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Islands of the Galapagos
Officially known as “Archipiélago de Colón”, the Galapagos Islands are made up of 13 main islands, 6 smaller islands and a handful of rocks and islets. Of all the islands only four are inhabited, making a total population of approximately 25,000 people.
Baltra (South Seymour)
This small, flat island often features at the beginning and end of Galapagos trips, with the main airport (Seymour Airport) located here. Travellers arriving on the island are usually transferred to one of two docks, where they can join a cruise or ferry to Santa Cruz. There isn’t much wildlife to see on Baltra, but if you head to the docks you can see pelicans, sea birds and the occasional sea lion. The landscape on Baltra is dry and arid, with vegetation consisting mainly of cactuses and salt bushes.
The isolation of Española Island has resulted in a rich variety of wildlife that exhibit unique adaptations to the environment they live in. For example, the marine iguana found on Española is the only variety to change its colour during the breeding season. Punta Suarez, located on the western tip of Española, is one of the best places to see wildlife across the archipelago. Here you can observe the waved albatross nesting in the cliffs, doves and hawks soaring across the sky and colonies of Galapagos sea lions on the shores. Sea kayaking is also a must-try here, with an abundance of tropical fish and marine turtles.
Fernandina is the third largest, youngest and most volcanically active island in the Galapagos. The huge Volcan La Cumbre, with a 6km wide caldera, last erupted as recently as 2009. With zero non-native species (i.e goats or rats) Fernandina is considered the most pristine island. For those looking to spot marine iguanas the place to go is Punta Espinoza, the only visitor site on the island, where you will be met by masses of these giant lizards huddled together on the rocks. You’ll also spot plenty of flightless cormorants and Galapagos hawks, as well as the famous Galapagos penguin in and around the cold island waters.
The largest of the Galapagos Islands, it is the only island that has the equator running through it. Notable sites include the fantastic Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre, where you can see the work done to help breed and raise these magnificent marine creatures before they are set free. There are more wild tortoises on Isabela than any other island. Another must see is the Sierra Negra Volcano, which claims the world’s second largest caldera. To get up close to white tip sharks head over to the Las Tintoreras lagoon.
Nicknamed the ‘Bird Island’, Genovesa boasts an astonishing array of bird life that includes the world’s largest colony of red-footed boobies. Spot swallow-tailed gulls and red-footed boobies nesting in crevices in the island’s cliffs, as well as yellow-crowned night herons hopping around near tide pools. A great way to see the variety of bird life is to hike along one of the scenic trails that take you from the beaches to the cliffs. One of the best is known as Prince Philip’s Steps, a steep path that winds through an incredible sea bird colony. Walking through a palo santo forest you will be met by Nazca boobies, storm petrels and frigate birds.
A regular on Galapagos cruise itineraries, Floreana is one of the oldest islands standing. It was home to Ecuador’s first official colony back in 1832, known as “Asilo de la Paz”. During that time Floreana had a thriving population of giant tortoises, although they are now extinct on the island. A saltwater lagoon at Punta Cormorant (located on the northern tip of Floreana) is by far the best place to see flamingos, as well as sea turtles and rays. Excellent snorkelling and diving can be enjoyed at Devil’s Crown, an underwater volcanic cone, which boasts incredible coral reefs and a variety of colourful fish, including angelfish, parrotfish and even hammerhead sharks.
Marchena was named after the Spanish monk Frey Antonio de Marchena. It is the largest of the northern islands but is not often visited, although the waters surrounding are sometimes used by divers. The two marine visitor sites are Punta Espejo and Punta Mejia. Hammerhead sharks and Galapagos sharks, as well as dolphins, sea turtles, eels and rays frequent the waters here. Fur seals are found here particularly around the coves on the southwest coast, as well as the endemic Marchena lava lizard.
Giant tortoises, marine iguanas, dolphins, swallow-tailed gulls and Galapagos hawks can all be seen on Pinta Island. The only visitor site is a marine site known as Punta Neros, home to sea turtles, eels and sea lions. Pinta is known for being the original home of Lonesome George, a famous Galapagos tortoise who was the last known member his subspecies. The population of Pinta tortoises suffered greatly between the 19th and 20th centuries when they were used as a food resource by whalers and fishermen.
Pinzón currently has no visitor facilities and is therefore rarely seen by travellers. The island is named after the Pinzón brothers, who were captains of the Pinta and Nina respectively on Columbus’ journey to the New World. It is the geographical centre of the archipelago, and is enclosed by deep waters that are used by local fishermen. No Name Rock is a small islet to the south of Pinzón where you can scuba dive.
San Cristóbal is one of the oldest islands (geologically speaking) in the Galapagos. It gets its name from “St. Christopher”, the patron saint of seafarers. A small lake on the island known as ‘Laguna el Junco’ is the only source of fresh water in the archipelago. San Cristóbal offers plenty of diving/snorkelling opportunities, with numerous picturesque beaches located here. A great option is Cerro Brujo where you can take the time to unwind, swim and snorkel. You might even spot sea lions lounging here.
Santa Cruz is regarded as the “centre” of tourism in the Galapagos. It is also the second largest and most populated island with over 20,000 residents. Its capital Puerto Ayora is lined with shops, restaurants and hotels, as well as being the headquarters of the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park. Head to Tortuga Bay to see marine iguanas, giant tortoises and several Galapagos birds, before walking through the island’s incredible 2,000m long lava tunnel. Bahia Tortuga, a stunning white-sanded beach overlooking blue waters, is a great spot to unwind in between wildlife excursions.
Santa Fé is quite a small island at just over 23km2; however it is one of the oldest in the Galapagos. Look out for the Santa Fé land iguana, an endemic species of land iguana found nowhere else on earth. They can usually be spotted nearby the huge prickly pear cactuses, whose fruits they love to eat. The only visitor site is at Barrington Bay, the starting point for two picturesque hiking trails. The first takes you through a forest of opuntia cactus, whilst the other involves walking up a steep hill to get incredible island views. For those wishing to snorkel with sea lions the beach here is a good spot.
Located 25km north of Santa Cruz, Santiago Island is made up of two overlapping volcanoes, with an area just shy of 600km2. Known officially as San Salvador, the island was named after the first island discovered by Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean Sea. Santiago offers many opportunities for wildlife encounters, particularly at Puerto Egas. Here you will find a lengthy lava shoreline with marine iguanas basking in the sun, sally lightfoot crabs in tide pools and fur seal lions on the beach. Sugarloaf volcano, towering above the island at 300m, is home to Darwin’s finches, Galapagos doves and lava lizards.
Bartolomé Island is one of the most visited islands in the Galapagos, situated just off Santiago’s east coast. It claims one of the most iconic landmarks of the archipelago in Pinnacle Rock, an eroded volcanic cone and popular snorkelling site. The waters here house an abundance of tropical fish and breath-taking rock formations. A colony of Galapagos penguins can also be found here in a cave just behind Pinnacle Rock. A day at Bartolomé will usually be spent hiking to the island’s summit along a 600m trail (look out for the Galapagos snake!), and swimming in the waters surrounding the island.
One of the most colourful islands in the Galapagos, Rábida gets its red colour from the iron-rich lava that covers the island. It was first named after British admiral John Jervis in the 18th century. Landings at Rábida occur at a northern beach, where visitors get a first glimpse of sea lions and marine iguanas lounging on the sand or cooling off in caves. Behind the beach is a saltwater lagoon where you can sometimes see flamingos. Scan the cliffs to spot both Nazca and blue-footed boobies, or follow a trail inland to observe Galapagos doves, warblers, mockingbirds and finches. Rábida is also one of the only islands where you can see pelicans up close.
North Seymour has an incredible variety of wildlife, with large populations of magnificent frigate birds, land iguanas, blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. The island is a great place to see the unique mating rituals of these birds. When exploring the island you are likely to encounter sea lions, marine iguanas, pelicans and Nazca boobies. There are three dives sites around North Seymour that each offer excellent opportunities to see sharks, sea turtles, rays and fish. The island itself is relatively flat, covered with bushy vegetation and cliffs by the shoreline.
At just one square kilometre Darwin Island is one of the smallest islands in the Galapagos and the most northerly. It was named in honour of Charles Darwin, who visited the Galapagos on a research trip in 1835. The island is renowned for its marine life, particularly large schools of hammerhead sharks. Land visits are not possible, with most visitors coming to scuba dive. Darwin Arch, a tiny islet just off Darwin’s coast, is an excellent dive site with waters teeming with sea turtles, dolphins, manta rays and a variety of shark species.
Just a a handful of km south of Darwin Island, Wolf Island is also one of the smallest and remote islands in the Galapagos. It is named after the German geologist Theodor Wolf. The island itself, like Darwin Island, is the tip of a mostly submerged volcano. Landing on Wolf Island is not possible; however the abundance of marine life makes it an exciting diving location. The best site is known as El Derrumbe, where cold currents allow the presence of hammerhead sharks, white-tipped sharks and a number of whale species. The most famous resident on the island is the endemic vampire finch.