The Galapagos are an almost mythical archipelago more than 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador's mainland. The 21 islands of various sizes spread over 17,000 square miles across Pacific waters and are home to some of the rarest wildlife on the planet. Depending on which islands you visit in this UNESCO World Heritage Site and protected national park, you'll find Galapagos tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and Darwin's finches. There are roaming penguins, frolicking sea lions, wandering crabs, waved albatross, hammerhead sharks, and sea turtles—all which are seemingly unfazed by human visitors. The Galapagos Islands are a place like nowhere else on earth, and easy to visit with such tour operators as the boutique cruise company Latin Trails and larger ships like National Geographic Endeavor II. Both offer various itineraries (14 of the islands are visitable), but which one to choose? This handy guide profiles the top Galapagos Islands and the features for which they're known, so that you can select what you most want to see and how best to do it. Whatever you decide, get ready to be floored.
At 67 square miles, Floreana is one of the largest Galapagos islands, and one of the few that Charles Darwin actually set foot on. It's located on the far south of the archipelago and is best known for its Post Office Bay, a free "postal service" that doesn't require any stamps, just travelers willing to take and leave postcards and letters. Whalers originated this unique barrel system in the 19th century, and it continues today. Just drop off a postcard, then sort through the stacks already on hand to see if there are some you can hand deliver to their intended recipients in your own city or state. It's an old school mail system in which the waiting is part of the fun. Floreana is also home to Cormorant Point, a good place for spotting pink flamingo and an easy walk from the island's green sand beach—created from olivine crystals mixed in the sands—where you'll find nesting sea turtles, lazing sea lions, sally lightfoot crabs scattered upon volcanic rocks, and rays swimming in the shallow waters.
Floreana is the site of "The Galapagos Affair," a historical documentary about a true-crime tale that took place in the 1930s involving European expats. Watching it before a visit gives the island a whole new twist.
Santa Cruz Island
At 381 square miles, Santa Cruz (not to be mistaken for the largest of the Channel Islands) is the second largest island in the Galapagos. It's a central island with a sprawling dormant volcano that's home to the Charles Darwin Research Station where you'll find decades worth of scientific info relating to the islands, as well as a natural history collection showcasing the archipelago's sheer biodiversity. Santa Cruz's Puerto Ayora is the Galapagos' largest town, with a population of 12,000 (the bulk of the islands' residents). Here, you'll find hotels, restaurants, cafes, and bars, and plenty of tourist facilities for island day-trips, and it's just a 1.5-mile walk to Tortuga Bay—a spectacular white sand beach with a separate cove for swimming in the company of white tip reef sharks. While on the island, don't miss Dragon Hill, a 2-mile round trip hike that leads past cacti forests to the aptly named centerpiece, a hill that's covered in resident land iguanas, and which also makes a great overlook for spotting flamingos in the nearby salt water lagoon. There are also naturally formed underground lava tubes you can walk through, and the El Chato Tortoise Reserve—a great place to see giant tortoises (some 100 years old and counting) in their natural habitat.
While blue-footed boobies are a Galapagos calling card, red-footed boobies are also an island highlight—and one that you're basically guaranteed to see on Genovesa, an uninhabited 5-square-mile island in the archipelago's northeast region that's shaped like a horseshoe. The smallest of all booby species (Nazca boobies are a third island type), red-footed boobies are best found nesting in the island's trees and bushes (unlike blue-footed boobies, which typically nest on rocky islands where vegetation is sparse). Genovesa's numerous bird colonies have earned it the nickname “Bird Island.” There are both red-footed and Nazca boobies, as well as Darwin's finches, swallow-tailed gulls, and frigate birds—a black-feathered, hook-billed seabird whose males have a distinct red throat pouch that they inflate balloon-like to attract the ladies. Genovesa is also home to the smallest marine iguana in the islands, and its nutrient-rich waters attract lots of hammerhead sharks.
The Isle Isabela is far and away the largest Galapagos island, a 1,771-square-mile mix of open lava fields and, at higher elevations, red mangrove forest that is made up of five young (and still active) volcanoes. It's home to Puerto Villamil, a remote port village with a population of 2,200, as well as Flamingos Lake, where you'll find more pink flamingos than anywhere else on the islands.
Isabela's Moreno Point is a good spot for penguin sightings, and its Arnaldo Tupiza Breeding Center breeds all five subspecies of giant tortoise that are native to the island. They each spend approximately 6 years here before returning to the wild, and the center provides a great opportunity to view them up close from a non-invasive boardwalk running through its grounds. While on the island, pay a visit to the Wall of Tears, a 65-foot-tall wall built by prisoners who were part of a penal colony here in the years after WWII. It's an island history that few people know about.
Fernandina Island is the third largest Galapagos island—an active shield volcano that's constantly evolving with new and ever-spreading lava fields. It's also the youngest and westernmost island in the archipelago, but well worth a visit for its pristineness and wildlife: here you'll find elusive penguins, the largest population of flightless cormorants in the islands, and the biggest iguanas. Fernandina also boasts a really interesting miniature forest that's evolved without any soil, and remains the Galapagos' most volcanically active island—one without any introduced species. Basically, Fernandina Island is in a league of its own.
The island's Punta Espinoza features one of the largest marine iguana colonies in the Galapagos, often found lounging along (and blending with) the site's black lava rocks. A newer access point for visitors to Galapagos National Park is Fernandina's Mangle Point, a snorkeling spot where you can swim alongside playful sea lions, inquisitive penguins, marine iguanas, and more.
South Plaza Island
This tiny island packs some stunning endemic flora into its small 0.08-square mile space, and coupled with such wildlife as swallow-tailed gulls, yellow warblers, and sea lions, it's an Instagrammer's dream. Depending on the season, South Plaza's sesuvium-covered landscape can turn from lush green to bright red, orange, and purple in drier months. Prickly pear cacti pop up here and there across the landscape, where a rare breed of hybrid land and marine iguanas reside.
North Seymour Island
As if blue-footed boobies weren't entertaining enough in appearance, their distinct mating ritual is one for the ages. There's no better place to catch this elaborate performance than North Seymour Island, a small unpopulated island just north of Baltra Island (home to a commercial airport with flights coming in from Ecuador's Guayaquil and the capital city of Quito) that's known as a birder's paradise. Here you can also spot swallow-tailed gulls, tropicbirds, and Nazca boobies, as well as eye-catching frigate birds nesting in the trees year-round. Land iguanas (introduced from neighboring Balta) and sea lions also reside here, and sea-life—including tiger sharks, Galapagos sharks, sea turtles, and manta rays—fill its surrounding waters, making them a hot spot for divers and snorkelers.
The southernmost island in the Galapagos and one of its oldest—estimated to be over 4 million years old—Española is a wildlife hub. Especially at Suarez Point, a trail that begins at a small lighthouse and often passes curious sea lions (related to the ones you'll find in California), Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, Darwin's finches, and swallow-tailed gulls en route to a natural blowhole that can spray water up to 100 feet in the air. The island has some extremely cool wildlife features: including its “Christmas iguanas,” which turn red and green during mating season; and the waved albatross, a rare species endemic to the islands and tens-of-thousands of which breed on Española between March and January, performing their own elaborate (and drawn-out) mating ritual, which often includes lots of honking, beak-fencing, and bowing. Their wobbly take-offs, resulting in graceful flights, and massive wing-spans, are also incredible to see.
If relaxing on the beach beside sleeping sea lions is more your speed, the island's white sand Gardener Bay is your place.