Which Galapagos Islands Are Best to Visit? Finding The Animals
Ecuador's Galápagos Islands comprise a national park unlike most others: To visit the majority of sites, you are required to be escorted by a pedigreed guide and travel by boat. This is an environment famous for being mostly unspoiled by human interaction. To preserve that rarity, most Galápagos tours use a ship as a floating hotel, cruising overnight to new locations and filling itineraries with one or two islands per day.
There are more than a dozen principal islands in the Galápagos, each one populated with its own menagerie of uniquely evolved animals. Seeing everything could take weeks, but most visitors spend about a single week exploring the highlights.
How to decide which islands to see?
The Galápagos Islands are a complex ecological wonderland. There are overlaps in endemic wildlife populations and also some seasonal variations to consider. But we can simplify your decision-making process as much as possible. Here's what each island is best known for—and a must-see selection of the spots you absolutely cannot miss. When you are appraising Galápagos cruise itineraries, make sure you choose the one that takes you to the places you want to see the most.
Pictured above: Bartolomé (Sullivan) Island
When you fly into the Galápagos, which takes about 90 minutes from mainland Ecuador, you usually land on Baltra, sometimes called South Seymour—most of the islands have alternate names from the past. There's not much to see on Baltra except the ruins of a World War II military base (the reason the main airport is here).
Joined by a short bridge to Baltra, the island of Santa Cruz (sometimes called Indefatigable after a British frigate that visited once in 1815) is where you find the largest settlement in the islands, Puerto Ayora. Of the few places to overnight that aren't boats, this sleepy and conventional harbor town is where many tour cruises start and end.
There are a few diversions on Santa Cruz to keep you occupied before your cruise officially begins. Tortuga Bay, not far from town, is one of the few traditional beaches in the islands, and one of the only ones where you can roam unsupervised. Observe black turtles lay eggs in January and February and see them hatch if you're around in April and May. People also pass the time by visiting the giant tortoises (pictured above) at the conservation hub of Charles Darwin Research Station and romping through old lava tubes that were created by the local active (but quiet) volcano. There are giant tortoises on the islands of Isabela, Floreana, and Pinta as well, though, so don't fret if you don't have time to see the lumbering reptiles here.
It's possible to come to Puerto Ayora and hit up the travel agencies along the main street (pictured above) until you find a discounted berth on a last-minute weeklong boat tour. You can save thousands, but if you try it, you do run the risk of coming up short for days or weeks.
If you're super-broke and can't afford to book a boat at all, you can still come to Puerto Ayora to explore Santa Cruz and pick up a few short-range guided day tours by boat; excursions to the islands of Floreana and Bartolomé are frequently offered from here. But farming, colonialism, and war have left too much of a mark on this island. The life-changing natural richness that you came for lies just over the water. The best of the Galápagos simply requires a bigger budget.
Only four islands here are inhabited, and even those aren't built up much. Still, the presence of humans on Floreana means it's not untouched, and being able to see animals that have never had to deal with human disruption is the point of coming to this part of the world. Post Office Bay, a very old mail drop where whalers used to pick up messages from the civilized world, makes for a touristy snapshot for mass-market cruise passengers. In fact, that sight is about as touristy as it gets in these parts. The highlands also have some old caves that are attached to vague stories about pirates—those tales are cool and fun, but hardly centered on the miracle of untouched nature. For these reasons, you shouldn't feel too bad if Floreana isn't on your ship's itinerary.
What Floreana does have is one of the main colonies of Galápagos petrels, a critically endangered seabird that spends most of its time far from land. Look for persnickety sally lightfoot crabs (pictured above) found skittering around crevices throughout the islands—the lurid orange coloring of these crustaceans really pops when photographed against dark volcanic rock.
Some of the islands' best snorkeling is in the clear, coral-filled water of Devil's Crown, an eroded volcanic cone. Tiger snake eels, colored fish, and sea turtles are inside, hammerhead sharks outside. The area can only be accessed as part of an overnight cruise.
While all of these islands brim with chance animal encounters that will burn up the last byte of free memory in your camera, there's probably one photo that nearly every visitor to the archipelago will share in common: Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé (pictured at the very beginning of this feature).
The volcanic formations here are imposing and otherworldly—some of the lava rocks are so full of gas bubbles that when you pick the rocks up, they're light. On a geologic basis alone, the island would qualify as a world landmark. The 365-step staircase to the viewpoint will probably present the most physical exertion you'll experience on your cruise, but the panorama, which will make you grateful that your life made it possible for you to come to this place, is worth the heavy breathing.
But that's not the limit of Bartolomé's appeal. It's also home to a colony of the rare Galápagos penguin—it's even possible to snorkel along the shore (pictured) as the little birds frolic at quicksilver speed in the water around you. Green sea turtles nest here from January to March.
Sooner or later, all visitors ask their guides where 22-year-old Charles Darwin made his world-changing observation about the specific adaptations of the beak of the finch, a detail that eventually fueled his theory of natural selection. (He kept his idea a secret for nearly two decades, afraid that publishing it would cause people to doubt God.)
That island is Daphne Major, a treeless volcanic cone found between Santa Cruz and Bartolomé, not far west from the airport on Baltra. The average tourist can't go here—it's set aside for scientific research. But keep your eyes peeled; most guides will point out Daphne Major as you pass.
Here's a fact that will send shivers down a naturalist's spine: When he was here, Charles Darwin lived mostly off tortoise meat fried in tortoise fat. "The Breast-plate with the meat attached to it, is roasted as the Gauchos do the carne con cuero," he wrote in his diary, recalling his previous adventures in South America. "Young Tortoises make capital soup."
Those were different times. If you try to repeat Darwin's diet in the Galápagos today, Ecuador will put you in prison for so long that you'll have time to evolve, too.
The biggest of the island group (on maps, it's the one shaped like a seahorse facing west), the dry and harshly volcanic Isabela is more than 60 miles long. Darwin came here, too. As his journal records, "We here have another large Reptile in great numbers. . . . They have a ridge & spines along the back; are colored an orange yellow, with the hinder part of back brick red. They are hideous animals; but are considered good food: this day forty were collected."
If you only went by Darwin's diary, you'd think this was a culinary tour.
For everyone's sake, try to suppress your appetite when you spot a specimen of what he was raving about: the endemic and reportedly delicious redheaded lava lizard. You'll also find five types of tortoise and the awkwardly adorable flightless cormorant, a bird so big that it can't fly—but it is a fierce swimmer. Some of the finest kayaking in the region is found among the mangroves of Elizabeth Bay. In the waters to the west, humpback whales congregate.
Sun-battered North Seymour is all about seabirds. Many visitors consider it one of the most exciting stops, particularly because of the highly photogenic blue-footed boobies (pictured above) that nest on the ground. They're all over the islands, but this is one of the best areas for them. It's best to see the birds and their ritual courtship dance when they're breeding in July and August.
North Seymour is also a good place to get a good look at the magnificent red pouches inflating the necks of the frigatebird (so is the next stop on our list).
One great thing about touring the wild parts of these islands is that a naturalist guide is required to accompany you at all times. Prospective guides can't take the job until they're vetted by the government, so they know how to explain all flora and fauna to you and you'll pretty much always have a chance to learn about everything you see.
If you don't come away from your visit to the Galápagos without a few shots of the magnificent frigatebird (yes, that's its name—Fregata magnificens) inflating its gular pouch to attract females, you'll feel like you missed your postcard moment. It doesn't take much time watching the birds to realize that pouch might actually be more effective at attracting photographers than mates.
Fortunately, sightings are common on Genovesa, a smaller isle known for its impossibly rich bird life. This is fertile ground for terns, petrels, red-footed boobies, and Darwin finches. Trained birdwatchers might even glimpse a swallow-tailed gull, but that takes luck because it's the only nocturnal gull species in the world.
Some visitors fly into the airport here. The island's Puerto Baquerizo Moren is the second-largest town in the Galápagos. While a fair number of tour boats depart from here, Puerto Ayora has more options.
Punta Pitt, on the northeast shore, is one of the only places you can see the red-footed booby again. You can also spot more magnificent frigatebirds nesting in the cliffs near sunbathing sea lions and Galápagos seals.
Nearly everywhere, marine iguanas (pictured above) loaf on the shore. Stand clear, because these algae eaters are constantly clearing salt from their systems by indiscriminately launching snot rockets from their nostrils. It's adorably disgusting.
A lot of the creatures you can spot on San Cristóbal can also be seen on other, uninhabited islands, so many itineraries don't stop here.
Only two Galápagos islands have never been invaded by invasive mammals: Genovesa (the previous, bird-rich isle on our list) and Fernandina. Native rodent species on the other islands were pushed out when sailors brought rats with them, but the rice rats endemic to this tiny speck are still extant and able to be observed if you're sharp-eyed.
Fernandina isn't always on tour itineraries because it's the westernmost of the island group and so takes more time to reach (you'll increase your chances if you fly into San Cristóbal instead of Baltra). If you can get here, you'll see what many naturalists consider to be the most pristine of the bunch.
The cold-water channel between Fernandina and Isabela is impossibly rich with marine life, so the shores teem with snorting masses of marine iguanas and sea lions, plus penguins, manta rays, and sharks.
At Espinoza Point, photographers revel in capturing one of the best nesting areas for the fantastic, blue-eyed flightless cormorant (pictured above). Because their habitat includes no predatory land mammals that would require them to escape to the air, the birds evolved away from the ability to fly, and now their wings are too short for the job—but don't underestimate these unique creatures. They can dive to the ocean floor to survive on octopus and eels.
Welcome to sea lion central: More than 50,000 of them live here—barking, bickering, sleeping, birthing, swimming, and stinking of fish. Breeding happens from mid-August to mid-November, one pup at a time.
Mixed among the sea lions are more marine iguanas and plenty more sally lightfoot crabs. A flock of flamingos have taken up residence in the pond that formed in an abandoned salt mine. You might also see the elusive Galápagos fur seal. It's distinguished from a sea lion by its bulging eyes and ears.
The black sand beach of Puerto Egas in James Bay is a popular stop. In fact, because Santiago was already somewhat altered by human use in the distant past, it's one of the few places where boat crews are permitted to join you ashore to stretch their legs and do their own thing.
Just off Santiago to the south, Rábida may be a speck on the map, but it's big on unique beauty. The red sand beaches—left by volcano that spewed iron-rich rocks—are instantly recognizable, and geologists rhapsodize over the rest of the island's wide variety of formations.
But most people remember their time on Rábida because of its wealth of birds, including pelicans, doves, mockingbirds, and flamingos, as well as some super-rare species, such as white-cheeked pintail ducks, yellow warblers, and nine types of Darwin finches. Plus, you'll see more sea lions. In fact, these doglike loafers will be pretty much everywhere you go on this vacation.
On Santa Fe, land iguanas can grow to be as large as 5 feet long, but don't be afraid. Because humans are forbidden to touch any of the animals in the islands, the lizards know no fear of humankind. You're essentially invisible to them, and they won't touch you.
Besides, they don't eat people. It's Opuntia cactus, aka prickly pear cactus, that iguanas want, and they find it all over the place. There are 14 varieties of the plant endemic to the parched archipelago, and many of them have evolved to pollinate themselves to keep the line going. In these islands, even something as simple as a cactus can teach some fascinating lessons about natural selection: Local tortoises evolved unique shells that allow their necks to reach high enough to eat the plant's pads.
Keep your eyes peeled for the Galápagos hawk—there are estimated to be only about 150 breeding pairs in the world, and many of them live on Santa Fe.
Because spotting the Galápagos hawk in person can be so unusual, here's a shot of a few hanging out on Opuntia cactus on Santa Fe.
The hawk, which is thought to be a newcomer to the islands (it's only been here about 300,000 years), really doesn't like people. If a human touches a nest, the bird will abandon it. Interestingly, males are monogamous and do most of the nurturing—females can mate with as many as seven partners in a season. Scientists call this arrangement cooperative polyandry. Humans call it something else.
South Plaza sticks out in the memory (and in the photo album) because of its distinctive look: Opuntia cactus and Sesuvium carpet weed cover the lava rock like a distinctive red bedspread.
This is the the only place in the islands where marine iguanas (which dive for food) and land iguanas (which forage for cactus) cohabitate. It's also where bachelor sea lions are banished, so it's important to avoid rogue males by heeding the instructions of your guide.
Because South Plaza is such a tiny island, stops here tend to be short and sweet. There's a North Plaza Island, too, but it's only for researchers.
Española, the southernmost island, is synonymous with the spectacular waved albatross (pictured above), which has a wingspan that can surpass 8 feet. This island is the bird's breeding ground—all of the world's estimated 12,000 pairs live here. They're away at sea from January to March and return to lay eggs in the spring. Their elaborate courtship dance, a goofy but precise 20-minute spectacle involving clacking bills, wiggling, honking, and whistling, is probably the most touted of all the animal mating rituals on the islands. You stand a chance of catching the routine whenever the birds are in residence, but October is the peak month.
The waved albatross is the superstar here, but Española features plenty of appearances by a strong supporting cast, including blue-footed boobies, the Nazca booby (a large, masked seabird), sea lions, and red and green marine iguanas.
Guides may also point out the way the sea surges through the island's impressive volcanic blowholes. Humans are allowed in the safer waters nearby for snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming—but allow us to be the first to warn you that the ocean runs cold in these parts, so you'll be much more comfortable if you wear a wetsuit (check ahead to see if your boat will provide one—you'd be wise to bring your own snorkel, mask, and fins).
Are these the only notable creatures and plants? Are these the only places worth going? Absolutely not. The Galápagos Islands have been evolving for millions of years, and they're so complex that people have spent lifetimes trying to understand the islands without even scratching the surface.
So please accept this oversimplified celebration as it's intended, and use it to fire your desire to visit and learn for yourself.
And don't be like Charles. Please don't eat the animals. They would never eat you.
Pictured above: a Galápagos seal on San Cristóbal