San Cristobal is the source of the largest reliable source of fresh water in the Galapagos. This valuable resource attracted some of the first settlers of the archipelago-the island was the home of the first governing body in the islands. It was also the first place Darwin visited and saw Giant tortoises in the wild.
San Cristobal packs a punch and has a mixed bag of sites and activities to explore. Tropical beaches, fertile highlands, and thriving reserves make visiting the island a fun-filled adventure during time exploring the Galapagos Islands.
The island’s charms reside in the wildlife, popular diving and snorkeling sites, and the world-class surfing off of the ample, windswept beaches of the coast.
San Cristobal was originally named Chatham Island after the English Earl of Chatham and renamed San Cristobal after the patron saint of travelers. El Junco, the freshwater lake in the highlands, is a small body of water that is the largest source of drinkable water in the Galapagos.
One of the oldest islands in the archipelago, it is the site of one of the earliest settlements in the archipelago.
In 1866, Manuel Cobos moved to the island and founded “El Progresso,” a coffee, sugar cane, and tortoise oil plantation in the highlands. His venture would grow over the years to supply most of mainland Ecuador with sugar.
During WWII, the US Armed Forces base on Baltra built a viaduct from El Junco to the coast, where container ships restocked the nearby base daily with water. After the war, the settlers on the island moved to the coast because of the new water source and built homes with the materials left on the Balta base.
Today, San Cristobal is still the capital of the islands with more than 7,000 residents, the second most populated island in the archipelago after neighboring Santa Cruz.
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on Academy Bay is the island’s main town-where government offices, restaurants, hotels, and hostels, banks, and airline offices line the streets of the small community. Tours and ships come and go from the harbor daily- a limited variety of shops and stores accommodate the needs of the thousands of weathered travelers who visit each month.
There is a small hospital in the northern part of town on Calle Jaime Roldós y Juan Pablo II and a pharmacy on José de Villamil. The Tame Airline office, two internet cafes, and Banco Pacifico are found on Charles Darwin Avenue along the waterfront.
There are ATM machines at Banco Pacifico, nearby to the intersection of Charles Darwin Ave and Teodoro Wolf, on Charles Darwin close to the tourist information office, and one on Ignacio Hernández and 12 de Febrero. A Western Union agent is located on Quito Ave and Alsacio. The town’s main grocery store is on Flores & Quito Ave.
Despite its small size, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno has an interesting collection of international restaurants. On the waterfront and the surrounding streets, there are cafes, good burger joints, hip sushi bars, and genuine Italian restaurants. On the same stretch are casual seafood shacks serving the catch of the day, lobster, and ceviche.
A local’s favorite for hanging out overlooking the bay is Nativo on the waterfront. The crowd is a mix of students, volunteers, and travelers that come for the pub grub and stay for the company.
Other places to check out include Midori for sushi, Giuseppe’s for Italian including pasta and deep-dish pizza, Cabana mi Grande for great burgers and shakes, and Calypso for tasty seafood.
The coast of San Cristobal has inviting beaches whose waters boast some of the best surfing and snorkeling in the Galapagos. The iconic Kicker Rock lies off of the island’s shores-rife with marine life, including ballooning schools of Hammerhead Sharks.
Interpretation Center and Tortoise Reserves
The Interpretation Center on San Cristobal is north of town, reached by a boardwalk to Mann Beach and a trail that continues to the center. The Galapagos National Park mandates that all cruise bound travelers visit one of three sights while in the Galapagos. The interpretation center is one of these sites for good reason-it gives context to a trip- detailing the natural and human history of the archipelago.
Different areas of the center cover how the islands were formed covering millions of years. The wildlife of the islands and how and when animals arrived in the islands is a permanent exhibit in another section of the center.
The Centro de Interpretacion has exhibits detailing the human history of the islands. Accounts of the discovery of the islands in 1535, the first settlers in the Galapagos, and significant benchmarks in history shed new light on the archipelago.
- Jacinto Gordillo Tortoise Breeding Center
The Jacinto Gordillo Tortoise Breeding Center is one of two tortoise centers on the island. Reached via a one hour journey across the island from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the center differs from others in the islands. Juvenile tortoises roam free on the lands of the reserve, while young tortoises are kept safe until they grow enough to join the others.
- Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado
Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado is San Cristobal’s other tortoise breeding center, located 13 miles southeast of town. The trip takes about an hour, and the breeding center is well worth the trip.
Trails wind throughout the property and visiting gives travelers an insight into the growth of giant tortoises-from hatching to being released into the wild.
Because of the remote location and distance from town, this center is less crowded than others in the islands. This is a bonus for photographers looking for uncluttered shots.
San Cristobal’s equatorial beaches are tropical stretches of picturesque sands where windswept waters and Pacific temperatures offer welcome retreats for sun-lovers from all over the world.
- Manglesito Beach
Manglesito Beach, on the northern coast of San Cristobal, is often a stop on day tours to Kicker Rock. It is a swimming, surfing, and snorkeling beach where sea lions, rays, sea turtles, and sharks swim in the shallow waters amid vividly colored schools of reef fish.
- Cerro Brujo
Located in a secluded corner of the northern coast of San Cristobal, Cerro Brujo is an exotic expanse of dazzling, white sand where sea lions and blue-footed boobies have colonies. In English, the name means “Wizard’s Hill,” referring to the small bluff looking out on the sea next to the beach. Behind the beach is a freshwater lagoon where great blue herons, several species of finches, and great egrets come to feed.
The beauty of the surroundings and the variety of marine and wildlife make this a fun find on day trips to Kicker Rock. The protected water’s off the coast are teaming with schools of reef fish, sea lions and turtles, and rays and the occasional white-tipped reef shark.
- Puerto Grande
Located on the northern coast opposite the nearby Kicker Rock, Puerto Grande is a great swimming beach that draws locals on weekends to the small bay.
Visiting the site is done via boat or kayak from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, as it isn’t a common stop on organized day tours.
- Mann Beach
A short walk from town and located across from the university, Mann Beach is a nearby spot to relax and take a break with friendly sea lions. During their breeding season, the beaches hours are limited on the weekends. Swimming, surfing, and snorkeling here are easy going- perfect for before or after exploring other regions of the island.
- Puerto Chino
On the road to El Junco and close to one of the island’s tortoise reserves, a mile and a half trail through giant cactus plants, finds you on the sandy shores of Puerto Chino.
The beach’s wildlife and flora are the stars of the show. Puerto Chino has the only beach break on San Cristobal, making it an inviting spot for surf lessons and beginning surfers.
Sea lions, blue-footed boobies, different kinds of Galapagos finches, mockingbirds, and yellow warblers are frequently found in the area.
- Punta Carola Beach
Punta Carola is the number one beach in the Galapagos for world-class surfing. During high tide, waves reach ten feet, at low tide, the surf eases up-making it a place for beginners to hone their skills. The beach has two breaks-the left reef break is good for beginners, and the right break off the point is better for more experienced surfers.
Sea lions and sea birds add to the fun- found overhead, on the beach, and in the water-they are often companions riding the fast waves back to shore.
- Playa Baquerizo
An off-the-beaten-path beach reached via an hour walk on an overgrown path, Playa Baquerizo’s appeal is its small beach where sea lions gather year round.
To get there, walk to the interpretation center on the edge of town, and follow the signs for Tijeretas. Once you reach the hill, keep following the path for an hour until the beach opens up on the coast.
- Punta Pitt
Punta Pitt, on the northeastern coast of the island, is visited on guided day trips that are exclusive to San Cristobal.
This is the only place in the archipelago where there is a good chance that you will see all three kinds of boobies. Blue-footed boobies nest along the interior trails of the island. Red-footed and Nazca boobies live along the cliffs of the coast.
Trails lead to scenic lookout points over the sea, and the swimming and surfing here are adventures with sea lions, starfish, sea turtles, and thousands of reef fish.
- Tongo Reef
Reached after 15-minutes south from town through a military zone, Tongo Reef is the surf spot for those who don’t want to try the ten-foot waves of other beaches but want a challenge.
Waves here reach six feet at high tide-providing thrills for all level of surfers from around the world. Three take-off zones access the break. Bajito and Medio are the place for beginners and intermediate riders to hone their skills. Further out Pico has the biggest waves for expert surfers to push themselves to the limit.
- Ochoa Beach
A horseshoe-shaped cave on the northeastern side of the island; the white-sands, volcanic outcrops, and peaceful lagoon of Ocha Beach draw visitors from far and wide. Sea lions, blue-footed boobies, sally lightfoot crabs, herons, and pelicans are some of the wildlife found here. The beach is usually reached by private tour or kayak.
- La Loberia Beach
La Loberia Beach is within walking distance from town and is a good spot to surf, snorkel, swim, and frolic with the friendly sea lion population of the area.
It is a popular spot for experienced surfers; the surf can get big at high tide. Waves move at a medium speed-but when the wind kicks up it is too rough to navigate.
- El Cañón
A sought after surf spot for intermediate and advanced riders, El Cañón has a southern swell with six-foot waves.
El Cañon is a 20-minute walk from Helena’s Garden, two blocks before Playa Man. The trail goes through a military base and a passport is required to enter. The biggest waves arrive between November and May.
Activities-Swimming, surfing, stand up paddleboarding, snorkeling, kayaking, and relaxing on the beach and exploring the interpretation center.
Wildlife-Giant tortoises, sea birds, blue-footed, red-footed, and Nazca boobies, sea lions, sea turtles, different species of rays, eels, lobster, sally-lightfoot crabs, and finches
Dive sites nearby to the island are ripe with discovery. The waters off of the coast of San Cristobal and the nearby islands are brimming with marine life. The cool waters during the guara season foster a vast underwater eco-system seldom found anywhere else in the world.
Sharks, whales, dolphins, different species of rays and dense clouds of tropical reef fish spanning the colors of the rainbow are frequently seen during the day and live aboard dive excursions in the islands.
- Kicker Rock
Kicker Rock is one of the Galapagos Islands most visited dive sights. Schools of Hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks circle the depths, a thrill for divers from all around the world.
Two towering volcanic rocks rise above the water, split by a small channel. The channel is the place to see sharks, rays, and a myriad of colorful reef fish. Sea lions are friendly companions during the shallow parts of the dive.
Depths up to 130 ft offer thrilling underwater encounters with the creatures of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Surgeonfish, starfish, angelfish and many other reef fish gather in the thousands. Typically, hundreds of sharks are seen during a dive at Kicker Rock. The site is also used during diving courses for certification.
- Isla Lobos
Close to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the Ilsa Lobos dive site is one of the spots in the islands for novice divers. The close proximity of Lobos Island to San Cristobal creates a tranquil bay, where light currents and clear visibility lead to a relaxing day in the tropics. Sea lion from the nearby colony is frequent companions during a dive here.
- Five Fingers Islet
Five Fingers located outside Wreck Bay in front of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is an intermediate reef dive that explores along a coral wall. Depths reach 60 ft or 18 meters. Galapagos, hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, different kinds of rays, and large schools of small, colorful reef fish make this dive exciting.
The Caragua dive site is one of the few wreck sites in the Galapagos. The 100-year-old remains of a WWI German transport ship are now home to a thriving underwater eco-system.
Stingrays glide through coral reefs that have grown around the wreck, sitting 50 ft. below the surface. Small reef fish, green sea turtles, and sea lions, lobsters, and octopi are some of the creatures that live in and around the wreck.
This dive is great for all levels of divers-the lack of strong current makes it a relaxing dive in the tropics.
- Cerro Brujo
Cerro Brujo, on the northern coast and close to Kicker Rock, is a dive site for all levels of divers. It is often paired with a trip to Kicker Rock, a place to test your equipment and explore the waters before heading to deeper seas.
In addition to being a beautiful beach with loads of wildlife, Cerro Brujo is one of the first sites that Charles Darwin visited aboard the Beagle.
- Isla Española
Dive trips to nearby Espanola Island from San Cristobal delve into the underwater coral reefs and volcanic outcrops of the island. Different kinds of rays, sharks, and sea turtles feed in the shallow waters off the coast.
Tours typically include time on the island-where trails lead to blue-footed boobies, and waved albatrosses during the months of March through September.
Activities-Scuba diving, bird watching, sightseeing
Wildlife-Whales, dolphins, sea turtles and lions, reef fish, white-tipped, Galapagos, and Hammerhead sharks.
Highlands and Historical Sights
Before the viaduct was built to the coast, the main settlements were inland, where freshwater was readily available. Today, the historic and natural sites of the lush highlands are visited by hiking, biking, horseback, and guided tours.
- El Junco Lake
El Junco Lake in the Highlands is small but deep-the crater lake of an extinct volcano holds 9 million gallons of freshwater.
The view from the hill over San Cristobal spans the island from the nearby wind turbines to Cerro Brujo on the coast.
Frigates, Galapagos mockingbirds, Cattle Egrets, and finches are often spotted diving for fish overhead.
- El Progresso
Seven miles from the coast, El Progresso is a sleepy farming village of 700 residents. The town is the oldest in San Cristobal and one of the oldest in the islands. El Progresso was founded in 1869.
Today its historic significance is outweighed by its role as a meeting center for the farmers of the region. A small town square has basic services.
At the entrance to town is The Casa de Ceibo Treehouse.
The three hundred-year-old Ceibo tree, where the treehouse is located, and the surrounding land were part of the El Progresso sugar plantation. Relics and machine parts are scattered nearby.
The family who owns Casa de Ceibo built a small restaurant on the property-made out of thousands of glass bottles. It’s a great spot for lunch, camping, or even spending the night in the treehouse!
- Hacienda El Cafetal
Hacienda El Cafetal in the highlands is a 500-acre coffee farm where travelers witness the entirety of the coffee making process from bean to brew. The plantation’s beans are sold internationally- and also in the popular Mockingbird Café in town.
Activites-Birdwatching, biking, hiking, horseback riding, sightseeing
Highlights-Exploring Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, visiting tortoise breeding centers and the island’s interpretation center. Surfing off of tropical beaches, biking and horseback trips to the highlands and Kicker Rock, surfing, snorkeling, and diving off the coast.
Note: All information is intended as a general guide of what you might be able to see or do on this island. In reality, wildlife sightings are by nature unpredictable, and activities may be subject to change by your guide or the National Park Authority.