Top islands to visit in the Galapagos
Jaw-dropping, secluded and home to some of the most bizarre and fascinating creatures on the planet, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands really do feel like another world.
Only four of the thirteen major islands have full-time residents. And many of the smaller islands are only accessible via cruise tours, or as a day trip from one of the inhabited islands.
Here’s an overview of the most popular islands:
The main town in San Cristóbal, Puerto Baquerizo, is the capital of the island chain and home to an airport, government offices, and a university. As it’s the second most populated island, you’ll also find plenty of ATMs, shops, markets and places to eat. Enjoy sea lion sightings along the coast at Cerro Brujo, visit the nearby freshwater lagoon to spot flamingo, and stop at the tortoise breeding area in the highlands.
San Cristóbal has the only source of permanent freshwater found in the Galápagos – El Junco, located in the highlands. There are also a few beachy spots, including coves like Isla Lobos, Ochoa Beach, Punta Pitt, and Sapho Bay, where you’ll see big holes in the sand, left by people searching for buried treasure.
By size, Santa Cruz is the second-largest island, but by population and activity, it is the main hub of the archipelago. Inhabited by around twelve thousand people, it has many facilities including ATMs, supermarkets, plenty of restaurants and a shopping area, all in the main town of Puerto Ayora. People generally either stay overnight and explore the island or continue on to a cruise ship docked in the harbour. This is where nearly all boat tours depart from.
This island is a large extinct volcano and features Los Gemelos—the island’s twin volcanic craters. There’s also a gigantic lava tunnel spanning over two thousand meters, that you can visit and even walk through.
It’s home to beautiful natural landscapes like Las Grietas, a natural swimming hole located between two lava rock formations and Tortuga Bay, a gorgeous white sand beach where you can look out for both giant turtles and reef sharks around the mangrove. Be sure to check out Bachas Beach for snorkelling and swimming and Black Turtle Cove for sea life sightings. Cerro Dragon is a popular bird-watching spot and on this island, you’ll find the Charles Darwin Research Station which is a scientific research and environmental education centre for conservation.
Floreana is quite the opposite of Santa Cruz, with less than three hundred inhabitants and a few token guest houses and restaurants. If you’re visiting from a cruise ship, you likely won’t visit the main town on the island and as a rule, you can’t stay overnight here. However, you can experience the amazing landscape, wildlife and incredible snorkelling spots at Devil’s Crown and Champion Islet. Explore Cormorant Point’s two beaches—one has unusual green sand and the other is made of coral., and learn about the island’s mysterious history and pirate caves up in the highlands.
Floreana has a unique tradition with its ‘Post Office,’ a barrel located in the main port where visitors can leave a postcard addressed to themselves or someone else. The idea is that if another visitor is travelling to or lives close to the addressed person, they will hand-deliver your postcard to them. Similarly, you check to see if there are any near to where you are headed and can return the favour. This system has been known, on occasion, to be faster than standard international mail!
Although it’s the largest of the islands in terms of landmass, Isabela doesn’t have a big population, with only around two thousand people. The urban centre has a very different feel than say, Santa Cruz, because it’s still evolving and developing. It still features decent restaurants and facilities, but overall, it has a relaxed coastal vibe with a long stretch of beach right off the main town.
There is a lot to see and do here though, from history, wildlife, nature and research. The island’s seahorse shape is the product of six large volcanoes merging into a single piece of land. Firstly, it is a great spot for incredible snorkelling, particularly Las Tintoreras, a small island off the coast, where you will find groups of White Tip Reef sharks.
Isabela is home to Sierra Negra, an active volcano, most recently active during the summer of 2018 – and you can hike to the crater. Tagus Cove, is an anchorage site where you can hike for views of Darwin Lake, the bay, and Darwin and Wolf volcanoes. For your animal fix, there’s plenty to look out for: Galápagos Penguins, Flightless Cormorants, Marine Iguanas, pelicans and Sally Lightfoot crabs abound. Not to mention lots of Land Iguanas and Galapagos Tortoises. While you’re here, we also recommend visiting the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre and the flamingo feeding lagoon too.
For a bit of history, you’ll also find the Wall of Tears here, which was built by the prisoners on the island when it was a penal colony in the mid-century.
Also known as South Seymour, this small, flat island hosts an airport – the only one serving the Galápagos until the mid-’80’s (there is now another on San Cristóbal).
On arriving at Baltra, all visitors are transported by bus to one of two docks. The first dock is located in a small bay where the boats cruising the Galápagos pick up passengers. The second is a ferry dock that crosses the Itabaca Channel from Baltra to Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz.
This is one of the oldest islands in the archipelago and is located two hours south of San Cristóbal. From SC you can do a day trip, but It’s usually visited by those on a boat cruise. It’s approximately twenty-five square miles in size and quite flat.
It has a beautiful white sand beach at Garden Bay, which is home to plenty of sea lions for you to hang out with, plus schools of tropical fish. The remote island has great snorkelling spots at Tortuga Rock and Garden Island, where you can spot white-tip reef sharks. Don’t miss a visit to the many bird colonies at Punta Suraez, with one of the richest wildlife landing sites in the archipelago, particularly for keen birders as it’s popular with the striking Waved Albatross.
Hugging the west coast of Isabela, Fernandina is the third largest and youngest of the islands, and you can only day trip to the island, arriving by boat.
One of the most ‘otherworldly’ of the Galápagos Islands, Fernandina is home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world – it has erupted more than twenty times since the early nineteenth century – so its surface is a layer of lava rocks. This gives it an unusual and almost eerie feeling. This, along with the enormous numbers of Marine and Land Iguanas give visitors a sense of being totally out-numbered in a remote, wild and almost prehistoric setting.
Fernandina is also home to the largest population of Flightless Cormorants. With no natural land predators, over time, these birds lost their ability to fly, so they get all of their food underwater. As a result, they have fantastic diving and swimming skills. You’ll also come across a number of shallow pools on the beaches, where you can spot crabs, herons and green sea turtles.
Did you know?
Remember the amazing video from BBC’s Planet Earth II, where a young marine iguana escapes from a group of terrifying snakes? That was filmed on the island of Fernandina.
This small, uninhabited horseshoe island is located in the northern part of the archipelago. Also known as “Bird Island,” any guesses as to what you’ll find here? Yes, birds! But not just any birds. Here, you’ll find some of the Galapagos’ rarest birds, from Red-footed Boobies and Wedge-rumped Storm Petrels to Frigates, Lava and Swallow-tailed Gulls. Oh, and not forgetting Short-eared Owls which you can see at the Prince Phillip’s Steps visitor site. There’s also a small, white coral sand beach in Darwin Bay that leads to a tidal lagoon, home to nesting birds. Try to get under the water here too, as lots of shark species linger here, especially hammerheads.
Named after naturalist and lifelong friend of Charles Darwin, Sir Bartholomew James Sulivan, this is one of the smallest islands, located to the east of Santiago and north of Santa Cruz and Baltra. It’s possible to take a boat service from Puerto Ayora, on a day trip to Bartolomé. An extremely popular destination for visitors to the Galápagos, here is one of the best examples of “good things come in small packages,” being it’s around just 0.5 miles in length. It can also be part of a boat-based island cruise itinerary too. The highlight here is the famous Pinnacle Rock.
The island has two visitor sites; two beaches separated by a narrow band of mangroves. At the first one, the Northern Beach, you can swim and snorkel with the penguins, marine turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, and other tropical fish. At the southern beach, it is easy to spot reef sharks and rays, as well as green turtles that tend to nest here from January to March. A small cave behind Pinnacle Rock houses a breeding colony of Galápagos penguins and Bartolomé is the mating and nesting site for the green turtles. Climb to the top for spectacular views – but be ready for the steps!
One of the central islands, Santiago, is also one of the larger Galápagos Islands, covering an area of over two hundred square miles. Many moons ago it was a popular spot for tortoise-eating pirates and later, there were attempts to colonise it, but there are no permanent residents today.
Puerto Egas is one of the best Santiago Island highlights and is one of the best places to spot the Galápagos fur seal. With a long shoreline of lava and nearby rock pools, it’s a lovely setting to spot the quirky flora and fauna. Here, you’ll find flamingos, marine iguanas, sea turtles, sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, as well as dolphins and sharks.
Santiago is also home to one of the Galápagos most striking beaches, Playa Espumilla. Here, you can also go in search of the flamingo and sea turtle nesting sites among its mangroves. The island has a salt crater, snorkel spots, tidal pools at James Bay and towering cliff wall rock formations at Buccaneer Cove – you won’t be short of things to do.
There are also two tiny islands to the south of Santiago that we think are definitely worth exploring—Chinese Hat and Rabida. Chinese Hat is known for the snorkelling off its white-coral sand beach and Rabida has a red sand beach, pelican nesting site, and saltwater lagoon filled with Palo Santo trees. Divers, take note! You’ll find seven marine dive sites nearby, mainly to the north, and to the southeast of the island.
Formed from an uplift (rather than a volcano) Santa Fe (also known as Barrington Island) means the island is quite flat compared to some of the other islands.
Here, you’ll find a picturesque bay which is nice for a casual swim with some curious sea lions. Take an amble, and you’ll find a dense forest of the giant Opuntia cactus. This provides fodder for one of the endemic species, the Land Iguana, which has specially evolved features, like a super tough tongue that allows it to eat the cactus – spines and all.
There are three dive sites on the north and east sides of Santa Fe. Sea lions are the main attraction here. You can see fish, sea turtles and rays but the somewhat elusive Galápagos sharks are also often seen at the East Coast.
This small and fairly low-lying island is a cracking place for breeding seabirds. It’s home to swarms swallow-tailed gulls and blue-footed boobies, as well as one of the largest colonies of bizarre-looking frigatebirds. These guys are also known as “pirates” of the bird world here and are infamous for their thieving ways.
At the beautiful Bachas beach, you can snorkel along a protected cove where you can find large schools of fish, sharks, sea lions, rays, and turtles. Make a pit-stop at a small nearby lagoon to watch feeding flamingos. North Seymour has a visitor trail just over a mile in length, which allows you to cross the inland of the island and explore the rocky coast.
South Plaza is a small island off the east coast of Santa Cruz that was created by lava up-streaming from the bottom of the ocean. Despite its small size, it’s home to tons of species and is known for its amazing flora. Depending on the season, the ground vegetation changes its colour from green in the rainy season to a striking orange and purple in the dry season. Cast your eyes skyward to take in the birds and take in the landscapes to spot the hybrid iguanas as both the land and marine species live here and have generated a new breed.
Viva Evolution of the Species!