This post is part 11 of 20 in the series Galapagos Islands Travel Guide

All of the islands in the Galapagos archipelago in Ecuador were volcanically formed. However, few offer lava flow formations like the ones visitors can see on Santiago Island. Add in some of the most stunning views and beaches in the Galapagos and it’s no wonder that Santiago Island and its nearby islets make up one of the most visited destinations in the Galapagos Islands. Here are highlights including Isla Bartolomé, James Bay (including Puerto Egas and Playa Espumilla), Sullivan Bay, Sombrero Chino, and Isla Rábida.

bartolome island view

Picture perfect Bartolomé Island has one of the most distinctive landscapes in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

Exploring Santiago Island in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador

Santiago Island was the second place that Charles Darwin visited in the Galapagos archipelago, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, but Darwin saw a very different place than modern-day travelers see today. For one thing, the island was called James Island after King James II of England. Darwin also recorded that the island was virtually covered in land iguanas, but that species is now extinct on Santiago Island thanks to human habitation and invasive species.

First, pirates and whalers used Santiago Island as a source of fresh water and food. A salt mine was established on the island in the 1900s and in the 1930s a group tried to colonize the island but failed (get the whole story in a book called The Enchanted Islands: A Five-year Adventure in the Galapagos).

All of those humans altered the ecosystem but it was the introduction of goats, pigs, and donkeys that started to really wreck the place. The pigs decimated Galapagos giant tortoise nests and the goats and donkeys ravaged the flora which led to sometimes fatal pressure on native species.

For years, experts battled to eradicate the introduced animals and, in 2006, they finally declared that  Santiago Island was free of pigs, goats, and donkeys. Ironically, invasive plants that were once controlled by the goats and the donkeys are a current problem on the island.

baby sea lion james bay galapagos

This little guy was our welcoming committee when we arrived to James Bay on Santiago Island.

Today, Santiago is uninhabited except for tourists on guided day trips. There are a number of areas of Santiago Island that are open for tourism and a few nearby islets are also routinely included as part of the overall Santiago Island destination.

You can visit some of these destinations, including Bartolomé Island and Sullivan Bay, during very long day trips from Santa Cruz Island. A more leisurely way to explore this spectacular place is as part of your itinerary on multi-day cruise boat trips. We visited Santiago Island while onboard the Origin, the Galapagos Sky liveaboard dive boat, and the M/V Eric (all with Ecoventura) and during a guided excursion during our stay at Pikaia Lodge on Santa Cruz Island.

Bartolomé Island: the classic Galapagos shot

Bartolomé Island, an islet just east of Santiago Island, is named after naturalist Sir Bartholomew James Sullivan. It delivers one of the most distinctive and dramatic profiles in the Galapagos thanks in part to its Pinnacle Rock formation.

pinnacle rock bartolome island

The spiky pinnacle of Bartolomé Island marks the landscape of the place.

The pinnacle is a volcanic cone that was created when lava spewed up from under the sea. Bartolomé Island is also the place where Galapagos travelers can take one of the most iconic landscape photos in the Galapagos as you look down at the two rocky parts of the island (including the pinnacle) and the arc of sand that connects them. This photo opp makes Bartolomé one of the most popular destinations in the Galapagos and hundreds of thousands of travelers visit it each year.

sea lion dry landing Galapagos

A sunning sea lion on the landing dock on Bartolomé Island.

After a dry landing on a basic concrete dock, we skirted around a sunning sea lion and began walking up a walkway to the viewpoint on Bartolomé that was built to reduce the impact of all of those visitors. A wooden boardwalk and stairway (including 400 stairs) form the trail that ascends about 375 feet (115 meters) to the viewpoint.

sea lion dry landing Galapagos

A juvenile Galapagos hawk kindly posed for pictures on the walkway railing on Bartolomé Island before flying off.

Along the way, guides stop their groups frequently to share facts about the geology and geography of this barren island. During one of our visits to Bartolomé, a juvenile Galapagos hawk perched on a section of the walkway railing and allowed us to get a very close look at it.

bartolome island view

The classic Galapagos shot from the viewpoint on Bartolomé Island.

Pro tip: The timing of all island visits is set by officials of the Galapagos National Park, so you can’t control your arrival time. However, if you happen to be scheduled to arrive to Bartolomé Island in the morning you will reap the benefit of gorgeous morning light to make the most of your shots from the viewpoint.

On one of our visits to Bartolomé, we also had the chance to snorkel around Pinnacle Rock where we saw Galapagos penguins watching us go by from their perches on the rock and saw at least a dozen white tipped reef sharks in the water (of course).

We visited in: May and December

Activities: dry landing, hiking, snorkeling

Animal highlights: While hiking we saw a juvenile Galapagos hawk. While snorkeling we saw Galapagos penguins, white tipped reef sharks, and many fish.

Part of: the central group of islands

Here are more photos of Bartolomé Island in the Galapagos.

bartolome island sullivan bay santiago

The walkway trail leading up to the viewpoint on Bartolomé Island.

climbing bartolome island galapagos

Visitors walk through the barren landscape of Bartolomé Island on their way up to the viewpoint.

Sullivan Bay: lava, lava everywhere

Don’t expect much flora or fauna during a visit to Sullivan Bay, which is located immediately behind Bartolomé Island on the east portion of Santiago Island. Here, it’s all about lava formations.

lava sullivan bay galapagos

Sculptural lava formations are the draw at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island.

The lava flows here are only around 100 years old and they have not yet had time to begin degrading into soil. This means that Sullivan Bay cannot currently support much plant life which, in turn, means there aren’t a lot of animals here. That does not mean there’s nothing to see.

A relatively flat trail takes travelers inland from the bay crossing huge expanses of black pahoehoe lava dotted with a series of pyroclastic cones. It looks like art and is a stark reminder of the forces which formed the islands in the Galapagos archipelago.

We visited in: May

Activities: dry landing, hiking

Animal highlights: We saw a blue-footed boobie, a Sally Lightfoot crab, and a lava heron. As we said, it’s all about the lava here.

Part of: the central group of islands

Here are more photos from Sullivan Bay in the Galapagos.

Sullivan bay galapagos

Visitors navigate through an expanse of lava at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island.

Sullivan bay booby

The harsh, lava-covered landscape means there’s not much flora or fauna at Sullivan Bay, but we did see this blue-footed booby and Sally Lightfoot crab while we were there.

Puerto Egas via James Bay: a wildlife Jacuzzi

There are three visitor sites around James Bay on the west side of Santiago Island. The most dramatic of the three is Puerto Egas which was named for Héctor Egas who started a salt extraction company on the island.

puerto egas james bay santiago

James Bay on Santiago Island.

After a wet landing at James Bay, we embarked on a coastal trail that took us to the lava formations and natural pools of Puerto Egas. Look closely at the lava and you’ll see that copper streaks in the lava have oxidized over time and turned a gunmetal gray/blue color.

marine iguana santiago

The marine iguanas around James Bay and Puerto Egas are slightly red thanks to the color of the algae that they eat.

The shallow lava pools attract a wide range of wildlife including sunning marine iguanas which have a reddish hue here because they dive down deeper and eat red algae. Resident American oystercatchers seemed to be everywhere and there were plenty of lava herons too. But the stars of the show were in the water.

puerto egas arch

A dramatic naturally formed bridge at Puerto Egas.

A natural “bridge” makes a dramatic demarcation between the open sea and the natural lava pools which are further inland. Sea lions frolicked in the shallow, warm, pools as if they were in their own personal hot tubs. Some were actually napping, contentedly blowing bubbles underwater as they snoozed.

sea lion puerto egas

A sea lion near the natural bridge at Puerto Egas

There were Galapagos fur seals here as well. This area offers your best chance of seeing a Galapagos fur seal because they prefer rocky coastlines (check) where shade is available (check).

sea turtle galapagos

A green sea turtle near the natural bridge at Puerto Egas

As we sat near the pools watching the show, we also encountered the first and only mosquitos we ever saw anywhere in the Galapagos. They live here because Santiago Island is very old and has had time to develop soil which allows for vegetation and mangroves which harbor the little biters.

During our Puerto Egas excursion, we also saw the remnants of a house and a fish drying and processing facility which was established here when humans were still allowed to live on Santiago Island.

watching sea lions galapagos

Visitors watch sea lions frolick in the shallow natural pools at Puerto Egas.

After the hot hike, we cooled off (sort of) with a snorkel in the very warm water of James Bay along with a Galapagos penguin, a sea lion, two whitetip reef sharks, and an array of fish.

We visited in: March

Activities: wet landing, hiking, snorkeling

Animal highlights: While hiking we saw Galapagos fur seals, sea lions, a green sea turtle, American oystercatchers, lava herons, and marine iguanas. While snorkeling we say a Galapagos penguin, a sea lion, two whitetip reef sharks, and an array of fish.

Part of: the central group of islands

Here are more photos from James Bay on Santiago Island in the Galapagos.

sleeping sealion

This sea lion seemed to be napping underwater at Puerto Egas.

American oystercatcher galapagos

There were many American oystercatchers around Puerto Egas including this on nesting.

galapagos painted locust scorpion

We didn’t see many insects in the Galapagos Islands, but this painted locust and Galapagos scorpion were two dramatic examples spotted around Puerto Egas.

Playa Espumilla via James Bay: nesting sea turtles (sometimes)

Playa Espumilla is another visitor site on James Bay and it’s famous for its very fine, very white sand (both true).

turtle tracks playa espumilla galapagos

Playa Espumilla is a favorite nesting spot for green sea turtles as these tracks show.

This beach is also a favored nesting area for green sea turtles which begin nesting in January each year. Besides the lovely beach, there’s a loop trail that travels inland past a lagoon that flamingos like to feed in. We didn’t see flamingos here, but we did see many other birds and saw some sea turtle tracks in the sand.

playa espumilla beach santiago galapagos

Playa Espumilla on Santiago Island.

We visited in: March

Activities: wet landing, hiking

Animal highlights: While hiking we saw marine iguanas, sea lions, yellow warblers, a whimbrel,  Galapagos hawks, and ghost crabs.

Part of: the central group of islands

Here are more photos from Playa Espumilla on Santiago Island in the Galapagos.

ghost crabs galapagos

Ghost crabs on Playa Espumilla.

whimbrel galapagos islands

A whimbrel on Playa Espumilla.

galapagos hawk santiago

Galapagos hawks near Playa Espumilla.

Sombrero Chino: rough and ready

The water around this small island about 650 feet (200 meters) off the southeastern coast of Santiago Island, can be a bit rough with lots of swell and waves. However, our landing on Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat in English) was remarkably calm.

Sombrero chino galapagos

Can you see why Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat in English) got its name?

Sombrero Chino, which got its name because it looks a bit like a stereotypical Chinese hat from some angles, is a small islet composed of lava and spatter cones that visitors see while walking along a short trail through the western side of the islet.

Galapagos penguin fishing

This Galapagos penguin zipped around our feet hunting fish in the shallow water lapping up on Sombrero Chino.

On the beach, we watched a Galapagos penguin zip around after small fish in a few inches of water at our feet. The fish didn’t stand a chance faced with the speed and accuracy of the penguin. We could only hope it wouldn’t mistake our toes for food…

Sombrero Chino is separated from Santiago Island by a small channel of clear turquoise water which proved a great place to snorkel. We saw many whitetip reef sharks, two Galapagos penguins, and many fish including pufferfish.

We visited in: May

Activities: wet landing, hiking, snorkeling

Animal highlights: On land we saw sea lions, Galapagos penguins, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and a yellow warbler. While snorkeling we saw whitetip reef sharks, Galapagos penguins, and pufferfish. 

Part of: the central group of islands

Here are more photos from Sombrero Chino in the Galapagos.

hike galapagos islands

A burst of color on Sombrero Chino.

explore santiago galapagos

A zodiac takes visitors around Sombrero Chino.

Sombrero chino island

Lava formations meet the sea on Sombrero Chino.

Isla Rábida: coliding colors

Rábida Island, about 3 miles (5 km) south of Santiago Island, creates a memorable first impression with a red sand beach (thanks to high iron content) lapped at by turquoise water. This uninhabited and arid island is not always included on cruise boat itineraries because the environment here is particularly fragile. This has prompted Galapagos National Park officials to severely limit the number of landing permits here.

rabida island galapagos

A high iron content makes the sand red on Rábida Island.

A non-native rat infestation on the island, which was named after the convent of Rábida where Christopher Columbus left his son during his voyage to the Americas, was recently eradicated, but not without consequences. Our guide told us that the poison dumped to kill the rats also killed native species that have yet to bounce back.

This means that wildlife is scarce on Rábida. That said, we did see sea lions on the beach here, including one emaciated young sea lion whose mother had not returned to feed it. It bleats at us from under a scrubby plant. It’s pitiful and it seems doomed.

isla rabida galapagos

Visitors exploring Rábida Island.

A short trail ambles inland from the beach past lava and past a brackish lagoon where we saw greater flamingos, heads plunged underwater to spoon up crustaceans and algae with their bowl-like beaks. A few sea lions were lounging around in the arm lagoon as well.

After returning to the beach, we cooled off with some snorkeling just offshore during which we were treated to a very uncommon sighting of a manta ray.

We visited in: December

Activities: wet landing, hiking, snorkeling

Animal highlights: On land, we saw greater flamingos, marine iguanas, brown pelicans, and sea lions. While snorkeling we saw a manta ray, whitetip reef sharks, and a scorpionfish.

Part of: the central group of islands

See more of the sites on and around Santiago Island in our Galapagos travel video, below.


More Galapagos travel tips

Use our Galapagos Islands Travel Guide index post to quickly navigate through the entire series, or choose specific posts below.

Here’s more about travel in Ecuador

Here’s more about Island Travel in the Americas

Here’s more about Galapagos Travel

Here’s more about Adventure Travelin the Americas


Series Navigation:<< Highlights of Visiting Floreana Island – Galapagos Islands, EcuadorHighlights of Visiting Isabela Island – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador >>

Share via