The Galápagos archipelago has 5,000 species, and 1,900 are endemic: a third of the plants, almost half the birds, half the fish and insects, and 90 percent of the reptiles have all adapted so well to life in the archipelago that they barely resemble their original mainland ancestors. Famous endemic animals include many species of the iconic giant tortoise, marine iguanas, land iguanas, flightless cormorants, Galápagos penguins, Darwin’s finches, many species of mockingbirds, the Galápagos hawk, and the waved albatross. Here are the best places to spot them all.
Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz is the most famous place to see these amazing creatures. There is a breeding center with 10 subspecies. Visitors used to be able to walk among the tortoises, but now you must observe from outside the walled enclosures. Lesser known but with a larger population is the Centro de Crianza breeding center on Isabela, which also has several species, and there’s a tortoise enclosure at Asilo de la Paz on Floreana.
To see tortoises in a semi-natural environment, check out La Galapaguera, a reserve and breeding center on San Cristóbal where tortoises reside in 12 hectares of dry forest. Alternatively, wander around El Chato Tortoise Reserve, which fills the entire southwest corner of Santa Cruz.
With a little luck, sea turtles can be seen swimming all over the archipelago, but the best-known sites are Punta Vicente Roca and Los Túneles on Isabela, La Lobería on Floreana, and Gardner Bay on Española.
There are marine iguanas throughout the archipelago, even in the port towns, and almost all visitors will see them at some point or another. There are sizable populations of marine iguanas on Seymour Norte, James Bay on Santiago, Gardner Bay and Punta Suárez on Española, and various sites on Isabela. However, the biggest population by far is at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina.
While marine iguanas are all over the Galápagos, land iguanas are a little harder to see. You have to get away from the port towns. The best places to see land iguanas are Cerro Dragón on Santa Cruz, Seymour Norte, Plaza Sur, and Santa Fé. They can also be seen at Urbina Bay on Isabela.
Lava lizards are common throughout the Galápagos and can be found on all the major islands. Look for them on the shore and in dry zones.
Geckos and Snakes
Geckos are small and hard to spot because they are nocturnal, but you may not have to go far to spot one; they are known to crawl up the walls of hotels and restaurants at night. Snakes are also difficult to spot; your best bets are Santa Fé and Seymour Norte.
Galápagos Sea Lions
Sea lions are very easy to spot in the Galápagos, inhabiting shores all over the archipelago. You can even find them right in all the ports, most notably in Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal, where they sunbathe on all the town benches. The best places to walk among a colony are at Gardner Bay on Española and La Lobería on San Cristóbal.
The best places to snorkel with sea lions are at Enderby on Floreana’s north shore, Isla Lobos on San Cristóbal, James Bay on Santiago, Gardner Bay on Española, Bartolomé, and Rábida.
Galápagos Fur Seals
Fur seals are much harder to see than sea lions, and if you stay in hotels you are not likely to see them at all. The best opportunities are the fur seal grottoes at Puerto Egas on Santiago, Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela, Fernandina, and Genovesa.
Whales and Dolphins
The best spot to see humpback whales is west of Isabela and Fernandina from July to September. Whale sharks can only be seen on live-aboard dive cruises going to the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin. Dolphins can be spotted throughout the archipelago, usually in open seas from boats.
Bats and Rats
Bats are hard to spot because they are nocturnal. They can occasionally be found flying around at night in the port towns. Two species of rats are found on Fernandina and Santa Fé.
The blue-footed boobies are best seen on Seymour Norte, at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal, and on Española, though you may find a couple individuals scattered throughout the archipelago. The largest colony of red-footed boobies in the world is on Genovesa, but there is a much smaller colony at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal. The Nazca boobies can be seen on Genovesa, Española, and Punta Pitt, the last being the only place where all three booby species can be seen together.
You will likely see frigate birds flying in the air throughout the islands. There are large colonies on Seymour Norte, San Cristóbal, and Genovesa. To see them close up and doing the famous mating display is trickier. The best place is undoubtedly Seymour Norte, where the mating display occurs year-round. You can also see the mating display March-April on Genovesa and San Cristóbal.
You can only see these birds on a cruise April- November on Punta Suárez on Española.
The largest colonies are on Fernandina and Isabela, with far smaller colonies on Floreana and Bartolomé.
You can only see these birds on Fernandina and western Isabela while on a cruise.
Swallow-tailed gulls are usually flying over the ocean or nesting on rocky shores and cliffs throughout the archipelago, but the largest colonies are on Española and Genovesa. The lava gull is much rarer, but your best bets are Santiago, Fernandina, and Genovesa.
Brown pelicans are common all over the Galápagos, including right in the port towns, where they can be found trying to steal scraps from the fishers. Red-billed tropic birds can be seen soaring along cliffs on Genovesa, Española, Seymour Norte, and Plaza Sur.
The best places to see flamingos are the lagoons at Punta Cormorant on Floreana, Red Beach on Rábida, Puerto Villamil on Isabela, and Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz.
Herons and Egrets
Herons and egrets are found in coastal areas and near lagoons, particularly on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Santiago, and Isabela.
Look for migrant birds on rocky shores and coastlines in the winter.
The different species are found throughout the archipelago, but the best places to see them are in the highlands of San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, and Floreana, as well as James Bay on Santiago, Punta Suárez on Española, and Darwin Bay Beach on Genovesa.
The four species of mockingbirds are endemic to different areas of the Galápagos. San Cristóbal, Floreana, and Española each has its own unique species endemic only to one particular island. The Galápagos mockingbird species is found on several islands, including Santa Cruz, Santa Fé, Genovesa, Fernandina, and Isabela.
The hawks are found throughout the archipelago, but good spots include the Santa Cruz highlands, Santa Fé, James Bay on Santiago, Bartolomé, Rábida, and Punta Suárez on Española.
Other Land Birds
The vermilion flycatcher is rare but can be spotted in the Santa Cruz highlands and on Isabela near the Sierra Negra volcano. The yellow warbler is easier to spot flitting around trees in many areas of the archipelago.
Rays are seen all over the archipelago and are easiest to see when snorkeling or diving, although they are also visible from boats. Good snorkel sites include Kicker Rock (León Dormido), Gardner Bay, and Bartolomé. Manta rays are harder to spot for snorkelers because they feed in deeper water, and thus are much more often spotted while diving. Good dive sites include Gordon Rocks, Santa Fé, Mosquera, Daphne Minor, Cousins Rock, and of course Darwin and Wolf.
Reef sharks are found all over the archipelago, but you are most likely to encounter them while snorkeling in the waters around Española, Floreana, Seymour Norte, Bartolomé, Las Tintoreras on Isabela, and Kicker Rock (León Dormido) on San Cristóbal. The larger Galápagos shark is another species that can be seen in these areas. Divers can see hammerhead sharks at Gordon Rocks, Kicker Rock, and off Floreana, and whale sharks on Darwin and Wolf.
You should be able to see many fish on snorkeling excursions throughout the archipelago.
Crabs can be seen on rocky shores and beaches throughout the archipelago. Prime locations for the Sally Lightfoot crabs include Bachas Beach, Seymour Norte, James Bay, and Gardner Bay.