selfie with land Iguana Galapagos

North Seymour

On arriving in Baltra, all visitors are immediately transported by bus to one of two docks. The first dock is located in a small bay, where the boats cruising Galápagos await passengers. The second is a ferry dock, which connects Baltra to the island of Santa Cruz.

North Seymour is flat and arid. A trail passes colonies of blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, marine iguanas and sea lions on this island, formed by a series of layers of sediment lifted up by tectonic activity.

Mosquera Islet is located between the islands of Baltra and North Seymour, and is a reef of rocks and coral (the result of an uprising. At some points it is only 160 metres wide but that hasn’t stopped it housing one of Galapagos’ largest populations of sea lions and shore birds.

There have been occasional reports at this site of Orcas feeding on sea lions, but this is considered very rare.

 

Bartholomew Island is the home of the famous Pinnacle Rock, an icon of the Galapagos and with incredible views. The island itself consists of an extinct volcano with multi-coloured volcanic formations and a lovely beach, ideal for snorkelling.

 

Santiago Island is a beautiful island of cliffs and pinnacles where hundreds of marine birds rest. During the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates used this site, as it gave them a chance to fix their boats, replenish fresh water supplies and look for meat and firewood.

Iguana and land arch Santiago Galapagos

Santiago

Egas Port, also known as James Bay, features a 2km hike to see some lovely tide pools and ‘grotto’ type formations full of Galapagos fur sea lions. The area is also home for Galapagos Hawks and Quick-footed Galapagos Lava Lizards.

Espumilla Beach is a popular place for marine iguanas and Sally Lightfoot Crabs, who run at surprisingly fast speeds across the terrain but still attract the attentions of hunting herons. Snorkeling highlights inclue sharks, eels and octopus sightings.

Buccaneer Cove is a living historical footnote to the British buccaneers that sought refuge here. Pirates would anchor in the protected bay to make repairs and stock up on tortoise meat. The steep cliffs, where hundreds of seabirds perch in front of the dark red sand beach, are a magnificent site.

 

South Plaza Island is quite a small island, characterised by steep cliffs and its covering of cacti. There is a large sea lion colony here as well as yellow and red land iguanas. The Sesuvium plant seems to act as some form of inspiration to these animals, as in the rainy season it is a green/yellow colour, yet in the dry season (June-Jan) it turns red. Shearwaters, gulls and Nazca boobies all abound here too.

 

Santa Fe (Barrington) has two trails to explore. The first leads to a lovely viewpoint from a cliff, and the second to a cactus forest. Land Iguanas are found throughout.

 

Rabida Island (Jervis) is one of the most colourful islands, with a maroon beach and lovely landscapes. It is a top spot for snorkelling, and also great for birdwatchers.

Some of the rarest species are in abundance, such as nine varieties of finches, Large-billed Flycatchers, Galapagos Hawks and Brown Pelicans.

 

Daphne Mayor and Daphne Menor are located between Santa Cruz and Santiago Islands.

The islands are a popular stop for scientists researching the unique qualities of the Galapagos Finches, but more tourists are banned from landing here. There are some dives available here, and you can ‘birdwatch’ from your boat as it passes by.

 

Southern Islands

Sea view Floreana Galapagos

Floreana – La Loberia

Floreana (Charles) has three areas to visit by boat; Post Office Bay, the Devil’s Crown and Punta Cormorant.

Post Office Bay is the site of the original Post Office barrel placed by British Whalers to send letters home in 1793.

Punta Cormorant has two contrasting beaches; one dark coloured and, beyond a salt lagoon (with flamingos), there is a golden sandy beach with a nesting site for green sea turtles. You may also see sting rays in the water.

Just offshore from Punta Cormorant lies the Devil’s Crown; a half-submerged rock crater. The snorkelling around here is excellent, with plenty of fish and the chance to play with young sea lions. The rocks themselves are a popular roosting site for pelicans and frigate birds.

A good vista can be found at Baroness Viewing Point. Once inhabited by a Baroness and her three lovers, the history of this island is intriguing. As well as the views and the tales, there are also lots of nice and easy trails to explore.

By staying on the island, you can hear the tales direct from islanders, as well as visit caves used by an Irish pirate, see the source or the island’s water and snorkel at La Loberia, among many highlights not permitted to cruise ships.

 

Sea Lions on Beach Espanola Galapagos

Española

Española (Hood) is the oldest island, and has eroded to such an extent that it is quite small and flat. The two places to visit here are Gardner Bay on the east and Punta Suarez on the west.

Gardner Bay’s long white beach is a nesting area for marine turtles, and is also used by sea lions. Snorkelling is good; you might see sea turtles and sharks.

Near Punta Suarez is the only colony and nesting site of the waved albatross (12,000 pairs breed here from late March to December). Other interesting species found here include an endemic marine iguana, Hood mockingbirds, lava lizards, cactus finch, blue-footed boobies, masked boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds and oyster catchers.

Suarez Point is great for spotting Blue-footed Boobies, albatrosses and Nazca Boobies. A beautiful site on the ocean front, the large Waved Albatrosses use the cliff as a launching pad. The famous attraction is the magnificent blowhole, spurting water high into the air. This site presents wonderful photograph opportunities.

 

Western Islands

Fernandina (Narborough) is the most volcanically active island (and the least contaminated, in terms of introduced species) and is one of the world’s most pristine eco-systems. At Punta Espinoza there are marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, Galapagos Hawks, sea lions and penguins on relatively young lava landscapes.

The volcano ‘La Cumbre’ dominates the landscape, and its lava fields reach right to the ocean, and a 2km hike around these highlights is possible.

 

Isabela (Albemarle), the largest island, consists of five shield volcanoes (including Volcan Wolf, 1,707m/5,600ft) where live five distinct subspecies of the Galápagos tortoise.

Snorkelling with sea horse at Tuneles Isabela Galapagos

Sea horse at Tuneles, Isabela

Puerto Villamil is the town and is a small fishing village in the southeast of the island, with a large and beautiful sandy beach. Nearby there are lagoons and mangroves with flamingoes and other wading birds.

Las Tintoreras, just a few minutes by boat from the Villamil, is a good place to observe the White tipped shark.

The Wetlands are visited by foot, using a path that winds from just outside of Puerto Villamil through the swamps. The Wetlands consist of lagoons, swamps, and mangroves. They are the perfect home to a variety of unique bird species such as Common Stilts, Whimbrels, White-Cheeked Pintails, and Gallinules. The Wetlands can be visited on foot via a path that winds through the swamps.

Tuneles is a snorkelling highlight. A one hour ride takes you to a world of underwater caves – homes to sharks – turtles, rays and lovely coral. Boobies nest above the odd lava formations. Essential trip.

Located in the Port of Villamil, the Concha de Perla is a calm, shallow bay with clear waters, accessed by a wooden walkway. It is an ideal place to snorkel and swim alongside an array of marine life and observe up to 20 bird species.

The last Galapagos eruption was on Isabela in 2005, when Cerro Azul erupted and Isabela boasts dramatic volcanic scenery.

A four to six hour trek gets you to the crater rim of Alcedo Volcano. Views are outstanding, with steaming fumaroles and Galapagos giant tortoises of the Alcedo subspecies. At the foot of this volcano lies Urbina Bay which experienced a huge uplift of 16ft (4.8m), stranding marine life on the new shore. The coast expanded by more than half a mile as a result, and is now a great place to snorkel with tropical fish, see the largest land iguanas in Galapagos and take short hikes.

The crater of Sierra Negra Volcano at the southern end of Isabela measures 10km across. You can visit this area, and also Volcan Chico to the north. This comprises a group of craters with fumaroles, and most people hike or hire horses to visit the crater.

Elizabeth Bay, on the east coast, is a bay with many inlets, accessible by dinghy and with no landing area. The water is usually clear here, making it ideal for sporting marine turtles, rays and sea lions, with the rocky islets playing home to penguins and Blue-footed Boobies.

Moreno Point is located near Elizabeth Bay and is a bird spotter’s dream, with flamingoes, gallinules and Pintail ducks here. A hike beside the tide pools on the rocky shores may reveal green sea turtles or white-tip sharks.

Cave Punta Vicente Roca Isabela Galapagos

Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela

Tagus Cove was popular with pirates and whalers as an anchorage site in the 1800s, and the names of the many ships that visited the cove are painted on the cliffs. Paths wind via Lake Darwin to a ridge from where there are great views. Hikes and snorkelling possible here, with penguins and Flightless Cormorants found.

Vicente Roca Point is a large bay with two coves on the north-western coast of the island where sea life abounds. Seahorses, sea turtles, and the strange yet fascinating Mola-mola (sunfish) may be spotted here and it’s a great place for diving and snorkelling with sea lions. Nazca and Blue-footed Boobies nest on land.

As well as natural life, there is a human history to Isabella. The Wall of Tears was a penal colony from 1945-1959. Prisonerswere forced to build this wall, stone by stone, in isolation. This now historical site (El Muro de las Lágrimas), towers at 25m/65ft high, and claimed the lives of thousands during its construction. Some locals may claim that they hear cries emanating from the site.

Humans are also leaving their mark at the Tortoise Breeding Station. Giant tortoise eggs are collected and brought to the centre where they are hatched and kept for five years before being released to their natural environment.

Las Tintoreras are another attraction. These islands are crawling with marine iguanas and hikes are usually followed by snorkelling into the lava tunnels – look out for giant rays, sea lions and white-tipped reef sharks.

 

Eastern Islands

Pelican and Kicker rock Galapagos

Kicker Rock and Pelican

San Cristobal is home to the capital of the province of Galapagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, located on the southern tip of the island.

The Interpretation Centre was opened in 1998 and aims to inform visitors about the natural history, human history, and conservation of the island. The conservation efforts represent the movement to protect the wildlife and natural environment through means of population and tourist control.

This striking formation of Kicker Rock is located a couple hours off the western shore of San Cristobal. Kicker Rock is the remains of an underwater volcano rising vertically 150m/492ft out of the sea, with a channel of sea full of marine life separating the two huge rock formations.

It is a real highlight to snorkel or dive here, keeping an eye out for sharks, tropical fish, turtles, manta rays hammerhead sharks, spectacular rock formations and sea birds.

Lobos Island or ‘Sea Lion Island’, is aptly named and replete with sea lions. Great for snorkelling with sea lions and for spotting frigate birds and blue-footed Boobies.

Located on the northern coast, this eroded hill called Witch Hill and its surroundings offer one of the most picturesque beaches in the Galapagos. The sand is white and soft and there are a lot of animals living here, from sea turtles to rays to Booby birds and sponge coral in the clear waters.

For Booby fans, it has to be Pitt Point. Here, on the north-eastern tip of San Cristobal, all three types of Booby Birds congregate: the Nazca, Blue-footed and Red-footed Boobies. You can hike up a steep trail and then through a ravine to an area popular with birds, or dive and snorkel in this excellent site.

Red Mangroves and birds are the main attractions of Tijeretas Hill, which also provides a good views of the bay and the main town of San Cristobal. Very safe area for swimming and snorkelling.

El Junco Lagoon is one of the few freshwater lakes in the Galapagos, nestling in the hills some 730m/2,395ft above sea level. Frigate birds can be seen here, washing the salt from their feathers, as well as pintail.

 

Northern Islands

Sealion at Darwin Bay Genovesa Galapagos

Genovesa

Genovesa is uninhabited and a must for bird lovers. There is an abundance of frigate birds and other interesting seabirds. There are tide pools to see too, but high tide will cover the trails here. Other birds to spot include Red-footed Boobies, and swallow-tailed gulls.

The white-sand coral beach of Darwin Bay features a half mile trail (0.75km) that winds through mangroves filled with land birds. There are tidal pools where sea lions play, and snorkelers will have the chance to spot colourful reef fish and, with luck, hammerhead sharks. In the air, there are Nazca Boobies, Red-footed Boobies and gulls, and the final part of the trail has a spectacular view too.

El Barranco, also known as Prince Phillip’s Steps, is a steep path leading up to a high cliff-face, which offers a great view at the top. Plenty of birds swoop about and you may also spot Short-eared Lava Owls, Galápagos Swallows and Galápagos Doves.

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