San Cristóbal Island, Galápagos

San Cristóbal is the easternmost island in the Galápagos and the fifth largest. The port town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno has an airport and is the capital of the Galápagos Islands. Many vacationers use this as a hub for local nature activities, excursions to uninhabited islands, charter boats for snorkeling and fishing plus adventures like visiting a giant tortoise reserve and the wildlife at Punta Pitt.

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1 San Cristóbal Island Sign at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in Galápagos, EC

San Cristóbal is one of four inhabited islands in the Galápagos. It defines the easternmost boundary of the Ecuadorian archipelago. With a size of 215 square miles, it is the fifth largest island. The namesake is Saint Christopher, the Catholic patron saint of seafarers, divers and travelers. An alternative name is Chatham Island. This honors a visit to the island by William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. He was an 18th century Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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2 Overview of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is a charming port town located at the southwest corner of San Cristóbal Island. With a population of about 6,700 residents, this is the capital of the province of Galápagos. The shoreline is defined by the tranquil Shipwreck Bay (Bahía Naufragio). Anchored in this picturesque harbor are small fishing and pleasure boats, cruise ships and ferries plus a few Ecuadorian naval vessels. Notice the incredible white sand? This pristine Gold Beach is the perfect place for soaking up the Ecuadorian sun … but only if you are a sea lion.

Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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3 Tourism in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Only two of the islands in the Galápagos have commercial airports. San Cristóbal Island is one of them (the other is on Balta Island). So, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is a major hub for passengers arriving from Guayaquil and Quito on Ecuador’s mainland. Many pass through while connecting to cruise ships. Other tourists opt to make the town the center of their vacation. Hotels range from seaside resorts to hostels. Most boutique stores, souvenir shops, restaurants and bars face the waterfront. The currency at all retailers is the U.S dollar and cash is preferred over credit cards. The people of “Cristóbal” are as welcoming and warm as the weather. The average monthly lows and highs range from 70 to 82 degrees with a mean monthly temperature of 75°F. This climate may not be what you expect near the equator but it is perfect for vacationing.

Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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4 Activities from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno offers fun activities for almost everyone. In town, visit the Natural History Museum (Museo de Ciencias Naturales) and the Interpretation Center (Centro de Interpretación). Both provide different yet fascinating insights into the Galápagos Islands. Consider chartering a boat tour around the island or to neighboring Española. Other captains-for-hire can take you to the best dive and snorkeling sites or fishing spots. Strap on your comfortable shoes for the two-mile hike to the top of Frigatebird Hill (Cerro Tijeretas) for a panorama of the bay. Or wax up your surfboard for the waves at Tongo Reef from December through February. When you return to town, enjoy drinks and/or dinner at several places along the waterfront.

Nativo, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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5 Geological Formation of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

You will notice lots of lava rocks along the shore of Shipwreck Bay. They are from a shield volcano that formed the southern part of San Cristóbal. Several eruptions occurred from 2.4 million to 650,000 years ago. Inside of the dormant crater is Laguna El Junco, the biggest freshwater lake in the Galápagos. The surrounding highlands feature a thick forest, a rarity on the mostly arid Galápagos. The island’s north was also created by volcanic activity yet is comparatively young (within the last few centuries). All of these lava flows fused together to form San Cristóbal. The island’s peak elevation of 2,395 feet is a mountain named Cerro San Joaquín.

Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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6 Boat Mural at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

This dry-docked wooden boat features a mural of creatures endemic to the Galápagos living above and below the sea. The painting was sponsored by WildAid. This environment conservation company is based in San Francisco, California. Their mission is to reduce the marketing and purchasing of wildlife products and to apprehend poachers. The group has a field office in the Galápagos Islands to help protect the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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7 Fishing near Puerto Baquerizo Moreno around San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

This mosaic marlin fountain is a tribute to the 500 plus commercial fishermen operating from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno – the largest fleet in the archipelago. These seamen will tell you the water around San Cristóbal Island is the best in the Galápagos for catching marlin (striped, blue and black), tuna (big eye and yellowfin), grouper, mahi mahi, snapper, wahoo and bonito. Several charter operators offer you the opportunity to catch a huge memory by casting or fly fishing offshore (pesca altura) or inshore (pesca chica). All fishing activities are carefully controlled, licensed and monitored in the Galápagos Marine Reserve. This 51,000 square mile, underwater ecosystem is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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8 Beaches around Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

There are seven waterfront locations along Shipwreck Bay reserved exclusively for sea lions. This means the beaches fronting Puerto Baquerizo Moreno are off limits to humans. Don’t despair. There are several excellent alternatives nearby. Within a short walking distance north of town are Mann Beach and Carola Beach. A $3 taxi ride will get you to the crescent-shaped sand of La Loberia Beach. With a rental car, you can travel about 15 miles to the east side of the island to enjoy Puerto Chino Beach. Finally, a boat is needed to reach Ochoa Beach (across from Isla Lobos), the coral sand of Cerro Brujo, Sapho Bay and Puerto Grande near Kicker Rock or Punta Pitt on the opposite end of the island.

Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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9 Bachelor Colony at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

These two male sea lions hauling out at El Malecón are part of a bachelor colony. The young adults band together away from breeding colonies controlled by a territorial bull. The bachelors are socially relegated to less desirable portions of a shoreline. In Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, this means almost any flat surface. You will see them sleeping along the rocks, the street or maybe on a bench. They will also crawl uninvited into anchored rafts and boats for a peaceful snooze.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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10 Sea Lion Rookery at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

This mother sea lion is protecting her pups while they nap in the shadows of a boat. They are part of the El Malecón rookery at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. This is the largest reproductive colony of the 31 identified in the Galápagos Islands. Notice the teeth scars on the back of one pup. It narrowly escaped an attack by a killer whale or shark, their most common predators.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristóbal, Ecuador
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11 La Galapaguera Tortoise Reserve on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado will be a highlight of your trip to San Cristóbal Island. Guaranteed! La galapaguera in Spanish means tortoise hatchery. But the 15 acre site is best described as a tortoise reserve. As you walk along the interpretive trails, you will encounter giant tortoises living freely in their near-natural habitat. They extend their long necks to peer at you from thick vegetation. They huddle together in groups. They bathe in muddy puddles. Occasionally, one will lumber down your path for an exciting photo opportunity. La Galapaguera Tortoise Reserve is located on the southeast end of San Cristóbal Island. It is about a 40 minute drive (15 miles) from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno through the forested highlands.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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12 One Tortoise Species at La Galapaguera on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

The Galápagos Islands is famous for giant tortoises. But as is common with fauna in the Galápagos, tortoise species vary by island. Originally, there were two subspecies endemic to San Cristóbal Island. The one from the southwest and central sections became extinct around 1933. Fortunately, the breed from the northeast survived. This is the species being bred and managed by La Galapaguera. The scientific name for the San Cristóbal giant tortoise is Chelonoidis chathamensis. When the tortoises reach maturity, they are released into the wild across the island.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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13 Yellow Warbler at La Galapaguera on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Galápagos Islands is home to 110 species of birds of which 49 are land birds. Yet only the Chatham Island Mockingbird is totally endemic to San Cristóbal Island. If you are not too distracted watching tortoises at La Galapaguera, you will spot several types of birds in the trees and on the forest floor. This adorable songbird is a Galápagos yellow warbler (Setophaga petechial). The reddish-brown crown and chest streaks indicate this is an adult male.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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14 Giant Tortoise at La Galapaguera on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Galápagos giant tortoises are amazing. Found on seven of the islands, an average adult male weighs 400 to 500 pounds. The largest ones live on Santa Cruz Island. They range from 600 to 700 pounds. A few have been found over 850 pounds. The tortoise shell measures five to six feet. The shape of the carapace varies by island. Domed tortoises live among dense vegetation. Saddleback tortoises evolved in arid areas, allowing them to reach higher for food. Males on San Cristóbal Island tend to be saddleback while females are a blend of the two shapes. The life expectancy of the Galápagos giant tortoise is in excess of 100 years. Their origin is equally fascinating. Scientists believe they arrived at San Cristóbal or neighboring Española about two to three million years ago after floating from South America. Subsequently, they traveled to ten different islands in the Galápagos where they morphed into 15 species based on their environment.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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15 Tortoises Feeding at La Galapaguera on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Giant tortoises are vegetarians. When they awake (they sleep about 16 hours a day), they first bask in the sun to get warm. Then they graze for about eight to nine hours to maintain their enormous size. Yet surprisingly, they can live up to a year without food or water. They eat by tearing into plants with their sharp mouths. Because they are toothless, they do not chew before swallowing. The tortoises at La Galapaguera are lucky because they do not have to spend much time foraging. Instead, staff members cut and carry large stalks of greenery to designated feeding zones.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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16 Large Tree Finch at La Galapaguera on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

During Charles Darwin’s five week visit to the Galápagos Islands in 1845, he noticed finches varied by island. Two years after he returned to London, it was confirmed these small birds had evolved into distinct sub-species. The most notably difference is the shape of their beaks based on available food. This finding helped support Darwin’s theory of evolution. There are 15 types of finches in the Galápagos This is a large tree finch. Its scientific name is Camarhynchus psittacula.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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17 Tortoise Hatchlings at La Galapaguera on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

During the nesting season, which runs from July to November, staff from La Galapaguera find clutches of billiard-ball-size tortoise eggs in the wild. They are brought to the tortoise reserve and placed in a dark box for 30 days to simulate a natural underground nest. They hatch after about 130 days without the need of incubators. At birth, these tiny creatures average 2.5 inches and weigh less than two ounces. The hatchlings are placed in shallow trays covered by wire grates. It is exciting to watch these baby tortoises interacting in their nursery.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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18 Tortoise Juveniles at La Galapaguera on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

As the infant tortoises grow, they are moved to protective pits by age. Each tortoise is identified by number. The color of paint indicates how old they are. Walking by these pens allows visitors to see how the tortoises change during their early years.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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19 Renewing Population at La Galapaguera on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Prior to the arrival of humans in the 19th century, the population of tortoises on San Cristóbal Island was about 24,000. The decline began when Spanish sailors exploited them for food. Settlers also ate them while their farms destroyed nesting sites. But worse, early colonists introduced feral animals (cats, dogs, pigs and goats) plus rats. These pests destroyed eggs, killed hatchlings and competed for food. By the 1970s, the tortoise was on the brink of extinction on San Cristóbal Island with only 500 to 700 living in the wild. In response, Ecuador passed laws protecting the species in 1975. Then the Galápagos National Park created the La Galapaguera Tortoise Reserve. Their dedication has produced dramatic results. A 2016 census estimated there are now about 6,700 tortoises on the island. Although the San Cristóbal giant tortoise is still rated as endangered, the population is growing and is expected to make a full recovery.

La Galapaguera, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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20 Kicker Rock near San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

As your tour boat or cruise ship repositions around San Cristóbal Island, you may encounter these stunning rock formations about 90 minutes after leaving Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Underwater enthusiasts take a direct charter to these landmarks off the west-central coast. This is Kicker Rock. An alternative name is León Dormido (Sleeping Lion). The monoliths are the remnants of a palagonite tuff cone that has been split and sculpted by nature for thousands of years. Between the 450 feet tall towers is a channel famous among scuba divers and snorkelers. Swimming beneath the typically calm, 62 feet of water are schools of tropical fish. Most exciting are the manta rays plus hammerheads and Galápagos sharks.

León Dormido, Ecuador
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21 Spectacular Beauty of Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

When you read articles or see photos of the Galápagos, the focus is on the incredible wildlife and landscapes on the islands. Totally justified! What is rarely shown is the spectacular beauty seen from a boat deck. Beneath the blue sky and puffy white clouds are gorgeous seascapes. Each island and rock formation in the archipelago seems to be adrift in the vast Pacific Ocean. They are rugged, mysterious and enchanting. They are what make the Galápagos Islands one of the most special places on earth.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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22 Going Ashore at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Punta Pitt is located on the northeast corner of San Cristóbal Island. This remote visitor site is only reachable by boat, either as part of a day excursion from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno or aboard a cruise ship. Either way, you will travel to shore on an inflatable dinghy before having a wet landing. A typical land tour lasts two hours. Some operators also offer extra time for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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23 Green Beach at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

As you approach Punta Pitt, you will notice something unusual about the 295 foot beach. The sand has a green hue. This color stems from translucent olivine crystals reflecting in the light. Although this mineral is very common inside of the earth, it tends to weather quickly when exposed to air, wind and waves so rarely retains its olive coloring. They occurred at Punta Pitt because the mineral content of the volcanic ash was high in magnesium and low in silica.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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24 Sea Lions at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

As you replace your water shoes with hiking shoes, you will be distracted by sea lions frolicking in the water, riding waves toward shore and hauling out on the beach. This bachelor colony seems to relish all of the snapping cameras. At the base of the rocks you might see lava herons, marine iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs. In the cliff wall are nesting swallow-tailed gulls and storm petrels. And often overhead are flying great and magnificent frigatebirds. What an amazing opening act at Punta Pitt.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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25 Hiking Trail at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

The hiking trail at Punta Pitt is less than a mile one way. What makes it tricky is a rugged and uneven staircase cut into a narrow canyon. It can be challenging climbing uphill. It is harder getting down. But the effort is worth it. Once you are at the base of the cliff face, it is easy to walk along while enjoying the scenery and wildlife.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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26 Vegetation at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Dissimilar to the dense forests in the highlands of southern San Cristóbal Island, Punta Pitt in the north is arid with sparse vegetation. It only receives a few inches of rain a year, qualifying it as one of the driest parts of the Galápagos. It also experiences high wind, especially along the eastern shoreline. As a result, only a few species of plants grow here. They are often dried out and appear dead. One is the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia echios). Others include patches of nolana bushes and palo santo trees. Offering a bit of color are the Galápagos carpetweed. This endemic ground cover called Sesuvium edmonstonei turns shades of orange and red during the dry season. Accenting the shoreline with green are occasional clumps of saltbrush.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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27 Geological Origin of Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Whereas the southern half of San Cristóbal Island began forming by a shield volcano about 2.4 million years ago, the northeast section including Punta Pitt is geologically very young. The last eruptions may have occurred a few centuries ago. As lava seeped from a line of volcanic fissures, the hot magma met the cold seawater and exploded into clouds of ash and dust. As these particles landed, they compacted into a volcanic tuff cone. Because the resulting rock is soft and porous, it is easily eroded by the elements. The results are dramatic beige cliffs with irregular ridges that glow in the sunshine.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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28 Vista atop Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

This is the panoramic payoff of the trail at Punta Pitt. Linger and relish the view. The veined escarpment. A rugged valley. People exploring the pristine beach. Rafts bobbing in aquamarine water. Islets dotting the surface toward the horizon. This will be a lasting memory of your trip to the Galápagos Islands.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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29 Three Booby Types at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

Punta Pitt has a unique distinction unmatched anywhere else in the Galápagos: it is a breeding ground for three types of endemic boobies. Although they all live near the top of Punta Pitt, you will find them in different locations. Look for Nazca boobies along the cliffs or inside crevices. The blue-footed boobies will be walking around on the ground. And the red-footed boobies perch in trees and scrubs. This red-footed booby is returning to its nest with a twig.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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30 Red-footed Booby Nest at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

It is a special treat to see Galápagos red-footed boobies at Punta Pitt because the majority of these seabirds live only on Genovesa Island, a distance of 90 miles from San Cristóbal Island. Similar to these clustered in a nolana bush, red-footed boobies gather in colonies during mating season and while raising their young. The chicks resemble cotton balls. Within five months, their plumage will turn brown like these juveniles. However, some birds will retain predominately white feathers. At 28 inches long and with a wingspan of about three feet, they are the smallest of the booby species in the Galápagos.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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31 Juvenile Blue-footed Booby at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

You may not recognize this marine bird with gray webbed feet as it waddles toward you and stares with curiosity. This is a juvenile blue-footed booby. By the time it reaches maturity, its feet will turn blue from the carotenoid pigments in its fish diet. The intensity of the color indicates healthiness and fertility so is critical in attracting a mate. The blue-footed booby is the second largest booby in the Galápagos Islands. They typically measure 32 inches, weigh just over three pounds and have a five-foot wingspan. Approximately 70% of the 40,000 breeding pairs in the world live at 15 locations in the Galápagos Islands.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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32 Blue-footed Booby Feeding at Punta Pitt on San Cristóbal Island in Galápagos, EC

During mating season from June through August, pairs of blue-footed boobies create a simple nest among lava rocks encircled with white excrement. After the female lays two and sometimes three eggs, the parents take turns incubating and protecting them with their feet for 41 to 45 days. After the chicks hatch about five days apart, the female guards them while the male searches for food. These roles are reversed as the chicks grow. Watching feeding time is fascinating. When an adult approaches after a hunt at sea, the chick becomes noisy and excited. After jockeying among flapping wings, the chick thrusts its head into the parent’s mouth and receives the regurgitated food.

Punta Pitt, San Cristóbal Island, Ecuador
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