Guide to Galapagos: Island descriptions |
11
Jan
2014
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Guide to Galapagos: Island descriptions

Each of the Galapagos Islands is distinctive. Even neighbouring islands which look physically similar may house completely different species.

Our guide to each individual Galapagos Island will help you to understand what each island has to offer.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz lies in the middle of the archipelago and is the economic capital of the islands.

Of the 17,000 inhabitants on all islands, 50% live on Santa Cruz.

The island is also the main hub of tourism in the Galapagos and is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station.

The station provides a very good introduction to the life and history of the islands and is home to a tortoise breeding centre, with its famous resident, ?Lonesome George?.

George is the last surviving member of the Pinta subspecies, but so far attempts to mate him with another subspecies have not proved fruitful.

The highlands of Santa Rosa and Bellavista further inland are worth a visit to see free-roaming giant tortoises.

The vegetation here is more lush and green because of the altitude and provides an interesting contrast to the coastal areas.

There are also a number of lava tubes in this area, along with two large craters, the remains of collapsed volcanic magma chambers. Their vertical sides are now covered in vegetation and are a good place to see vermillion flycatchers, woodpecker finches and short-eared owls.

Puerto Ayora is the main town, where you can find most of the island?s hotels, along with a selection of restaurants, shops and diving centres.

Baltra (South Seymour)

Most visitors arriving on scheduled flights from the mainland will fly into Baltra?s airport.

This small island to the north of Santa Cruz is also a military base for the Ecuadorian air force. It is by no means scenic and is basically a bit of a mess of rubble left by USAF.

Although there are no visitor sites on the island, to the north there are an abundance of sea lions that have grouped on Mosquera bank, a small sandy area of wilderness.

North Seymour

One of the most visited islands, North Seymour is separated from Baltra by a narrow channel.

Despite being so small, there is still an incredible amount of wildlife to see, including marine iguanas, frigate birds, blue-footed boobies and sea lions, as well as swallow-tailed gulls and pelicans.

The mangroves are the best area for viewing blue-footed boobies who have made their homes in and around the trees.

Santiago (James)

Northwest of Santa Cruz lies Santiago. The island?s landscape is fairly barren but perfect for the goats that were introduced here in the 1800s.

In most parts the land is volcanic in appearance with a series of pinnacles and cliffs dominating the skyline.

The shoreline is home to many marine birds, including oyster catchers and nights herons, who nest beneath the cliff faces.

The main landing area is in James Bay, west of the island. At Espumilla Beach the trail leads from the shore to a lake with flamingoes, stilts and pintail ducks.

On the northwest side of the island lies Buccaneer Cove, where pirates used to congregate in the 17th and 18th centuries. To the east, adjacent to Bartolomé Island, is Sullivan Bay, with a trail leading through lava fields which were formed around 100 years ago.

Bartolomé

From the eastern side of Santiago lies the most photographed and viewed island.

Pinnacle Rock, a small island inside Sullivan Bay, is the most emblematic part of the islands. Another landing site drops you off at a beach where you can snorkel amongst penguins.

Genovesa (Tower)

A small, low-lying island with a land area of only 14 square kilometers, Genovesa is one of the northernmost islands and therefore one of the most isolated.

Visitor numbers are more strictly regulated here, so only some of the smaller boats include it in their itineraries.

The island is home to a large variety of seabirds, including the only colony of Red-footed boobies to be found in the Galapagos.

There are two main visitor sites, one a wet landing at Darwin Bay, and the other a dry landing at Prince
Philip’s Steps.

The landing at Darwin Bay is onto a sand and coral beach, where it is possible to see swallow-tailed gulls, night herons and lava gulls.

A beach trail takes you through Palo Santo trees, Opuntia cactus and Saltbush inhabited by great frigate birds and red-footed boobies.

The Prince Philip’s Steps landing, named after a visit by Prince Philip in 1965, is onto rocks at the foot of a cliff, which then lead up a path to the cliff top.

Colonies of nesting nazca and red-footed boobies greet you at the top, along with large numbers of storm petrels.

Santa Fe (aka Barrington)

A small island located between Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, Santa Fe is home to the endemic land iguana, which is yellower with more defined spines on its back than other species found in the Galapagos.

Large numbers of sea lions frequent the beach, and you will probably have to navigate yourself around sleeping cows and pups to reach the inland trails.

Giant cactus forest lines the route to the cliff top, from which there are spectacular views over the bay.

San Cristobal

The most easterly island in the archipelago, San Cristobal is home to the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos province.

With a population of about 3,000, it is the second largest town (the largest being Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island).

There is an airport, so many cruises start from San Cristobal. Those that do often begin with an afternoon visit to Kicker Rock and Leon Dormido ? literally ?Sleeping Lion?. The iconic vertical rock formation, made up of two towering cones rising 500 feet above the ocean, appears in many photographs of the Galapagos.

Although you cannot land on Leon Dormido itself, it is possible to take a panga ride between the rocks. Blue footed boobies, masked boobies, frigate birds and sea lions can be seen here.

Española

Also known as Hood Island, Española is the southernmost island in the archipelago. It is considered to have the purest wildlife due to the clearing of feral species, and its distance from the other islands means that there are some species that are endemic to this island alone.

Some of these include the Hood mockingbird and the Española lava lizard. The marine iguanas are some of the largest in the Galapagos and have particularly vivid red and green colouration throughout the year.

The landing at Punta Suarez is a dry one but can be tricky because the sea can be choppy. At the start of the looping trail blue-footed boobies can be seen in their hundreds. A little further on large numbers of waved albatross nest on the ground between March and December each year.

The nearby high cliff provides a useful launching pad for youngsters on their first flight.

The trail circles along the cliff edge, where waves crashing through blowholes in the rock create spectacular spouts of spray, some up to 100 feet high.

On the north east side of the island at Gardner Bay lies a long stretch of white sand beach. There is some fantastic snorkeling to be had off the beach here.

Floreana

With its rich soil and a water supply, Floreana was one of the first islands to be permanently inhabited. It is now home to around 70 local residents, but is mainly visited by campers who arrive with their own food rations.

The main landmarks of note are Devil’s Crown, a volcano submerged below the waters with a set of pointed peaks which look like a jagged crown. The area is surrounded by a host of different marine life including sharks, turtles and colourful fish.

At the northern end of the island lies Punta Cormorant, named after a US ship rather than the bird, whose wet landing site is on amazing green sand, tinted by olivine crystals combined with magnesium and iron deposits.

A trail leads inland to a lagoon, home to one of the biggest populations of pink flamingoes in the archipelago. Beyond this the trail reaches Flour Beach, so called due to its amazingly fine white sand. Ghost crabs can be seen here, while turtles and rays inhabit the waters off the coast.

To the west lies Post Office Bay, where in the late 18th century whaling ships on outbound voyages left letters for home in a barrel ? the idea being that ships on their homeward voyage would collect them.

The tradition is continued today, and it is possible to leave postcards here, which are collected by other visitors from the same part of the world and posted by them. Likewise, you are expected to collect cards addressed to your native country to post on your return home.

Isabela

Isabela (sometimes referred to as Albemarle) is the largest island with six major volcanoes, five of which are active: Alcedo, Cerro Azul, Darwin, Ecuador, Sierra Negra and Wolf. Isolated subspecies of Giant Tortoise live around the volcanoes.

Isabela is one of the four inhabited islands. The main population centre is at Puerto Villamil to the south, with around 3,000 residents.

From Puerto Villamil it is possible to travel the 18km by road to the small settlement of Santo Tomas, on the slopes of the volcano of the same name. From here you can walk the remaining 9km to the top of the crater, where the trail winds around the rim. Vermillion flycatchers, Galapagos hawks and short-eared owls are common on this route.

It is also possible to hike to Alcedo, the most active of the island?s volcanoes. The 10km journey is over steep, rocky ground and generally takes around 6-7 hours, so most visitors tend to camp overnight (a permit from the park authorities is required for this).

On the central western side of the island lies Elizabeth Bay, facing the Mariela Islands. Although it is not possible to land here, the islands are one of the best places in the Galapagos to see penguins, with large clusters gathering near the shore.

Three species of mangroves can be found at the end of the bay, while rays and turtles can be found in the water here.

To the north, the waters around Urbina Bay are also a good place to spot these creatures. It is possible to land here, and the short trail inland leads to the foot of the Alcedo Volcano.

A major plate uplift as recently as 1954 caused the coastline to bloat out, leaving the coral reef exposed. It happened so fast that thousands of fish and lobsters were left marooned on what is now the shore.

Today, marine iguanas, flightless cormorants and pelicans make the site their home.

At the northern end of the west coast lies Tagus Cove, named after a British warship that was anchored here in 1814. Names of other ships that used the cove can still be seen painted on the cliffs.

To the northern end of Tagus Cove is an area of mangroves suitable for swimming with a beautiful sheltered beach nearby. Penguins, marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs and blue-footed boobies are all common sights.

From the dry landing, a trail leads to a saltwater lake, below the slopes of Darwin Volcano. It is thought that the lake was formed by saltwater being drawn up through the porous volcanic rock found on this part of the island.

Fernandina

At 700,000 years, Fernandina is the youngest evolved island and as such is formed of new lava, with very little vegetation.

There is only one visitor site at Punta Espinosa, a dry landing surrounded by mangroves. A large colony of marine iguanas have taken up residence near the beginning of the trail.

Literally heaps of the creatures can be seen sunning themselves by, or sometimes right in the middle of the path, which can make walking a little tricky at times.

On the shoreline Sally Lightfoot crabs and sea lions can be found in abundance. Local birds include flightless cormorants, pelicans, oystercatchers and blue herons and the yellow warbler.

The further west you travel in the Galapagos Islands, the younger in geological terms and more volcanically active the islands become. As the westernmost island, Fernandina’s volcano, La Cumbre, is the most active in the archipelago.

As a consequence, much of the island is formed of new lava with very little vegetation. The landscape has a lunar-like appearance, with expanses of hardened black lava and only the occasional clump of lava cactus.

The tidal rock pools closer to the shore are often a good place to see turtles.