Bartolomé & Santiago, Galápagos

The next stops on your itinerary of the Galápagos are the neighboring islands of Bartolomé and Santiago. On the former you will see penguins in the shadows of the iconic Pinnacle Rock. On the latter you will explore an incredible lava field.

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Bottlenose Dolphins near Bartolomé and Santiago Islands in Galápagos, EC

Santiago Island and the much smaller Bartolomé Island are in the northcentral waters of the Galápagos Islands just south of the equator by a few degrees. Often as your ship approaches the next destination, passengers are busy dressing, applying sunscreen and donning their lifejackets. Hopefully, you are on deck watching the sea. It is brimming with marine life. They are eager to put on a show. Common visitors riding the waves of a boat are pods of bottlenose dolphins. These beautiful grey mammals range from six to 13 feet long. Males can weigh over 1,000 pounds. Also swimming around the Galápagos are long-beaked and short-beaked common dolphins.

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1 Northern Shore of Bartolomé Island in Galápagos, EC

The northern shore of Bartolomé Island is beyond picturesque. Although it is only a half square mile in size, this unpopulated islet is packed with geological features. These include a lava cliff radiating with colors (left), an extinct volcanic cone (center), a wonderful beach flanked on both sides by water and a unique, arrowhead-shaped wedge called Pinnacle Rock. The top of the 374 foot hill is reachable by climbing 372 wooden steps along a half mile path named Summit Trail. The panoramic view of neighboring islands from the top is worth the hike. The island’s namesake is Bartholomew Sulivan. He was a British naval officer aboard the HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galápagos from 1831 to 1836.

Bartolomé Island, Ecuador
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2 Pinnacle Rock on Bartolomé Island in Galápagos, EC

Bartolomé Island’s famous landmark is Pinnacle Rock. This volcanic cone is also called The Tower. The jagged façade is stunning. These are layers of basalt spewed from the sea by an underwater volcano. Equally inviting is the coralline beach (La Playa). The landing here is a wet one. Snorkeling along this north shore is ideal for swimming with stingrays, sharks, sea lions, sea turtles and adorable penguins. However, the waters on the south side are too rough and dangerous.

Bartolomé Island, Ecuador
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3 Galápagos Penguin on Bartolomé Island in Galápagos, EC

A remarkable surprise while approaching Bartolomé Island is seeing a Galápagos penguin. They are small, measuring about 19 inches long and weighing 5.5 pounds. This endemic species – spheniscus mendiculus – is the only penguin found north of the equator. With a population of 1,500 birds, it is also considered to be the world’s rarest penguin. The majority of Galápagos penguins live along the shores of two western islands: Fernandina and Isabela. So it is a visual treat to find this penguin resting in front of a cave on Bartolomé Island. Also peculiar is seeing them during the day when they are normally out hunting at sea. His buddy is a Sally Lightfoot crab.

Bartolomé Island, Ecuador
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4 Arriving at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

Directly across from Bartolomé Island seen in the background is the uninhabited Santiago Island. It is also called San Salvador Island or James Island. Measuring 226 square miles, this is the fourth largest island in the Galápagos archipelago. Tourists arrive to a dry landing to explore a geologically young and visually surreal lava field. Welcoming you will be Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas and an occasional lava heron. Other itineraries may include visits to the opposite (west) side of the island along James Bay. But the island is so big you can only cover one or two locations in a day. Heck, it took Charles Darwin two weeks to walk across Santiago Island.

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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5 Hiking at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

Your tour of the volcanic formations at Santiago Island will last about 90 minutes. The difficultly of this excursion is rated as intermediate. The tricky part is watching where you step. Although this fascinating landscape is relatively flat, it is filled with uneven surfaces, crevices and the occasional crevasse. Your small group will be led by a certified guide. He or she will passionately explain every nuance of volcanoes and the geological idiosyncrasies of what you are admiring. By the end of the one mile circular hike, you might feel like a trained volcanologist.

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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6 Pahoehoe Lava at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

Santiago Island has been volcanically active for 750,000 years (and still has the potential to erupt). In contrast, the lava field at Sullivan Bay was formed by a major eruption in 1897 and secondary events from 1904 through 1906. The lack of erosion results in a unique chance for you to explore pahoehoe lava – found only here and in Hawaii. The glazed rock forms an endless array of smooth, ropy and swirling designs highlighted with blotches of red and orange. You sense how the lava slowly oozed, bubbled and circulated in a molten soup before cooling into stunning artistic patterns. Notice the relative size of the trekking tourists in this photo. This displays the enormity and depth of the lava field you will traverse. Good hiking shoes are a must. The rocks also radiate heat, so bring a water bottle.

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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7 Galápagos Carpetweed at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

Nature is incredible! The thick, black lava field at Sullivan Bay seems hostile to plant life. Yet 100 years after the last eruption, flora endemic to the Galápagos has found a way to germinate. Look closely and you will see sparse patches of Galápagos carpetweed. This small herb has tiny white flowers during the wet season. When conditions are dry, it turns orange or red and brittle.

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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8 Lava Cactus at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

Another early pioneer settling among the rocks at Sullivan Bay is lava cactus. This species brachycereus nesioticus is unique to the Galápagos Islands. The spiny, cylindrical spears display white or yellow flowers during the day. The hearty plant can grow as tall as two feet yet few reach that height at the lava fields on the east coast of Santiago Island.

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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9 AA Lava at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

You will also examine a’a (or aa) lava at Sullivan Bay. This Hawaiian term describes when lava rapidly flows down a steep slope. It leaves behind rugged surfaces with a spectrum of reds, oranges and browns caused by the oxidation of the material’s iron. In a few places, the molten crust heaved up and snapped into pieces during tremors. This allows you to examine the successive lava flows like rings in a tree. The field’s average depth is about five feet.

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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10 Spatter Cones at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

An additional volcanic feature to watch for is an abundance of spatter cones. They are reminiscent of an empty candleholder covered with dry wax. These vents are geological satellites around the central eruption fissure. Lava, smoke and ash spew from these openings, partially cool while airborne, then fall back as dripping globs. Successive layers ooze down the sides forming these circular mounds. The height of a spatter cone varies from a few feet to ten or more.

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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11 Palagonite Cone at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

In the center of the coal-black lava field at Sullivan Bay are gigantic piles of reddish-orange material forming a circular, 800 foot hill. This is a rare palagonite cone. This geological oddity is created when hot lava spewing from a linear fissure vent dramatically contacts the sea. The water vaporizes into steam and the lava crystalizes into volcanic glass. The oxidized dust then settles back around the source of the eruption. If this palagonite tuff seems alien, you are not far from wrong. Scientists believe similar palagonite dust covers some of Mar’s surface. Amazing!

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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12 Beach at Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island in Galápagos, EC

Rather than a hike, consider sunning and relaxing along the white coral sand dunes of Santiago Island at Sullivan Bay. Swimming and snorkeling are other excellent options. This Galápagos sea lion wading in a tide pool can attest the temperature in these sheltered waters is perfect, especially if wearing a wet suit like his. The island is also home to about 30,000 to 40,000 fur seals.

Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, Ecuador
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