Welcome to the Galapagos

A wildlife paradise

A brief history of the Galapagos

Step aside, humans. The protagonists of the Galapagos Islands’ history are the rare and endemic species that populate this far-flung chain of volcanic islands in the Pacific.

As Charles Darwin discovered on his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1835, the natural history of these dynamic islands reveals the fits and starts of evolution itself.

Humans only arrived on the scene fairly recently, all too often as the villain of the plot. The Islands were discovered by accident, in 1535, when the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, lost his bearings while sailing from Panama to Peru. He reported his discovery to King Charles V of Spain, noting the giant tortoises from which the islands took their name.

16th century Spanish explorers were appalled by the stark volcanic landscape -- the Galapagos is still home to 13 active volcanoes -- calling the islands a hell on earth. Pirates and whalers used the islands opportunistically for centuries, capturing and killing wildlife for survival, with the unfortunate Galapagos tortoise a particularly valued source of a meat.

Set over 13 major islands and more than 100 islets, the Galapagos are some 1,000km from the coast of Ecuador, the country that claimed sovereignty over them in 1832.

Most recently, habitats have been threatened by invasive species introduced by humans, as well as the strains of a growing resident population and tourism trade. 97% of the archipelago was officially designated a national park in 1959, paving the way for the tourism boom that followed.

As part of the carefully-managed tourism model, guests are accompanied by local, certified naturalists guides. These guides bring the natural and human history of the islands to life. Visitors learn about their own complex role in the Galapagos narrative.

Fast facts about Galapagos

  • The Galapagos Islands were among the first group of sites added to the World Heritage List in 1978
  • The archipelago straddles both sides of the equator, about 970km (600 miles) west of continental Ecuador
  • The islands were annexed by Ecuador in 1832 and were originally populated by convicts sent from the mainland
  • 97% of the archipelago’s 18 main islands has been designated as national park and protected area
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Galapagos: Island by island

The Galapagos archipelago comprises six major islands, 14 minor islands, and more than 100 islets. Having emerged from volcanic activity over a huge span of time, each island is unique in its age and natural history. Each one has something a little different to offer visitors. Here are the most accessible islands to visit and a few of their highlights.

Santa Cruz

Puerta Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz island, is the tourist centre of the islands -- tour agencies, airline offices, restaurants, banks and shops line the streets. It’s a stop on most tour itineraries and the place to finalise travel plans, find gifts for friends and family, and sample local cuisine.

  • Hike to Tortuga Bay on a path that ends at beaches perfect for snorkelling
  • The lava tubes in the highlands are some of the largest in the islands
  • The wharf off of the main drag pits the local fish merchants against the sea lions that vie for the daily catch
  • The Charles Darwin Foundation is the original rallying point for scientific and conservation efforts in the islands. Don’t miss the Giant Tortoise Reserve!

San Cristobal

San Cristobal is the provincial capital of the Galapagos. One of the oldest islands, it was Darwin’s first stop on his historic journey. It’s home to government and educational institutions.

  • Puerto Baquerizo Moreno acts as the second tourist centre for the islands. Offices of tour agencies, foundations and branches of banks are open during the week
  • Sapho Bay and the waters around the adjacent Kicker Rock are popular places for snorkelling to see rays, sharks and the occasional hammerhead

Isabela

Originally named Albemarle Island by pirate Ambrose Cowley, Isabela is one of the youngest and largest of the Galapagos archipelago. It was formed by six volcanoes: Sierra Negra, Wolf, Alcedo, Cerro Azul, Darwin and Ecuador. All are active except Ecuador; Wolf erupted most recently in 2015. Sierra Negra last erupted in 2018.

  • Take a horseback ride to the top of the Sierra Negra volcano
  • Spot humpback whales off the western coast of the island from June to September
  • See penguins near Tagus Cove. The cove was a favourite of pirates and whalers; names of ships dating back to 1836 are carved into the nearby cliff sides

Floreana

After being marooned on Floreana in 1805, Irishman Patrick Watkins became the first known Galapagos resident. Post Office Bay is also here, an informal mail system started in the 1700s by whalers. Mail was left for ships returning home in a barrel by those headed out to sea. The tradition lives on today.

  • Leave postcards at Post Office Bay for others to pick up and deliver once home
  • Cormorant Point has two contrasting beaches; a green sand beach caused by olivine crystals and Flour Beach, made from crushed white coral
  • See pink flamingos at the nearby Flamingo Lagoon
  • Watch for green sea turtles nesting on the sands of Flour Beach
  • Take a short hike and a small descent by ladder, leading to a lava tube that extends a few hundred yards underneath the surface
  • Take a panga ride to Gardner Inlet for a view of the large caves and rock formations of the island

Española Island

On this island, you’ll be greeted by colonies of sea lions and lava lizards lounging freely. It’s also known for its nesting sites of blue-footed and Nazca boobies.

  • Hike the Punta Suarez trail to the edge of a cliff overlooking a natural lava blowhole
  • View the waved albatross breeding colony. The world’s population of the species migrates here during April and December. Elaborate mating rituals lead to partnerships for life
  • The white sand beach at Gardner Bay is one of the longest in the islands
  • Sea turtles bury their eggs on the beach during mating season between January and March

Bartolomé

One of the sites used in the film Master and Commander, Bartolomé is famous for Pinnacle Rock, a volcanic outcrop formed after lava erupted from an underwater volcano. The iconic formation was used for target practice by US airmen during WWII, adding to its unique shape.

The colourful scenery of the beaches on either side of Pinnacle Rock is contrasted by the barren landscape of Bartolomé’s interior. It’s often compared to the moon or Mars due to the red lava rocks away from the shore.

  • Climb to the top of the island’s summit, ascending a wooden staircase through the stripped-down landscape where panoramic views await
  • See Galapagos penguins, sea turtles, parrotfish and small sharks in the shallow waters between the landing point and Pinnacle Rock

North Seymour

North Seymour is home to one of the island’s first conservation projects. In the 1930s, the crew of Captain Alan Hancock’s ship transferred 72 land iguanas from the nearby Baltra Island to North Seymour in the hope that the reptiles would fare better without feral goats competing for food. At last count in 2018, there were 5,000 land iguanas on the island.

  • Visit a flamingo lagoon on the isolated Bachas beach
  • Great frigate birds have the largest nesting colony to be found on the islands

Isla Santiago

The fourth largest island in the archipelago and once home to early settlers including pirates and whalers, Santiago Island gives visitors a chance to see amazing lava fields, pristine beaches and a fascinating array of wildlife. Charles Darwin visited the island in 1835 and spent time with a party of Spanish sailors while documenting the islands' flora and fauna. In 2019, more than 1,400 land iguanas were reintroduced to Santiago from North Seymour Island. The event marks the first time the reptiles have lived on the island since Darwin visited.

  • See the black lava fields of Sullivan Bay -- but be careful, the landscape is still hot
  • Snorkel and see fur seals on Puerto Egas
  • Visit Buccaneer Cove, a former pirate shelter that today is a refuge for sharks, sea turtles and sea birds

Fernandina Island

The furthest west islands in the Galapagos, Fernandina Island’s La Cumbre volcano is one of the most active in the archipelago. The landing site of Punta Espinosa puts you on a long stretch of beach where penguins, sea lions, and blue-footed boobies dot the landscape.

  • Explore the volcanic landscape with pahoehoe lava fields stretching from the flanks of La Cumbre
  • Wander the beach and mangroves that are home to the largest marine iguanas in the islands

Genovesa Island

Located in the northeastern Galapagos, Genovesa Island is known as bird island due its incredible number of different species. It’s home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies and is the place to spot great frigate birds, petrels, Galapagos doves, finches, and lava gulls.

  • Visit the tidal pools of Darwin Bay where sea birds hover and marine life flourishes
  • Climb Prince Philip’s Steps, named for the British royal who visited the island. You’ll see red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies and great frigate birds along the way
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Activities on the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands might be most famous for its wildlife, but it’s also a place for getting active.

Snorkelling

Snorkelling in the Galapagos Islands allows for thrilling underwater adventures where a whole new world opens up. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is home to sea lions, green sea turtles, billowing clouds of tropical fish, penguins and sharks.

Bartolomé Island

Bartolomé Island’s iconic Pinnacle Rock is the place to find penguins. These quick-moving swimmers are frequent companions in the bay especially when the Humboldt Current moves in from Antarctica and cools off the water, attracting them in from the western islands.

North Seymour Island and Mosquera Islet

North Seymour Island and the neighbouring Mosquera Islet are home to a large population of sea lions. Snorkelling here puts you up close and personal with these curious creatures and their young pups.

Floreana Island

Off the shores of Floreana Island is the Devil’s Crown -- a partially submerged, extinct volcano where wildlife thrives. Sea turtles, sea lions and even sharks are commonly seen in and around the crater, while seabirds crowd the outlying cliffs.

Isabela Island

Isabela Island’s Los Túneles is a series of pools sheltered from the sea’s currents with interlacing volcanic bridges spanning the depths. The crystal waters are home to decades-old sea turtles, large sea horses, white-tipped reef sharks and thriving schools of tropical fish.

Safety information

The biggest dangers associated with snorkelling in the Galapagos Islands are strong currents and accidentally stepping somewhere you shouldn’t. White tipped reef sharks rest during the day in shallow waters and can be startled. Currents at outlying sites throughout archipelago can be strong even for experienced swimmers.

Scuba diving

Scuba diving in the archipelago puts you face-to-face with hundreds of hammerhead sharks, exploring underwater cliffs and caves, or sharing the water with dolphins and whales. Each site attracts a different crowd, so choose carefully.

Dive shops in Puerto Ayora rent equipment, as do live aboard boats, but most cruises recommend that you bring your own gear to ensure safety and comfort.

Gordon Rocks

Off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, Gordon Rocks is a submerged volcano where the depths reveal hammerhead sharks, rays, and sea turtles. Currents can be strong and swells in the shallows mean that divers need to stay below 40 ft.

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock near San Cristobal Island is one of the best known sites in the islands to see hammerhead sharks. Hundreds gather in the depths here, while the lion-shaped shadow of Kicker Rock towers above you. Kicker Rock is two hours from San Cristobal and you must be accompanied by a guide.

Wolf and Darwin Islands

Only accessible on live aboard cruises, Wolf and Darwin Islands have multiple dive sites where whale sharks, humpback whales and dolphins are found between June and November. Currents can be strong, but the giants of the sea are only found around these two islands.

Safety information

As with snorkelling, currents are the most concerning part of scuba diving. Many recommend that you don’t start diving in the islands, as conditions require experienced divers in most places.

Hiking

Hiking is an everyday part of exploring the islands. Day trips and cruises combine time spent discovering uninhabited islands and snorkelling by sea.

Treks find you on the top of high vistas overlooking scenic bays, walking on trails next to colonies of blue-footed boobies and sea lions, and even hiking up active volcanoes.

Sierra Negra volcano -- Isabela Island

Sierra Negra volcano is one of six that formed Isabela Island. It has the second largest caldera (volcanic crater formed when a volcano falls in on itself) in the world and last erupted in 2018. This is a popular hike that takes you through forests and high above the tree line where views stretch across the crater to the neighbouring islands.

Bartolomé Island

Landing at the beach at Bartolomé Island, the path leads up an ascending set of stairs that take you over the volcanic landscape and to a lookout that spans the bay below. Seen in countless movies and postcard perfect pictures, it’s one of the best views in the archipelago.

Cerro Tijeretas -- San Cristobal Island

Cerro Tijeretas is reached by a short hike past the Interpretation Centre on San Cristobal. The vista offers an amazing view over the bay below and there are trails down to the water and around the area.

The Punta Suarez trail -- Española Island

The Punta Suarez loop trail is a short one mile trail that puts you in the middle of exotic landscapes and beaches. Sea lions, blue-footed boobies and waved albatrosses are found along the trail and towering cliffs frame the landscape and coast.

Safety information

The most common danger when hiking in the islands are sprains and bruises from hiking along rocky trails. Bring sturdy boots as routes are sometimes muddy, and the rocky volcanic rock is difficult to navigate in normal shoes.

Sea kayaking

Kayaking in the Galapagos Marine Reserve puts you on the water exploring the beaches, coves and islets of the islands close up. Paddling along the coast introduces you to the region’s wildlife. Sea turtles swim alongside kayaks, sea lions follow in your wake and marine iguanas dive into the water to join the fun.

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island is considered one of the best beaches in world. While the first section has strong currents, the more sheltered part of the beach has opportunities to kayak against a backdrop of mangroves. This is a great route for those looking for fun away from the fray and wildlife that shies away from the beaten path.

El Garrapatero

Another fun spot on Santa Cruz is El Garrapatero beach, a short taxi ride from Puerto Ayora. After a short hike, the secluded beach opens up and kayaks are available to check out the surrounding waters. There is also a tide pool to snorkel or swim and a lagoon behind the sand where flamingos and finches are often seen.

Tagus Cove

Tagus Cove on Isabela Island was a hideout for whalers and pirates who used the archipelago as a refuge from the Spanish fleet. Kayak trips go up the coast from Puerto Villamil, stopping in the bay to explore and then hiking up to a look out and Darwin’s Lake in the nearby highlands.

Safety information

The most common danger when kayaking off the coast of the islands is capsizing. Waves are sometimes choppy and flipping your boat is easier in these conditions.

Surfing

While there are a collection of surfing spot in the Galapagos Islands, the place to go is San Cristobal. The beaches, their breaks, and the animals found here draw surfers from around the world.

Punta Carola beach

Punta Carola is the number one beach in the Galapagos for world-class surfing. During high tide, waves reach ten feet, but at low tide the surf eases up, making it a great place for beginners to hone their skills.

The beach has two breaks -- the left reef break is good for beginners and the right break near the point is better for more experienced surfers.

Tongo Reef

Reached after a 15-minute walk south from town through a military zone, Tongo Reef is the surf spot for those who want an alternative to the ten foot waves of other beaches, but still want a challenge.

Waves here reach six feet at high tide -- providing thrills for all levels of surfers. Three take-off zones access the break. Bajito and Medio are the place for beginners and intermediate riders, while further out, Pico has bigger waves for expert surfers to push themselves to the limit.

El Cañón

A sought after surf spot for intermediate and advanced riders, El Cañón has a southern swell with six foot waves.

El Cañon is 20 minute walk from Helena's Garden, two blocks before Playa Man. The trail goes through a military base and a passport is required to enter. The biggest waves arrive between November and May.

La Loberia beach

La Loberia beach is within walking distance from town and is a good spot to surf, snorkel, swim and frolic with the friendly sea lion population.

It is a popular place for experienced surfers; the surf can get big at high tide. Waves move at a medium speed -- but when the wind kicks up the water can get too rough to navigate.

Safety information

The Galapagos Islands has a very heavy surf, so it’s not a place for beginners. Breaking your board is a real possibility.

Mountain biking

Mountain biking in the Galapagos gives you a break from organised tours and set plans on cruise ships. Trails and routes take you into the highlands of the inhabited islands and let you stretch your legs while enjoying the lush scenery of the archipelago.

Santa Cruz Highlands

The highlands of Santa Cruz are a popular day trip when visiting the island. Trips combine visiting coffee farms and tortoise reserves with riding by bike to beaches on the coast.

La Soledad to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal

La Soledad is a small lookout in the highlands of San Cristobal with a stunning view of the coast and Kicker Rock. The route takes you past El Progesso, one of the original settlements in the islands. There is a small restaurant at La Ceiba treehouse on the edge of town and a few shops where you can buy water and supplies.

The Wall of Tears -- Isabela Island

The route to the Wall of Tears takes you along the coast and up into the hills of the island. The wall itself is a stark reminder of the Islands’ past -- where prisoners from the mainland toiled to build the wall in a futile effort to appease their jailers. The road along the shoreline is now closed to all but bikers and hikers.

Safety information

The Galapagos Islands’ lack of traffic make it a safe place for cyclists. The biggest danger comes from cyclists’ impact on the local wildlife. Make sure you stay to roads and permitted paths -- never venture off track.

Beaches

The beaches of the Galapagos are exotic retreats where exploring brings you to secluded bays where sea lions and marine iguanas rest, flamingos feed in lagoons, and cool waters beckon to those who want to swim, surf, and snorkel.

Puerto Villamil beach

The beach in front of the sleepy town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela island overlooks the island’s bay. You can see penguins on outcrops and the water is inviting to those who want a dip after a big day of exploring. Small beach side bars and shaded hammocks make it a great spot to relax and unwind far away from the crowds.

Red beach -- Rabida Island

The red sand of the beach on Rabida Island comes from the high iron content in the volcanic rock of the island. Sea lions greet those visiting from cruises on this strange landscape, framed by green cactus and palo santo trees.

Bachas beach, Santa Cruz Island

Bachas beach on Santa Cruz Island is often a stop on day trips to neighbouring uninhabited islands. Its protected bay is a great place to swim, and the nearby lagoons are home to flamingos feeding in the shallow water. The beach is named after two barges that were abandoned by the army after WWII.

Post Office Bay -- Floreana Island

The beach at Post Office Bay is one of the few places that is just as interesting for its human history. Whalers who first visited the island set up a barrel for mail. Those returning from their time at sea would take mail home for those heading out on their long voyage. Today, visitors from cruise ships leave a postcard and take another home to deliver.

Safety information

The wildlife of the Galapagos Islands beaches, though used to human presence, present the most danger in the islands. Male sea lions aggressively protect their harems and young and sealife such as white-tipped reef sharks can be hard to spot in shallow reefs and can react when disturbed.

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Galapagos wildlife

The Galapagos Islands have a unique ecosystem, meaning wildlife has thrived here for centuries. Don’t expect the animals to be shy -- their indifference to your presence is what makes this such a great place to visit.

Killer whale

Orcas, otherwise known as killer whales, are actually members of the dolphin family. As permanent inhabitants of the Galapagos’ waters, they are frequently seen, particularly in the Canal Bolivar between Isabela and Fernandina.

Look out for the orca’s famous black and white colouration as they spyhop through the waters hunting marine mammals and fish.

Where to see killer whales: Canal Bolivar, between Isabela and Fernandina

Galapagos sea lion

Found all over the Islands, there are around 50,000 Galapagos sea lions living in the archipelago. Whether diving to depths of 500 metres, swimming among snorkellers and bathers, or simply lounging on sandy beaches, the sea lion is a favourite among visitors.

Where to see the Galapagos sea lion: Everywhere

Bottlenose dolphin

Although not endemic to the Galapagos, bottlenose dolphins are regular visitors to the Islands. Playful and inquisitive, the dolphins feed in pods of 20 to 30, often swimming alongside cruise ships and yachts.

Look for the dolphin’s short beak and sickle-shaped dorsal fin. However, it will probably be the dolphin’s playfulness that catches your attention.

Where to see the bottlenose dolphin: Everywhere

Galapagos flamingo

The Galapagos flamingo is one of the largest of the world’s five species of flamingo. Feeding on crustaceans and water plants, their distinctive black and pink beaks filter silt and mud from their food.

Found all over the Galapagos, flamingos are generally shy and wary of humans, so viewing them is best done from a distance.

Where to see flamingos: Floreana, Santiago and Santa Cruz

Blue-footed booby

The blue-footed booby is the most popular of the four booby species on the islands, with its distinctive blue feet making it easy to spot. The booby’s blue feet also play a big part in courtship, with female boobies choosing males with the brightest blue. The birds perform an elaborate dance during courtship, beginning with the male giving the female a stick. Boobies often mate for life.

Where to see the blue-footed booby: Española, Genovesa

Galapagos penguin

The Galapagos penguin is the only species of penguin that lives in the tropics and is also the smallest. Endemic to the region, the Galapagos penguin mates for life and swim at speeds of up to 35km per hour when hunting.

In 1982, 77% of the Islands’ penguin population was wiped out after a particularly strong El Niño event. Numbers have been recovering ever since, with the population now around 2,000.

Where to see the Galapagos penguin: Isabela, Fernandina, Bartolomé

Giant tortoise

Perhaps the Islands’ most famous resident is the Galapagos giant tortoise. In fact, the archipelago is even name after the giant tortoise, with Galapagos meaning saddle in Spanish.

The giant tortoise can live for up to several hundred years and its population is estimated at around 20,000 by the Galapagos Conservation Trust.

Where to see giant tortoises: Santa Cruz, Isabela

Land iguana

One of three land lizard species inhabiting the Galapagos, the land iguana is a placid vegetarian despite its fearsome image.

Look out for males engaging in headbutting competitions over territory, or for the relationship with finches who pick ticks off their backs.

Where to see land iguanas: Santa Cruz, Isabela, Fernandina

Marine iguana

Unique among lizards, the marine iguana is the world’s only seagoing lizard. Found only in the Galapagos, the lizards vary in size and colour between islands.

Famously unattractive -- Darwin once called them ‘hideous-looking’ and the ‘most disgusting, clumsy lizards’ -- marine iguanas are actually surprising agile when in water, feeding on algae and seaweed.

Where to see marine iguanas: Everywhere

Green sea turtle

The Galapagos green sea turtle lives in the tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Pacific islands, reaching 1m in length and almost 150kg in weight. The females return to the Galapagos Islands to lay eggs, which incubate for up to 55 days before hatching.

Green sea turtles are often seen surfacing for air in calm water and are often encountered by snorkellers.

Where to see green sea turtles: Santa Cruz, Fernandina, Santiago

Read the full guide

The Galapagos Islands

A guide to responsible wildlife watching