Updated: Jan 28, 2020
From giant land tortoises and land iguanas to sea turtles, tropical penguins, sea lions and dozens of species of rare birds, the Galápagos Islands are a paradise for any wildlife-seeking travelers or general sea enthusiasts. A volcanic archipelago in the eastern Pacific Ocean spanning nearly 53000 miles, the Galapagos were a destination in the 1800s for Charles Darwin, who spent time studying the hundreds of species that call the islands home.
A series of 13 main islands with a scattering of 6 smaller islands in between, the Galapagos are most often explored by ship—of which there are many options for cruising. Seen by sea, the islands offer many opportunities for snorkeling, swimming and general wildlife sighting in between. It should be noted that many of the rare species of mammals and birds unique to the Galapagos are not found on every island. Indeed, some creatures are only accessible on cruises that can travel to outlying islands.
Santa Cruz is the most visited and second largest island of the archipelago, home to the largest human population in the Galapagos, with around 30,000 inhabitants. Kayaking, snorkeling, mountain biking and exploring the beaches of Tortuga Bay are activities not to be missed in Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is the home base for all expedition vessels exploring the Islands and is the main island from which to enjoy land-based overnight stays while taking day boat trips to outlying islands. The town of Puerto Aroyo, where most citizens live, boasts a number of lively bars, restaurants and quaint shops, as well as the Charles Darwin Research Center where you can learn more about Darwin’s discoveries and the unique species that reside throughout the islands.
North Seymour Island, part of the Central Islands of the Galapagos, is a short boat trip from Santa Cruz and boasts forests of Palo Santo trees, colonies of blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and magnificent red gullied frigate birds. On the other side of the island, waves crash onto the rocks and sea lions play in the surf.
Bartolomé Island is perhaps the most photographed location in the entire archipelago. Visitors climb a wooden staircase to the summit for a stunning view of two beautiful bays. Here, you can observe fascinating formations of lava flows and spatter cones, as many have called this island "an open Geology textbook." Sea lions and penguins can be seen around Pinnacle Rock, and there’s is a sandy beach with great swimming and snorkeling. This is one of those selected locations where seeing and swimming with penguins in tropical waters can be a revealing discovery.
Sante Fe Island is a popular spot for viewing colorful land iguanas endemic to the island, as well as lava lizards and sea lion colonies. Sante Fe is known for great swimming and snorkeling.
Isabela is the largest island, and includes several small, laid-back towns also offering hotels for land-based stays. Here, you’ll find the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center and Sierra Negra Volcano. Isabela is often coupled with Santa Cruz for those wishing to explore the islands without the overnight stays at sea. Urbina Bay and its dark volcanic sand beach is located at the central-west coast of Isabela Island at the foothills of Volcanoes Alcedo and Darwin. Highlights include large and colorful land iguanas, since the inland area includes excellent nesting grounds for them. There are good possibilities of seeing giant tortoises in the wild and possible sightings of flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, penguins and large marine iguanas.
For those looking to follow in Darwin’s footsteps, San Cristobal is considered the most fertile of the islands and contains the only known freshwater source in the Galapagos. Here, visitors can swim among aquatic life, or capture a glimpse of the impressive bird population including pelicans and boobies.
To the west, Fernandina is the youngest island of the archipelago and is the site of a shield volcano which last erupted in 2009. There are no human inhabitants of Fernandina, and the island is considered to be pristine, as no non-native species have been introduced here. The landing point is Punta Espinoza, where visitors walk among the hundreds of marine iguanas on black lava rocks. This island is also known for flightless cormorants, penguins, pelicans, sea lions and mangrove forests. Fernandina's colossal dome shape represents perhaps the most remote island in the Pacific.
Visitors to Santiago will find a lava shoreline filled with wildlife including iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs in the nearby tide pools. Conservation is of paramount importance in Santiago, as there have been non-native species introduced, causing problems for the natural ecosystem.
Floreana is home to the famous Post Office Bay, a former destination for pirates and whalers. Venture to one of the island trails to capture views of the saltwater lagoon, known for its flamingos and other bird species.
Named in honor of Spain, Espanola is known as the oldest of the Galapagos Islands and is the most southern island—about a 10-hour boat ride from Santa Cruz. Española is home to the waved albatross and sea lion, as well as gulls, masked boobies, marine igaunas and mockingbirds. The island is also a diving destination for extraordinary marine life viewing.
Genovesa, also known as Darwin Bay, is famed for its spectacular sunsets and was formed after a caldera collapse. Its steep cliffs dominate the island and it is called "the bird island" because it is home to thousands of frigate birds, red-footed boobies, noddy terns, Nazca boobies, lava gulls, doves, storm petrels and Darwin's finches.
Among the remaining main islands of the Galapagos are Marchena, Pinta, Baltra and Pinzon—most of which lack human inhabitants and some of which are not accessible to visitors.
Cruising the Galapagos
For those wishing to see the greatest variety of wildlife in the most expeditious manner, we recommend exploring via one of the expert small luxury expedition ships that offers comfortable accommodations, exquisite cuisine and a variety of land excursions and sea adventures. The ships generally reposition during the night, maximizing the exploration time on and around the islands, and again are the greatest chance to see the 15 most popular species present across the archipelago.
Yacht La Pinta, hosting 48 guests in 24 of the largest cabins among the Galapagos expedition ships available, has floor to ceiling panoramic windows for excellent island views. Luxury amenities and optional connected cabins make Yacht La Pinta a great option for families or small groups traveling together. Guided tours and planned excursions bring guests to several island destinations for trekking and beach activities as well as open water activities include snorkeling and kayaking.
The abundance of life under the surface makes for fantastic snorkeling either from beach entry or open water. Guests can expect to swim with penguins and rays and occasionally sea lions.
Designed specially to access remote areas of the islands, Santa Cruz II contains five decks and luxury-sized social areas both indoors and out. Here, the crew boasts decades of experience exploring the Galapagos personally, and is eager to share areas that are not often visited by those touring the islands. Carrying its crew’s heritage of decades of experience working in the islands, at just over 200 feet long, the generous, five-deck craft holds 50 cabins for 90 guests and features ample, luxury-sized social areas indoors and out. From outdoor and indoor dining areas, the fitness room and hot tubs, to the elegant bar and lounge and a well-stocked library, the ship is designed with sophisticated simplicity. Each guest will find his or her own special space as the ship offers one of the top 5 guest-space ratios of all Galapagos passenger vessels and a 3:2 guest/crew ratio, including several naturalist guides to ensure you will never be bored.
Isabela II is a 40-passenger vessel that is recommended for those who believe they are less “seaworthy,” as it cruises the central islands and avoids crossing the channels over long distances that can be prone to wind and larger waves. Indeed 12 of the 15 bird and mammal species can be sighted on a 4-night 5-day cruise in the Central islands.
Isabela II promises intimate and enriching wildlife encounters whether amid the islands’ haunting volcanic landscapes or beneath the waves of its marine reserve, all in the company of passionate, dedicated and expert naturalist guides, a crew that has remained virtually unchanged for years, their dedication, attention to detail and passion for service touching every one of her guests.
For a more luxurious or even romantic journey, visitors can travel the Galapagos in true luxury aboard the 32-passenger Evolution—reminiscent of the style of the roaring twenties, or the timeless Grace serving 18 guests—both iconic yachts traveled by the likes of Aristotle Onassis, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. With accommodations including several large cabin options, relaxing social decks and fine dining, both options offer a memorable cruise-worthy experience through the Galapagos.