Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island
Santa Cruz is the most central of the islands and has the largest human population. The town of Port Ayora is the main base for tourism and you will find a wide variety of hotels, guest houses and dive operations and even the Galapagos’s first safari style camp.
Charles Darwin Research Centre
The centre is home for the captive breeding programs of tortoises and land iguanas to put back on islands where they have been endangered. There is a visitor centre explaining the history and conservation. Visitors can visit the giant tortoise enclosures.
Travelling inland on the road to Baltra, just outside town on the left there is a large lava tube, about the size of a London subway; it is not advisable to go inside, as the roof looks unstable. The road leads up to a farming community of Bellavista. As you turn right and continue past the plaza, there are more lava tubes in a private farm; follow the signs to ‘los tuneles’. Another trail leads northeast out of the square to the highlands proper, within the boundaries of the national park and the miconia vegetation zone.
See the sub-tropical forest though unfortunately much native flora has been destroyed by introduced plants and animals. Many land bird species can be seen here, including nine sorts of Darwin’s finch, the elusive Galápagos rail, vermilion flycatcher, and yellow warbler.
Los Gemelos (the twins)
A chance to see giant tortoises in the wild local guides can point out the best places. All highland tours and even the bus to Baltra usually stop at Los Gemelos (The Twins) these two ‘pit-craters’ lie either side of the road beyond Santa Rosa, surrounded by dense Scalesia forest.
Black Turtle Cove
On the northern coast is a tranquil mangrove lagoon where turtles breed alongside baby sharks and schools of rays. Herons and pelicans take advantage of the easy fishing here.
The name is Spanglish for ‘barges’ which were wrecked offshore during the World War II. A common first landing site, there is a delightful swimming beach here, with a lagoon behind, and a longer beach for a stroll and wildlife-watching. The saltwater lagoon behind often has great blue herons and small waders such as sanderlings and semi-palmated plovers. Both beaches are nesting areas for green sea turtles, which leave tracks in the sand to the back of the beach, especially from November to February. A wet landing and open area on the beach mean one can explore at leisure. Marine iguanas lurk on the rocks between the beaches; hermit crabs create tiny tracks in the sand.
From the landing at a crescent-shaped beach, the footpath climbs to an area frequented by land iguanas. These large, orange-yellow creatures were once part of the Darwin Station’s breeding programme. Along the trail you may see Darwin finches and yellow warblers, and from the top of Dragon Hill is a majestic view of the bay. The path circles back down behind the beach; walk quietly here, so as not to startle flamingos and other waders that feed in the brackish lagoon.
Tortuga (Turtle) Bay
Turtle Bay is a beautiful, fine white-sand beach about an hour’s walk from Puerto Ayora. There is now an easy marked path southeast of town, but the distance of nearly 3km over lava has kept the beach from being over-exploited. There are no shops, so take some drink and snacks if you wish to spend time here.
Daphne Major Island
Daphne is a rarely visited site, though a few boats navigate around to get a look at the seabirds. The trail ends at a ledge with a panoramic view of two craters and both of these contain hundreds of nesting blue-footed boobies. Every single Darwin’s finch on this island has been ringed and studied in intimate detail for more than two decades.
North Seymour Island
You land on black basaltic lava but the rest of the trail is flat and easy. The coast is rich in life; sea lions, swallow-tailed gulls, lava gulls, tropic birds, brown noddy terns and pelicans. Along the shore the sand is criss-crossed with marine iguana trails.
If you are lucky you will see a magnificent male frigatebird with his huge red balloon of a gular throat pouch trying to impress a female. Nearby there is a flatter area where blue-footed boobies nest. Seymour is a good place to watch the theatrical display of the amusing ‘dance of the blue-foots’, they spend hours handing nesting material, twigs and small stones, to each other but never actually construct a nest.
Santa Fé (Barrington) Island
There is a picturesque bay with two trails, one climbs to a high cliff which is great for views, another short loop goes to a cactus grove of giant prickly pears. Any rustling sounds could be the endemic rice rat, a big-eared rodent straight out of a Disney film. The park monument is often a vantage point for a Galápagos Hawk. A unique land iguana is found here that seems to grin like a Cheshire cat.
South Plazas Island
A tiny island packed with life. One of the best places to spot land iguanas, also the less colourful black marine iguanas, which can also be found happily walking right across the island. The cliff is windy, and a great place for red-billed tropic birds, swallow-tailed gulls, brown pelicans, and frigatebirds in flight. Here too is the bachelor sea lion colony, a motley collection of male sea lions who have lost their territories. Plazas has one of the most concentrated sea lion colonies in the islands, about a thousand sea lions shift around as males continually vie for harems of females.
A tiny reef of lava covered with coral sand, Mosquera lies between Baltra and Seymour; many boats pass by but few stop here. It is not an easy landing at low tide – you have to wade the last few metres over hidden boulders. Mosquera is inhabited by many sea-lions, which are at home gliding into the tide pools.