Every island in the Galápagos has its own allure. The more time you have, the richer your experience will be, but even if you have only a few days, with proper planning you'll come home with a lifetime of memories. When you're choosing a tour operator, you should always examine the itinerary. Note that 7-day trips often make frequent stops at Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal to collect and drop off passengers. The best trips head out to far-flung places, such as Genovesa, Española, and Fernandina, and spend only 1 day docked in Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz. To help you decide which trip might be best for you, here's a list of what each island has to offer.
Santa Cruz -- You will most likely begin and end your trip to the Galápagos on Santa Cruz. If you plan to arrange your trip on your own, you should use Santa Cruz as your base. The main city here, Puerto Ayora, is a bustling and attractive little harbor and burg, with a variety of small hotels, restaurants, gift shops, and tour operators. If you're looking for a luxury hotel getaway, this island offers the only such options on the Galápagos, with both the Royal Palm Hotel and Finch Bay Hotel. This island is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where you can observe tortoises firsthand. Tours of the island include stops at Los Gemelos (The Twins), two sinkholes that stand side by side. As you walk around Los Gemelos, you will have a good chance of spotting the beautiful vermilion flycatcher. Some companies will take you to a farm in the highlands, where you can see tortoises in the wild. It's exciting to see these enormous creatures crawling about, but I must warn you, it's either hot and sunny up here or cool and drizzly (depending on the seasons). After you see the tortoises, the tour continues on a long, boring hike to a small, unattractive lake. If you can, try to turn back after you see the tortoises. Finally, most trips make a stop at the lava tubes, where you can wander though underground tunnels created by the movement of hot lava. On the north side of the island is Cerro Dragon, which is a great place to see the unique Galápagos land iguana.
Bartolomé -- Bartolomé (or Bartholomew) is famous for its dramatic vistas and barren volcanic landscape. The most common anchorage here is near the oddly shaped Pinnacle Rock. From here, you can climb 372 steps of a wooden walkway to reach the top of an extinct volcano. The vigorous but technically easy climb is a lesson in volcano geography, with cooled-off lava flows and parasitic spatter cones visible along the route to the main cone. On the way up, you will see lava cactuses and lava lizards. The view from the lookout up top is beautiful, with Pinnacle Rock below you. Be sure to ask your guide to pick out a few of the lava rocks to show how light they are. This island has one of the larger colonies of Galápagos penguins, and many snorkelers have spotted penguins off this island.
San Cristóbal -- Most boats only stop on San Cristóbal to pick up and drop off passengers. Still, the island's main town, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, is a pretty little port, with an attractive waterfront walkway, or Malecón. The main attraction on the island is the Centro de Interpretación (Interpretive Center), a small, interesting museum with exhibits on the natural, human, and geological history of the island. If you spend any time on San Cristóbal, you will probably stop at El Lobería, a pretty beach with sea lions, red crabs, and colorful lava gulls. It's also worth visiting La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, a natural giant-tortoise reserve. If you sail into or out of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, you will probably pass through Kicker Rock -- a unique rock formation set about 1.5km (1 mile) offshore. Take note of San Cristóbal's fishing and commuter craft at anchor; many are ringed with strands of barbed wire to keep off sea lions. Boats without the barbed wire almost always have one or two of these large sea mammals lounging around on the aft deck or sunning on the prow.
Santiago -- Also called James Island, Santiago was a major base where early buccaneers and pirates stocked up on fresh water and food. Santiago is also a case study in the potential destruction caused by introduced species. Supposedly a couple of pairs of feral goats, left here as a future source of food by buccaneers in the 18th century, reproduced to the point where they numbered over 100,000. Recent efforts have greatly reduced the size of the herds of wild goats, but they are still wreaking havoc on certain native species, including giant tortoises. Most of the sea lions in the Galápagos are California sea lions. But on Santiago Island, you will have the chance to see the only endemic species of sea lion in the Galápagos, which is incorrectly called the Galápagos fur seal. After you see the fur seal, you will have an opportunity to take advantage of the excellent snorkeling here. If you're lucky, you'll see sea turtles. The island is also full of coastal birds such as great blue herons, lava herons, oystercatchers, and yellow-crowned night herons.
Española -- May through December, albatrosses settle down here to mate and take care of their young. In May and June, if you arrive early in the morning, you can witness the beak-cracking mating ritual of the albatross. Later in the season (Sept-Dec), you can see the little chicks. There must be some sort of aphrodisiac on this island because this is also a great place to see blue-footed boobies doing their mating dance, where the male extends his wings and lifts his beak at his prospective mate. If the female likes what she sees, she mimics her suitor.
Fernandina -- This is the westernmost island in the archipelago, and one of the best for wildlife encounters. The largest colony of marine iguanas lives here. These cold-blooded animals hug and cuddle with each other to warm up after swimming. Flightless cormorants also inhabit the island; even though these birds can't fly (they are the only flightless cormorants in the world), they still dry their wings in the sun, just like their flying ancestors used to do millions of years ago. At something around 1 million years of age, Fernandina is the youngest of the Galápagos Islands, and one of the most volcanically active. Major eruptions here were recorded as recently as 1995.
Isabela -- Just to the east of Fernandina, this is the largest island in the Galápagos, formed by the volcanic activity and eventual joining of six different volcanoes -- five of which are still active. Darwin's Lake provides an excellent backdrop for dramatic photos of the sea. The island is home to several different species of the giant Galápagos land tortoise, which can commonly be seen in several protected areas. Isabela is particularly prized by bird-watchers; owing to its size, the island has a high species count. One of the common species here is the flamingo, found in its namesake Pozo de los Flamingos (Flamingo Pond), close to the main town of Puerto Villamil. Among the main attractions on Isabela is El Muro de Lágrimas (The Wall of Tears), a stone wall that was used as a torture mechanism for prisoners kept in a penal colony here during the mid-20th century. Isabela also has several great hiking and mountain-biking options. Perhaps the most popular is to Cerro Negro (a massive, still active crater often nestled in clouds) and on to Cerro Chico, which offers spectacular panoramic views. In town, you can also see graffiti that dates back to 1836. Tour companies in town, and ships stopping here, usually offer panga (dinghy) rides around Tagus Cove, where you will have the opportunity to see the Galápagos penguins.
Rábida -- Rábida, also known as Jervis Island, has a beautiful red-sand beach that is almost always heavily populated with sea lions. If you get too close to a female or child, the local bull male will probably make his presence known. Just behind the beach is a small saltwater lagoon that is a good place to see flamingos. A small loop trail leads to the top of a hill, with some good views of the island's coastline. In my opinion, the waters off Rábida offer the best snorkeling in the islands. I recently found myself swimming simultaneously with sea lions and penguins here. Unfortunately, I arrived too late in the day, and the marine iguanas weren't interested in joining us; otherwise I would have scored a wonderful trifecta.
Genovesa (Tower) -- Home to Darwin Bay and the popular hiking trail known as "Prince Philip's Steps," Genovesa is located on the far northeastern end of the archipelago. It's a long, often rough sail here, and only the longer tours include a visit to Genovesa. Almost every Galápagos tourist brochure has a picture of a frigate bird puffing up its red neck in an attempt to attract females; on Genovesa you'll have ample opportunities to see these birds in action. This island is also home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies on the archipelago. On another side of the island, you can see masked boobies and storm petrels. If you're lucky, you might spot the elusive short-eared owl -- as these guys don't have predators, they are the only owls in the world that are diurnal. Genovesa is also home to both sea lions and the endemic Galápagos fur seal.
Floreana -- This small island, the first to be inhabited, is rich in lore and intrigue. Today, some 100 people live on this island, which is seldom visited by tourists. If you do come here, be sure to stop at Post Office Bay, where a barrel full of letters and postcards sits on the beach. It's a tradition begun by early whalers: If you see a letter or card addressed to someone in your town or country, you are supposed to carry it and post it from home. In exchange, feel free to leave a letter or postcard of your own for someone else to return the favor.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.