Ecuador is perhaps one of the smallest countries of the Americas but it still is the most impressive place to visit for the different biodiversity offered in its four well marked regions, Coast or lowlands, Sierra or highlands, Oriente or Amazon Rain Forest and the unique Galapagos Islands.
 
Ecuador Regions
and Destinations

ADVERTISEMENT

The Galapagos Islands

Galapagos IslandsThe Galápagos Islands (official name: Archipiélago de Colón; other Spanish names: Islas de Colón or Islas Galápagos) are an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed around the equator in the Pacific Ocean, 972 km west of continental Ecuador. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site: wildlife is its most notable feature.

The Galápagos islands and its surrounding waters are part of a province, a national park, and a biological marine reserve. The principal language on the islands is Spanish. The islands have a population of around 40,000, which is a 40-fold expansion in 50 years.

The islands are geologically young and famed for their vast number of endemic species, which were studied by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. His observations and collections contributed to the inception of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

The first crude navigation chart of the islands was done by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684. He named the individual islands after some of his fellow pirates or after the English noblemen who helped the privateer's cause. More recently, the Ecuadorian government gave most of the islands Spanish names. While the Spanish names are official, many users (especially ecological researchers) continue to use the older English names, particularly as those were the names used when Charles Darwin visited.

Physical geography

The islands are located in the eastern Pacific Ocean, 973 km (604 miles) off the west coast of South America. The closest land mass is the mainland of Ecuador to the east (the country to which they belong), to the North is Cocos Island 720 km (447 miles) and to the South is Easter Island and San Felix Island at 3200 km (1,990 miles).

The islands are found at the coordinates 1°40'N-1°36'S, 89°16'-92°01'W. Straddling the equator, islands in the chain are located in both the northern and southern hemisphere with Volcan Wolf and Volcano Ecuador on Isla Isabela being directly on the equator line. Española the southernmost island and Darwin the northernmost island are spread out over a distance of 220 km (137 miles). The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) considers them wholly within the South Pacific Ocean, however.[1] The Galápagos Archipelago consists of 7,880 square km (3,042 sq. miles) of land spread over 45,000 square km (28,000 miles) of ocean. The largest of the islands, Isabela, measures 4,640 square km and making up half of the total land area of the Galápagos. Volcán Wolf on Isabela is the highest point with an elevation of 1,707 m (5,600 ft.) above sea level.

The group consists of 13 main islands, 5 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The islands are located at the Galapagos Triple Junction. It is also atop the Galapagos hotspot, a place where the Earth's crust is being melted from below by a mantle plume, creating volcanoes. The oldest island is thought to have formed between 5 and 10 million years ago. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in April 2009 where lava from the volcanic island Fernandina started flowing both towards the island's shoreline and into the center caldera.

Main islands

The 19 main islands (with a land area larger than one km²) of the archipelago (with their English names) shown alphabetically:

  • Baltra (South Seymour) Island: Also known as South Seymour, Baltra is a small flat island located near the center of the Galápagos. It was created by Geological uplift. The island is very arid and vegetation consists of salt bushes, prickly pear cactus and palo santo trees.

Until 1986, Baltra Airport was the only airport serving the Galápagos. Now there are two airports which receive flights from the continent, the other located on San Cristóbal Island. Private planes flying to Galápagos must fly to Baltra as it is the only airport with facilities for planes overnight.

Arriving into Baltra all visitors are immediately transported by bus to one of two docks. The first dock is located in a small bay where the boats cruising Galápagos await passengers. The second is a ferry dock which connects Baltra to the island of Santa Cruz.

During the 1940s scientists decided to move 70 of Baltra's Land Iguanas to the neighboring North Seymour Island as part of an experiment. This move had unexpected results for during the military occupation of Baltra in World War II, the native iguanas became extinct on the island. During the 1980s iguanas from North Seymour were brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station as part of a breeding and repopulation project and in the 1990s land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra. As of 1997 scientists counted 97 iguanas living on Baltra; 13 of which were born on the islands.

In 2007 and 2008 the Baltra airport is being remodeled to include additional restaurants, shops and an improved visitor area.

  • Bartolomé (Bartholomew) Island: Bartolomé Island is a volcanic islet just off the east coast of Santiago Island in the Galápagos Islands Group. It is one of the "younger" islands in the Galápagos archipelago. This island, and Sulivan Bay on Santiago island, are named after naturalist and life-long friend of Charles Darwin, Sir Bartholomew James Sulivan, who was a Lieutenant aboard HMS Beagle.
  • Darwin (Culpepper) Island: This island is named after Charles Darwin. It has an area of 1.1 square kilometres (0.4 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 168 metres (551 ft). Here fur seals, frigates, Marine iguanas, Swallow-tailed Gulls, sea lions, whales, marine turtles, Red-footed and Nazca boobies can be seen.
  • Española (Hood) Island: Its name was given in honor of Spain. It also is known as Hood after Viscount Samuel Hood. It has an area of 60 square kilometres (23 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 206 metres (676 ft).

Española is the oldest island at around 3.5 million years and the southernmost in the chain. The island's remote location has a large number of endemic fauna. Secluded from the other islands, wildlife on Española adapted to the island's environment and natural resources. Marine iguanas on Española are the only ones that change color during breeding season.

The Waved Albatross is found on the island. The island's steep cliffs serve as the perfect runways for these large birds which take off for their ocean feeding grounds near the mainland of Ecuador and Peru.

Española has two visitor sites. Gardner Bay is a swimming and snorkeling site as well as offering a great beach. Punta Suarez has migrant, resident, and endemic wildlife including brightly colored Marine Iguana, Española Lava Lizards, Hood Mockingbirds, Swallow-tailed Gulls, Blue-footed Booby,Red-Footed Booby and Nazca Boobies, Galápagos Hawks, a selection of Finch, and the Waved Albatross.

  • Fernandina (Narborough) Island: The name was given in honor of King Ferdinand II of Aragon, who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. Fernandina has an area of 642 square kilometres (248 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 1,494 metres (4,902 ft). This is the youngest and westernmost island. In May 13, 2005, a new very eruptive process began on this island when an ash and water vapour cloud rose to a height of 7 kilometers (4.4 mi) and lava flows descended the slopes of the volcano on the way to the sea. Punta Espinosa is a narrow stretch of land where hundreds of Marine Iguanas gather largely on black lava rocks. The famous Flightless Cormorant inhabits this island and also Galápagos Penguins, Pelicans and Sea Lions are abundant. Different types of lava flows can be compared and the Mangrove Forests can be observed.
  • Floreana (Charles or Santa María) Island: It was named after Juan José Flores, the first president of Ecuador, during whose administration the government of Ecuador took possession of the archipelago. It is also called Santa Maria after one of the caravels of Columbus. It has an area of 173 square kilometres (66.8 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 640 metres (2,100 ft). It is one of the islands with the most interesting human history and one of the earliest to be inhabited. Flamingos and green sea turtles nest (December to May) on this island. The "patapegada" or Galápagos Petrel is found here, a sea bird which spends most of its life away from land. At Post Office Bay, since the 18th century whalers kept a wooden barrel that served as post office so that mail could be picked up and delivered to their destination mainly Europe and the United States by ships on their way home. At the “Devil's Crown”, an underwater volcanic cone, coral formations are found.
  • Genovesa (Tower) Island: The name is derived from Genoa, Italy where it is said Columbus was born. It has an area of 14 square kilometres (5.4 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 76 metres (249 ft). This island is formed by the remaining edge of a large crater that is submerged. Its nickname of “the bird island” is clearly justified. At Darwin Bay, frigatebirds andswallow-tailed gulls, the only nocturnal species of gull in the world, can be seen. Red-footed boobies, noddy terns, lava gulls, tropic birds, doves, storm petrels and Darwin finches are also in sight. Prince Philip's Steps is a bird-watching plateau with Nazca and red-footed boobies. There is a large Palo Santo forest.
  • Isabela (Albemarle) Island (Ecuador): This island was named in honor of Queen Isabela. With an area of 4,640 square kilometers (1,792 sq mi), it is the largest island of the Galápagos. Its highest point is Wolf Volcano with an altitude of 1,707 meters (5,600 ft). The island's seahorse shape is the product of the merging of six large volcanoes into a single landmass. On this island Galápagos Penguins, Flightless Cormorants, Marine Iguanas, pelicans and Sally Lightfoot crabs abound. At the skirts and calderas of the volcanos of Isabela, Land Iguanas and Galápagos Tortoises can be observed, as well as Darwin Finches, Galápagos Hawks, Galápagos Doves and very interesting lowland vegetation. The third-largest human settlement of the archipelago, Puerto Villamil, is located at the south-eastern tip of the island.
  • Marchena (Bindloe) Island: Named after Fray Antonio Marchena. Has an area of 130 square kilometres (50 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 343 metres (1,125 ft). Galápagos hawks and sea lions inhabit this island, and it is home to the Marchena Lava Lizard, an endemic animal.
  • North Seymour Island: Its name was given after an English nobleman called Lord Hugh Seymour. It has an area of 1.9 square kilometres (0.7 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 28 metres (92 ft). This island is home to a large population of blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. It hosts one of the largest populations of frigate birds. It was formed from geological uplift.

Just north of the Baltra Airport is the small islet of North Seymour. North Seymour was created by seismic uplift rather than being of volcanic origin. The island has a flat profile with cliffs only a few meters from the shoreline, where swallowtail gulls and tropicbirds sit perched in ledges. A tiny forest of silver-grey Palo santotrees stand just above the landing, usually without leaves, waiting for rain to bring them into bloom. The island is teeming with life. Visiting the island you may have to give way to a passing sea lion or marine iguana. Flocks of pelicans and swallow tailed gulls feed off shore and seasonally masked boobies can also be seen.

North Seymour is an extraordinary place for breeding birds and is home to one of the largest populations of nesting blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds. Pairs of blue-footed boobies can be seen conducting their mating ritual as they offer each other gifts, whistle and honk, stretch their necks towards the sky, spread their wings, and dance—showing off their bright blue feet. Magnificent frigatebirds perch in low bushes, near the boobies, while watching over their large chicks. The frigates are huge, dark acrobats with a 90-inch (2.3 m) wingspan. Male frigates can puff up their scarlet throat sacks to resemble a giant red balloon. Boobies and frigates have an interesting relationship. Boobies are excellent hunters and fish in flocks. The frigates by comparison are pirates, they dive bomb the boobies to force them to drop their prey. Then the acrobatic frigate swoops down and picks up the food before it hits the water.

  • Pinzón (Duncan) Island: Named after the Pinzón brothers, captains of the Pinta and Niña caravels. Has an area of 18 square kilometers (7 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 458 metres (1,503 ft).
  • Pinta (Abingdon) Island: Named after the Pinta caravel. It has an area of 60 km² and a maximum altitude of 777 meters. Sea lions, Galápagos hawks, giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and dolphins can be seen here. The Pinta island was home to the last remaining Pinta Tortoise, called Lonesome George. He does not actually live on Pinta Island any longer, he is at a research facility somewhere.
  • Rábida (Jervis) Island: It bears the name of the convent of Rábida where Columbus left his son during his voyage to the Americas. Has an area of 4.9 square kilometres (1.9 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 367 metres (1,204 ft). The high amount of iron contained in the lava at Rábida gives it a distinctive red color. White-Cheeked Pintail Ducks live in a salt-water lagoon close to the beach, where brown pelicans and boobies have built their nests. Up until recently, flamingos were also found in the salt-water lagoon, but they have since moved on to other islands, likely due to a lack of food on Rábida. Nine species of Finches have been reported in this island.
  • San Cristóbal (Chatham) Island: It bears the name of the Patron Saint of seafarers, "St. Christopher". Its English name was given after William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. It has an area of 558 square kilometres (215 sq mi) and its highest point rises to 730 metres (2395 ft). This islands hosts frigate birds, sea lions, giant tortoises, blue and red footed boobies, tropicbirds, marine iguanas, dolphins, swallow-tailed gulls. Its vegetation includes Calandrinia galapagos, Lecocarpus darwinii, and trees such as Lignum vitae.The largest fresh water lake in the archipelago, Laguna El Junco, is located in the highlands of San Cristóbal. The capital of the province of Galápagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, lies at the southern tip of the island.
  • Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island (Galápagos): Given the name of the Holy Cross in Spanish, its English name derives from the British vessel HMS Indefatigable. It has an area of 986 square kilometres (381 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 864 metres (2834 ft). Santa Cruz is the island that hosts the largest human population in the archipelago at the town of Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park Service are located here. The GNPS and CDRS operate a tortoise breeding center here, where young tortoises are hatched, reared, and prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat. The Highlands of Santa Cruz offer an exuberant vegetation and are famous for the lava tunnels. Large tortoise populations are found here. Black Turtle Cove is a site surrounded by mangrove which sea turtles, rays and small sharks sometimes use as a mating area. Cerro Dragón, known for its flamingo lagoon, is also located here, and along the trail one may see land iguanas foraging.
  • Santa Fe (Barrington) Island: Named after a city in Spain, has an area of 24 square kilometres (9 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 259 metres (850 ft). Santa Fe hosts a forest of Opuntia cactus, which are the largest of the archipelago, and Palo Santo. Weathered cliffs provide a haven for swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds, shear-waters petrels. Santa Fe species of land iguanas are often seen, as well as lava lizards.
  • Santiago (San Salvador, James) Island (Galápagos): Its name is equivalent to Saint James in English; it is also known as San Salvador, after the first island discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean Sea. This island has an area of 585 square kilometers (226 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 907 metres (2976 ft). Marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins and sharks are found here. Pigs and goats, which were introduced by humans to the islands and have caused great harm to the endemic species, have been eradicated (pigs in 2002; goat eradication is nearing finalization). Darwin Finches and Galápagos Hawks are usually seen as well as a colony of Fur Seals. At Sullivan Bay a recent (around 100 years ago) pahoehoe lava flow can be observed.
  • Wolf (Wenman) Island: This island was named after the German geologist Theodor Wolf. It has an area of 1.3 square kilometres (0.5 sq mi)and a maximum altitude of 253 metres (830 ft). Here fur seals, frigatebirds, masked and red-footed boobies, Marine Iguanas, sharks, whales, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls can be seen. The most famous resident is the vampire finch, which feeds partly on blood pecked from other birds and is only found on this island.

Minor islands

  • Daphne Major: A small island directly north of Santa Cruz and directly west of Baltra, this very inaccessible island appears, though unnamed, on Ambrose Cowley's 1684 chart. It is important as the location of multi-decade finch population studies by Peter and Rosemary Grant.
  • South Plaza Island (Plaza Sur): It is named in honor of a former president of Ecuador, General Leonidas Plaza. It has an area of 0.13 square kilometers (0.05 sq mi) and a maximum altitude of 23 metres (75 ft). The flora of South Plaza includes Opuntia cactua and Sesuvium plants, which forms a reddish carpet on top of the lava formations. Iguanas (land and marine and some hybrids of both species) are abundant and there are a large number of birds that can be observed from the cliffs at the southern part of the island, including tropic birds and swallow-tailed gulls.
  • Nameless Island: The small islet is used mostly for scuba diving.