Visit the world famous Charles Darwin Research Center where efforts to protect and preserve the native and endemic animals are developed. Learn about the giant tortoise rearing programs.
The Charles Darwin Research Center was created in 1960 by an international committee in order to promote research, conservation, and education in the Galapagos Islands. The center is located on Isla Santa Cruz, a short walk away from Puerto Ayora. At the center, visitors can tour the Van Straelen Exhibition Center where staff members are available to answer questions about the islands and the ongoing restoration process. The center also runs slide shows (narrated in several languages) that describe the history of the islands and the current conservation efforts.
In addition to the exhibition center, the tortoise rearing house and the adult tortoise house, provide opportunities for visitors to observe the 11 subspecies of tortoises up close. In the rearing house, hatchlings and young tortoises are nurtured until they can be released, at about four years of age, to their home islands. Nearly 2000 young tortoises have been released so far!
Tortoises that cannot be released back into the wild find their home in the adult tortoise house, an area with several different enclosures for the education and protection of tortoises from each subspecies. Handling the tortoises is prohibited, but this is a great place to get close up photos of the tortoises feeding on cacti and snoozing by the artificial pond.
Beyond the tortoises are several shaded patios along the elevated boardwalks that weave throughout the center. Here visitors can take a break from the crowds and observe many of the native bird species, including Darwin's famous finches.
This island is located to the west of Isabela, which makes it the westernmost island in Galapagos. No foreign species have ever invaded this island, and as a result it claims one of the world's most pristine island ecosystems. On your walk across this island you will pass the largest colony of land iguanas in Galapagos, and if you're lucky and if the water is clear enough, you might see them feed underwater while snorkeling. Continue on your walk and pass a group of lazy sea lions, before arriving at the island's highlight - the flightless cormorant nesting site.
The flightless cormorants have earned their names from a truly evolutionary happening. They are flightless because they have no predators on the islands. Since it was easier to find food in the ocean, their feet and wings have adapted for swimming. As you will see, if you see them standing up in the breeze after coming out of the water to dry, their wings are quite undersized and naturally of no use for flying.
Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos and the only island where six different vegetation zones can be seen: Coastal, Arid, Transition, Scalesia, Miconia and Pampa zones. Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Research Center, where visitors can observe tortoise research and breeding programs. A trip to the Highlands offers the chance to see enormous pit craters, lava tunnels, and giant tortoises roaming freely.
Isabela is the largest and one of the most volcanically active islands in the Galapagos. The island has five active volcanoes and it is well known for the 5 subspecies of giant tortoise that live in the cloudforests of Isabela. These forests, as well as the massive volcanoes silhouetting against the sky, offers a remarkable contrast to the lower islands of the eastern archipelago. West of Isabela, you might very well catch a glimpse of humpback whales breaching completely out of the water, as well as playful dolphins. Stingrays, small sharks, and turtles are found in mangrove lagoons on Isabela.
Tagus Cove is one of the landing spots on the island and was historically used as an anchoring site for pirates and whalers. The trail that goes from Tagus Cove will take you through many different vegetation zones and offers spectacular views of Darwin Lake, which is a saltwater crater lake. Once you get to the top of the trail, you will be able to see Darwin Volcano as well as Wolf Volcano, which is the highest point of the islands.
North Seymour was like a few other islands, uplifted by underground seismic activity. This tiny island is packed with countless sea lions and it's one of the most popular breeding grounds for sea birds. A very large colony of frigate birds nest here, and it's almost guaranteed to see a few males proudly displaying their red pouches to impress a mate.
It is also one of the best places to see blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of their courtship dance, which is quite peculiar and amusing. Also, while visiting this island, you might very well witness a great show of acrobatic flight, namely a frigate bird robbing a booby, a gull or even another frigate bird of their food.
One of the special features of Rabida is the remarkable red color, which is a result go the high percentage of oxidized iron in the composition of the lava.
Rábida is a bird-watchers delight. Some of the rarest species are in abundance, such as 9 varieties of finches, large billed flycatchers, Galapagos hawks and brown pelicans. The dark red sand beaches and a horde of snoring sea lions make for spectacular snorkeling. Also, the island is home to the skinny legged Flamingo, which can be seen in a salt-water lagoon near the beach.
From the observatory on the southeastern part of the island, you can appreciate the red color of the beach and the rocks surrounding it.
San Cristobal is the Eastern most island in the Galapagos, located in the southeast corner. It is home of the oldest settlement in the islands, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, which is also the capital of the province Galapagos. Here, the Interpretation Center was recently opened by the Galapagos National Park. This is an amazing educational and informational contribution to the island community and travelers.
San Cristobal claims some of the most spectacular landscape. The cloudforest in the highlands is perfect habitat for giant tortoises.
Frigatebird Hill is a short distance walk from the Interpretation Center. Here you can see Magnificent Frigatebirds and Great Frigatebirds in the same colony, which offers great opportunities for studying and learning to distinguish the two species.
El Junco Lagoon is one of the few permanent fresh water lakes in the Galapagos. It is located at an altitude of 2,300 ft/700m, about 45 minutes with bus from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. On your way to El Junco Lagoon you will pass different vegetation zones, before you reach the panoramic site, where the bird watching is exceptional as well as the view.
About 1 hour travel across a small channel, will take you to Isla Lobos. The name means Sea Lion Island, which is certainly appropriate since many sea lions frolic, leap and make their homes here. This island is also a great place for snorkeling opportunities as well as to view blue-footed boobies.
Kicker Rock (or Leon Dormido) is an enormous rock, located off the north west coast of San Cristobal, that rises 500 feet straight up from the ocean. It has the shape of a sleeping lion, and a split with towering verticals on either side, forming a narrow channel.
Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos. The small town of Puerto Ayora is the economic Turtle crossing sign on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands center of the archipelago, with the largest population of the 4 inhabited islands, approximately 8,000. Tourism, fishing, boat building and commerce are the major productive activities. Santa Cruz is also the only island where six different vegetation zones can be seen: Coastal, Arid, Transition, Scalesia, Miconia and Pampa zones.
Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin Station, where visitors can observe tortoise research and breeding programs. Scientists, park rangers, and park managers among others conduct the conservation of the islands and make huge efforts to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A trip to the lush greenery of the Santa Cruz highlands offers a welcome contrast with the arid scenery of the smaller, lower islands. You will get a chance to see enormous pit craters, lava tunnels and giant tortoises roaming freely.
Unlike most of the islands in the Galapagos that were formed by volcanic eruptions, Santa Fe was formed by an uplift caused by tectonic activity. This means that the island does not have the typical cone shape. Santa Fe has one of the most beautiful coves of all the visitor sites in the region - a turquoise lagoon protected by a peninsula of rocks and small islands that extends from the shore.
Hike along the coastline and discover colorful flora and fauna. The well-known land iguanas here can grow over five feet long. The Sanfa Fe species of iguana are more bright yellow and have uncommonly large spikes on their spine. In true Galapagos style the opuntia cactus, a favorite food of the land iguana, has responded by growing tall and woody - up to 33 feet high and are the largest of their kind in Galapagos. Manta rays and sea turtles flit by as dark shadows against the sandy bottom of Santa Fe's beautiful anchorage.
After a long hike, relax with a swim in the calm waters of the beautiful bay, or snorkel along in the company of sea lions at the base of the rocks.
This island was once home to a salt mining enterprise and its remains can still be seen if you walk from the black beach where you land, and continue along the coast. You will also see many inter-tidal pools that are homes to a large variety of invertebrate organisms.
Fur seals were thought to have gone extinct by 1905, but have since made a dramatic comeback. Santiago provides habitat for many of the 30-40,000 fur seals that call the Galapagos home. If you plan on taking pictures of the fur seals, Puerto Egas is an excellent spot. At dawn or sunset, the light is perfect for great photography. There are also plenty of sea lions on the black beach of Puerto Egas.
Take a moment after exploring the island and swim with the playful sea lions off the coast of two small coral-lined beaches.
This small steep-cliffed island was formed by uplifted lava and is covered by opuntia cactuses - a tree like cactus endemic to Galapagos. It is also home to one of the largest sea lion colonies. Be careful not to get too close! Each colony is lead by a bull and consists of 15-20 females. After about 3 months of playing king, these bulls retire to the "Bachelors" colony and rest. These colonies consist also of very young bulls that are still too young to hold a territory or be a threat to the reining bull.
Also, on South Plaza, you will find the lazy but colorful yellow and red land iguana. This animal likes this island because of its richness in the opuntia cactus, which is an iguana delicacy. There are about 700 iguanas on the island and this species seems to be one of the smallest iguana species.