The Galapagos are considered the most bio-diverse islands on the planet. However, although most globetrotters will have a general sense of the islands as a whole, most people will be hard pressed to tell the islands apart unless they’ve already been there on a Galapagos Islands vacation. The simple fact is that although the Galapagos Islands are often considered a single destination to visit on an Ecuador vacation, they are comprised of 13 major islands and 6 smaller islands that all differ in terms of landscape, vegetation, and wildlife.
The common element in the Galapagos is that all the islands were volcanically formed over the course of millions of years. They sit on the equator and generally lack vegetation, looking as much like Mars or the Moon in some cases as other earthly islands. The animals you’ll find here generally do not live anywhere else in the world. All in all, the Galapagos Islands have long been considered biological marvels. Charles Darwin famously visited the Galapagos and used insights he gleamed from their unique fauna and flora to help him formulate his Theory of Evolution. Even today, the islands feel like some of the few spots on the planet where nature truly reigns supreme.
Since a Galapagos Islands vacation continues to be one of the most popular trips to South America, we’ve put together the following guide to help you differentiate between the islands and decide what you want to focus on when you visit. What follows is a write-up on the main islands in the Galapagos, broken down in alphabetical order. Consider this your guide to the Galapagos Islands.
Baltra Island, also known as South Seymour Island, is a small island just to the north of Santa Cruz Island and likely your entry point to the Galapagos as the site of the main airport. While the island is known for its dry, air landscape and prickly pear cactus groves, you won’t spend much time on the island as most trips to the Galapagos will shepherd you to the two main docks upon arrival, where you’ll connect to your cruise vessel or take the ferry to one of the other islands.
Known as Bartholomew Island in its anglicized form, Bartolome Island is a popular spot to visit despite its small size. Located on the east coast of Santiago Island, Bartolome Island is one of the few spots in the world where you can find Galapagos penguins. As well, the island is home to Pinnacle Rock, which makes for an incredible centrepiece to panoramic photos. You’ll also find a golden beach that stretches out alongside Pinnacle Rock. Aside from the beach and the penguins, you’ll be able to cross the volcanic landscape by following the boardwalk; the island has been steadily eroding, so the boardwalk and stairs ensure visitor safety when crossing the island.
Named after Spain and also known as Hood Island, Espanola is the geologically oldest island in the archipelago. At Gardener Bay, you can swim and snorkel through the waters, while at Punta Suarez you can see some of the incredible marine iguanas that live in the islands. In addition to its iguanas and lava lizards, Espanola Island is a great place to visit from March to December due to the waved albatrosses that nest along its shores. As well, the island’s cactus and tortoise populations have rebounded due to aggressive restoration efforts over the past few decades.
Named after King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who laid the foundation for the Spanish Empire when he married Isabella of Castile, Fernandina Island is known for its volcanic activity and flightless cormorants that live on the rocks. If you want to see a volcano erupt during your Galapagos Islands vacation, you should visit Fernandina Island, as it offers your best bet to see one. As well, head to Punta Espinosa to see marine iguanas crowd along the black volcanic rocks.
On Floreana Island, you’ll find some of the earliest remnants of settlement in the Galapagos Islands. Sailors have used the Post Office Barrel in Post Office Bay as a mailbox since the 18th century, close to where the first people settled on the islands. As you explore the island, you’ll learn about the strange disappearances and murders that plagued the first settlers on the island. You’ll also have a chance to see pink flamingos as well as green sea turtles as you snorkel through the waters. Also, be sure to see the Green Beach at Cormorant Point, which has a green tinge due to the high number of olivine crystals in the sand. Just be aware that Floreana’s southernmost position in the islands makes it harder to get to than many of the other islands, so consider staying overnight on to save yourself a hectic day trip by speedboat to and from the island.
As the most northeastern island in the Galapagos, Genovesa Island is great for underwater adventures and birdwatching. At Darwin Bay, you can spot frigate birds and swallow-tailed gulls while you’ll see boobies all across the island. As well, if you head out on the water, you might even come across a sperm whale. The island is also a part of the edge of an underwater volcanic caldera, so the geography along the bottom of the water is certainly eye-catching if you head on a snorkelling adventure while on your Galapagos trip.
As the largest island in the Galapagos and one of the most popular, Isabela Island is sure to attract a lot of your attention on an Ecuador vacation. The seahorse-shaped island is composed of six volcanoes, five of which are active, including Sierra Negra Volcano and Wolf Volcano, which is the highest point in the Galapagos. On land, you can visit the giant tortoise breeding centre outside Puerto Villamil, the island’s main town, or spend your time relaxing on Puerto Villamil’s white-sand beach. The beach is also home to a sea lion colony and a marine iguana nesting site, so you’ll have a chance to see some of the island’s wildlife in addition to enjoying the warm sands. In terms of aquatic wildlife, if you head into the waters of the White-Tipped Reef Shark Channel off the island, you’ll spot sea turtles, marine iguanas, stingrays, and, of course, reef sharks.
Rabida Island is small, but it’s eye-popping, as the high iron levels in the island’s lava have turned the beach a vibrant red. Aside from the red beach, you’ll find white-cheeked pintail ducks and Jervis finches here, as well as plenty of sea lions and pelicans. You can also head through the prickly pear cactus groves on the mainland.
San Cristobal Island
San Cristobal Island is home to the capital of the Galapagos Islands, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and the first island that Charles Darwin visited when he came to the Galapagos. You can learn about the history of the islands at the Interpretation Centre and Museum of Natural History, or climb Tijeretas Hill to enjoy a great view of the island’s frigate bird colony. Aside from the frigate birds, you’ll also find sea lions, giant tortoises, and marine iguanas on the island. You might even catch the frigate birds preening themselves at Laguna El Junco, the largest freshwater lake in the islands.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz is probably the most popular island in the Galapagos since it’s so accessible. Situated in the centre of the archipelago and just to the south of Baltra Island, Santa Cruz is home to Charles Darwin Research Station and the Fausto Llerena Breeding Centre, which focuses on restoring the giant tortoise populations across the islands. Most tours of the islands will take you to the research station and introduce you to the giant tortoises but you can also spend your time here hiking along the famous Twin Craters of the highlands or passing through the lava tunnels that crisscross the island’s volcanic landscape. At Puerto Ayora, you’ll find the largest town in the islands, while at Cerro Dragon you’ll find a lagoon covered in pink flamingos.
Santa Fe Island
Located to the southeast of Santa Cruz Island, Santa Fe Island is not very large, but it does have a lot of wildlife that you can see on a Galapagos Islands vacation. Sea lions colonize the beaches while marine iguanas live along the coast. You can follow the 1.5km hiking trail through the island’s highlands to see the land iguanas and lava lizards that live on the island and keep your eyes peeled for swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds, and shear-water petrels. You’ll also find a prickly pear cactus grove on Santa Fe Island.
Aside from Isabela Island and Santa Cruz Island, Santiago is probably the most popular island in the Galapagos. The landscape consists of two volcanoes that overlap each other. At Sullivan Bay, you can examine the volcanic landscape and walk over the preserved lava flow that’s complete with lava bubbles and molds of various plants and animals. Aside from the marine iguanas, sea turtles, flamingos, and Darwin finches you’ll find on the island, Santiago is most famous for Sombrero Chino or Chinese Hat, a small islet to the island’s southeast that resembles a rice-picking hat when you view it from Santiago. On Chinese Hat, you’ll find sea lions, iguana, and one of the islands’ few colonies of Galapagos penguins.
Aside from these islands, there are also smaller islands like the twin islets Darwin and Wolf, North Seymour Island, where you can find blue-footed boobies and frigate birds, and Pinta Island, which used to be the home of Lonesome George, prior to his departure to Charles Darwin Research Station and eventual death. However, as these are smaller centres, it’s unlikely that your journey will take you to them on a trip to Ecuador.
With this guide to the Galapagos Islands, you can plan your course of action when visiting these incredible islands and know how to tell a Santiago Island from a Santa Cruz Island. A Galapagos Islands vacation offers some of the most fascinating islands on the planet, and knowing how to differentiate between their many volcanic environments will help make your eventual Ecuador vacation to the Galapagos as memorable as possible.