The Galapagos Islands are located about 600 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador, and they are scattered around the equator itself, with Isabella Island actually being on the equator. When travelers are considering which cruise to take, they face quite an array of islands and itineraries and the information can be a bit overwhelming. We've created this handy guide that details the various islands and what wildlife and landscapes one can expect to see on each.
San Cristobal is located in the far south east of the Galapagos archipelago. With a newly refurbished airstrip it has become one of two arrival points to the islands as well as the provincial capital Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is also where you will have a chance to visit the interpretation center which opened in 1998. This is a very informative site, built to give visitors an overview of the natural and human history of the Galapagos as well as plans for the future.
San Cristobal is a diverse island with one of the only permanent fresh water lakes in the islands. El Junco Lagoon is located at an altitude of 700 meters, about 45 minutes from Puerto Baquerizo. Playa Ochoa is another popular place to visit, with many different species of birds, including the rare Chatham mockingbird, and great snorkeling opportunities.
Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido)
This vertical rock off the northwest coast of San Cristobal juts up approximately 500 feet straight out of the water. As you approach from San Cristobal it will have the appearance of a boot, giving it the name “Kicker Rock”. As you get closer and cruise around towards the north face, you will have the opportunity to spot blue footed boobies, masked boobies and magnificent frigate birds.
Formed by joining of six lava flows, Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos. Located on the western side of the archipelago Isabela stretches approximately 100 kilometers north to south.
On its western coast you will find Tagus Cove and Urvina Bay, popular destination for cruises that make the journey to Fernandina and the west coast of Isabela. On a short walk around Tagus Cove, past walls scrawled with graffiti dating back to the 1800’s, you’ll enjoy views of a saltwater lagoon named Darwin Lake. Throughout this hike you are sure to see several different kinds of finches, including the woodpecker finch. Once you reach the summit of this hike, you will also be able to see both Darwin and Wolf Volcano. A short boat ride along the cliffs of Tagus Cove also reveals Galapagos Penguins, flightless cormorants, blue footed boobies and marine iguanas.
Urbina Bay is located south of Tagus Cove on the western coast of Isabela and is largely known for a 5 kilometer section that was uplifted some 4 meters in a geological event in 1954, leaving sea life stranded above the ocean. From Urbina Bay you will also have the chance to cruise through large Mangroves as well as search for Giant Tortoises.
Santiago is located in the heart of the Archipelago. On the western side of Santiago the two main sites include Puerto Egas and James Bay. Puerto Egas was once an area of salt mining, although in current times it is known more for the 30-40 thousand fur seals that make their home here and the inter-tidal pools that support a large variety of sea life. The black sand beach of Puerto Egas also serves as a great place to snorkel, with good chances to swim with sea lions and sea turtles.
Bartolome is where you will find the iconic Pinnacle Rock, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Galapagos. A visit to Bartolome will include a hike up a series of stairs to a lookout point that peers across a martian landscape towards Pinnacle Rock. At the base of this rock you will find beautiful white sand beaches with sea lions and Galapagos Penguins. The south side of this island is where sea turtles will come to lay their eggs from January to March.
Like many other islands in the Galapagos, North Seymour was uplifted by underground seismic activity. Its location just north of Baltra makes this one of the most visited islands in the Galapagos, with visitors coming for day trips from Puerto Ayora as well as on scheduled cruises. North Seymour is home to the largest nesting ground of magnificent frigate birds and a great place to see the males display their large red pouches in hopes of attracting a mate. This is also a place with an abundance of sea lions, land iguanas and blue footed boobies.
Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat)
Located about 200 meters off the southern coast of Santiago, Sombrero Chino is a small yet interesting island. It receives its name due the coned shape of its lava formations. A visit to this island usually includes a “panga” ride to a beautiful, white, crescent shaped beach from where you can walk along the shores or snorkel in a protected channel. The sea life along these rocky shores is quite diverse and you will have the opportunity to see a variety of fish, Manta Rays and possibly white tipped sharks.
Espanola (Hood Island)
This is the southernmost island in the Galapagos and home to the greatest number of endemic species in the Archipelago. On Punta Suarez you will find the famous seasonal breeding grounds that serve nearly the world’s entire population of waved albatross. Colonies of Nazca and Blue Footed boobies nest along the trails. On Gardner Bay sea lions play on the pristine stretch of white sand beaches. The waters around Tortuga Rock off shore make for great snorkeling.
Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos and one of the main visitor centers, in part due to the airport located on the nearby island of Baltra. The town of Puerto Ayora is where you will find the Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galapagos National Park Service. Almost all cruises will make a stop here.
The landscape on Santa Cruz gradually changes as you move up in elevation through all seven vegetation zones found in the Galapagos. As you travel into the highlands of Santa Cruz the vegetation becomes more and more lush. The higher altitudes have more humidity and sustain a mucher greater variety of plant life. This highlands are also home to a giant tortoise reserve (on a private farm), as well as some of the largest lava tubes in the Galapagos.
Located just south of Santiago, Rabida is known for its beautiful landscapes and the remarkable red coloring of the earth. This color comes from the oxidation of the iron rich lava that makes up this island’s soil. A few minutes walk from the beach, you will find a small lagoon of brackish water, lined with opuntia cactus and Palo Santo trees, which once served as a gathering place for flamingos. While flamingos no longer appear in this lagoon, Rabida is home to an array of bird species, including 9 varieties of finches, brown pelicans, Galapagos white-cheeked pintail ducks and Galapagos hawks.
Located on the southern edge of the archipelago, Floreana retains a local population of approximately 100 people and was one of the earliest islands to be inhabited. In 1793 a post office barrel was constructed to maintain contact with Europe and the United States and to this day is a popular place to leave outgoing mail. North of Post Office Bay is Punta Cormorant, a steep lava cone, joined to the main section of the island by a low-lying strip of land. At the high point of the trail that ascends this volcanic cone you will be able to look down into a large lagoon that serves well for bird watching as well as the occasional glimpse of Flamingos.
About 250 meters north of Floreana is Devil’s Crown, a small but interesting island that is home to abundant marine life. This island is the remains of an extinct, collapsed volcano. While the waters outside of this crown can be strong and tumultuous, the inner part of the crown is calm and filled with many schools of fish, sea lions and a variety of coral formations. A great place for snorkeling.
Darwin Island was, not surprisingly, named after Charles Darwin and is one of the smallest islands in the archipelago. Measuring just one square kilometer and without any dry landing sites, Darwin’s main attraction is the immense quantity of sealife in the surrounding area. Located northwest of all the large islands, Darwin has become one of the premier scuba diving destinations in the Galapagos.
Named after the German geologist Theodor Wolf, this island is one of the least visited in the Galapagos. With the Galapagos National Park restricting landings on the island, it is almost exclusively visited by dedicated scuba diving departures. Divers are able to swim with Hammerhead, Galapagos and Whale Sharks, as well as Manta Rays and dolphins.