This will be your first (and last) exposure to the Galapagos Islands. Baltra Island has one of the two airports in the Islands. The U.S. military originally constructed this airport during World War II, and during this period most of the indigenous fauna of the island was exterminated. Land iguanas have only recently been successfully re-introduced and can be seen near the airport.
Baltra is currently an Ecuadorian naval base and is not within the boundaries of Galapagos National Park. This is the place where TAME Airlines operates in the Islands. The Airport is just a short bus ride from the harbor where all our cruises start.
Bartolome Island is famous for its Pinnacle Rock, which is the most representative landmark of the Galapagos. Precariously walking on the rocks at the base of the Pinnacle Rock are Galapagos Penguins, the smallest species of penguin and the only one found north of the Equator.
At the beach on the southern side, across the isthmus of the island, there are sea turtles either nesting, wading in the shallow water near the shore or just resting in the sand, exhausted after swimming a long way to these beaches to lay their eggs. White-tipped Reef Sharks patrol close to shore.
At the other landing, it is possible to climb to the highest point of the island. The site is like a museum of volcanology, an eruption site left untouched after the explosion. If it werent for the small lava lizards scurrying around and the pioneer Mollugo plants, the visitor could be well walking on the surface of the moon.
Fernandina is the youngest and westernmost island in the Galapagos. Punta Espinosa is a narrow stretch of land where some of the most unique Galapagos species can be seen. While the panga driver skillfully eludes the reef to reach the landing site near a small mangrove forest, penguins throw themselves off the rocks into the water. Sally Lightfoot crabs disperse on the lava near the shore and herons and sandpipers explore the mangrove roots. Marine iguanas conglomerate in larger groups than in any other island. They are everywhere: basking in the sand, swimming near the shore, grazing on the exposed seaweed in the lava and blocking the way at the landing dock. This is one of the few places where there is the opportunity, of watching the iguanas feed underwater.
Following the trail inland, two different types of lava flows can be seen and compared: an aa lava flow and a pahoehoe lava flow. At the tip of one of the small peninsulas, flightless cormorants are found. These birds are flightless because on the islands they had no predators and it was easier to find food in the ocean than on land. They progressively evolved for swimming rather than for flight. To see these fantastic birds, with their long, serpent-like necks arched forward, their wet, fur-like plumage and their bright turquoise eyes is to witness evolution.
Besides Santa Cruz, Floreana, with its population of about 30 people, is the only other inhabited island to be visited on this Galapagos itinerary. Floreana has a colorful history of pirates, whalers, convicts, and colonists. In 1793 British whalers set up the Post Office barrel to send letters to and from England. This tradition has continues and visitors now can post their cards and letters to anywhere in the world.
Punta Cormorant offers two highly contrasting beaches; the landing beach is of volcanic origin and is composed of olivine crystals, giving it a greenish tinge. At the end of the short trail is a carbonate beach of very fine white sand, formed by the erosion of coral skeletons; it is a nesting site for green sea turtles. Between these two beaches is a salt lagoon frequented by flamingoes, pintails, stilts, and other wading birds. An old eroded volcanic cone called Devil's Crown is a popular roosting site for seabirds such as boobies, pelicans, and frigates and it is not uncommon to see red-billed tropicbirds in rocky crevices. The center of Devil's Crown is an outstanding snorkeling spot full of sea lions and colorful fish.
Hood Island is the southernmost island of the archipelago and because it is so isolated, it has a high proportion of endemic fauna. Gardner Bay offers a great possibility for the visitor to enjoy some beach time in the Galapagos. Here, the extroverted mockingbirds sit on top of visitors hats, peck at their feet and investigate their belongings.
Punta Suarez is one of the most popular and attractive visits of the Galapagos. The quantity and variety of wildlife at this site is remarkable. When landing, young sea lions surf the breaking waves, while a few steps inland groups of the Española variety of iguanas bask in the sun. Further inland, Masked and Blue-foot Boobies nest almost right on the trail, Galapagos Doves peck around unaware of visitors and finches go about their business in the bushes. The trail continues toward the cliffs and the blowhole, a fissure in the lava where water spurts high in the air like a geyser.
The cracks in the rock are home to the attractive Swallow-tailed Gulls and Red-billed Tropicbirds. Further up the cliff, in an area of low-lying tress, is the only place where the Waved Albatross nests, and in fact, the 10 to 12,000 pairs of albatrosses on Hood are all the individuals of this species that exist on the planet. They perform one of the most spectacular rituals of the animal world. Watching these large birds (up to 1 meter high / 3.3 feet) take off is another unforgettable moment. The albatrosses clumsily wobble to the edge of the cliff and launch themselves against the wind to be transformed into gracious flying creatures.
North Seymour is an uplifted (as opposed to volcanic) island and so is generally flat and strewn with boulders. There are good nesting sites here for a large population of magnificent frigate birds. Blue-footed boobies perform their courtship dance in the more open areas and swallow-tailed gulls perch on the cliff edges. Despite the tremendous surf that can pound the outer shore, sea lions haul out onto the beach and can be found together with marine iguanas.
San Cristóbal is the easternmost island in Galapagos; on its southwestern side is the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of the province of Galapagos. On Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the Interpretation Center, newly opened by the Galapagos National Park, which is truly an extraordinary contribution to the information and education of the island community and the traveler. Continuing the trail that exits from the Interpretation Center, at a short distance is Frigatebird Hill. Here it is possible to see Magnificent Frigatebirds and Great Frigatebirds in the same colony. This is the perfect place to compare and learn to distinguish them.
El Junco Lagoon, a 45 minute bus ride from Puerto Baquerizo is one of the few permanent fresh water lakes in the islands. It is located in the highlands of San Cristóbal (2,300 ft./700 mts.). On the way, the different vegetation zones can be seen. The lake itself is a beautiful, special panorama and the bird watching is exceptional. Isla Lobos is located north of Chatham, one hour across a small channel. Isla Lobos means Sea-Lion Island, and the name is certainly appropriate because they frolic, leap and make a racket here. It is also a nesting place for Blue-footed Boobies and a good place for snorkeling.
Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido) is a magnificent rock in the middle of the sea. Rising 500 feet straight from the ocean, this giant uplifted rock has the shape of a sleeping lion. It has a split with towering vertical walls on either side, forming a narrow channel through which small vessels can navigate.
Interpretation Center: Opened to the Public in 1998, the Galapagos National Park Visitor Centre in San Cristóbal presents a complete and documented history of the Galapagos, its ecosystems, flora and fauna. It is also the place where different cultural activities take place like theatre, exhibitions and workshops (dance, painting etc).
The Visitor Center is open to the public every day from 7am to 12pm and 1.30pm to 5pm.
Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos. The small town of Puerto Ayora is the economic center of the archipelago, with the largest population of the four inhabited islands (approx. 10,000). Tourism, fishing, boat building and commerce are the major productive activities. Santa Cruz is also the only island where six different zones of vegetation can be seen: Coastal, Arid, Transition, Scalesia, Miconia and Pampa Zones.
The Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galapagos National Park offices are based here. Scientists, park rangers and park managers make huge efforts to preserve and protect the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Station is also a tortoise breeding and rearing center, where tortoises of different subspecies are prepared for reintroduction to their natural habitats.
The lush greenery of the Santa Cruz Highlands is a definite contrast with the arid scenery of the smaller, lower islands. A point of interest is the famed lava tunnels, a fun and geologically informative visit. The trip to the highlands ends with a visit to the Twin Craters.
At Black Turtle Cove, the panga will take you into a tidal lagoon to see three kinds of mangrove plants, red, white and black. White-tipped sharks, spotted rays, mustard rays and Pacific marine turtles frequent the waters here.
Las Bachas is a white sand beach that is a major egg-laying site for sea turtles. Las Bachas refers to the indentations left in the sand by laying turtles or departing hatchlings. On the shore there are marine iguanas and in the lagoon flamingos are common.
A newer visitors site, Dragon Hill (Cerro Dragon) offers a brackish water lagoon, flamingoes, common stilts, pintail ducks and other species of birds. There is a short walk to the hill, which rewards with a great view and a nesting site of iguanas.
Santiago Island in the Galapagos is also know as James Island or San Salvador Island. On the northwestern side of the island is South James Bay (Puerto Egas). The landing is on a black beach with eroded rock formations in the background. The trail crosses the dry interior, where the remains of a salt-mining enterprise can still be seen and then continues along the coast. Intertidal pools are home to a variety of invertebrate organisms.
Land iguanas are scattered around feeding on exposed algae while Oyster Catchers try to capture Sally Lightfoot Crabs. The trail then leads to the Fur Seal Grottos, one of the only places in the islands where Fur Seals can be seen. Puerto Egas is a good spot for taking pictures. Either at dawn or sunset, the light for photography is perfect. The lava and the black sand seem to catch fire and the animals acquire a surreal quality.
On the other side of the island, the northeast, is Sullivan Bay. Across a narrow channel from Bartolome, this site offers the possibility of seeing a recent pahoehoe (ropy) lava flow, formed about 100 years ago. It is exciting to imagine how this lava flowed down to the sea, engulfing everything in its way. After exploring the lava flow, there is swimming and snorkeling with playful sea lions off two small coralline beaches.
Tower island is formed by the remaining edges of a large crater this is now mostly submerged: known as bird island, it certainly honors its name. Darwin Bay Beach is filled with frigate birds and their bustling activity. Along the trail are pairs of Swallow-tailed Gulls, the only nocturnal gulls in the world and Red-footed Boobies, with their contrasting red feet and blue bills.
Lava Gulls, Pintail Ducks, Yellow Crowned and Lava Herons, and other birds feed near the shores of a tidal lagoon just beyond the rocky edge that faces the bay. A panga ride along the walls of the crater reveals the variety of animals that find shelter in the ledges and crevices of the lava. Above, the elegant Red-billed Tropicbirds fly in and out of their nests.
At Prince Philips Steps, visitors climb to a plateau that is part of the stretch of land that surrounds Darwin Bay on its eastern side. Everywhere one looks, there are Masked boobies on the ground and Red-Footed boobies in the trees.
Beyond a broad lava field that extends towards the ocean, thousands of storm petrels flutter like swarms of locusts, and Short-eared Owls hunt down the more inexperienced ones.
Snorkeling can be done at the beach or alongside the cliffs. The water inside the bay is very rich in nutrients, so one never knows what may be encountered. Tower is one of the most fantastic islands because of its animals, its landscape, its remoteness and its unspoiled nature.