Named by 16th-century Spanish sailors for their endemic giant tortoises, or galápagos, the Galápagos Archipelago ranks as one of the world’s top wildlife destinations. Its remote position, hundreds of miles off the western coast of South America, has allowed species to evolve in isolation and adapt to their environment in unique ways—a phenomenon that Charles Darwin used to illustrate his theory of natural selection. Ninety-seven percent of the islands’ landmass is protected as a national park. And following a survey of marine health by National Geographic’s Pristine Seas team, the government of Ecuador has expanded protection of the archipelago’s surrounding waters to more than 18,000 square miles.
From white-sand beaches to misty highlands, to otherworldly volcanic craters, Santa Cruz features some of the most diverse landscapes in the Galápagos. Tucked into a secluded bay here, Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel is a gateway to the island's sites, including the Charles Darwin Research Station and the giant tortoise reserve. Other islands, each with its distinctive attributes, can easily be reached on guided excursions aboard Finch Bay’s private yacht.
This small, flat island was created by a seismic uplift rather than a volcanic eruption. Its shores are alive with birds—from swallow-tailed gulls and shearwaters to blue-footed boobies. You may find yourself making way for a passing sea lion or marine iguana as you follow a trail through one of the largest frigate bird nesting sites in the Galápagos.
Bartolomé is known for its captivating landscapes, including the towering obelisk of Pinnacle Rock. Galápagos penguins, the only species of penguin found north of the equator, totter along narrow volcanic ledges, while sea lions sunbathe on shore. Walk to the top of the island’s volcanic cone for sweeping views, then venture to the pink-sand beach to swim and snorkel.
Black lava, white sand, and prickly pear cacti converge on South Plaza, a small island teeming with wildlife. Encounter sea lion colonies, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and land iguanas while walking on shore, and keep an eye out for red-billed tropicbirds riding thermal air currents overhead. Then hop aboard a panga (dinghy) to seek out fantastic snorkeling opportunities along the cliffs.
Situated southeast of Santa Cruz within sight of Puerto Ayora, Santa Fe features a picturesque, sheltered cove that is ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Home to sea lion colonies, Galápagos hawks, and Nazca boobies, Santa Fe is also the native habitat of the Santa Fe land iguana, a unique species endemic only to this island. Hike through groves of towering cacti on the lookout for wildlife, followed by a refreshing dip in the sea.
Accessible via the lodge’s water taxi, Puerto Ayora bustles with cafés, boutiques, and restaurants. Visit the fisherman’s wharf any day of the week to watch fishermen cleaning and selling the catch of the day, often with an audience of hungry pelicans and sea lions in attendance. Join local Galápagueños for an evening stroll along the waterfront, or venture to the farmers market on Saturday mornings for an authentic taste of island life.
Considered by many to be the most beautiful beach in the Galápagos, Tortuga Bay takes its name from the sea turtles that lay their eggs here during nesting season. A thirty-minute walk from the lodge brings you to this lovely crescent of white sand, which beckons swimmers, snorkelers, surfers, and birdwatchers alike. Explore on your own, or opt for a guided excursion with one of the lodge’s naturalists.
Punctuated by mangrove trees and black volcanic rock formations, this secluded beach curves along Santa Cruz’s southeastern coast. Go for a swim, relax on shore, or walk a short distance to a brackish lagoon that is home to rich birdlife, from black-necked stilts and flamingos to plovers and pintails.
A short walk from the lodge, you’ll find one of Santa Cruz’s most captivating sights: Las Grietas, or “the cracks.” Formed by the cooling of molten lava thousands of years ago, these canyon-like crevices are filled with a mixture of fresh and sea water. Go swimming in azure waters below volcanic cliffs, or don a mask and fins for a unique snorkeling experience.
Straddling the equator and forged by lava over millions of years, the Galápagos has nurtured a menagerie of rare creatures that have no intrinsic fear of humans. While exploring these evocative, lunar-like landscapes, you can easily find yourself an arm’s length away—or less—from giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies, spiky-headed marine iguanas and magnificent frigate birds, none of which seem to notice you. The undersea wonders are as spectacular as those you’ll find on land, with graceful sea turtles gliding past your snorkel mask and sea lions performing playful pirouettes. Unlike many other nature destinations, there are few migratory species in the Galápagos, which means that the wild denizens of the islands can be viewed year-round. What does vary is their behavior, which depends on the weather and temperature, and each season offers its own highlights.
The rainy, hot season (December through May), is prime breeding time for land birds and other species. Against a backdrop of blooming foliage, sea turtles lay their eggs on beaches; marine iguanas adopt bright colors to attract mates; and blue-footed boobies perform their wacky courtship rituals, offering some of the more memorable nature shows in the islands. During the drier, cooler season (June through November), the Humboldt Current brings lower water temperatures in which plankton thrive, attracting an abundance of seabirds such as waved albatrosses and penguins. Giant tortoises migrate from the highlands to the lowlands in search of nesting spots, sea lions give birth to pups, and humpback whales and orcas can be spotted offshore. During this time, the islands take on a stark, desert-like appearance reminiscent of places like Baja California.
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