an iguana perching on rocky terrain with a cactus and blue sky in the background

Travelers often ask about the best Galapagos Islands to visit. There is no wrong way to visit the Galapagos. Each of the 14 visitable islands has its own unique attractions and activities. They all enjoy a mild climate year-round, meaning there is never a bad time to visit either. This list focuses on presenting the top attractions, activities, and wildlife on the 11 most popular islands. Additionally, you will find some basic facts and practical information. This is especially important when deciding whether to take a cruise or opt for an island hopping package. 

*Cover photo by andydjpsyco on Unsplash

A map showing the positions of the Galapagos islands
A map of the Galapagos Islands

Table of Contents

1. Santa Cruz Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Indefatigable Island
  • Population: 12,000
  • Area: 381 sq mi (986 km2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 2,835 ft (864 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Galapagos Giant tortoise, Marine iguana, Land iguana, Galapagos sea lion, Sally lightfoot crabs
  • Top attractions: Puerto Ayora, Charles Darwin Research Center, Giant tortoise reserves, lava tunnels, Los Gemelos, Tortuga Bay beach

Attractions and Wildlife

Santa Cruz is the most populous and second largest of the islands. In Puerto Ayora, its largest town, you can visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. This UNESCO-founded center was built in 1959. Its aim is to study and conserve the precious wildlife living on the islands. The center is responsible for the restoration of the threatened Giant Galapagos tortoise. A short drive from the town is one of the Galapagos’ most picturesque beaches, Tortuga Bay. The arid coastline is home to marine iguanas, brown pelicans, and Sally Lightfoot crabs. In contrast, the interior of the island is made up of lush, green highlands. Here you can visit Giant tortoise reserves and Los Gemelos, the twin pit craters. These sinkholes were formed by parts of the ground collapsing on the empty chambers below. Walk through underground lava tunnels and learn about the geological formations of the island.

A Giant tortoise sitting in the grass with trees in the background
One of many Giant tortoises found on the island. Photo by Melissa Dreffs of Inca Expert Travel

With its central location, Santa Cruz also acts as the central hub of the Galapagos Islands. Its northern tip is conveniently located near Baltra airport, one of only two airports with flights to mainland Ecuador. Meanwhile in the south, Puerto Ayora, has the best developed tourist infrastructure in the entire archipelago. Home to many of the Galapagos’ top restaurants and luxurious hotels, it usually serves as the base for island hopping itineraries.

Logistics

Its proximity to Baltra airport means cruise itineraries often start and finish here. Cruise companies will pick up guests from Baltra Island and transfer them to the harbor at Puerto Ayora. From there, they can board their cruise ship and set sail.

2. Bartolomé Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Bartholomew Island
  • Population: Uninhabited
  • Area: 0.5 sq mi (1.2 km2
  • Maximum Altitude: 374 ft (114 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Galapagos penguins, Galapagos sea lion, Marine Iguana, Top attractions: Pinnacle Rock, Panoramic viewpoint, Snorkeling with penguins and sea lions, Colorful volcanic scenery

Attractions and Wildlife

Bartolomé Island is often quoted as the most photographed part of the Galapagos, and for good reason. This young island is filled with spectacular volcanic rock formations of different colors. For 360-degree views of the surrounding scenery, climb several steep wooden stairs to reach the island’s volcanic cone. From this panoramic viewpoint, more than 10 surrounding islands are visible on a clear day. It also provides sweeping views of Pinnacle Rock jutting out of the ocean. This mighty volcanic spire is another of Bartolomé’s most famous attractions. In fact, the postcard image of Pinnacle Rock is one of the most recognizable sites of the whole archipelago. It was even used as a filming location for the 2003 blockbuster film Master and Commander, starring Russel Crowe.

A view of a stretch of land with beaches and sea on either side. On one side there is a large rock coming out of the sea
A magnificent view of Pinnacle Rock. Photo by Adriana Proaño of Inca Expert Travel

At the base of Pinnacle Rock one can appreciate another of the island’s highlights, a colony of Galapagos penguins. This small penguin colony shares this spot with other wildlife, including marine birds and Galapagos sea lions. You can take incredible shots of some of the Galapagos’ most iconic animals all in one place. Nearby, travelers can relax on Playa Dorada, the “golden beach” that runs along the bay. Its waters are excellent for snorkeling with sea lions and penguins. The cold-water current attracts a number of other exotic marine wildlife, such as white-tipped reef sharks and sea turtles. Bartolomé’s combination of iconic landscapes and both land and marine wildlife make it a must-visit destination on this list. 

Logistics

Cruise ships include a stop here on most itineraries. For island-hoppers, it’s also possible to arrange a day trip here from Santa Cruz. As one of the most demanded tours, it is recommended to book this one in advance.

3. San Cristobal Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Chatham Island
  • Population: 6,000
  • Area: 215 sq mi (557 km2
  • Maximum Altitude: 2,395 ft (730 metres)
  • Notable Wildlife: Red-footed booby, Blue-footed booby, Galapagos giant tortoise
  • Top attractions: San Cristobal Interpretation Center, Kicker Rock, Punta Pitt, Cerro Brujo, La Galapaguera, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, El Junco lake

Attractions and Wildlife

There are many interesting facts about San Cristobal. Located about 600 miles from mainland Ecuador it is the easternmost island of the archipelago. One of the oldest islands, it was created by a fusion of now-extinct volcanoes. It was also the first island in the Galapagos to be permanently inhabited by humans. Settlers were drawn in by the only fresh-water lake in the entire region, El Junco. It’s the second-most populous island after Santa Cruz. Its largest settlement is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the entire Galápagos province. This picturesque town is home to a number of hotels and seaside restaurants. Visit the San Cristobal Interpretation Center where you can learn more about the area’s natural and human history. 

San Cristobal’s other claim to fame is that it was the first island visited by biologist Charles Darwin in 1835. Darwin studied the various endemic species found here, such as Galapagos giant tortoises. Today, La Galapaguera serves as a sanctuary and breeding ground for these threatened species. Birders should visit Punta Pitt for the rare chance to spot Red-footed, Blue-footed, and Nazca boobies nesting together. There are even more birdwatching opportunities at Cerro Brujo. From here, behold a postcard image of the iconic Kicker Rock sticking out of the sea. The area around the rock is a perfect snorkeling and diving spot. You can swim with rays, sea lions, and even sharks. 

Logistics

A few minutes away is one of two airports in the entire Galapagos that serves flights to the mainland. This makes San Cristobal a common entry point for visitors and a starting point for many cruise itineraries.

4. Isabela Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Albemarle Island
  • Population: 2,000
  • Area: 2,850 sq mi (4,588 km2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 5,600 ft (1,707 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Whales, dolphins, Galapagos penguin, Galapagos giant tortoise, Flightless cormorants
  • Top attractions: Punta Vicente Roca, Tagus Cove, Sierra Negra volcano crater, Elizabeth Bay, Tortoise Center, Wall of Tears, Puerto Villamil

Attractions and Wildlife

Isabela island is notable for being the largest of the whole archipelago. This seahorse-shaped island was formed by a merger of 6 impressive volcanoes. Five of them remain active meaning that eruptions are still common occurrences. Wolf volcano stands at 5,600 ft (1,707 m) above sea level making it the highest point of the Galapagos. Meanwhile, hiking Sierra Negra Volcano is a top attraction as it has the second largest active crater in the world. Before the volcanic islands joined to form what is now Isabela, each was home to a separate subspecies of tortoise. Thus, Isabela has more types of giant tortoise than the rest of the islands combined. Learn more about each of these gentle giants at the Tortoise Center of Isabela.

Board a dinghy and head to Las Tintoneras, a group of small islets off the coast. This area is home to many marine iguanas and Galapagos penguins. Punta Vicente Roca and Elizabeth Bay are also worth a visit for impressive diving and snorkeling opportunities. Swim among green turtles, white-tipped sharks, and giant seahorses. Another highlight is Tagus Cove, a crater lagoon filled with sea life. Pirates and whalers once passed through here, some of whom left their names etched on the rocky cliffs. In the south of the island you can find one of the few human settlements in the Galapagos, Puerto Villamil. It contains some basic tourist facilities, including hotels and restaurants. The Wall of Tears, built by prisoners, is a somber reminder of the island’s history as a former penal colony. 

a small blue-green lake separated from the ocean by a narrow isthmus
A narrow isthmus separates blue-green Darwin Lake from Tagus Cove. Image: Darwin Lake” by David Stanley, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

Logistics

Due to its position further west, not all cruises stop here. If you are set on visiting Isabela, choose a cruise itinerary that includes the western islands. The basic tourist infrastructure and airstrip make a stop here convenient for island-hoppers. Keep in mind that Isabela’s small airstrip only connects it to a couple of the other islands, not the mainland.

5. Española Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Hood Island
  • Population: Uninhabited
  • Area: 23 sq mi (60 km2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 676 ft (206 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Waved albatross, Blue-footed booby, Española mockingbird, Española lava lizard
  • Top attractions: Punta Suarez, Gardner Bay

Attractions and Wildlife

Española is sometimes considered the jewel of the Galapagos due to its many natural wonders. It is the only place in the world where you can find a waved albatross nest. Every waved albatross flocks here during the mating season, from April to December. Watch their curious mating ritual which involves waddling, bill circling, and strange noises. Once a pair has bonded, they remain mates for life.  

a rocky path surrounded by green plants leading to a blowhole shooting up water with the sea in the background
The blowhole shooting up water at Punta Suarez. Image: by David Berkowitz, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

A great place on the island to see the waved albatross is Punta Suarez. You will first need to take a boat, and then hike 1.9 miles (3 km) to reach this magnificent point. Yet the journey is definitely worth it. The area is a sanctuary for birds, such as the Española mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, and waved albatrosses. If that wasn’t spectacular enough, there is a naturally occurring blowhole shooting water up 75 ft (23 m) in the air. Waves crashing into the black, rocky cliffs add a dramatic backdrop. For a sunny day at the beach, head to Gardner Bay. The white, sandy shore is a perfect location to go snorkeling or just sit back and relax. Keep an eye out for bright red Española lava lizards and Española mockingbirds.

Logistics

Located at the extreme southeast of the archipelago, Española is far from its neighbors. The boat journey from Santa Cruz takes about 12 hours, making it difficult to visit when island hopping. San Cristobal is closer, thus making it possible to arrange a trip from there. However, most visitors who come here arrive on a cruise. Despite being out of the way, you won’t regret a trip to this gorgeous island.

6. Genovesa Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Tower Island
  • Population: Uninhabited
  • Area: 8.5 sq mi (14 km2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 209 ft (64 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Swallow-tailed gulls, red-footed boobies, frigatebirds, short-eared owls
  • Top attractions: Darwin Bay, Prince Philip’s Steps

Attractions and Wildlife

Genovesa is a horseshoe-shaped island in the north of the archipelago. It is home to finches, red-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, and frigatebirds making it a birdwatcher’s paradise. In fact, it’s nicknamed the “bird island”. If visiting in May, during the mating season, visitors can observe the unique mating rituals performed by these species. Male frigatebirds puff out their chest like a balloon to reveal a bright red gular pouch. These vibrant pouches attract females, while other jealous males attempt to puncture them. Head to Darwin Bay where you can relax on a pristine, sandy beach made from crushed coral. Aside from admiring the many bird species, this area is a great snorkeling and diving spot. You will often find sea turtles, sea lions, and starfish. Some lucky visitors may even get the chance to see hammerhead sharks. 

a red-chested magnificent frigatebird surrounded by branches and leaves with tree trunks in the background
Image: Magnificent Frigatebird” by Kuhnmi, under under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

For even more birding opportunities, take a dinghy around the island to reach Prince Philip’s Steps. Climb the 81 stairs up the steep rocky cliffs while admiring red-billed tropicbirds flying overhead. Once you reach the top you can follow a narrow path through a palo santo forest and open lava field. From up here, admire red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, finches, and mockingbirds. Your guide will also help you keep a lookout for short-eared owls.

Logistics

Genovesa is a must-visit island for both experienced and novice bird lovers. However, all visitors to the island must opt for a cruise. Its distance from Santa Cruz means there is no way to get here on an island hopping tour. Make sure that your cruise itinerary covers the northern part of the Galapagos, as not all cruises make a stop here.

7. Floreana Island

Basic Facts
  • English Name: Charles Island
  • Population: 150
  • Area: 67 sq mi (174 km2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 2,100 ft (640 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Flamingos, Floreana mockingbirds, red-billed tropicbirds, marine turtles
  • Top attractions: Cormorant Point, Post Office Bay, Devil’s Crown, Puerto Velasco Ibarra

Attractions and Wildlife

Floreana was the first island to be visited by humans. Yet, without a source of freshwater, the remaining population today is less than 200. Most of the people here live in Puerto Velasco Ibarra, a small outpost on the western coast of the island. There are a couple of hotels and restaurants, though tourist facilities are very limited.

The island has a fascinating history waiting to be discovered by travelers. From the 1600s, whalers, pirates, and other adventurers passed through Floreana. It was a group of whalers who, in the 19th century, set up a wooden barrel at Post Office Bay. Seamen could leave letters here with addresses written on them. Whenever one of them was departing the island, they would take with them any letters that they were able to deliver by hand. This early messaging system allowed the people at sea to remain in contact with their loved ones at home. Visitors can still pay a visit to this historic site and participate in the tradition of delivering other travelers’ mail.

three pink flamingoes in a lagoon putting their heads into the water
Image: Flamingoes” By A.Davey, used under CC BY 2.0: / Cropped and compressed from original

There are several endemic species waiting to be discovered. Cormorant Point features a green-tinted beach and a photogenic lagoon where you will find a large group of pink flamingos. Other wildlife species in this area include Sally Lightfoot crabs, green sea turtles, and joint-footed petrels. A short boat ride from the island is Devil’s Crown. This volcanic cone, semi-submerged under the sea, is a hotspot for snorkeling and diving because of its coral reef. It attracts an abundance of colorful fish, sea lions, penguins, and dolphins.

Logistics

Visitors can learn about Floreana’s exciting history on a cruise or on an island-hopping tour. Staying overnight in Puerto Velasco Ibarra is possible, however, accommodation is limited and most tourists prefer to return to Santa Cruz.

8. Plaza Sur Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: South Plaza Island
  • Population: Uninhabited
  • Area: 0.08 sq mi (130 m2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 75 ft (23 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Galapagos sea lion, land iguana, marine iguana, Sally Lightfoot crabs   Top attractions: Spotting rare hybrid iguanas, largest bachelor sea lion colony, bird-watching, colorful Sesuvium landscapes

Attractions and Wildlife

Plaza Sur, or South Plaza Island is located only a stone’s throw away from Santa Cruz. This tiny islet was formed by pillow lava, an uplift of lava that cooled just under the sea’s surface. Despite being small in size, Plaza Sur is home to a vast amount of flora and fauna species. Soaring overhead are a variety of seabirds, including swallow-tailed gulls, frigatebirds, and blue-footed boobies. To entice females, male blue-footed boobies show off their blue feet while doing a quirky dance. This is because the blue color on their feet demonstrates good health and strong genes.

Due to an overlap in the mating season of marine and land iguanas, you can find a rare species of hybrid iguanas. Yet, its biggest attraction is the countless number of sea lions found nestling on the rocky shores. Marvel in awe at one of the largest sea lion colonies in the entire archipelago. 

Plaza Sur is also one of the Galapagos’ most colorful islands. The rocky floor is covered in Sesuvium, an endemic plant that looks like a green carpet during the rainy season. However, it changes color to red in the dry season, providing a stunning contrast with the surrounding turquoise waters. The green and red prickly pear cactus found here only adds to the vivid palette of colors. To visit the island, organize an island hopping day trip from Santa Cruz. Otherwise, choose a cruise itinerary that covers the central or eastern part of the archipelago.

prickly pear cacti on a large open plain with red terrain and blue sky
A group of prickly pear cacti. Image by Bernard Gagnon, used under CC BY-SA 4.0 / Compressed from original

9. Fernandina Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Narborough Island
  • Population: Uninhabited
  • Area: 248 sq mi (642 km2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 4,842 ft (1,476 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, marine iguanas
  • Top attractions: Punta Espinosa

Attractions and Wildlife

Fernandina Island is geologically the youngest of the whole Galapagos archipelago. The island was formed by the La Cumbre volcano, which remains the most active volcano on any of the islands. Its latest eruption occurred in January 2020. The volcanic activity has left the island with little vegetation. Only mangroves and lava cacti have adapted to these tough conditions. These plants can be found scattered across the island in dense forests. Fernandina is one of only two islands where you can spot flightless cormorants. These birds demonstrate how different species adapted to their environment in the Galapagos. Researchers hypothesize that they lost their ability to fly due to a lack of predators. Instead, they are excellent swimmers and use this ability to catch fish. There is also a sizable population of land iguanas. They perch precariously on the island’s volcanic cliffs.

Fernandina’s only visitor site is Punta Espinosa, found on the northeastern tip of the island. Walking around the site, you will notice its jet-black, barren landscape and lava flows. The nutrient-rich water of this area attracts heaps of marine life. This makes it a great place to spot manta rays, hammerheads, whale sharks, and dolphins. You will also find the largest colony of marine iguanas here. It is located west of Isabela, thus making it the westernmost island of the archipelago. 

a number of iguanas sitting on a black, rocky coast with the ocean in the background
Iguanas on Punta Espinosa. Image by Jeremy T.Hetzel, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

Logistics

Due to its remote location, getting here on an island hopping trip is all but impossible. To explore Fernandina, choose a cruise itinerary that visits the western islands. This will also usually include a stop at Isabela.

10. Santa Fe Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Barrington Island
  • Population: Uninhabited
  • Area: 9.3 sq mi (24 km2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 850 ft (260 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Santa Fe Iguana, Marine iguana, Galapagos hawk, Galapagos mockingbird, Galapagos sea lion, 
  • Top attractions: Prickly pear cactus forest, Barrington Bay lagoon

Attractions and Wildlife

Santa Fe Island is only a short, 40-minute boat trip away from Puerto Ayora. Many researchers claim this to be the oldest island of the whole archipelago. This is because of the discovery of sub-aerial rocks dating back approximately 4 million years. As a result of its very long history, the island is home to several endemic species unique to the island. Most travelers come here to see the rare Santa Fe iguana, the largest iguana species in the Galapagos. It is closely related to the land iguana but with a few distinct features, such as a darker color. You will also encounter plenty of playful Galapagos sea lions lounging on the beaches of the turquoise Barrington Bay. Other endemic species you can spot here include the Galapagos hawk, the Santa Fe rice rat, and the Galapagos mockingbird.

woman standing on a beach with many sea lions lying on the sand and green plants in the background
Sea lions lazing on Barrington Bay. Photo by Melissa Dreffs of Inca Expert Travel

Santa Fe is a great choice for travelers who want to truly disconnect. Take a walk along its flat, barren landscape, exploring untouched nature and observing unique wildlife. The island is also famous for its vegetation, including the Opuntia echios cactus. This endemic plant, more commonly known as the Galapagos prickly pear, grows in dense forests. There are also popular spots for both diving and snorkeling where you can often find rays, sharks, and sea turtles. 

Logistics

The island can easily be visited in a full day island hopping trip from Santa Cruz. It is also included on some cruise itineraries that visit the central or eastern islands. There are no tourist facilities on Santa Fe, meaning it is not possible to stay overnight on the island.

11. Rábida Island

Basic Facts

  • English Name: Jervis Island
  • Population: Uninhabited
  • Area: 3 sq mi (5 km2)
  • Maximum Altitude: 1204 ft (364 m)
  • Notable Wildlife: Flamingos, Darwin’s finches, Galapagos doves, sea turtles, brown pelicans
  • Top attractions: Red sand beach, flamingo pool

Attractions and Wildlife

Once you set foot on Rábida, the first thing you notice is the iconic red beach. Its distinctive appearance is due to the high iron content found in the soil. With such an unusual, yet photogenic color, this is a prime location for photographers to bring out their artistic side. Along the red beach, you will notice marine iguanas and sea lions lazing in the sun. Dip into the turquoise sea for a great snorkeling experience. The surrounding area is home to sea turtles, reef sharks, eels, and even penguins.  

Afterwards, follow the visitor trail inland where the island will continue to surprise you. The 45-minute trail will lead you to a saltwater lagoon, home to a small group of flamingos. These birds get their vivid pink color by feeding on shrimp larvae. Back on the trail, keep a lookout for brown pelicans, known to rest in salt brushes found here. Be sure to bring a zoom lens to take up-close pictures of these elegant birds. Aside from pelicans and flamingos, it is also home to Darwin’s finches, Galapagos doves, and mockingbirds to name a few. Hop aboard a dinghy to circle the island’s shoreline and catch a better glimpse of these birds. You may even spot Galapagos fur seals dotted across the rocky cliffs.

Logistics

Rábida is a small volcanic island, located just south of Santiago Island. There are no tourist facilities on the island meaning there is no way to stay the night. However, its relative proximity to Santa Cruz means it is possible to visit on a day trip. Many cruises also make a stop here to explore the famous red beach.

a sea lion lying down on a red sandy beach with two more seals in the sea in the background
A sea lion resting on Rábida’s Red beach Image: by Ian Masias, used under CC BY 2.0 / Compressed from original

The UNESCO-protected Galapagos National Park attracts flocks of tourists every year. The Galapagos has it all; from unique flora and fauna, to gorgeous landscapes and fascinating history. While this list is a summary of some of the best Galapagos islands, every island in the archipelago is stunning. No matter which islands you choose to visit, you are guaranteed to discover something magical around every corner. 

Start planning your personalized Galapagos holiday now with tips from one of our expert Travel Advisors at Inca Expert Travel

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