Galapagos travel guide:
The islands of the Galapagos
All the islands in the Galapagos are volcanic, some actively so, and their scenery is correspondingly varied and often dramatic. Each has its own ecologies supporting different species.
Flights from the mainland arrive in the Galapagos at either Baltra or San Cristóbal. All Galapagos cruises start at these entry points or at Puerto Ayora, which is reached by road from Baltra.
Santa Cruz is the hub of the Galapagos, with the largest town, Puerto Ayora, on its south coast. Travelling from the airstrip at Baltra Island to join a yacht moored at Puerto Ayora you travel across the scrubby interior, passing between The Twins—two large sink holes.
The hub of Galapagos conservation, the Charles Darwin Research Station, with its tortoise conservation and breeding centre is just outside Puerto Ayora.
At Black Turtle Cove, small boats are paddled in a peaceful lagoon fringed with mangroves where pacific green turtles breed between December and April and schools of golden rays and spotted eagle rays fly in formation through the water.
In contrast, Turtle Beach is a white sand beach: brown pelicans nest here and flamingos are sometimes seen.
North Seymour island, just to the north of Baltra, has colonies of blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and magnificent frigate birds.
South Plaza is another island just off Santa Cruz with a shoreline packed with life: sea lions, land iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, opuntia cactus and vegetation that changes colour with the season.
San Cristóbal, supports another small town—Puerto Moreno.
Cerro Brujo offers a long white sand beach, excellent for swimming and snorkelling, plus sea lions, pelicans and boobies.
All three species of booby can usually be found at Punta Pitt.
Just off the north shore, the rocks of Léon Dormida resemble a sleeping lion, and are frequented by tropicbirds, frigatebirds and boobies.
The southernmost island boasts large nesting colonies of blue-footed and Nazca boobies, a colony of endemic marine iguanas, the fabulously chunky waved albatross (one of the heaviest sea birds weighing in at an average 9lbs with a wingspan of 16ft) here from April to December, and spectacular cliffs, all reached from Punta Suarez. There are sea lions, Galapagos doves and Darwin’s finches.
The white sands of Gardner Bay are favoured by sunbathing sea lions, by turtles as a nesting beach, and are home to an endemic mockingbird.
Sands made green by crystals of olivine, a semiprecious stone, greet you as you land at Punta Cormorant. A short walk leads to a view over a large lagoon which is home to the Galapagos archipelago’s largest population of flamingos, plus other waders. Between December and May turtles nest on a white sand beach a short walk away.
Nearby is Devil’s Crown rock, a sunken cone with fabulous snorkelling.
In Post Office Bay, a letter left in a barrel originally placed here in 1793 would be picked out and delivered to its address by sailors going that way: a Galapagos tradition maintained to this day by passing travellers.
The largest island in the Galapagos, with five of the biggest volcanoes. It is mostly barren, but there are some excellent sites to visit around its coast.
Darwin’s Lake, a fine crater lake, and a volcano of the same name are accessible from the impressive natural harbour of Tagus Cove where passing mariners have carved their names since Victorian times.
Trails from nearby Urvina Bay offer good prospects of seeing giant Galapagos tortoises in the wild, plus large colourful land iguanas and flightless cormorants.
At Elizabeth Bay, accessible only by panga, a lagoon sheltered by mangroves is home to turtles, rays, sea lions and penguins.
Punta Moreno has spectacular views of volcanoes and impressive lava flows. Its pristine landscape provides a textbook lesson in early colonisation by pioneer species. Brackish lagoons are filled with life, including dragonflies, gallinules, ducks and very tame flamingos. Many sea birds also visit.
The small settlement at Puerto Villamil has a tortoise captive breeding centre, and flamingos in the nearby lagoon; an excursion from here leads to Sierra Negra—the second largest crater in the world after Ngorongoro.
The westernmost island in the Galapagos, Fernandina is therefore also youngest and most volcanically active: a 1,500m high dome rises above empty lava fields.
Punta Espinosa is a very beautiful promontory with a backdrop of six volcanoes on Isabela. The water is rich in fish with corresponding intense activity from sea birds, dolphins and even whales. Flightless cormorants, marine iguanas in large numbers and Galapagos penguins can be seen from trails.
Santiago offers several good sites and is on many Galapagos boats’ itineraries.
Bartolomé Island provides a view looking back to Pinnacle Rock with Santiago behind it that is one of the most photographed on the archipelago. Lava flows and spatter cones add to the experience. Sea lions patrol the landing site and penguins fly through the water among snorkellers in the bay below.
Sullivan Bay has some fantastic lava formations and is good for snorkelling. There’s a good shoreline walk on the black sands of James Bay and to lava formations where there is a fur seal colony.
Boats enter the spectacular sunken crater of Genovesa, a long sail north of the other islands. There are landings on the white sand beach at Darwin Bay, where rocks and small lagoons make an attractive scene. Birders find Galapagos doves, lava gulls, swallow-tailed gulls, great frigatebirds and three species of finch.
Prince Philip’s Steps, incongruously named after the Duke of Edinburgh, provides one of the few places where fur seals are found; ascending this rockfall leads to a good colony of red footed boobies; masked boobies, short-eared owls and storm petrels are also at home here.
The small island of Rabida has a red beach fronting a saltwater lagoon bordered by mangroves, popular with sea lions. Pelicans nest in bushes by the beach. Around the island are some beautiful snorkelling spots that are great for beginners. 9 species of finch are found inland.
Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat) just off Santiago is only accessible by the smallest yachts through a small channel leading to a picturesque anchorage.
Daphne is a highly restricted but lovely small island where a trail leads from a difficult landing site through colonies of masked boobies to a summit above two craters that are packed in season with nesting blue-footed boobies. Red-billed tropicbirds patrol the skies.
Santa Fé has its own endemic species of land iguana, lava lizards and sea lion colonies. There are good swimming and snorkelling opportunities.
Many islands in the Galapagos have alternative English names, mostly after passing warships and admirals: Santa Cruz is also called ‘Indefatigable’, San Cristóbal is ‘Chatham’, Española is ‘Hood’, Floreana is ‘Charles’, Isabela is ‘Albemarle’, Fernandina is ‘Narborough’, Santiago is ‘James’, Genovesa is ‘Tower’, and Santa Fé is ‘Barrington’.
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