One question that we get asked very often by those wanting to visit the Galapagos Islands is a question about whether it is best to visit the west islands or the south islands of the archipelago. Few cruises cover both the southern and the western islands, so visitors find that they are usually in a position where they have to choose between one or the other. Indeed, only two or three Galapagos Islands cruises coverboth west and south islands in eight days. While there are similarities between the islands there are also differences. Here we will explain both the similarities and differences so you can get a better idea of what is on offer, and what you might expect on each.
Wherever you visit in the Galapagos Islands, the sorts of activities you undertake will be very similar. These will include hiking along pre-defined trails at land-based Galapagos visitor sites and snorkeling either from the beach, or at a marine site further out from the main islands. You’ll be likely to see much of the same wildlife wherever you visit. Highlights of trips to both sets of islands will often include seeing the Galapagos penguin, sea lions, blue footed booby, frigate birds and marine and land iguanas. You also have a good chance of seeing flamingos on both types of ruises, depending on the specific visitor sites you’re your cruise stops at. However, the places that you visit will vary significantly. Below the different types of itineraries are explained.
The western islands have itineraries that focus on visitor sites on Isabela Island and Fernandina Island. Fernandina Island is one of the furthest west in the archipelago and is also one of the youngest. It has less vegetation than some of the other commonly visited islands, but this does not equate to a lack of wildlife. Wildlife you could see on Fernandina includes the flightless cormorant, Galapagos penguin, blue footed booby, sea lion, fur seal, Sally Lightfoot crab, snakes and the Galapagos hawk. The main Galapagos visitor sites here include Espinosa Point and Mangle Point.
Isabela Island is a western island that is slightly further east than Fernandina. Cruises to the west islands often crisscross the channel between the two islands to see the different species and visitor sites on each. As Isabela Island you might see penguins, cormorants, boobies, Galapagos dove, Galapagos hawk, marine iguana, land iguana and giant tortoise. Commonly visited sites on Isabela Island include Tagus Cove, Puerto Villamil, Urbina Bay, Elizabeth Bay, and the Sierra Negra volcano. Some cruises may also visit Vicente Roca Point and Moreno Point.
The south island itineraries tend to visit Española Island, Floreana Island and often San Cristobal and sometimes some of the other centrally located Islands too. Española Island is the furthest south in the Galapagos Islands. The main visitor sites are Gardner Bay, and Suarez Point. Gardner Bay is a fabulous stretch of white sand beach, which is great for snorkeling and relaxing, while Suarez Point boasts a wealth of Galapagos birdlife including the waved albatross, and a stunning blowhole which is fascinating to watch.
On Floreana Island, there are various points of interest. One of these is the green tinged beach at Punta cormorant, where it is possible to see flamingo, Sally Lightfoot crab and green sea turtles. Post Office Bay with its antiquated postal system, still in operation today is another common visitor spot on this southern island. Nearby to Floreana Island is the Devil’s Crown visitor site, which is a marine site based on the area of an underwater volcano. It is considered one of the best spots for snorkeling in the islands, and there are chances to see sharks and pretty reef fish, as well as turtles and sea lions.
The main differences between the south islands and the west islands in the Galapagos archipelago are the landscapes you will experience. There are some differences in wildlife too, since some creatures can only be found in certain places.
For example, if you are set on seeing the waved albatross during your visit to the Galapagos Islands, you will want to book onto a cruise of the southern islands. This is because this unusual bird can only be found on Espanola Island which is in the south group of islands and visited on southern itineraries. Please beware that the waved albatross is not resident all year around, so the best chances of seeing it are between April and December. Also, red footed boobies are only seen in the south islands and will not be seen in the west. Mostly they are located on Genovesa Island and San Cristobal Island.
On the other hand, the flightless cormorant can only be found in the west islands of the Galapagos, namely, Isabela Island and Fernandina Island. This bird is unique to the cormorant family in that it cannot fly, which makes it interesting to see. It also of course means that the bird cannot fly to any other location, so it is limited in where it may be seen. In addition to this you have a greater chance of seeing whales and dolphins in the seas around the west islands, and there is also a higher likelihood of spotting a giant tortoise in its natural habitat in these islands. The landscapes in the western islands in general were formed more recently than the south, and there tends to be more volcanic activity to the west. This makes the west islands more geologically interesting for a visit.
In some cases, your choice of trip will be based around specific wildlife that you want to see, such as the waved albatross or the flightless cormorant, and in this case, this will dictate the itinerary you choose, whether west or south. In other cases, you may not have any particular preference. In these situations, it may be best to look availability and consider the types of deals you are being offered. Given that the western islands are a bit further afield, they may feel somewhat less visited, but visits to the islands are highly controlled, so it will never feel particularly crowded whenever you go.
Get in touch and we can help you find the best Galapagos Islands trip for you based on your preferences and needs.