Galápagos highlights

The Galápagos could traditionally only be toured by boat – but a growing number of hotels, plus inland and coastal camping options, is opening up new – and ultimately more affordable – ways to see the islands. Tours last from three to 14 nights – though seven is optimum for seeing the main Galápagos highlights, without spending too much time at sea. The eastern islands are more commonly visited than the less accessible western ones, while the far-flung northern and southern islets tend to be reserved for birders and divers. Don’t make the mistake of thinking all the islands are the same. They vary wildly in geography and biology – so do your research to plan your perfect tour.
Baltra (South Seymour) Island

1. Baltra (South Seymour) Island

This small, exceptionally parched island, covered in prickly pear cacti and wrinkled land iguanas does not have much appeal, but most visitors to the Galápagos will spend some time on Baltra as it contains one of the archipelago’s two main airports. Passengers arriving on Baltra will be taken to one of two docks to begin their Galápagos cruise.
Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island & Pinnacle Rock

2. Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island & Pinnacle Rock

Bartolomé is one of the few habitats for the Galápagos penguin – the only penguin species to live on the equator. The island is just over 1km2, and covered in vivid volcanic formations – the most famous of which is Pinnacle Rock. Climb to its 114m summit for phenomenal views of the eastern isles, and swim around its base with the penguins.
Charles Darwin Research Station

3. Charles Darwin Research Station

The conservation of the islands’ unique and rare species is centerd on this research station, where giant tortoises, land iguanas and endemic plants are bred for research and reintroduction. The exhibits and concrete enclosures seem rather dry in comparison to the Galápagos’ main attractions, so come at the beginning of your trip to set the scene for what you are about to experience.
El Muro de las Lágrimas

4. El Muro de las Lágrimas

In contrast to the must-see place it is today, the Galápagos was once a harsh, isolated penal colony. From 1946-1959, Ecuadorian prisoners were sent to Isabela, where they were forced to build a mighty wall of volcanic rock. The wall’s sole purpose was to keep the prisoners going mad from the boredom and isolation. Today, it is known as the “Wall of Tears”.
Española (Hood) Island

5. Española (Hood) Island

The archipelago’s southernmost island is also one of its oldest, at almost 4 million years. Despite its diminutive size, it contains a phenomenal variety of wildlife – even by Galápagos standards. Sights include heaps of snoozing red and turquoise splashed marine iguanas, as well as the “albatross airport”, where these enormous birds line up to launch themselves off the cliff.
Floreana (Charles) Island

6. Floreana (Charles) Island

One of the first islands to be inhabited, Floreana offers a unique glimpse at the human stories of the Galápagos. Baronesses, pirates, murders and disappearances have all shaped the island’s history, and descendants of the pioneer families continue to live here today. You can also snorkel with sea lions, penguins, rays and reef fish, and visit a giant tortoise reserve.
Genovesa Island

7. Genovesa Island

This remote island, the remains of a collapsed caldera, is known as Bird Island thanks to the huge numbers of Nazca and red-footed boobies, red-billed tropicbirds, mockingbirds and more which nest here. Hikes take you up to a forest-crowned plateau, or across into powdery sand beaches and mangroves. This is one of the best spots for snorkelling with hammerhead sharks.
Giant Tortoise Breeding Center

8. Giant Tortoise Breeding Center

Almost a thousand tortoises live in this center, and you can see them in all stages of development as they remain here until they are large enough to survive in the wild alone. While the islands generally each have one native tortoise species, Isabela has five, as a result of habitats being divided by the island’s many volcanoes.
Isabela (Albermarle) Island

9. Isabela (Albermarle) Island

The largest island in the Galápagos is also one of its youngest – and it is still being formed, thanks to its six active volcanoes – which make it the second most volcanically active place in the world. Lush, flamingo-filled mangroves, line the coast, along with Sally Lightfoot crabs, penguins, marine iguanas and flightless cormorants. Hike across eerie, barren lava fields and up the volcanoes.
Los Tuneles

10. Los Tuneles

Snorkelling at Los Tuneles, an hour’s boat ride from Puerto Villamil, has been described as snorkelling in an aquarium. This maze of lava tubes, which flowed from two volcanoes into the ocean, hides schools of colourful angelfish, sea turtles, manta rays and harmless sharks. It’s not a cheap add-on, but it’s a real highlight for many visitors, and unlike anywhere else you’re likely to see.
Puerto Ayora

11. Puerto Ayora

With around 12,000 residents, Puerto Ayora is the “urban center” of the Galápagos. If opting for a land-based tour, you’re likely to find yourself staying here, and mingling with tourists and locals in the town’s many markets, gift shops, restaurants and bars. A 40-minute hike through a dry, prickly pear forest takes you to Tortuga Bay – one of the archipelago’s finest beaches.
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno

12. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno

This is the capital of the Galápagos, with around 6.000 residents, plus several hotels, restaurants, bars, shops and a bank. The nearby Interpretation Centre has exhibits on the delicate relationship between the islands’ human and animal inhabitants. Boat tours can be arranged here, and there are mountain bikes for hire to explore the rest of the island.
San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island

13. San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island

The easternmost and oldest island, San Cristóbal, is a great spot for watching blue- and red-footed boobies wobble from leg to leg, and striking frigate birds inflating their scarlet air sacs. It has one of the Galápagos’ two airports, as well as the Galapaguera tortoise breeding ground, numerous surf spots and a freshwater lake sitting in a 600m high crater.
Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island

14. Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island

The Galápagos’ tourism hub contains its largest town as well as the Research Station, and is close to the Baltra airport. You can still escape the modern world here though – in the wildlife-filled mangroves, as well as idyllic Tortuga Bay, a short walk from the town. Ancient, giant tortoises roam the highlands – and birders should keep an eye out for the vermillion flycatcher.
Sierra Negra

15. Sierra Negra

The tame wildlife is not the only astonishing Galápagos highlight. The 9km-wide, 91 metre-deep crater atop Volcan Sierra Negra is the second largest active caldera on earth, and hiking around the rim offers spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes and ocean, and you can continue on to the bizarre, smoking lava landscape of Volcan Chico, which last erupted in 2005.
Tintoreras Islets

16. Tintoreras Islets

These lava-smothered islands are crawling with marine iguanas, thanks to a lack of non-native predators. Hikes across the surreal landscape and mangrove swamps are usually followed by snorkelling expeditions into the lava tunnels to look for giant rays, puffer fish, sea lions and the elusive white-tipped sharks which gives the island its name.
Travel Team
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Travel times in the Galápagos

The following times give you a rough idea of the sailing times between the main Galápagos highlights, and the flight time from mainland Ecuador.

    Santa Cruz – Floreana: 2 hours by boat Santa Cruz – Isabela: 2 hours by boat Floreana – Isabela: 2 hours by boat Baltra – Santa Cruz: 10 minutes by boat Guayaquil (mainland Ecuador) – Galápagos: 1 hour 30 minutes by plane
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: pantxorama] [Baltra (South Seymour) Island: Alan] [Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island & Pinnacle Rock: Murray Foubister] [Charles Darwin Research Station: TriiipleThreat] [El Muro de las Lágrimas: Kevin Dooley] [Española (Hood) Island: Benjamint444] [Floreana (Charles) Island: Dallas Krentzel] [Genovesa Island: Dan] [Giant Tortoise Breeding Center: Michael R Perry] [Isabela (Albermarle) Island: Adavyd] [Los Tuneles: David Ceballos] [Puerto Ayora: Alan] [Puerto Baquerizo Moreno: Steven Bedard] [San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island: Diego Delso] [Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island: Diego Delso] [Sierra Negra: Allan Harris] [Tintoreras Islets: Leonardo] [Travel times in the Galápagos: Diego Delso]