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What to see in the Galapagos Islands

Published 24 May 2016

Angela Griffin

Angela Griffin

For the ultimate wildlife adventure, a cruise on the turquoise waters of the Galapagos Islands is hard to beat. Found 563 miles west of Ecuador, the archipelago is made up of 13 major islands and six smaller ones, with over 100 islets too, some little more than a lonely rock jutting out of the ocean. Home to numerous endemic species, the islands were made famous by Charles Darwin, who used the results of his studies there to write his ground-breaking Theory of Evolution. Today, around 25,000 people live in the Galapagos Islands, with many more coming to see the unique wildlife.

To help you choose which islands to put on your Galapagos must-see list, we’ve summarised the best things to see on each island. Just to confuse matters, most have both Spanish and English names, which often don’t resemble each other at all. Here we’ve put the more common Spanish names first with the English names in brackets.

Flamingos in the Galapagos Islands

Flamingos on Floreana (Charles or Santa Maria)

Floreana was one of the first of the Galapagos Islands to be inhabited when a colony of political prisoners was established here in 1832. Nowadays, the main reason to stop by is Post Office Bay, known for its unusual postal system whereby letters are posted into a barrel and passers-by root through them to see if there are any they can deliver to their homeland. Wildlife-wise, there’s a good chance of spotting stingrays at Devil’s Crown, an underwater volcanic cone where you’ll also find flamingos and nesting sea turtles from December to May.

Isla Isabela, Galapagos

The Cerro Negro Crater on Isabela (Albemarle)

The largest of the Galapagos Islands, Isla Isabela is dominated by the 1,707m peak of Wolf Volcano, the archipelago’s highest point. Hiking and biking among the steaming fumaroles and vents of the mars-like Cerro Negro Crater are popular activities here, especially when the panoramic island views emerge from the mists. Look out for white-tipped reef sharks on the Las Tintoreras Peninsula, also home to turtles, penguins and iguanas, and meet Isabela’s tortoises at the Arnaldo Tupiza Tortoise Breeding Centre.

Blue-footed boobies, Galapagos Islands

Frigate birds, Galapagos Islands

Blue-footed boobies on North Seymour

It may be a small island (just 0.73 square miles) but North Seymour has a lot going on. The highlights here are the blue-footed boobies and the swallow-tailed gulls, but there are also land and marine iguanas, Galapagos sea lions and incense trees to find. Snorkel the clear blue seas to spot various colourful fish as well as white-tipped reef sharks, rays and sea lions, and walk through the cactus forest to find red-billed tropicbirds. Frigate birds, with bright red pouches on their necks, are particularly photogenic favourites.

Galapagos tortoise

Tortoise on San Cristobal (Chatham)

As you cruise into San Cristobal, look out for Kicker Rock, a dramatic rocky protrusion about 1.5 miles offshore. Both Galapagos and hammerhead sharks flock here, so enter the water and see what you can find. On San Cristóbal itself, head to the wildlife-rich Laguna El Junco, the largest freshwater lake in the Galapagos, blessed with large numbers of frigate birds, blue and red-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. For tortoises try the Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center, where you can see both the newly-hatched youngsters and some 100-year-old specimens.

Sally Lightfoot crab, Galapagos Islands

Sally Lightfoot crabs on Santa Cruz (Indefatigable)

There’s plenty to see in Santa Cruz: choose from spotting Darwin finches, woodpeckers, warbler finches and vermillion flycatchers in the misty forests of the Highlands, searching for giant tortoises in the cool cloud forests, or looking for iguanas and Galapagos mockingbirds at Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill), which also offers fabulous views of the bay below. There’s a lovely beach at Las Bachas, just right for swimming, sun lazing or spotting nesting Pacific green turtles. Walk along the soft, bright white sands, or snorkel among the Sally Lightfoot crabs. And don’t miss the dense mangroves of Tortuga Negra Cove.

Sombrero Chino, Galapagos Islands

Penguins on Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat)

The hat-like shape of Sombrero Chino is one of the most recognisable sights of the Galapagos Islands. Actually a volcanic cone, its gently sloping sides rise out of the water to form a lovely crescent-shaped beach, an excellent snorkelling spot. Watch sea lions bask and crabs scuttle and look out for white-tipped reef sharks and Galapagos penguins.

Isla Bartolome, Galapagos Islands

Lava lizards on Bartolomé (Bartholomew)

Bartolomé is one of the most visited islands, mainly for the unusual Pinnacle Rock, a tuff cone created when lava flowed into the sea and exploded. From Pinnacle Rock hike the 372 steps to the top of an extinct volcano, spotting lava cactuses and lava lizards on the way.

Iguanas, Galapagos Islands

The best of the rest

To get off the beaten track in the Galapagos, you’ll need to head to the lesser-known islands. They may not have the gravitas of San Cristobal or Isabela, but there’s still plenty to discover. Try the inquisitive sea lions of Isla Lobos, or the dive-bombing boobies and bright red lava crabs of Isla Mosquera, which look particularly fetching when contrasted against the black lava rocks. The far out location of Espanola and Genovesa (Tower) Islands mean that they are rarely visited, but their remoteness has encouraged the evolution of unique species such as the Espanola marine iguana, the only iguana to change colour in breeding season. Penguin fans should try Isla Fernandina (Narborough) or Isla Rabida (Jervis) which boasts pretty red sands due to its high iron content. Finally, for something even more unusual, look for the endemic vampire finch on Wolf (Wenman) Island, which drinks the blood of passing boobies, who bizarrely don’t seem to mind.

If you're planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands, give our Experts a call to find out more about our tailor-made Galapagos Journeys. Why not try Galapagos Land & Sea, which includes a snorkelling at Kicker Rock and a visit to Sombrero Chino?

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