Santiago island is one of the most interesting and diverse islands at Galapagos. For starters, anyone interested in geology or volcanos is going to love it. Santiago has some of the most stunning volcanic formations and surreal basaltic lava flows of the whole archipelago. So Santiago is a great spot to fully appreciate the volcanic origin of the Galapagos. Santiago island also oozes in history and has many a tall story to tell. From the ancient pirates who used Sanitago as a resupply base, to the visit of Charles Darwin in 1835. And let’s not forget Santiago’s wildlife which is varied on land and in the ocean. So Santiago island has something for everyone, and is highly recommended to include in your Galapagos itinerary!
Read on for everything you need to know to plan your visit to Santiago island at Galapagos. What wildlife can you see here? Which activities and visitor sites await tourists? Plus learn about the diverse history and geology of Santiago island Galapagos.
English Name: James
Ecuadorian Name: Santiago
Total Area: 226 sq miles
Population: zero (uninhabited)
A visit to Santiago Island is like a visit to another world. Surreal landscapes of black lava stretch out as far as the eye can see. These are wonderful examples of Pahoehoe lava flows. Pahoehoe is slow moving lava with low viscosity, forming attractive ropey patterns when it solidifies. Photographers find Santiago ideal for taking abstract snaps of these unusual forms.
Santiago island is formed by two overlapping shield volcanoes. Repeated lava flows merged the volcanos together to form the single island we see today. Shield volcanoes are flat and wide, hence the large size of Santiago island – the 4th largest island of the archipelago.
Santiago’s outstanding geological feature is the huge basaltic lava flow at Sullivan Bay. This is the largest and longest lava flow at Galapagos! Visitors are allowed to walk on the lava to appreciate the swirls and patterns up close. The more observant among you might spot lava bubbles, and petrified tree trunks.
The natural habitat of Santiago island has been adversely affected by the presence of humans and invasive species. Hungry goats destroyed the wooded highlands, leaving the open grasslands present today. Volcanic eruptions have left barren black lava rocks across much of the lowlands. Small plants and shrubs are only now attempting to find a foothold to colonise such infertile ground. Rock pools and grottos formed by eroding lava are full of marine wildlife activity. So too are the steep cliffs where sea birds perch to rest while hunting for fish.
Santiago has a more diverse and fascinating history than most Galapagos islands. Back in the 1700s and 1800s it was a popular stop off for pirates and buccaneers in Galapagos waters. Why would pirates come to the Galapagos islands? It was a safe and handy place to hide out in between raids. Also pirates could resupply their ships with wood, fresh food and water. Capturing giant tortoises on Santiago meant that pirates could take several months of fresh food with them for the next voyage.
Santiago’s next visitor was altogether more civilised. HMS Beagle arrived to the shores of Santiago island on October 5, 1835, with a certain naturalist named Charles Darwin aboard. Santiago was the second island that he visited (after San Cristobal), and the place that he stayed the longest. Darwin spent two entire weeks on Santiago, walking from coast to coast to collect his samples, and the poor old Santiago giant tortoise was once again on the menu. Darwin also made some very important biological notes while staying on Santiago. He speaks of a large colony of Land Iguanas, stating:
I cannot give a more forcible proof of their numbers than by stating that when we were left at James (Santiago) island, we could not for some time find a free spot from their burrows on which to pitch our single tent.” (Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle)
Why is this so significant? Because throughout the 1900s there were no land iguanas to be found on Santiago. Without Darwin’s observation we would not even know that this species had once lived there, only to become extinct.
The final chapter of Santiago history takes us into the 1920s. A salt mine was established here for extraction and export. This continued into the 1960s where commercial companies took over, and roads and buildings were established at the mine site of Puerto Egas.
Let’s follow on from the story above about Darwin’s land iguanas. Why did they disappear from Santiago island? Remember that Santiago island has a diverse human history, from pirates to explorers to commercial settlers. Where humans go, inevitably so too do other mammal species. Humans introduced goats, dogs, donkeys, pigs and black rats to a pristine habitat that was entirely unprepared for the devastation it would cause. Goats ate their way through the highland vegetation and cacti forests. Feral pigs and rats gorged on reptile eggs and destroyed nest sites. It was an ecological disaster of epic proportions, and led to the extinction of Darwin’s land iguanas.
So in the 1990s the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park Service sprung into action. Their first step was eradication of introduced species. No easy task because Santiago is the largest island on the planet where an eradication program has been attempted. The good news is that Santiago island has been pig-fee since 2000, and goat-free since 2006. Rat eradication remains an ongoing challenge.
Since eradication the original native plant species have begun to successfully recover. Plant colonisation has transformed Santiago once more into a suitable home for Land Iguanas. The happy ending is that, in January 2019, land iguanas were reintroduced to Santiago after a long 180 year absence. So Darwin’s land iguanas have returned home, all thanks to notes in a book about a voyage in 1835.
How to get to Santiago island? Santiago is located to the north of the Galapagos archipelago. The only way to visit today is on a Galapagos cruise doing the northen itinerary loop.
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Santiago has something for everyone. Unique landscapes, great wildlife, top snorkelling, lava hiking, coastal panga (zodiac) rides and unforgettable scuba diving. Keep reading to learn more about each site and activity.
Landing Type: Wet.
Trail length: 1.25 miles / 2 km.
Terrain: Easy to moderate 2 and 1/2 hours trek over flat terrain. Volcanic rocks can be uneven, so take care with footing.
This natural bay is named after Jorge Egas, who opened the nearby salt mine in the 1960s. Visitors to Puerto Egas can explore three different land trails.
The first trail leads along the shore on terrain of compacted volcanic ash and black basaltic lava. The main tourist highlight here is the Galapagos Fur Seal grottos. This is probably the best spot at Galapagos to see fur seals close up, as they enjoy this shady habitat. See if you can identify the difference between a fur seal and a Galapagos sea lion. The coastal trail also passes many tidal pools which are often teaming with interesting marine life. Look out for wader birds and herons (lava, yellow-crowned and great blue herons) stalking the rocks for a meal. Marine iguanas also hang out here, camouflaged against the jet black rocks.
The second optional trek leads to the old salt mines. This is a longer hike of around 4miles in length, leading to a volcanic crater. Here there is a salt water lagoon, which dries into slat flats in summer. Flamingos and pintail ducks are common visitors when the brackish waters are full of tasty crustaceans.
The third and final option is a trail that leads inland past another brackish lagoon with flamingos and wading birds. The path continues into more arid habitat of palo santo trees onto ancient lava flows.
Puerto Egas also gives visitors the opportunity for Galapagos snorkeling. The underwater action here is excellent. Highlights may include: fur seals, colorful reef fish, eels, whitetip reef sharks, sea turtles, and sea horses.
Landing Type: Wet.
Trail length: 1.5 miles / 2.5 km.
Terrain: 1 and 1/2 hours easy to moderate walk over uneven volcanic terrain. Use suitable shoes and take extra care with your footing.
Even before landing it will be apparent that Sullivan Bay is rather different than most other visitor sites. Breathtaking black lava fields stretch out before you. This is as close as you’ll get to ancient lava flows at the Galapagos islands.
A wet landing drops visitors onto a lovely coral sand beach, where lazy sea lions greet you. But we are not here to sunbathe, Sullivan Bay is all about volcanoes and lava! Amazing ropey, bubbly, spirally lava!
Your naturalist guide will lead you onto the immense lava field. Both ropey smooth Pahoehoe and jagged sharp Aa flows are present; your guide will be happy to show you the difference between each type. Pahoehoe lava is quite rare on planet earth, mostly found at the Galapagos islands and Hawaii. Keep your eyes open for small pioneer plants growing from cracks in the lava, and lava lizards scuttling around your feet. You might also come across little lava ovens that look like mini volcanoes themselves.
At the end of your trek there’s time to snorkel from the beach where sealions, Galapagos rays, sea turtles and reef sharks are often spotted.
Landing Type: n/a. This site is a panga (zodiac) ride.
Bucaneer cove is a place to use your imagination. Cast your mind back to times when pirates and buccaneers ruled the seas. Centuries ago this cove was their hideout, where they would take refuge from pursuit and restock the ship with food (tortoise meat) and water. This is also the site where Charles Darwin camped with land iguanas for nine days back in 1835.
Visitors to Buccaneer Cove today take a panga ride along the coast. Steep red cliffs are home to hawks, owls and sea birds like blue footed boobies. Water and wind have combined to erode the lava into a series of caves and interesting shaped lava formations. Fur seals and sealions love to swim in the cove, and haul themselves out to sunbathe on rocky ledges. Your guide may also let you jump in to the waters to snorkel.
Landing Type: Wet.
Trail length: Short 1 hour walk along the beach.
Terrain: Easy beach terrain.
At the northern end of Buccaneer Cove is Espumilla Beach, an important sea turtle nesting site. Green sea turtles are the only species to breed and lay eggs inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. They begin to arrive to this white coral beach in January each year. It is unusual to see them as they lay eggs at night to avoid risk of predators. Tourists can observe their flipper tracks from the sea, and the nesting sites that have been dug out on the dunes. Sea turtles begin to hatch in April and May, making a quick dash to the sea to escape the clutches of lurking land predators.
Chinese Hat (Sombrero Chino) is another popular visitor site close to Santiago island.
Scuba diving around Santiago Island proves that the Galapagos offer some of the best sites in the world for underwater adventures. Bainbridge, Beagle and Cousin’s Rocks are classic Galapagos dive destinations where sharks, sea turtles, fur seals, hawkfish, frogfish and sea lions swiftly move through clouds of brightly colored reef fish.
The variety of places to dive here are suitable for all levels of divers, from beginners to advanced. There are also opportunities for night dives- a rare chance to see the nightlife of the marine creatures of the archipelago.
An iconic favorite for all levels and snorkelers and divers, Bainbridge Rocks is a collection of islets where reef fish, sea lions, fur seals, a variety of rays, and sea turtles come to feed.
The most visited of the islets is the remains of a volcanic cone jutting out of the water. In the center of the cone, a turquoise sea water lagoon attracts flocks of flamingos-wading in the shallow depths beneath the sunny blue tropical skies.
Located northeast of Santiago, Cousins Rocks is a triangular rock standing thirty feet above the surface and a few hundred feet long. Depths underwater reach 90 feet.
Galapagos and white-tipped sharks, sting and spotted eagle rays, sea lions and turtles, and an astonishing array of mesmerizing and colorful schools of reef fish use the area as a cleaning station. Keep an eye out for black striped Salema, hawkfish, and frogfish around the walls of black coral along the rock’s walls.
The waters of Cousin’s Rock are suitable for all levels of divers. There can be currents that prevent divers from swimming around the outcrop, but a small channel nearby alleviates the situation.
A trio of rocks rising above the surface of the sea off of the southeastern coast of Santiago island. Beagle Rocks offers adventure for all levels of divers. Depths extend to 60ft or 12 meters, and light current and clear visibility make it the place to find some of the more elusive creatures of the Galapagos waters.
Hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks, spotted and eagle rays, sea turtles, and the occasional wandering whale shark are some of the marine life that comes to feed on clouds of colorful schools of reef fish. This is one of the best day dive locations at Galapagos!
Albany Islet, sometimes called Albany Rock, is a small island southwest of Santiago where divers explore the waters of a protected cove. It is a dive for all levels of divers-light currents and depths of 100ft give way to an underwater adventure includes sea lions, sea turtles, hoards of reef fish, rays, and sharks. There is a descending wall where black coral and intriguing rock formations form nooks and crannies where the marine life thrives.
Note: All wildlife sightings are by their very nature unpredictable, and activities may be subject to change by your guide or the National Park Authority.
In conclusion, Santiago island is one of our favorite stops at Galapagos. We love the sense of history that Santiago conjures up. You can almost imagine Charles Darwin wandering around in wonder, cursing the resident land iguanas. Santiago also represents the devastation that man can cause to fragile ecosystems, and the healing from conservation efforts. Today Santiago may not exactly resemble the habitat that Darwin and pirates might remember, but recovery is underway. Santiago island also demonstrates first hand the origins of the Galapagos islands. Creation by fire, and the dramatic power of the natural world we live in. Let’s not forget the incredible marine wildlife that has made it home here. Santiago has unbelievable snorkeling and diving action, with all sorts of surprise encounters in the depths. In short, if you have the opportunity to visit Santiago island then definitely do so!!!