The Galapagos Islands “are located in the Pacific Ocean 972 km (604 mi) from the continental coast of Ecuador, [and] are made up of 13 islands” (Instituto Geofísico, Escuela Politécnica Nacional, Galapagos Islands, 2023). In addition, the archipelago has more than 200 islets, rocks, or smaller islands. The Galapagos National Park […] It covers 97% of the surface of the archipelago, the remaining 3% being the inhabited surface of the 4 inhabited islands. These are: Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana (Galapagos National Park, Galapagos National Park, s/f).
Not all of the park is open to tourism. Still, it has an extensive network of visitor sites specially designed to offer a close encounter with this “natural laboratory” and, at the same time, minimize impacts (Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas del Ministerio del Ambiente del Ecuador, Parque Nacional Galápagos, 2015).
Considering this data, you must wonder which archipelago islands I should visit. We will start by saying that each island in the Galapagos has its history, attractions, flora and fauna, and volcanic formations that make them different. Hence our goal is for you to learn which we consider the best islands to visit in the Galapagos, and learn more about each of them, their main natural attractions, the most characteristic species that inhabit there, and how you can get to each one.
Cover photo: Map of the best islands to visit in Galapagos.
1. Santa Cruz
Without a doubt, one of the best islands to visit in the Galapagos is Santa Cruz Island. This is the gateway to the Galapagos, the second largest of the Galapagos Islands, after Isabela Island, and the most inhabited island in the archipelago. Santa Cruz is located in the center of the group of islands and has an area of 986 km² (610 mi²). The cantonal head of Santa Cruz Island is Puerto Ayora, known as “The Heart of the Galapagos” for being the archipelago’s economic center and geographical location.
On Baltra Island, very close to Santa Cruz, is the main airport of the Galapagos Islands, formally known as the Galapagos Ecological Airport (IATA: GPS, ICAO: SEGS) and better known as Seymour Baltra Airport. It should be noted that most cruises often begin and end their tours in Santa Cruz due to the proximity of the Baltra airport in relation to this island.
Santa Cruz Island has multiple attractions. Among the main ones are: the Charles Darwin Research Station, the station beach, Tortuga Bay Beach, Las Grietas, El Garrapatero Beach, Rancho Primicias, Los Gemelos, Lagunas de las Ninfas, the fishermen’s pier, Punta Estrada Beach or Los Alemanes Beach, Bahía Ballena, and Cerro Dragón. So that you know everything about what to do on Santa Cruz island, we recommend you read our note.
As for the species that inhabit the island and during your visit, you will be able to meet the famous Galapagos giant tortoises, marine iguanas, land iguanas, sea lions, frigate birds, pelicans, blue-footed boobies, among many more.
If you want to get to know Santa Cruz, we recommend you fly from the mainland to the Galapagos Ecological Airport in Baltra. Once there, you can cross the Itabaca Channel and arrive at Puerto Ayora, the cantonal capital of the Santa Cruz canton.
The largest island in the Galapagos archipelago is, without a doubt, Isabela, another of the best islands to visit in the Galapagos. It has a surface area of 4,588 km² (2851 mi²) and represents 60% of the total land area of the Galapagos Islands. It is famous because it has the shape of a seahorse, abundant marine fauna, and incredible volcanic landscapes. It is considered the island of volcanoes since it has six. These are: Wolf, Darwin, Alcedo, Cerro Azul, Ecuador and Sierra Negra. Except for the Ecuador volcano, all these volcanoes are still active that’s the reason why Isabela Island is considered one of the areas with the highest volcanic activity on the planet.
The main attractions of Isabela are Puerto Villamil, Concha de Perla, the Wall of Tears, the Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, the flamingo pool, Las Tintoreras, the Sierra Negra volcano, Los Túneles, the sulfur mines, Elizabeth Bay, Punta Vicente Roca, Caleta Tagus, and Bahía Urbina.
Isabela is considered by many to be the most beautiful island in the Galapagos. Although it is the largest island of the archipelago, its populated center, Puerto Villamil, is a quiet and sparsely populated place with long white sand beaches and rows of palm trees, making it an ideal place to enjoy total disconnection.
In addition, the island is home to the highest concentration of Galapagos penguins and flamingos, and, as if this were not enough, the only pink iguana in the world lives on the top of the Wolf volcano.
On Isabela Island, you will find fascinating places to perform snorkeling and swim with sharks, sea lions, and even seahorses (Los Túneles). It is also perfect for kayaking, hiking, biking, surfing, and relaxing on tropical beaches. Isabela is an island that invites you to relax and observe endemic wildlife and spectacular volcanic landscapes, so we consider it a must-see during your trip to the Galapagos.
It should be noted that if you are on Santa Cruz Island or San Cristóbal Island and you want to travel to Isabela Island, you can do so by passenger transport, boat, or ferry, and, for this purpose, many local companies offer this service. The trip from Santa Cruz to Isabela takes 2h30 to 3h00, depending on the weather and sea conditions.
Remember that no boats transport you directly from Isabela Island to San Cristóbal or vice versa; in this case, the only way to travel is by stopping on Santa Cruz Island. Hence, if you are in San Cristobal, we recommend you take a ferry in the morning to Santa Cruz and, later, take the ferry from Santa Cruz to Isabela.
If you want to know what to do on Isabela Island, we suggest you read our article in which we give you a list of 13 activities to do in this paradisiacal destination of the archipelago, everything you need to know how to get to this island, as well as some curious information about Isabela.
3. San Cristobal
San Cristóbal is the fifth-largest island in the archipelago. It has an area of 558 km² (346 mi²) and is the closest to mainland Ecuador. The island is home to the archipelago’s capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, located at the southwestern tip of the island and is also known as the “Paradise Capital”. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the second most populous city in the Galapagos Islands, after Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, and is the one that concentrates most of the government agencies in the Galapagos archipelago. San Cristóbal is, therefore, the political and administrative center of the enchanted islands.
It should be noted that San Cristóbal is home to the San Cristóbal Airport (IATA: SCY, ICAO: SEST), the second busiest airport in the Galapagos Islands, located less than five minutes by car from the center of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
The main attractions of San Cristobal, are the Gianni Arismendy Environmental Interpretation Center, Punta Carola, Cerro Tijeretas, La Lobería, the Opuntias Garden, Mann Beach, El Junco Lagoon, Sleeping Lion (Kicker Rock), Cerro Brujo, Punta Pucuna, the Breeding Center for David Rodríguez tortoises, Puerto Chino, Punta Pitt and Bahía Rosa Blanca.
One reason that makes us consider San Cristóbal one of the best islands to visit in the Galapagos is that it has the largest colony of sea lions in the Galapagos. In other words, if you visit the island, you will be surrounded by these beautiful animals practically anywhere. Additionally, on the island, you can find frigate birds, gannets, lava gulls, pelicans, blue-footed boobies, as well as land iguanas, marine iguanas, Galapagos tortoises, among others. Remember that San Cristóbal is considered a paradise for wildlife and bird watching, an unmissable site for any nature lover.
We invite you to read our note on what to do in San Cristobal, in which we tell you which are the 14 main attractions on the island, and we give you helpful information when traveling to this iconic destination in the Galapagos Islands.
Bartolomé Island is a volcanic islet located north of Santa Cruz Island, just off the east coast of Santiago Island. This island has an area of 1.2 km² (0.75 mi²); it is one of the youngest islands in the Galapagos archipelago and is characterized by its volcanic landscapes.
Bartolomé offers some of the most beautiful landscapes in the archipelago. This is an iconic site of the Galapagos Islands as it contains the famous Pinnacle Rock, a needle-shaped rock formation, located at the edge of the ocean, which has eroded over time, and which is considered the most representative image of the Galapagos archipelago.
When you visit Bartolomé Island, it is possible to see beautiful white sand beaches and do snorkeling activities to observe marine life. On this island, it is possible to see the Galapagos penguins, sea lions, sea turtles, white-tip sharks, and tropical fish. In addition, on the island, it is also possible to walk through the volcanic craters, lava tubes, and irregular cliffs of Bartolomé Island. Hence, it is an ideal place to learn more about the evolution of the islands.
Another attraction of the island is to reach the top of the volcano, where there is a viewpoint. It is possible to reach it by taking a low-difficulty walk along a wooden staircase, which lasts approximately 40 minutes. Upon reaching the top, it is possible to see the Twin Bay, the Pinnacle, and the underwater crater. In addition, from this point, it is possible to see Santiago Island, which is very close, and the famous Sullivan Bay.
There are two ways to get to Bartolomé Island. First, you can get to the site by cruise since most of these run aground on this island. However, you should ensure that a visit to this island is included in your cruise itinerary. And, failing that, if you have not chosen to visit the Galapagos Islands on a cruise, you can take one of the daily tours that take you from Santa Cruz Island to Bartolomé. Bartolomé Island is only two hours away from the Itabaca channel.
Floreana Island is located south of the Galapagos. It is the sixth-largest island in the archipelago and has an area of 173 km² (107.5 mi²). Administratively, it belongs to the parish of Santa María, in the canton of San Cristóbal. The island is home to the town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra, as well as paradisiacal beaches, and semi-natural Galapagos. It is one of the best places to dive in the archipelago. It should be noted that this was the first populated island of all the Galapagos Islands. Hence when you visit it you will learn anecdotes and legends about the history of the colonization of the archipelago.
The main attractions of Florencia Island are the Devil’s Crown, a semi-submerged volcanic cone, in which coral formations can be seen and where marine life abounds; Asylum of Peace, where you can visit the pirates’ cave, The Freshwater Spring and the Giant Tortoise Pen. Other sites of interest are La Lobería, a place where it is possible to see sea lions and marine iguanas, and, Playa Negra, which is characterized by its dark-colored sand, which is why it is also known as Bahía Playa Prieta, an ideal place for snorkeling.
One must remember Punta Cormorant, a light green beach due to olivine crystals, located between two tuff cones, home to a colony of sea lions, and, the Mirador de la Baronesa, located north of the island. This name is due to a story about a baroness and her romance with three individuals.
On Floreana Island, it is possible to see pink flamingos, green sea turtle nests, sea lions, colorful marine iguanas, octopuses, tropical fish, and many more animals.
There are two ways to arrive at this fantastic island. First, it is possible to access it by cruise, so you should find out if it is included in the itinerary. And secondly, you could do it on a tour from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. The ferry ride takes approximately two hours.
Recommended reading: Things to do in Galapagos that you cannot miss.
Española is, without a doubt, another of the best islands to visit in the Galapagos because “with more than 4 million years, it is the oldest island in the Galapagos archipelago.” (Dirección Turismo y Cultura del Gobierno Autónomo Descentralizado de San Cristóbal, Espanola Galapagos Island, 2022). This 60 km² (36.28 mi²) island is located in the extreme southeast of the archipelago and is part of the San Cristóbal canton. It is known for its natural charms and as an ideal bird-watching destination.
One of the main attractions of Española island is Gardner Bay which has two beaches considered among the most beautiful in the world. These beautiful beaches of fine shell powder offer a unique white color that contrasts with the beauty of the turquoise blue of the sea. While another outstanding attraction is Punta Suarez, located at the western end of Española Island, on the other side of Gardner Bay, and it is a naturist paradise, ideal for observing one of the most impressive colonies of seabirds in the Galapagos. Likewise, there is another site of interest on the island called the “blower hole,” a tunnel that, connected to the force of the waves and the sea tide, projects a jet of water that rises to 25 meters high (Dirección Turismo y Cultura del Gobierno Autónomo Descentralizado de San Cristóbal, Espanola Galapagos Island, 2022).
Española is primarily known for its home to Galapagos albatross, masked boobies, blue-footed boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, Española mockingbirds, and Española lava lizards. Española Island is the only place in the world where it is possible to find Galapagos albatross nests. The mating season for this species runs from April to December, and all the albatrosses from the islands flock to Española Island.
From San Cristóbal, you can go on a daily tour to Española Island to visit Punta Suárez and Bahia Gardner. Although, usually, most of the people who visit this island arrive there by means of a cruise.
Genovesa Island is located in the northeastern part of the Galapagos archipelago, has an area of 14 km² (8.7 mi²), and is part of the San Cristóbal canton. This island has the shape of a horseshoe and is made up of the remains of a large submerged crater. The caldera wall has collapsed to form Darwin Bay. This bay, located on the southern coast, is surrounded by cliffs where you can see fissures and platforms resulting from the gradual subsidence process.
The main attractions of Genovesa are Darwin Bay, “a white sand beach bordering the caldera of the inactive volcano that was submerged thousands of years ago. Frigate birds, red-footed boobies, and seagulls fly around this paradisiacal beach, stopping to rest on the rocky cliffs, and, El Barranco or the Príncipe Felipe stands, fragile stairs that extend for around 25 meters, rising towards a viewpoint. Its name honors the British monarch Prince Philip, who visited Genovesa Island in 1964. During the walk, you will be able to observe various endemic bird species and find the most amazing views of the island” (Dirección Turismo y Cultura del Gobierno Autónomo Descentralizado de San Cristóbal, Isla Genovesa de Galápagos, 2022).
This island is also known as “The Island of Birds” and, without a doubt, it lives up to its name because it is home to a wide variety of birds, including frigate birds and swallow-tailed gulls, the only wholly nocturnal gulls of the world that hunt at night. You can also observe tropical birds, storm petrels, local mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, Nazca boobies, Genovesa mockingbirds, the large cactus finch, and red-footed boobies. In fact, in Genovesa, you can find the largest nesting colony of red-footed boobies in the archipelago.
Genovesa is an ideal place for lovers of bird watching. However, on the island, it is also possible to do hiking, swimming, and snorkeling activities so that you can appreciate species such as sea lions and hammerhead sharks.
If you want to get to know this fantastic destination in the Galapagos archipelago, you must do so through a cruise. Remember that if you want to visit this island, you must ensure that the visit to Genovesa is included in your chosen cruise itinerary.
Another of the best islands to visit in the Galapagos is Fernandina Island. It has an area of 642 km² (399 mi²) and is located west of Isabela, making it the westernmost island in the archipelago, and the third largest in the archipelago. In addition, this island is the youngest of the entire archipelago and is home to the La Cumbre volcano, the most active volcano in the Galapagos Islands. Volcanic activity has left the island with little vegetation. Hence only the mangroves and lava cacti have adapted to these harsh conditions.
On this island, it is possible to find the mancon cormorant, a bird that is an example of the unusual fauna that inhabits these islands. It is unusual because it is the only cormorant to have lost the ability to fly. Instead, they are excellent swimmers and use this ability to catch fish. Also, the island has a considerable population of land iguanas.
This island has a unique visitor site, Punta Espinosa, located at the northeast end of the island. This site has a fantastic combination of new lava rocks and animal life, a great place to observe marine iguanas, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, and dolphins.
Due to its location, a cruise is the only way to get to know Fernandina Island. Remember that you must ensure that the visit to this island is included in the cruise itinerary you choose.
Although we have listed these destinations as the best islands to visit in the Galapagos, it goes without saying that there are many more islands to visit in the archipelago. They all have innumerable charms and unique attractions; choosing them will depend on your interests and preferences. In other words, there is no wrong way to get to know the Galapagos Islands, since you will feel like you are in a true paradise regardless of the island you are on.
Of course, remember that you must know multiple islands to obtain a global perspective of the archipelago and measure its enormous diversity. Hence, we hope that this note helps you decide how you are going to get to know them, that is if you are going to take a cruise around the islands or if you are going to visit them on your own.
Now that you know the best islands to visit in the Galapagos, we suggest you read our note on how to get to Galapagos. In it, we answer your questions about how to get to the Galapagos by plane, how many airports there are on the islands, which airlines fly to the Galapagos Islands, what are the requirements to enter the province of Galapagos, and many other things.
Likewise, we recommend you read our note about the best time to travel to Galapagos. In this, we tell you everything related to the seasons on the islands, the ocean conditions and water temperature by season, when there are more or fewer tourists, when it is more expensive and cheaper to go to the Galapagos Islands, as well as the events of Wildlife that arouses on the islands and that deserve to be seen.
Remember that the Galapagos Islands are a unique destination in the world. The endemic flora and fauna these islands are home to are wide and varied, so they must be preserved and protected over time. Hence, when you visit them, you must maintain a minimum distance of 2 meters from the species that you find; you must not touch or feed the fauna; you must not remove elements from the ecosystem; you cannot smoke, drink alcohol, or make bonfires; and, you should always walk within the trails. Click on this link to learn everything related to Visiting rules of the Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
Visit this earthly paradise, home to a wide variety of unique species worldwide, a destination known worldwide as the “world’s natural laboratory” since it inspired the naturalist Charles Darwin and helped him conclude his famous “Theory of Evolution”.
With the desire that you travel to this incomparable destination of Ecuador, We want to remind you that we can provide you with continuous advice and support. For more information, check out this unique selection of the best Galapagos tours executed by our partner Viator (Tripadvisor).