The Galapagos Islands are on any travelers bucket list and it’s easy to understand why. They lie on the equator, about 1000 km west of Ecuador, and are made up of thirteen major islands and many smaller ones. There are only four inhabited islands. The Galapagos Islands are best known for their incredible, fearless and unique wildlife. When you visit you’ll have the opportunity to swim with sea lions, float with penguins, meet a blue-footed booby, watch a giant tortoise in the wild and come up close and personal with iguanas basking in the sun on a lava field.
There are few places in the world where you’ll come into contact with so many species and bear witness to the incredible evolutionary changes which have taken place in the Galapagos Islands, giving the islands their nickname; the laboratory of evolution. Due to its unique nature, and the fact that 97% of the archipelago has been a protected national park since 1959, visitors are restricted to the inhabited areas and over fifty designated visitor sites which can be reached by cruise boats or day-trips, always in the company of a registered guide.
Determine your travel budget
It’s always a good idea to sit down and determine your budget for traveling as soon as possible. This will help you decide which destinations are a possibility and when to go, as off-season travel is always more economic than traveling during high season.
A well though out budget will also serve as a guide when you start researching activities, accommodation and transportation. Deciding your travel budget early on will help you avoid the disappointment that comes from planning the perfect trip and finding out that you can’t afford it.
Pick and research your destination
Before setting off on an adventure to the Galapagos Islands, it is important to do a little research. Travel guides, blogs, books, films and travel websites are a good place to start, but make sure you are reading reputable sources.
You’ll need to understand the differences between the various options available when it comes to booking your once-in-a-lifetime Galapagos tour: choosing between a land-based tour and an island cruise, choosing an itinerary that suits your interests and budget, deciding when to travel and for how long, and, if you decide on a cruise, selecting the right boat and cabin from amongst the diverse classes and types on offer. Each of these options suit different types of travelers, so make sure to understand the difference.
Choose the right kind of tour
There are several different ways to explore the Galapagos islands and it’s important to understand their pros and cons before you book your tour. If you’ve got a flexible itinerary you can book your tour last minute. There are often great discounts available if you’re able to travel without much notice. Contact us to find out about last minute Galapagos opportunities.
· Galapagos cruise
The most common way travelers explore the Galapagos Islands is by taking a cruise of the islands. All boats offer itineraries approved by Galapagos National Park and these itineraries can range from 4 to 15 days in duration. Galapagos cruises offer all-inclusive packages that cover accommodation on board, meals and guided activities.
A Galapagos cruise is the best way to see as many islands and wildlife diversity as you can in the time you are there, as you will do activities during the day and travel between the islands by night or during lunch. If you are prone to sea-sickness though, this may not be the right choice for you as you will be aboard a yacht from the beginning to the end of your trip. A cruise day usually includes visits, accompanied by your naturalist guide, to two different landing sites to enjoy a variety of activities, from treks, wildlife spotting and snorkeling. Some sites can only be reached by taking a cruise as only cruise boats have authorization to visit them, while day tours do not.
· Galapagos island-hopping
Island-hopping packages give travelers the option to literally hop between the different inhabited islands (Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal and Floreana Islands) by combining stays in different local hostels or hotels with day tours at each site.
These tours are great for families, people prone to sea-sickness and those who don’t like the idea of being on a yacht for several days with the same group of people, but they do limit your adventure to sites on or close to inhabited islands. Island-hopping trips often give you the chance to visit less crowded sites where cruise boats don’t go, as well as offering optional activities such as diving, trekking, snorkeling, mountain biking, sea kayaking and even horseback riding. They also give you the freedom to explore the islands on your own, rather than being limited by set itineraries, and to immerse yourself in the local culture and night-life.
Island-hopping packages offer budget fixed group programs (lasting 5, 6 or 8 days) ideal for back-packers, as well as both private programs and tailor-made options (for groups of four or more) with accommodation in hostels and hotels of all categories.
· Galapagos hotel package
You also have the option to book a hotel package on the Galapagos Islands. This is great for families or land-lovers (i.e. those prone to sea sickness) who wish to explore the islands at a gentle pace. Different hotels offer different activities, though you also have the option to explore on your own. This option does however limit you to visiting sites close to your hotel and you will miss out on the far-away islands. There are hotels available of all categories. Some hotels offer all-inclusive packages which cover accommodation, food and activities, while others just cover accommodation and you’ll need to arrange excursions on your own or with one of our travel specialists.
· Diving in the Galapagos
There are different options available if you are interested in diving in the Galapagos. You can book a Padi course on Santa Cruz Island, day dives at sites near Santa Cruz Island, you can take a dive cruise, an island-hopping dive tour or you can book a hotel-based dive package. These tours cater for diving enthusiasts who love the underwater world, but are limited when it comes to land visits.
Decide what kind of experience you would like or can deal with. If you’d like a short introduction to the Galapagos, while maintaining contact with civilization, have limited diving experience, or if you’re prone to sea-sickness, we’d recommend a land-based hotel package or island-hopping experience on one of the inhabited islands. If you’re ready for a full-on exploration of the islands and the unique wildlife found on each and every one, then we’d recommend you take an 8-day cruise which will take you to the further away islands.
· All-inclusive Galapagos Packages
There are also all-inclusive packages available for travel to the Galapagos. These include air tickets to the islands, accommodation, all meals and tours to the main tourist attractions. These packages tend to last between four and five days, cover one to three islands, and offer a choice of either tourist or first class accommodation. This option does however limit you to visiting sites either on or near the inhabited islands.
Choose your accommodation
· Galapagos cruise
When you’re choosing the right boat for you, there are a few things you need to take into account. There are over a hundred boats with permission to cruise the Galapagos Islands. There are differences when it comes to the type of boat, its size, the quality of the accommodation, food and facilities, the level of the guides they hire and the itinerary that they run, which directly affects the wildlife and islands you’ll get to visit. At TerraDiversa we only work with the best boats that over the years have proved to offer reliable and trust-worthy service. We’re here to help you understand the options so you pick the right cruise for you.
You can choose between a motor yacht (a regular yacht), a motor sailor (designed like a sailing yacht though it is motor-operated), catamaran (modern, sleek and stable, which means it is less conducive to sea-sickness) and a cruise ship (a larger traditional vessel for stable cruising which offers additional facilities).
Besides the variety in types of boats available for cruising the Galapagos Islands, they also vary in size. There are smaller vessels sleeping from 12 to 16 passengers for an intimate experience and larger ships sleeping from 30 to 120 passengers which offer added comfort and stability (good for those with sea-sickness). Think about the kind of experience you would enjoy most: an intimate group tour or a cruise ship experience with a range of people you can socialize with.
We have divided the boats we work with into different classes: Budget, Tourist, First-class and Luxury. At TerraDiversa we don’t recommend taking a budget cruise as our experience has taught us that the difference in price isn’t worth the difference in the quality of service. If you are going to invest in a Galapagos adventure, this is one aspect where we don’t recommend cutting costs. The class of a boat is visible in the price, facilities, comfort and quality of service. The higher the cost, and class, also affects the quality of the guide service you are provided and this can make or break your experience.
– Tourist: Tourist-class boats tend to offer small standard cabins (bunk beds, double or twin) with private bathrooms. They have air-conditioning and hot water, buffet meals and common areas (sometimes a sun deck also). They tend to have one naturalist guide per 16 passengers of level I or II standard. The itineraries vary widely, but are normally as good as those of the more expensive classes.
– First-class: First-class boats tend to offer more spacious cabins with private bathrooms. There is hot water and air-conditioning available, as well as ample sun decks and common areas. They tend to have one naturalist guide per 16 passengers of level II or III. All cruise ships are either first or luxury class.
– Luxury: Luxury boats are the best option for an incredible cruise experience, if your budget will allow it. They have spacious cabins with private bathrooms. There is of course hot water, air-conditioning, sun decks and common areas, but luxury boats also offer interesting extras such as a jacuzzi or kayaks, and amazing food and service. They tend to have one naturalist guide per 16 passengers of level II or III. All cruise ships are either first or luxury class.
When deciding on which boat or Galapagos package to choose, make sure you look at the itineraries they offer. There is no such thing as a bad Galapagos itinerary, but different islands are home to different species, so if there is a particular species, such as the Galapagos penguin (Isabela and Bartolome Islands) or the waved albatross (Española Island) that you desperately want to see, you should make sure your chosen cruise itinerary is going to visit that particular island.
Yacht itineraries tend to divide the islands into three main groups when planning itineraries, while longer itineraries cover all three. Do your research to ensure you find one that is right for you:
– Southern Islands (San Cristobal, Santa Fe, Plazas, Española and Floreana): this group is recommended for evidence of the human history of the islands and the diversity of wildlife you’ll get to see. Español Island is the only place to see the waved albatross.
– Northern Islands (Santiago, Bartolome, Rabida, North Seymour, Genovesa): this group is recommended for its volcanic landscapes including the vast lava fields on Santiago Island and the classic pinnacle rock of Bartolome. Wildlife includes the red-footed booby colony on Genovesa Island and the penguins on Bartolome Island.
– Western Islands (Isabela and Ferdinanda): these are the youngest and most volcanically active islands in the Galapagos. They offer an array of interesting wildlife including the flightless cormorant, Galapagos penguin and whales, alongside amazing volcanic landscapes.
Finally, make sure to be honest about your physical condition and check with your travel specialist to ensure that a particular itinerary won’t be too much for you.
· Island-hopping packages
Fixed group island-hopping programs offer budget accommodation in simple, family-run hostels with the option to upgrade to slightly better accommodation, often with extra facilities such as a swimming pool. Itineraries will give you the names of the hostels on offer.
The private island-hopping and tailor-made programs offer a wider range of accommodation options of all categories, which means you can design your adventure according to your taste and budget.
· Galapagos hotels
If you chose a hotel-based Galapagos adventure, accommodation is available on the four inhabited islands of the Galapagos: Floreana, Isabela, San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz. There are hostels and hotels of all categories available, each with their own level of comfort, service, facilities and activities, though the prices tend to be higher than on mainland Ecuador. Some hotels offer all-inclusive packages. Contact us for advice and suggestions.
Deciding how long to go for
Keep in mind that on your first day you’ll arrive on the archipelago no earlier than noon, leaving time for, at best, only half a day’s activities. On the last day, the departure time is around mid-morning, so most of that day is gone too. Think about how long you’d like to spend exploring the islands and add two days to that. Take into account that the Galapagos park fee and air ticket cost the same no matter how long you stay.
Most boats offer four, five or eight day cruises. At TerraDiversa we recommend eight days as the ideal length, which leaves you six days to explore the islands. Eight day tours, particularly cruises, cover the majority of the highlights on offer. Four days is far too short, leaving you only two full days exploring the islands. If you’re thinking of diving, stay as long as you can as you need to take into account a full day after diving to acclimatize.
Booking flights and transportation
When you book either a Galapagos cruise, Galapagos island-hopping experience, Galapagos hotel package, Galapagos diving tour or all-inclusive Galapagos package, your tour operator will help you coordinate your flights to the island and transfers to your boat or hotel. Flights are not included in original quoted rates of most tours and you should budget accordingly.
Most of the itineraries on offer, particularly for cruises, require a reasonable level of fitness. It is very important to know your limitations. While you will only be taking day hikes and snorkeling expeditions in most cases, you may sometimes be hiking under the hot sun and it is important that you don’t hold up the entire group. Make sure to speak to your tour operator or travel specialist about excursions on your particular itinerary to ensure it won’t be too much for you. Traveling to the Galapagos Islands could be a great excuse to get in shape. Be honest with yourself about your level of fitness and make sure you have enough time to prepare.
Due to the effect of sea currents, every month there is something incredible occurring amongst the wildlife living on and around the Galapagos Islands, making it a great travel destination all year round. Besides changes in the weather, the currents also affect plant and animal life. When you’re planning your trip, be aware of these differences to ensure you plan the right experience to suit your tastes and interests.
There are two main seasons in the Galapagos. Between May and December, the cold Humbold current produces slightly colder days marked by soft drizzle and mist (garúa). Between December and May, the warm Panama current creates warmer days with short heavy rains and clear sunny skies. Find out more about when to visit the Galapagos Islands.
If you’ve got a flexible schedule, TerraDiversa recommends traveling in the transition months between these two seasons: 15th April to 15th June or 15th November to 15th January. On the one hand, these dates will allow you to skip the high tourist seasons (July to August and Christmas/New Years) when prices are higher. On the other, these transition months will allow you to experience a wider range of natural phenomena. From July to September, the climate tends to be cooler, while February and March are often uncomfortably warm. If you’re a repeat visitor, try visiting at different times of year to enjoy a wider range of the spectacle nature has to offer.
Whatever tour option you choose, you’ll need to get to the Islands by plane. There are no direct international flights into the Galapagos archipelago. Flights are available from either Quito or Guayaquil in mainland Ecuador to either Baltra Airport or Puerto Baquerizo Moreno airport on San Cristóbal Island, and are pricey for foreigners. Apart from all-inclusive packages, flights are not included in the quoted rates and you should budget accordingly. Contact one of our travel specialists for more information.
If you’re traveling independently, there are speedboats offering inter-island shuttling services that run to a set schedule. These carry about 16 persons between the inhabited Isabela, Floreana, San Cristobal and Santa Cruz islands. Land transportation is limited, though there are taxis (white pickup trucks) and bike riding is good for moving around the inhabited islands.
Galapagos cruise packages, island-hopping itineraries and many hotels provide set all-inclusive itineraries that include getting to and from the different visitor sites. You’ll see more of the islands and travel further with the longer Galapagos cruise packages.
Please read our Ecuador Travel Guide for information about entry requirements, vaccine requirements, V.A.T. and luggage when traveling in Ecuador.
The official currency of Ecuador is the US dollar. Bring low-denomination bills as $50 and $100 bills are rarely accepted, except in banks. In smaller towns, you might have trouble with $20 bills. Bring cash when traveling to the Galapagos Islands as access to cash machines is scarce (they are available in Puerto Ayora and San Cristobal) and neither cheques or travelers cheques are accepted. On most tours you will need money for tips, drinks and for any souvenir shopping you do on the islands.
Prices on the Galapagos islands are higher than on the Ecuadorian mainland and flights in and out are expensive. There are extra fees charged on credit-card transactions. All travelers to Galapagos are charged a Galapagos National Park entrance fee at the airport (foreigners $100, citizens of the Andean Community or Mercosur countries $50, nationals or residents $6, under 12’s 50%, under 2’s $0), an INGALA card (Migration Card) at $20 per passenger and an Isabela Tax costing $5. None of these is included in the price of most Galapagos tours, so make sure you budget accordingly.
Always ensure you purchase a suitable travel insurance policy when traveling to the Galapagos. Make sure this insurance covers transfers from the Island to a hospital on the mainland. When planning to take part in adventure activities, ensure your policy covers them. If you’re not sure, contact your insurance provider. We can provide information about travel insurance on request.
The Galapagos islands do have a decompression chamber for diving accidents and facilities for minor injuries, but make sure your travel insurance covers transfers to the mainland in the unfortunate event of a more serious health issue. While larger cruise ships have physicians on board, most cruise boats have very basic health facilities. Make sure you bring lightweight trousers and long-sleeved tops to protect yourself from insect bites. To avoid food poisoning or stomach problems, wash your hands frequently, use a sanitizing gel, drink bottled water and make sure your food is completely cooked or peeled.
Phone & Internet
While phones and internet are available in the main towns and better hotels, you will not have phone coverage or access to either phones or internet if you’re taking a cruise, except on the larger boats. A Galapagos adventure is an ideal opportunity to disconnect.
* This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please check before traveling.
To reach your destination in the Galapagos Islands you will use a variety of transport including an airplane, land transportation, ferry and motor-boat. It is imperative that you pack light and limit your luggage to a maximum of 20 kilos permitted per person by airlines flying to the Galapagos (check with your airline). Store any unnecessary luggage at your hotel in Quito, Guayaquil or back home. Make sure your suitcase or backpack is working properly, that everything fits and that it is easy to transport.
· Day pack
· Shorts or fast-drying slacks
· Trousers (for evenings)
· T-shirts or long sleeved cotton shirts
· Long-sleeved top (for evenings)
· Walking shoes
· Sandals (for beaches)
· Sturdy boots or shoes (for jagged lava wastes)
· Lightweight raincoat for rain showers and garúa drizzle
· Hat with a brim
· Bathing suits
· Bandana to cover the back of your neck from the sun’s rays
· Sunglasses (with holding strap)
· Extra set of glasses or contact lenses + lens solution
· Grooming kit
· Personal medication
· Sun block (SPF30 or higher)
· Insect repellent (for highlands or wet season)
· Lip balm (SPF30 or higher)
· Seasickness tablets or patches
· Eye drops
· Ear plugs for cruises
· Multi-purpose Zip-Lock bags
· Camera equipment (telephoto lens/zoom, polarizing lens, sea spray/rain protection for camera, extra memory, batteries and charger)
· Water bottle
· If diving: bring as much of your own equipment as possible
· Snorkeling gear (mask, snorkel and fins) if not supplied by tour
· Wet suit or jacket (July to December) for cold water if not supplied by tour
The Galapagos Islands were discovered in 1535, when Tomás de Berlanga drifted off course while sailing between Panama and Peru. They first appeared on a world map in 1570. After their discovery the islands were used by sealers, whalers and pirates to provide shelter, anchorage, firewood, water and food (giant tortoises which could be easily caught and stored on board). Scientific exploration began in the late 18th century. Charles Darwin arrived in 1835 and stayed for five weeks collecting specimens and taking notes which were later used in his famous theory of evolution. The first resident of the islands was the Irishman Patrick Watkins in 1807 for two years. Ecuador claimed the archipelago in 1832, after which the islands were inhabited by few settlers and used as a penal colony until 1959. Some islands were declared wildlife sanctuaries in 1934 and 97% became a national park in 1959. Organized tourism began in the 1960s bringing an average of 80,000 tourists every year.
The archipelago is located on the Nazca Plate near its junction with the Cocos Plate. The islands themselves have been formed by volcanic eruptions. The spreading of these plates in relation to each other make the islands move slowly south and eastwards at a rate of one kilometer every 14,000 years, which is a considerable movement by plate tectonic standards. Therefore the oldest islands are in the eastern part of the archipelago and all recent (relatively speaking!) volcanic activity has formed the western islands.
The islands are located in a tropical zone where the climate is influenced by two main sea currents: the Panama and the Humboldt current. These two different currents produce the variety of life that exists on the islands, and create two main seasons which have dramatic effects on the flora and fauna.
The warm and wet season, caused by the Panama current from December to May has warm air temperatures (the average sea temperature is 25 °C) and the sky is usually clear with occasional heavy rain showers. During the Panama season (warm water and rain), the islands become lush green terrain providing abundant food and most of the animals find their food on land, allowing them to reproduce.
The cool dry (garúa) season from May to December, caused by the cold Humboldt Current, has cooler air and the sky is often lightly overcast (the average sea temperature is 22 °C). During the Humboldt season, the cold Humboldt current brings lots of nutrients and plankton for the species that feed off the sea, making this a great time of year for spotting marine life.
It’s incredible to think that these small volcanic islands located 960 km from Ecuador’s mainland have been key to sciences understanding of evolution. Over time, once organisms reached the Galapagos Islands, they became isolated from the continent. Additionally, islands within the archipelago are distant enough to produce a similar isolation. This effect produces the development of independent biological units – more or less, self contained ecosystems in every island or islet. So each island is often inhabited by different species within a genus.
Unique species which differ from their common ancestors or even within islands are called endemic, meaning that they are found only there and nowhere else. Perfect examples of these evolutionary changes are the thirteen species of finches, which originally came from one common ancestor; or the different types of giant tortoises. Galapagos has over 50% of endemism making the islands so unique.
Each and every island in the archipelago is home to its very own ecosystem thanks to differing altitudes, geology, weather and more, allowing for each island to become home to endemic species which can be found no where else on earth.
Most visitors to the Galapagos Islands arrive by air at Baltra airport. Baltra is a fairly small island (27 km2) off the northern coast of Santa Cruz. There are no visitor sites here and no accommodation. It is only a short drive from the airport to the harbor, where pelicans and noddies will give you a warm welcome.
From the top of Bartolomé, a tiny island of just 1.2 km2, you can see the most frequently photographed, and hence most famous, view in the archipelago, Pinnacle Rock and its surroundings. Bartolomé is located near the west coast of Santiago Island, on the other side of Sullivan Bay. The climb to the 114 m high peak is challenging but definitely worth it. Bartolomé is also a must see for visitors interested in geology, as well as being one of the best snorkeling sites offering the chance to do some penguin spotting.
· Española (or Hood)
One of the oldest of the Galapagos islands, Española is located in the southernmost point of the archipelago and is an eroded archaic volcano which is only 206 meters tall. It is a definite highlight of any trip to the Galapagos and is home to both Gardner Bay and Punta Suárez, two of the main visitor sites. The island is home to the only colony of waved albatrosses, sea lions, marine iguanas, hood mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropicbirds, blue-footed boobies, masked boobies and oystercatchers.
The third largest island, Fernandina is also the most pristine and youngest of the main islands. The recently formed volcanic black lava landscapes are very impressive. This is the island on which you are most likely to see a volcanic eruption. The island is home to marine iguanas, sea lions, flightless cormorants and Galapagos penguins. Visitor site: Punta Espinoza.
Floreana is the remains of a half submerged volcanic cone located in the south of the archipelago and is one of four inhabited islands, albeit with the smallest population. Parasitic cones dominate the gentle landscape as evidence of a continued and prolonged volcanic activity. Floreana was the first inhabited island of the archipelago and has a bizarre history. Great for snorkeling, the island is home to several species of lake birds, including flamingos, sea turtles and rays. Visitor sites: Punta Cormorant and Post Office Bay.
This is the only northern island open to visitors. The island is known more often by its English name of Tower. This 14 km2 island is the tip of a submerged volcano that rises 76 meters above sea level forming a big round bay (Darwin Bay) which is the remains of the original crater. Due to its isolation in the north of the archipelago and the effect of the northern currents, the ecosystem on the island is different to other islands. It is a paradise for sea birds, including two types of boobies: red-footed and masked. There is a large colony of great frigate birds and swallowtail gulls. Visitor sites: Darwin Bay and Prince Phillip’s Steps.
Located to the east of the archipelago, Isabela is the largest island of all the islands and is one of the four inhabited islands in the archipelago. Geologically speaking, it is a relatively recent island and consists of a chain of six fairly young and intermittently active volcanoes. The highest peak of all the islands is located on Isabela, at 1707m above sea level (Wolf Volcano). The island is home to Galapagos penguins, land iguanas, giant turtles and the famous Darwin Lake. Visitor sites: Tagus Cove, Puerto Villamil, Sierra Negra Volcano, Punta Moreno, Elizabeth Bay, Urbina Bay, and Punta Vicente Roca.
· North Seymour
Separated from Baltra by a channel, this island is small (1.9 km2) with abundant life everywhere you look. There is a circular trail leading through some of the largest and most active seabird breeding colonies in the archipelago. The main attractions are frigate birds and blue-footed boobies. There is always some kind of interesting activity going on – such as courtship, mating, nesting or chick rearing. Any time of year you’ll spot sea lions, marine iguanas, snakes and Palo Santo trees.
These two small islands are located just off the east coast of Santa Cruz. They were formed by a geological uplift due to faulting that makes the islands home to an extraordinary range of flora. A dry landing on the North Plaza’s jetty brings you to an Opuntia cacti forest, which is the main diet for the abundant land iguanas. Red-billed tropicbirds, frigate birds and pelicans are also common on these islands.
This small island (5 km2), is covered by dry and coastal vegetation, with a central volcano standing at 367 m. There is a wet landing onto an intense dark red beach where sea lions wobble along and pelicans nest in the bushes on the shore. Rabida contains the largest variety of lava types, red being the dominant color. A saltwater lagoon gives occasional sightings of flamingos. A walk to the inner part will allow you to observe some types of Darwin’s finches and other land birds. This is a great island for snorkeling.
· San Cristobal
This easternmost island is also one of the oldest in the archipelago, as well as being one of the four inhabited islands. It has several visitor sites, as well as an airport (Puerto Barquerizo Moreno), and is the administrative center of the Galapagos Islands. In the village a visit to the Charles Darwin Interpretation Center is an excellent way to witness the research and development projects that this institution has carried out. The island is home to lava lizards, mocking birds, coral beaches and the only fresh water lake on the islands. Visitor sites: Charles Darwin Interpretation Center, Kicker Rock, Lobos Island, El Junco Lagoon, Cerro Brujo, Cerro San Joaquín and Punta Pitt.
· Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Island is the tourist center of the Galapagos Islands, the second largest island in the archipelago and one of four inhabited islands. Covering just under 1000km2 and reaching up to almost 900 meters above sea level, it is the most heavily populated island, partly due to its proximity to Baltra airport. Most people on the island live in Puerto Ayora, the largest town, which houses the Charles Darwin Research Station and the head office for the Galapagos National Park. The island has banks, phones, taxis and restaurants. From Santa Cruz, visitors can take day trips to the surrounding islands such as Santa Fé, Plaza Sur and North Seymour. Wildlife highlights include Darwin’s finches, giant tortoises, Galapagos mockingbirds, vermillion flycatchers, herons, egrets, ducks, stilt and giant daisy trees. Visitor sites: Charles Darwin Research Station, Los Gemelos, Cerro Dragón, Bahía Ballena and Playa Las Bachas.
· Santa Fe
This 24 km2 island is the result of an uplift that raised the sea floor 259 meters above the sea level. A short trail takes you to one of the tallest stands of Opuntia cacti in the island. There are two endemic animal species on the island: the Santa Fe land iguana and the Galapagos rice rat. Snorkeling is spectacular along the coast of Santa Fe and highly recommended.
· Santiago (San Salvador or James Island)
One of the northern Galapagos islands, Santiago island is located about 25km northwest of Santa Cruz Island and is the fourth largest (585km2). The island is actually made up of two coalesced volcanos. The 19 century introduction of some goats onto the island caused extensive damage, alongside that of feral pigs. The last goat was destroyed in 2005 while the pigs were terminated in 2001. Wildlife highlights include marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins, sharks, Darwin Finches and Galapagos Hawks. Visitor sites: Puerto Egas, Bucaneer Cove, Espumilla Beach and Sullivan Bay.
Featured Visitor Sites
· Bachas Beach (Santa Cruz)
This long white sandy beach is located on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz Island and is a perfect place for enjoying the landscape and observing shore and sea birds such as frigates, oystercatchers and gulls. You’ll get a chance to spot sea turtles nesting on the beach during the warm season. This is an ideal location for taking a walk along the shore or taking a dip in the Ocean.
· Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz)
Located on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz Island and accessible only by canoe, this tranquil dark lagoon, known as Tortuga Negra, is hidden and protected by a large mangrove forest. It is home to many Pacific sea turtles that come to breed at the start of the warm-wet season and that can be seen easily from the boat. White tip sharks enjoy these calm waters too and, if you’re lucky, a school of rays might swim close to the surface. The area is also home to herons, pelicans and reed sharks.
· Cerro Brujo (San Cristobal)
Cerro Brujo is a lovely white sand beach on the northwest coast of San Cristobal and a good place for swimming, walking along the beach and spotting some shore birds.
· Cerro Dragón (Santa Cruz)
Located to the northwest of Santa Cruz Island is a path leading from flamingo lagoons to the top of the hill, passing land iguanas and their nests.
· Charles Darwin Research Station (Santa Cruz)
Only twenty minutes from the center of Puerto Ayora, most tours will take you to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, home to an interpretation center which teaches visitors about geology, climate, conservation and other aspects about the Galapagos Islands. There are also tortoise-rearing pens from where a tortoise repopulation program is ongoing. This was also home to Lonesome George until his death in 2012, last surviving member of the Pinta Island tortoise, a subspecies of the Galapagos tortoise, and known as the rarest creature in the world.
· Chinese Hat (James Island)
Named after its shape, Chinese Hat is located just off the southeast tip of James Island. This tiny volcano has a wonderful small beach surrounded by lava fields and lava tubes. Here you get a feeling of being in a very remote and special place on earth. It is an excellent spot for snorkeling.
· Elizabeth Bay (Isabela Island)
Elizabeth Bay is best visited by a dinghy ride since there is no landing site. The lagoon contains large mangrove trees with all the sea and land birds living among them, and waters that are home to many sea turtles. West of Elizabeth Bay is Punta Moreno. There is a dry landing onto a lava flow, where there are some blackish pools. Flamingos, whit-cheeked pintails and common gallinules are sometimes seen, along with various unusual plants and insects.
· El Junco Lagoon (San Cristobal)
In the highlands of the island you find the only fresh water lagoon in the whole archipelago. Standing on the rim of El Junco provides a spectacular view of the frigates and boobies that plunge down for a quick dip in the water.
· Gardner Bay (Española Island)
Gardner Bay, on the northeast side of Española island, is one of the most fabulous beaches in the Galapagos Islands, with its soft, white sand and perfectly blue sea. The beach is home to bull sea lions. This is a great swimming spot, though for snorkeling you can take a dinghy to Isla Tortuga to see eagle rays, white-tippped reef sharks and hammerhead sharks.
· James Bay (James Island)
On the west side of James Island is a long, flat black lava shoreline where eroded shapes form lava pools, caverns and inlets that house a great variety of inter-tidal life. This is a great place to see colonies of marine iguanas basking in the sun. The tide pools contain hundreds of red Sally Lightfoot crabs, which attract all the commonly found species of hunting herons. It is also home to a colony of fur seals that swim and play in the tide pools.
· Kicker Rock (León Dormido)
Off the coast of San Cristobal, a giant rock formation appears in the middle of the ocean. Leon Dormido is a remnant of a vertical tuff cone formation, abruptly rising almost 500 ft from the ocean. It is well worth taking a boat ride around the rock as well as an excellent spot for diving.
· Las Bachas (Santa Cruz)
Located in the northern part of Santa Cruz Island, Las Bachas is a popular swimming spot which serves as a good introduction to Galapagos wildlife, with marine iguanas, sea turtles, hermit crabs, black-necked stilts, great blue herons, turtle nests and flamingos.
· Lobos Island (San Cristobal)
Close to the village lies Lobos Island, which hosts a large colony of sea lions including the giant males that look after their harem.
· Los Gemelos (Santa Cruz)
Los Gemelos are two large pit craters located on the road between Puerto Ayora and Baltra, caused by the collapse of empty magma chambers. VIsitors can visit both craters and walk around their rims. There is a circular trail to the larger crater that passes through a beautiful Scalesia forest and along which you can observe many species of terrestrial birds such as vermilion flycatchers, short-eared owls, the Galapagos dove and several finch species. The landscape is gorgeous and you might also catch sight of giant tortoises living in the wild.
· Pinnacle Rock (Bartolomé Island)
Pinnacle Rock is one of the most representative landmarks of the Galapagos Islands and can be found on Bartolomé Island. It is a great place for swimming and snorkeling in order to spot penguins, marine turtles, white-tipped reef sharks and tropical fish.
· Post Office Bay (Floreana Island)
Floreana used to be a stopping point for whalers, where they’d pick up food and water. They devised a system of getting letters home where they’d leave letters to be picked up by passing ships. This unofficial postal system is still in use today with travelers leaving and picking up letters and delivering them for free.
· Prince Philip’s Steps (Genovesa Island)
The walk to Prince Philip’s Steps will take you to the Palo Santo forest nesting grounds of the boobies and then over to the cliff where hundreds of storm petrels fly around while owls patiently wait to prey on them.
· Puerto Villamil (Isabela Island)
Puerto Villamil is a small village located in the southern part of Isabela. Most of its inhabitants are fishermen and the others make their living from tourism. Around here you could visit the lagoons with flamingos or do a walk to the old Ecuadorian jail circa 1800.
· Punta Cormorant (Floreana Island)
Punta Cormorant has a nice trail which combines a greenish sand beach, a blackish lagoon with flamingos and a white sand beach considered as one of the main nesting sites for sea turtles. Close to the shore snorkeling is great at the Devil´s Crown.
· Punta Espinoza (Fernandina Island)
Punta Espinoza is known for one of the greatest concentrations of endemic marine iguanas, found by the thousands here in Fernandina. Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, and sea lions are also common here.
· Punta Pitt (San Cristobal Island)
Punta Pitt is the easternmost point of the Galapagos. A good variety of endemic and native species of plants can be seen. Similar to Tower Island it is one of the few places in Galapagos where red-footed boobies can be observed.
· Punta Suarez (Española Island)
Punta Suarez is located to the west of Española Island. From here visitors can take a looped trail from the beach. Along the way they’ll encounter sea lions, marine iguanas, hood mockingbirds, waved albatrosses (from April to December, this is the only colony in the Galapagos), Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropicbirds, blowholes in the lava landscape and blue-footed boobies.
· Punta Vicente Roca (Isabela Island)
Punta Vicente Roca on the northwest coast is a large nesting site for masked boobies.
· Sierra Negra Volcano (Isabela Island)
The road from Puerto Villamil up to the highlands takes you to the Sierra Negra crater, an amazing site 13 km. in diameter. If lucky, some wild giant tortoises can be spotted mostly at the bottom of the crater.
· Sullivan Bay (Santiago Island)
On the eastern coast of James Island, just across a narrow channel that separates it from Bartolomé, this site offers a rare view of a recently formed lava field, which occurred around 1890. A spectacular walk over lava tubes Pahoehoe and AA lava fields show the first living organisms that had colonized volcanic areas such as lava lizards and cacti.
· Tagus Cove (Isabela Island)
Tagus Cove was a favorite pirate and whaler port. A trail leading up a hill takes us along a big salt lake passing a large number of native and endemic plants. A dinghy ride takes us along cliffs for a close observation of penguins and flightless cormorants.
· Urbina Bay (Isabela Island)
Urbina Bay located at the base of Alcedo volcano, is a flat area formed by an uplift of the seabed in 1954. Evidence of the uplift includes a coral reef, which is now on land. Flightless cormorants, pelicans, marine and giant land iguanas can be observed on land; rays and turtles can be seen in the bay.
· Whale Bay (Santa Cruz)
Located on the western coast of Santa Cruz island Whale Bay (or Bahía Ballena) is a small cove with green sand, due to volcanic volcanic olivine crystals formed when the magma was still underground. The area is a historic site where ceramic pieces are sometimes found, though their origin is unclear.