Galapagos Islands Guide: The 13 Main Islands
Off the coast of Ecuador you’ll find the Galapagos archipelago– a group of unique islands with an abundance of marine wildlife, volcanic rocks, crystal clear waters and breathtaking wildlife. Home to Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution,’ here, you will snorkel with sea lions and mingle with land iguanas. All 20 islands (7 Small Islands, 13 Main Islands) each have something unique and different to offer. Get to know a little more about each island before (or after) your Galapagos Island cruise, to really appreciate the once in a life time experience.
13 Main Galapagos Islands- What You Should Know
1. Isabela Island
Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos and is bigger then the rest of the islands combined. It’s the third most populated and is the only island to have the equator run through it. Puerto Villamil is the largest town on the island and offers accommodation for tourists. Isabela is accessible by a public speedboat that departs from Santa Cruz Island and there is also a small airfield that is serviced by two local airlines, Embete and Air Zab. There are numerous sights that should be visited on the island; the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, only open on weekdays, breeds and raises these Giant tortoises before releasing them into the wild; the enormous Sierra Negra Volcano which boasts impressive views from the rim of the crater on clear days and also boasts the second largest caldera in the world; Las Tintoreras, a lagoon where white tip sharks come to rest and although swimming is prohibited, to watch these sharks in their natural habitat is nonetheless remarkable.
There is also a 3 hour guided hike to the Wall of Tears, a historical site constructed between 1945 and 1959 by prisoners of the Penal colony. It is some 25 meters tall and its construction is said to have caused thousands of deaths. It was supposedly intended to become their prison. The hike itself is overwhelming as picturesque lakes filled with flamingos and beaches packed with iguanas and sea lions can be seen. The west coast of Isabela Island has the nutrient-rich Cromwell Current resulting in a feeding ground for fish, whales, dolphins, and birds. These waters are known as the best place to see whales in the Galapagos: humpbacks, sperms, minkes and orcas.
Human Population: Approximately 1800
Isabela Island Area: 4670 km² or 1803 mi²
Isabela Island Altitude: 1707 m or 5600 ft
2. Santa Cruz Island
This is the second largest island in the Galapagos and is the most populated with some 12,000 locals. Puerto Ayora is located in Santa Cruz, the most populated town on the Galapagos. The town boasts a hospital, schools, banks, shops, hotels, restaurants and numerous Internet cafes. Overall, it has the best infrastructure on the Galapagos. There are a variety of tours that can be designed by tourists from Santa Cruz including kayaking trips, hiking tours of the highlands, diving and snorkeling excursions, horseback riding outings and boat trips to nearby islands.
The Charles Darwin station is a must see on Santa Cruz. It is located about 1km west of Puerto Ayora and contains fascinating and detailed information about the history of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos. Tortuga Bay is another must – a beautiful beach filled with a profusion of wildlife that includes the Giant tortoise, Marina iguanas, Galapagos crabs and Whitetip sharks. Garrapatero beach is also unique and no guide is needed to visit; swimming and snorkeling are also allowed. There is a small lagoon situated behind the beach where flamingos and Bahamas ducks can be spotted. Las grietas is similarly remarkable - a canyon filled with crystal clear waters and an abundance of tropical fish.
Human Population: Approximately 12,000
Santa Cruz Island Area: 986 km² or 381 mi²
Santa Cruz Island Altitude: 864 m or 2835 ft
3. San Cristobal Island
This is where Charles Darwin first came ashore in 1835. The island is the home of a small lake (laguna el junco) and this is the only fresh water source on the Galapagos. The population of San Cristobal is around 6,000 people and it is the most fertile of the islands. The town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the capital of the Galapagos province and it is the home to government offices, an Ecuadorian Naval facility and an airport. The majority of the inhabitants have professions in government, the tourism industry or fishing. The island is more susceptible to the introduction of new, potentially dangerous species due to the airport and some 20 years ago, the black fly was introduced. This has caused serious problems for the local farmers, as they tend to suck the blood out of mammals leaving a poison that in cases is fatal.
There are a number of tourist destinations on the island: Cerro Brujo is a picturesque coral and sand beach and is a spectacular place to swim and snorkel in the clear blue water. Sea Lions sometimes rest on the beach and coastal and migratory birds can frequently be seen including pelicans and Blue-footed boobies. There are other scenic beaches on the island including Ochoa beach, Sapho cove and Puerto Chino. There are also numerous snorkeling and diving locations where manta rays, turtles, a variety of tropical fish and sharks can be spotted.
Population: Approximately 6000
San Cristobal Island Area: 557 km² or 215 mi²
San Cristobal Island Altitude: 730 m or 2395 ft
4. Fernandina Island
Fernandina Island is the youngest and most westerly lying island, being named in 1832 after King Ferdinand II of Spain. It is actually the site of a shield volcano with the last eruption occurring in April 2009. The island is known for being pristine – this means no rats, goats or any non-native species have been discovered. People do not live on the island and the only sign of human presence is a visitor’s center on the northeast coast. Punta Espinoza is a must for tourists due to the large numbers of marine iguana that conglomerate on the volcanic shorelines and bask in the sun. Snorkeling and diving are also both common with two dive sites located on the island – keep an eye out for these marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins and Sea horses that love to play in the crystal clear waters. The area has also been acknowledged as a whale sanctuary and so Pilot whales, Bryde’s whales and Bottlenose dolphins can frequently be seen from shore. The island has a colder climate, due to the waters from the Cromwell Current that hits the archipelago from the west. Fernandina and western Isabela are the richest waters in the Galapagos, providing prime habitat for both Flightless Cormorants and Galapagos Penguins.
Human Population: 0
Fernandina Island Area: 642 km² or 248 mi²
Fernandina Island Altitude: 1476 m or 4842 ft
5. Santiago Island
The main attraction on Santiago island is Puerto Egas on the west of the island. There is a lava shoreline where eroded rock is the home to a variety of wildlife including iguanas that bask in the sun and tide pools that contain thousands of Sally Lightfoot crabs. The snorkeling is also fantastic as many tropical fish can be viewed.
The focus on conservation on Santiago has been a success over the last decade, as previously, non-native species had been introduced causing severe problems to the local flora and fauna. Goats caused massive erosion through trampling and competed for much of the food with the local herbivores; pigs dug up turtle nests as well as other ground nesting birds and destroyed their eggs and donkeys were destructive to the Opuntia cactus. Major conservation projects led to the eradication of these species leading to rapid recovery. This island is regaining a pristine status.
Human Population: 0
Santiago Island Area: 572 km² or 221 mi²
Santiago Island Altitude: 905 m or 2974 ft
6. Floreana Island
This is the longest inhabited island in the Galapagos and was used as a food and water source by pirates and whalers in the 17th and 18th century. Floreana is also notorious for a series of mysterious disappearances that occurred in the early 20th century including an Austrian baroness Von Wagner Bosquet and her three servants. Human presence, unfortunately, has had disastrous consequences on the wildlife and as a result, the native Florena tortoise became extinct. Rats, goats and pigs were also introduced on the island and these animals completely destroyed the native flora and fauna.
The famous Post Office Bay is located on Florena Island. Pirates and whalers used the post office barrel to send their mail and some 300 years later, tourists continue to use it. They will normally leave postcards in the barrel and in turn collect postcards that were left by others. Punta Cormorant is another charming location and it is well known for its volcanic green olivine crystals that can be found on the beach. There is also a trail on the island that offers spectacular views over a saltwater lagoon, which is the home to many birds including the flamingo. The trail continues to a beautiful white sand beach, which is the nesting place for the Green Sea turtle. Devils crown is similarly remarkable and is a volcanic crater that has been gradually eroded by the sea. Snorkelers can actually swim into this crater and find an abundance of coral reefs and marine life. This includes the colorful King Angel fish, Balloon fish, Hawk Fish, Sea turtles and at times a variety of sharks including the White Tipped and Hammerhead shark (I must reiterate again, they are completely safe). Puerto Velasco, a very small town on the northwest of the island offers accommodation to tourists who wish to stay on the island. The population of Florena is no more then 100 people.
Human Population: approximately 100
Floreana Island Area: 173 km² or 107 mi²
Floreana Island Altitude: 640 m or 2100 ft
7. Española Island
Española Island is the oldest of all the islands and it was named in honor of Spain. Formed some 3.5 million years ago, it is the most southerly located of the islands and is a 10-12 hour boat ride from Santa Cruz. Due to its remote location, it has its own unique wildlife. It is the only place where the Waved albatross nest and there is a large population of sea lion that inhabit the precious white sands of Gardner beach that is easily accessible to visitors. Punta Suarez is another popular destination amongst tourists and it is the home to a range of different birds – it is a must for bird watching enthusiasts. The Swallow-tailed Gull is native to the island as is the Espanola Mockingbird. Diving is another popular attraction on the island as there is an abundance of marine wildlife - this includes the Galapagos eel, the Blackspot moray, the King Angel fish, the Red-lipped batfish and there are also occasional encounters with the Hammerhead shark, the Whitetip shark and the Eagle ray (they are not harmful in this environment). large number of endemic species — the Española mockingbird, the Española lava lizard, and the waved albatross, to name a few.
Area: 60 km² or 37 mi²
Altitude: 206 m or 675 ft
Human Population: 0
8. Marchena Island
There is no human activity on this island and it is very rarely visited but it is possible to dive in the surrounding waters on an organized tour. Even scientists and park rangers seldom visit the island. The Marchena Lava Lizard is endemic to this island.
Marchena Island Area: 130 km² or 50 mi²
Marchena Island Altitude: 343 m or 1125 ft
Human Population: 0
9. Pinta Island
This Island is named after one of Columbus’s three ships and is also inaccessible to tourists. Having been devastated in the past by human existence, it is almost extinct of any indigenous species.
Pinta Island Area: 60 km² or 23 mi²
Pinta Island Altitude: 650 m or 2133 ft
Human Population: 0
10. Santa Fé Island
This is a small island and is a common destination for day trips from Santa Cruz. A variety of plant and wildlife can be seen in the Opuntia cactus forest including, not surprisingly, the Opuntia cactus, the Galapagos dove, Yellow Warblers, lava lizards and the endemic Santa Fe Land Iguana.
Santa Fé Island Area: 24 km² or 9.3 mi²
Santa Fé Island Altitude: 259 m or 850 ft
Human Population: 0
11. Genovesa Island
Originally named after Genoa in Italy, this island is a must for bird watching enthusiasts and is often called ‘the Bird Island’. A large colony of Red-footed boobies inhabit Genovesa along with some 200,000 Galapagos Storm petrel. The Short-eared owl, a wide array of finch, the Great Frigate bird and the Galapagos mockingbird are also indigenous inhabitants. The island is unpopulated by humans and can only be visited with a tour guide.
Area: 14 km² or 5 mi²
Altitude: 64 m or 210 ft
Human Population: 0
12. Baltra (South Seymour) Island
This is the only island that is not actually part of the national park. It currently houses an Ecuadorian military base, an abandoned US air force base and the largest airport on the Galapagos. Most visitors will travel through Baltra on their journey into the National Park.
Area: 21 km² or 8 mi²
Altitude: 100 m or 328 ft
Human Population: Personnel from the Ecuadorian Navy and the Ecuadorian Air Force
13. Pinzon (Duncan) Island
This Island was named after the Pinzon brothers, captains of the Pinta and Nina boats on Columbus’s voyage to the New World. It has no visitor facilities and a special permit is needed to visit the island. It is a home to the Giant tortoise and many sea lions lurk on the shores. The island is currently infested with rats threatening much of the plant and wild life and efforts are currently ongoing to eliminate them.
Area: 18 km² or 7 mi²
Altitude: 458 m or 1502 ft
Human population: 0