Stepping onto the Galápagos’s fourth-largest island, Santiago, also known as San Salvador, is rather like stepping back to the beginning of time. The effects of a long history of volcanic eruptions are everywhere on this island: Blackened lava dominates the landscape, and small plants and cacti are the first signs of life sprouting from the ashes.
In recent years, though, destruction of a different kind has occurred on the island. Feral goats, introduced in the 1880s, grew to number over 100,000 in less than a century. A large-scale effort by the National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Center, however, had successfully eradicated the goats by 2006.
Santiago cannot be visited on day trips at present and must be visited as part of a cruise tour.
The most popular sites on and near Santiago include the black lava trails of Sullivan Bay, the colonies of sea lions, seals and marine iguanas at James Bay, the famous Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé (the most photographed site in the archipelago), and the bachelor sea lion colony and pelicans on Rábida island.
This tiny island off the southeast coast of Santiago is one of the most photographed sights in the archipelago. A wooden staircase leads 114 meters up to a summit with a breathtaking view—and for once this is no exaggeration. In the foreground the mangroves are flanked on either side by twin half-moon beaches. Rising up behind is the famous 40-meter Pinnacle Rock, a jagged lava formation, which has endured years of erosion as well as the U.S. Air Force using it as target practice in World War II. The blackened lava fields of Santiago in the background complete a perfect photograph.
After you’ve taken in the view, head to the mangrove-fringed beach below. There is excellent snorkeling with a small colony of sea lions as well as the chance to see the increasingly rare Galápagos penguins. Out of the water, a trail winds through the mangroves to the beach on the other side. Swimming is not allowed here, but look closely and you may glimpse stingrays, white-tipped sharks, and sea turtles that come ashore at night to lay their eggs.
In the mangroves, bird-watchers should keep their eyes open for Galápagos hawks, herons, and oystercatchers. Bartolomé is included on many cruise itineraries, but as a day trip it has become more expensive and will set you back $125 pp with tour operators in Puerto Ayora.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition