For what is now an uninhabited island, Santiago Island has an interesting human history. It was the second of the Galapagos Islands visited by Charles Darwin in 1835, and buccaneers and whalers had come here long before his arrival in search of water, tortoises and wood. Salt was another precious commodity on the island, and companies set up salt extraction operations here in the 1900s.
Human activities, of course, were hugely detrimental to the indigenous animal and plant species. The giant tortoise population was decimated for meat, while introduced animals such as goats, pigs, donkeys, rats and mice wreaked havoc upon the island’s ecosystem.
Despite all this, eradication, reintroduction and conservation projects from the 1980s onward have helped turn Santiago into a popular spot for wildlife spotters. The island’s inhabitants now include marine iguanas, land and sea turtles, sea lions, fur seals, flamingos, Galapagos hawks and Darwin finches. Add to that the island’s spectacular volcanic landscapes and Santiago becomes one of the most fascinating destinations in the archipelago.
Main Visitor Sites on Santiago Island
Puerto Egas – Puerto Egas, along with the two sites mentioned directly below, is one of the three main attractions in James Bay on the western coast. Located at the southern end of the bay, Puerto Egas is the departure point for walks to the fur seal grottoes. Here you’ll find deep pools and caves in the volcanic shoreline, where fur seals lounge around and play alongside marine iguanas, land iguanas and sally lightfoot crabs.
Espumilla Beach – This beach is at the northern end of James Bay. Here you’ll find a sea turtle nesting site, with a trail leading inland to a small lagoon. The seasonal lagoon is home to flamingos and occasional white-cheeked pintail ducks. For excellent bird watching, follow the trail round in a loop through an arid zone with many different bird species.
Salt Mine – A two-mile trail runs inland from Puerto Egas up to the top of the old salt mine crater. Sailors used to stop here to gather salt to preserve fish and meat (including meat from local giant tortoises), and dedicated salt extraction companies, now gone, set up here in the 1920s and 1960s. The mine itself is part of a small volcanic cone. The crater fills with a seasonal salt-water lagoon, at which time flamingos, Galapagos hawks and various other birds can be seen.
Sullivan Bay – This bay on the eastern side of Santiago Island is one of the most impressive volcanic sites in the entire Galapagos archipelago. One particular geological highlight is the smooth, black, undulating pahoehoe lava flow from 1897, which is fairly recent in volcanological terms. Don’t expect to see much wildlife in this barren part of the island, but do keep an eye out for strange tuff cones and the almost impossibly resilient plants growing in the volcanic fissures.
Cousin’s Rock – This dive site, located just off the east coast of the island, is the most popular marine site near Santiago. You can see it from the shore, where a triangular rock rises some 33 feet out of the water. Sea lions, fur seals, sharks, sea turtles and rays swim near the layered volcanic rock, making it a great spot for SCUBA diving and snorkeling.
Read more about this island at Galapagos Conservancy.
Galapagos Cruises that Visit Santiago Island
Other Main Galapagos Islands and Visitor Sites
Baltra Island / Bartolomé Island / Chinese Hat Islet / Eden Islet / Española Island / Fernandina Island / Floreana Island / Genovesa Island / Isabela Island / Mosquera Islet / North Seymour Island / Rábida Island / San Cristóbal Island / Santa Cruz Island / Santa Fe Island / South Plaza Island
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Galapagos Wildlife: 15 Iconic Species
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