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12 Best Galapagos Islands to Visit

As a wildlife lover, one of my favorite destinations is the Galapagos Islands. There is probably no other place on Earth where you can get up close to over 900-pound tortoises, swim alongside marine iguanas, and saunter through a sea lion herd. The islands strewn across the Pacific some 600 miles from the Ecuadoran mainland are a wildlife paradise. The animals are often delightfully curious and virtually fearless, as humans have rarely posed a threat to any of them, creating experiences of a lifetime.

A wealth of outdoor activities like snorkeling, diving, swimming, and hiking can all be enjoyed, along with pristine white sand beaches. The only question is, with 127 islands, islets, and rocks, 19 of which are large, and four that are inhabited, which do you choose to visit? This guide will help you make the best decision for a trip of a lifetime.

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Santa Cruz Island Galapagos giant tortoise, Santa Cruz Island
Credit: Galapagos giant tortoise, Santa Cruz Island by © Donyanedomam - Dreamstime.com

Santa Cruz Island

The archipelago’s main tourism hub, Santa Cruz Island is one of the most popular as the only island where visitors can easily explore the interior and higher elevation areas. It has a long paved road that runs from Puerto Ayora to the Itabaca Canal where the airport ferry is located, while offering a wide range of tourist facilities, including supermarkets, shops, and restaurants, along with abundant wildlife. Just some of the creatures you might see include marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs, brown pelicans, fur seals, sea lions, and wild tortoises. Don’t miss the  Puerto Ayora Fish Market which is more than a place to buy fish. Many animals come hoping to sneak a feast, including pelicans, frigatebirds, and sea lions.

Isabela Island Marine iguana with blue footed boobies, Isabela Island, Galapagos
Credit: Marine iguana with blue footed boobies, Isabela Island, Galapagos by © Martin Schneiter - Dreamstime.com

Isabela Island

The largest island in the Galapagos, Isabela makes up more than half the size of the entire islands put together. It has a tranquil atmosphere and is particularly noted for its snorkeling, as one can enjoy an incredible array of marine species here. At Concha de Perla, you’ll find calm, crystal-clear water with many types of tropical fish. Watch for tortoises and the penguins that are often seen in search of a feast. Elizabeth Bay on the island’s east coast is another one of the top snorkeling spots with marine life that includes sea lions, colorful schools of fish, and the occasional whale. Keep an eye out for blue-footed boobies and penguins too. Isabela is also known for its rather sobering history – interested visitors can head to the Wall of Tears. Built between 1945 and 1959, it was constructed purely to keep prisoners busy and took the lives of thousands in the process.

Fernandina Island Marine iguanas, Fernandina Island
Credit: Marine iguanas, Fernandina Island by © Alan Kolnik - Dreamstime.com

Fernandina Island

Fernandina is the westernmost island in the Galapagos and one of the most unspoiled with no human settlements here. There are no hotels, restaurants, or any infrastructure so you’ll need to visit it on a day trip by boat from Isabela. There isn’t much plant life here, only lava cacti and mangroves because of the La Cumbre volcanic eruption in 2020, but it’s well worth visiting, with an other-worldly landscape of endless black and lots of wildlife. It’s one of the best islands for viewing marine and land iguanas, as well as flightless cormorants with their vivid blue eyes. Sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, sharks, and manta rays can all be spotted here as well.

Espanola Island Galapagos sea lions on the beach at Gardner Bay, Espanola Island
Credit: Galapagos sea lions on the beach at Gardner Bay, Espanola Island by © Donyanedomam | Dreamstime.com

Espanola Island

Espanola is located in the southeast of the Galapagos archipelago. It’s possible to visit on a day tour from San Cristobal, which is about a two-hour boat ride away. It’s the only place in the world where you can see the nests of waved albatross, which are known for their incredible 8-foot wingspans. You can even witness their elaborate mating rituals 10 months of the year, between March and December. The fascinating ceremony includes lots of odd noises, but you’ll be getting a glimpse of an intimate, milestone moment between these birds that mate for life. Look for them at Garden Bay where you can almost always see sea lions hanging around too. As Espanola is one of the most isolated of the Galapagos islands, there are many endemic species to look for, such as the Espanola mockingbird and the Espanola lava lizard.

San Cristobal Island sea lions at Loberia Beach, San Cristobal, Galapagos
Credit: sea lions at Loberia Beach, San Cristobal, Galapagos by © Luis Leamus - Dreamstime.com

San Cristobal Island

San Cristobal is a great island to base yourself on for part of your time in the islands. It’s home to the archipelago’s capital of Puerto Baquerizo and also offers abundant wildlife. It’s easy to reach by ferry or plane and hosts a wide variety of shops, restaurants, and hotels. There are a large number of sea lions here, many of which like to lounge on the golden sands that edge Loberia Bay. Wear your bathing suit and enjoy swimming with the animals, with one of the best opportunities in the Galapagos right here. It’s also home to the famous megalith, Kicker Rock, which rises over 500 feet above the sea. Resembling a sleeping lion from afar, it’s world-renowned for snorkeling and diving. This is an underwater paradise with everything from white-tipped reef sharks and hammerhead sharks to eagle rays and sea turtles.

Bartolome Island Pinnacle Rock at Bartolome Island
Credit: Pinnacle Rock at Bartolome Island by © Emma Jones - Dreamstime.com

Bartolome Island

Day tours to Bartolome Island can be enjoyed from Santa Cruz Island, which lies just south. It’s home to one of the archipelago’s most iconic landmarks, Pinnacle Rock, a tall, pointed formation marking a top snorkeling spot. The strikingly clear waters that surround it are inhabited by a colony of Galapagos penguins, along with sea lions, rays, sharks, octopi, and colorful fish. It’s one of the best places in the Galapagos for encountering penguins and swimming with sea lions. There’s also a lookout point, accessed by climbing 65 steps, that provides awe-inspiring panoramic views. Look for blue-footed boobies that fish in the water, soaring high in the stay before plunging down to catch a fish. The lava rocks scattered about the island are an interesting feature too. They appear dense and heavy, but most are as light as a feather as they’re filled with gas bubbles.

Floreana Island Mail box at Post Office Bay, Floreana Island, Galapagos
Credit: Mail box at Post Office Bay, Floreana Island, Galapagos by © Mark Ray - Dreamstime.com

Floreana Island

Floreana is home to a population of only around 150m with its town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra one of the smallest and most isolated in the world. It’s best known for its unique post office and colorful past, having been established in 1793 by whalers who set up a wooden barrel, now known as Post Office Bay. They would leave letters there to be mailed by sailors who came by on passing ships if they were traveling in the right direction. It was the only connection those with loved ones at home had. Surprisingly, that system is still working today. Thousands of visitors to the island drop off letters and postcards. Other visitors that are traveling close to an addressee will pick them up and mail them from home. There are only a few hotels and restaurants here, but in addition to the unusual “post office,” the island is ideal for spotting petrels and Sally Lightfoot crabs.

Genovesa Island red-footed boobies, Genovesa island
Credit: red-footed boobies, Genovesa island by © Donyanedomam - Dreamstime.com

Genovesa Island

Known as “Bird Island,” Genovesa is a tiny, unspoiled island in the north of the archipelago, known for its remarkable abundance of unique birds. As it’s a far distance from most of the other islands, it can’t be visited on a day trip, but bird lovers who are doing a mix of land-based options and a cruise might choose an itinerary that includes it. The cold, nutrient waters that surround it provide the ideal conditions for sea birds to thrive. Highlights include red-footed and Nazca boobies, Darwin finches, frigates, lava gulls, and tern. Beyond Darwin Bay is a tidal lagoon with a nesting ground. There’s plenty underwater too, including hammerhead sharks, and marine iguanas can frequently be seen along the shoreline.

Santa Fe Island Barrington land iguana on Santa Fe Island
Credit: Barrington land iguana on Santa Fe Island by © Donyanedomam - Dreamstime.com

Santa Fe Island

Just 12 miles from Santa Cruz Island, Santa Fe is small, but it’s one of the best Galapagos islands to visit and easy to reach on a day trip. It’s home to a wealth of unique wildlife, including endemic species and subspecies like the Barrington land iguana, the Santa Fe marine iguana, the Barrington leaf-toe gecko, and the Santa Fe rice rat, which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Barrington Bay is where you can spot these species while admiring the gorgeous turquoise water. Colonies of sea lions like to lounge around on the beach too.

Santiago Island Sally lightfoot crabs, Santiago Island
Credit: Sally lightfoot crabs, Santiago Island by © Donyanedomam - Dreamstime.com

Santiago Island

Santiago is one of the largest islands in the Galapagos, covering more than 200 miles. Located northwest of Santa Cruz, you’ll need to join a cruise with a northern itinerary to visit. It was one of the last islands Charles Darwin visited and where he stayed the longest, regarding the landscape as “the most striking scenery in the world.” The diversity of wildlife is staggering and includes blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, Darwin finches, and a greater diversity of reptiles than anywhere else on the planet. One of the highlights is Puerto Egas, which is the best place to see Galapagos fur seals. It’s also home to sea lions, marine iguanas, dolphins, sharks, and Sally Lightfoot crabs.

North Seymour Island blue-footed boobie, Galapagos
Credit: blue-footed boobie, Galapagos by © Wirestock - Dreamstime.com

North Seymour Island

North Seymour is relatively small and has no permanent human population, but it’s only about an hour from the Itabaca Channel, making it ideal for a day tour from Santa Cruz Island. While the landscape is quite dry as compared to other islands, it’s ideal for reptiles, with marine iguanas plentiful here. There’s also a large colony of blue-footed boobies which display their unique mating dance in the spring, and there are plenty of sea lions too. The island also has a visitor trail that winds just over a mile to the coast, ideal for spotting a range of the island’s native creatures.

Rábida Island School of surgeon fish and a parrot fish, Rabida Island, Galapagos
Credit: School of surgeon fish and a parrot fish, Rabida Island, Galapagos by © Angela Perryman - Dreamstime.com

Rábida Island

Rabida Island is in the heart of the archipelago, easily reached from Santa Cruz or San Cristobal island. It’s one of the top spots for snorkelers and divers who can see a wide array of marine species that take advantage of the crevices that provide an ideal home. That includes a diverse variety of tropical fish, while rays, sea turtles, and sea lions are frequently spotted too. It also boasts a unique red sand beach that’s an attraction in itself, thanks to the iron-rich volcanic rocks which erode over time to provide the unusual hue. From the beach, you can often see marine iguanas and sea turtles. The island has one walking trail as well, where diverse bird species like various finches, pelicans, Galapagos hawks, and flycatchers are frequently spotted.

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