Far from contemporary civilization lies a constellation of volcanic landscapes dispersed around the equator in the midst of the great Pacific Ocean. Here you will find species which exist nowhere else on Earth, a land of birds and beasts only recently discovered, living in harmony with no inherent fear of mankind.
These are the Galapagos, an archipelago situated around 1000 km off the east Ecuadorian coastline. The islands and their waters comprise the Galapagos province, National Park, and Marine Reserve, and are owned and protected by Ecuador, as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The islands are so treasured due to their unique flora and fauna. Original species were left to live and evolve, undisrupted by humans and without predators, resulting in some unique and unusual wildlife. For more information about the islands and their wildlife, take a look at our Galapagos Islands map below.
Galapagos Islands Topographic Map
How were the Galapagos Islands formed?
Formed around five million years ago, the archipelago is the result of seismic and volcanic activity. The islands formed first are those in the east. These older islands tend to be greener as vegetation has flourished over time. They are also smaller, as they have become eroded and submerged. Younger islands are found in the west, and new land is created to this day due to ongoing volcanic activity. The Galapagos comprises 21 islands, of which 13 are considered main and 8 small islands. Just 5 are inhabited.
Why did the Islands become Famous?
The Galapagos found their fame as the inspiration behind Charles Darwin’s revolutionary explanation for evolution. Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos in 1835 as part of an expedition to South America and spent time observing the wildlife and gathering specimens. It wasn’t until Darwin returned to England, however, that he grasped the significance of his observations. Darwin realized that species varied between islands and that these differences were a result of natural selection. Species had adapted to their specific environment and available food sources. Those creatures with the most adaptive characteristics were more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass down the advantageous traits. Charles Darwin published his book (On the Origin of Species) in 1859, bringing a new idea to the world: One that would forever alter the way we think about life, and one that thrust the Galapagos into the spotlight. On a Galapagos Islands vacation you will discover the natural beauty and astonishing biodiversity of Darwin’s living laboratory and endemic species. A Galapagos Islands cruise is the perfect way to see the archipelago, its wildly beautiful landscapes and the fascinating Galapagos wildlife.
On the Map: Main Islands
The largest island of the archipelago, Isabela is formed of six volcanoes giving it a seahorse shape. Isabela is populated and its main town is Puerto Villamil, a small port with a beautiful beach where most of Isabela’s inhabitants reside.
There are plenty of attractions on this island. The Giant Tortoise Breeding Center rears young tortoises before releasing them into the wild. See the life cycle of the giant tortoise, from egg to hatchling to mature adult, and support the initiative to repopulate Isabela with its beloved beast. The island is also home to the Sierra Negra Volcano, which has one of the largest calderas in the world; and the historical site of The Wall of Tears, a great stone wall built by prisoners in the mid-twentieth century, many of whom unfortunately died in its construction. For marine life, visit the islets of Las Tintoreras, snorkel in the lava tubes of Los Tuneles, or spot Galapagos penguins and giant tortoises at Tagus Cove. The west coast has it all – including flightless cormorants!
📍Santa Cruz Island
A central island with the highest number of human inhabitants. Amenities can be found in the lively town of Puerto Ayora, and tours and boat trips can also be organized from there. Puerto Ayora is an ideal place to stay and is well connected to Baltra airport. Key attractions include The Charles Darwin Research Station, a place of education, conservation, and research; Tortuga Bay, a pristine paradise beach; and Las Grietas, a water-filled crevice nestled between towering cliffs.
This is the youngest and most westerly island, and also the most volcanically active! See marine iguanas lounging on black lava fields and clusters of yellow-green cacti growing on molten rock at Punta Espinoza.
This island boasts the black lava shoreline of Puerto Egas which teems with wildlife. Espumilla Beach is a sea turtle nesting site, and at Sullivan Bay you can walk on a mammoth lava flow!
This island is seldom visited, and neither Pinzon nor Pinta have visitor sites.
📍San Cristobal Island
The oldest island, is home to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the Galapogas’ sleepy capital, as well as an airport. You won’t be short of things to do on San Cristobal! At the Galapagos Interpretation Center you’ll learn about the history – as well as the future – of the archipelago. La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado is a tortoise breeding center where its gentle giants are free to roam the grounds. You’ll find marine life aplenty at Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock), and boobies galore when hiking Punta Pitt – including the rare red-footed species!
The first island with human history. Its main town is Puerto Velasco Ibarra, a tiny port community with a black sand beach. Visit Post Office Bay and follow the tradition left by the first island dwellers who would send their letters in a wooden barrel! Punta Cormorant is home to two beaches: one of radiant green, scattered with salmon pink flamingos; the other of brilliant white coral sand.
This is the oldest island and has abundant bird life. Punta Suarez is a breeding site for the Galapagos albatross, and Gardner Bay a sunning spot for lazy sea lions.
📍Sante Fe Island
This island can be visited on a day trip from Santa Cruz. Here you’ll find the Santa Fé iguana and lava lizards. Follow the trail at Barrington Bay to see Galapagos hawks.
This island has a main airport and is an island inhabited by the military. Visit Mosquera, an islet found between Baltra and North Seymour, home to sea lions and sally lightfoot crabs.
This is known as Bird Island; here you can find nazca and red-footed boobies on Prince Philip’s Steps and the red-footed kind at Darwin Bay.
On the Map: Small Islands
Bartolomé is a barren volcanic islet boasting the mighty Pinnacle Rock: A volcanic cone and landmark of Galapagos. The Northern Beach is the nesting spot of the green sea turtle and playground of the Galapagos penguin. Snorkel around Pinnacle Rock, and hike to the summit of the island for unparalleled panoramic views.
Other small islands worth visiting include North Seymour for its nesting frigatebirds; Rábida for its red beaches and brown pelicans; Daphne Minor for its magical rainbow underwater world; and South Plaza Island for its abundant plant life. Wolf and Darwin are both far northern islands, popular among serious divers.
On the Map: Galapagos Wildlife
Also known as the waved albatross, this bird has a wingspan of over 2 meters!
Blue-footed booby is named after its distinctive webbed blue feet, these birds are found throughout the Galapagos, except for the islands in the north. The bluer the feet, the healthier the bird. Look out for their comical mating ritual!
📍Where: Most islands.
This is the smallest kind of booby which gets its name from its red feet.
📍Where: Genovesa; San Cristobal.
A large species of flamingo measuring over 120 centimeters in height.
📍Where: Floreana; Isabela; Santa Cruz.
The largest of the boobies, this bird is white with black-tipped wings and spectacles.
📍Where: Española; Genovesa; North Seymour; San Cristobal; Santiago; South Plaza.
The only cormorant species which cannot fly is found on the Galapagos. Its inability to take to the skies is thought to have evolved after years of living on the islands without predators. The introduction of non-native species led to a population drop and the flightless cormorant is now extremely rare.
📍Where: Fernandina; Isabela.
This special penguin is the only one to live north of the equator. It is the most endangered penguin in the world, and one of the smallest.
📍Where: Found mostly on Fernandina and Isabela; some on Bartolomé, Floreana, and Santiago.
Great or Magnificent Frigatebird
A bird with a wingspan of over one meter! Males have a large throat pouch which can expand into a great red balloon.
📍Where: Most main islands. North Seymour, however, is your best bet.
Adult birds are dark brown in color and their wingspan can reach 120 centimeters.
📍Where: Española; Isabela; Santiago; Santa Fé.
The Galapagos is home to three kinds of land iguanas, two of which are yellow in color and the third pink. These reptiles can grow over one meter in size.
📍Where: Isabela; North Seymour; Santa Cruz; South Plaza.
Sante Fé Iguana
Pale yellow and brown in color, this species is endemic to Santa Fé.
📍Where: Santa Fé.
Found basking on the shores, this fascinating creature is water-based and can dive deep to reach the algae and seaweed it feeds on. Amazingly, their ability to live in the water is an evolutionary adaptation and as such is a unique iguana species!
📍Where: Most main islands.
Galapagos Giant Tortoise
Perhaps the most iconic species of wildlife in the Galapagos. In fact, the Galapagos were named after this gentle giant by the first Spanish explorers! It is the largest tortoise on Earth and can live for over 100 years. Species differ by shell shape and neck length.
📍Where: Isabela; San Cristobal; Santa Cruz.
Galapagos Fur Seal
Found on rocky, shaded shores, these sociable brown seals hunt in waters by night.
📍Where: Genovesa; Isabela; North Seymour; Santiago.
Galapagos Sea Lion
These playful creatures are often found snoozing on the islands’ beaches.
📍Where: Most main islands.
There are 14 species of Galapagos finches, with 13 still residing on the islands today (the Large Ground Finch unfortunately became extinct). Each species adapted to fill a specific niche in their new habitat, evolving into distinct populations across several of the islands.
📍Where: Floreana, Espanola, Genovesa, Darwin and Wolf Islands.
On the Map: Galapagos Cruise Activities
Explore life just below the water’s surface by snorkeling on the islands.
📍Where: Leon Dormido (San Cristobal); Los Tuneles (Isabela); Punta Espinoza (Fernandina); Puerto Egas (Santiago); The Devil’s Crown (Floreana) – be aware of the strong current; Rábida.
For seasoned scuba divers, the Galapagos is the stuff dreams are made of. The islands are recommended for experienced divers only due to strong currents. If you haven’t dived before then you can take a course which will enable you to delve into the ocean’s depths.
📍Where: Gordon Rocks (Santa Cruz); El Derrumbe (Wolf); Stone Arch (Darwin).
Swim alongside local wildlife and then rest on white sands next to neighboring sea lions.
📍Where: Gardner Bay (Española); Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz); Rábida.
Rent a board and take to the waves!
📍Where: Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz) for beginners; Punta Carola or Puerto Chino (San Cristobal) for more experienced surfers.
Hire a kayak and paddle along the islands’ coastlines.
📍Where: Tortuga Bay (Santa Cruz).
Discover the Galapagos by foot and get up close and personal with local wildlife.
📍Where: Prince Philip’s Steps (Genovesa); Punta Pitt, Cerro Tijeretas (San Cristobal); The Sierra Negra Volcano, Darwin Lake, the Wall of Tears (Isabela).
Panga (Dinghy) Ride
Explore shores, estuaries, coves, and caves, and come face to face with unique wildlife!
📍Where: Las Tintoreras (Isabela); The Bolivar Channel (Fernandina); Prince Philip’s Steps (Genovesa).
For an adrenaline-fueled island experience, hiring a bike is an exciting and affordable option!
📍Where: The Wall of Tears (Isabela); Puerto Ayora and its highlands (Santa Cruz).
On the Map: Galapagos Cruises
The best way to explore the Galapagos Islands is by a Galapagos Islands Cruise. There are a few obvious advantages of opting to take a cruise around the Galapagos archipelago. One of these is that you will save a lot of time traveling. Generally speaking, the cruise boats navigate the water at night. This means that after a day of exploring you can retire to your comfortable cabin and drift off to sleep while the captain steers you to your next destination. You wake up the next day to find that all the hard work has already been done for you and all you have to do is get up and enjoy your day.
Another major advantage of turning your vacation to the Galapagos Islands into a cruise is that everything is already planned out for you. No need to spend time researching where to stay, as you will be spending your nights on the boat. You also don’t need to waste time trying to find places to eat because all of your meals will be provided for. This means that you save valuable energy that you then can exert on making the most of your incredible destination.
Maybe you’re an expert planner and you don’t mind spending some time before your holiday mapping out where to eat and sleep every night of your trip. If that’s the case, then there are still some advantages of taking a cruise around the islands. The first of these is that you will be accompanied by an expert naturalist guide. That means that any questions you have regarding the wildlife you see will be knowledgeably answered and you will be taken to exactly the right spots at exactly the right times in order to see everything you wanted.
The final advantage of taking a cruise is that it is a completely unique experience. Nowhere in the world will you be able to sail around this many equally fascinating islands in such style and comfort. If you’re going on a trip of a lifetime, why hold back?