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The Galapagos Islands: wildlife and historic wonder

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Way out in the Pacific Ocean, 1,000 km off of the coast of Ecuador, lies an archipelago of volcanic isles with a singular history. The Galapagos Islands have intrigued, confounded and inspired over the centuries. Back in the 16th century, the islands were known as Las Encantadas (The Bewitched) because of the bizarre creatures that lived there, the strange arid landscapes, and the shifting sea mists that often made it difficult to navigate. 

The islands remained uninhabited by humans until the early 1800s when the Galapagos became part of Ecuador and a sprinkling of settlements were established. It wasn’t long after that Charles Darwin came ashore and was inspired to write his book On the Origin of SpeciesIn 1978 the islands were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the surrounding waters protected by the Galapagos Marine Reserve some years later. 

Galapagos islands from above

What is special about the Galapagos Islands?

What makes them special and why so many people visit the Galapagos Islands is the marvelous endemic wildlife that resides there. From age-old giant land turtles to vegetarian swimming sea iguanas and flightless birds, the cast of characters is enthralling. 

Visitors can swim and snorkel with curious sea lions, marine turtles, sleek rays and fleets of hammerhead sharks. While on land blue-footed boobies kick up a fuss, pink flamingos tip-toe amongst the mangroves and many sub-species of birds captivate avid birders. 

There are 13 main islands, six smaller ones and many more rock stacks and islets dotted between them. The best way to see the Galapagos is by small boat. By exploring this way, visitors have less impact on the environment and can get the best views of the Galapagos island beaches and shoreline wildlife, as well as dive in its waters and reefs.

Because of the Galapagos Islands’ location, visits are easily regulated. To help you make the most of your time there, we’ve put together a snapshot of the best places to visit and things to do in the Galapagos.  

Beach looking out to an island

Santa Cruz Island, Central Galapagos 

Santa Cruz is the Galapagos’ main tourist hub. It is centrally located within the archipelago and close to the main airport on Baltra Island. It is home to Puerto Ayora, the Galapagos’ largest town, which plays host to a convivial mix of tourists, locals and visiting naturalists happily rubbing along together in its bars and cafes. There’s plenty to see and do here before venturing further afield. 

First on the list for an obligatory overview of the islands and their unique make-up is a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station. Visitors can also meander through scrubland and past giant cacti to reach the tortoise-rearing pens, part of a conservation project set up here in the 1960s. 

Black Turtle Bay is a popular stop on Galapagos boat cruises around Santa Cruz and in season is a breeding ground for Pacific green turtles. Peer into the waters and you may spot reef sharks and rays cruising close to the surface. The mangroves surrounding the lagoon are also filled with nesting pelicans and herons.

Santa Cruz is zigzagged by large underground tunnels, some of which rise above the surface. These volcanic lava tubes are interesting to explore, both visually and in terms of the mighty forces that created them. 

Turtles

Bartolome Island & Pinnacle Rock, Central Galapagos

This striking island provides a habitat for the only species of penguin that lives on the equator. It’s a petit island at just 1km² and is decorated with dark volcanic rock formations, the most striking of which is the dagger-like Pinnacle Rock jutting skyward.

Sunset over Bartolome Island and Pinnacle Rock

Espanola Island, Southern Galapagos

The remote Espanola Island is very much out on a limb and about a 10-hour boat ride from Santa Cruz. It is one of the oldest, flattest and driest of the Galapagos Islands with very sparse vegetation. 

Those that venture here come to enjoy the bird and marine wildlife on its sandy shores. Gardner Bay is one of the loveliest Galapagos beaches with its fine white coral sand and turquoise waters. Sea lions loll on the beach here, along with a brightly colored sub-species of marine iguana with vivid red markings. 

From March to January the island is almost the only place in the world where you can see the huge waved albatross. These critically endangered birds nest in the bushy scrubland and launch their 2.5m wingspan from the high cliffs. There are many more birds to spot on the island, including mockingbirds, Darwin’s finches, and the Galapagos hawk.

Sea lions on beach

Floreana Island, Southern Galapagos

The black-sand beaches of the Galapagos’ Floreana have long been inhabited, and many of the descendants of the island’s pioneering families still live here today. It is a popular island for snorkeling with sea lions and rays visiting its waters, as well as a multitude of colorful reef fish. It’s also home to a wonderful giant tortoise reserve, where you can spend some time in the company of these characterful prehistoric creatures. 

A group of golden rays in the water

San Cristobal Island, Eastern Galapagos

La Loberia is a popular tourist destination on the Galapagos Islands. This beautiful beach is known for its abundance of sea lions. It also offers excellent snorkeling, allowing visitors to swim with sea turtles and reef sharks. The island is a good place to spot both red- and blue-footed boobies, as well as the frigate bird with its inflatable scarlet air sacs. 

Blue Footed Boobie on a rock

Isabela Island, Western Galapagos

Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands and is made up of six merged volcanoes, some of which are still active. The interior of the island is largely impenetrable, but there are coves, bays and beaches well worth visiting along its western edge. Here, dolphins frolic amongst the waves while whales are drawn to the nutrient-rich cold waters that well up from the seabed. 

Dolphins jumping out of water

Fernandina Island, Western Galapagos

This is the youngest of the islands and the most volcanically active. Views here are dominated by the 1,476m La Cumbre Volcano. It is the best Galapagos island on which to see the flightless cormorant fishing for its catch along the shoreline. Alongside them, charcoal-colored marine iguanas bask in the sun, camouflaged against the dark volcanic rock.

Iguanas on a rock

Genovesa Island, Northern Galapagos

Genovesa is one of the best Galapagos islands for birdwatching. It is the only one of the northern islands that visitors can set foot on and was formed by a large sunken caldera with steep coastal cliffs. It is home to a healthy population of red-footed boobies as well as frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls, storm petrels, mockingbirds and many more. 

Frigatebird

Make it happen

Undoubtedly, the Galapagos Islands are one of the best places to visit in Ecuador for wildlife. Chat to one of our local experts to start planning your Ecuador and Galapagos adventures today, or for more trip ideas, visit our article Top things to do in Ecuador.

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