San Cristobal Island Guide
It isn't hard to understand why San Cristobal Island rises to the top of most Galapagos travelers bucket list. With the iconic kicker rock, world renown snorkeling and diving, the largest fresh water lake in the Galapagos archipelago, diversive wildlife and sandy beaches it a must see on your Galapagos vacation. As an added bonus for travelers, our origional Galapagos Islands itinerary, Galapagos Unbound, offers the exclusive experience of beach camping on the shores of San Cristobal Island.
- Area: 557 km2/215 mi2
- Maximum Altitude: 730 m/2395 ft
- Population: approximately 6000
Geography and Ecology
Located in the far east of the archipelago, San Cristobal is one of the oldest islands in the Galapagos and comprised of three or four extinct volcanoes that have fused together. Its only source of fresh water is the small lake of El Junco, which is located at the top of the island and combined with San Cristobal’s fertile soils, led to its early settlement.
At the southwestern tip of the island lies the Galapagos capital of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, which is clustered with restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s making a name for itself as a surfing hotspot, with Tongo Reef to the west of town one of the better breaks. San Cristobal is also home to the small parish of El Progreso just to the east of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, which stands as the oldest surviving settlement in the Galapagos Islands.
San Cristobal is named after the Patron Satin of seafarers, St Christopher, and is where Charles Darwin first stepped ashore in the Galapagos back in 1835. In 1858, a small industry harvesting the lichen of orchilla moss was established by Manuel Cobos and José Monroy and a penal colony was later built to house prisoners from mainland Ecuador. Cobos was known for his appalling treatment of these convicts and was eventually assassinated by a group of workers in 1904.
Sugar cane plantations were established by the late-19th century and a sugar factory began operation, together with a leather industry using the hide of feral cattle. A fishing company flourished here during the 1950s, however, the high costs of transporting fish to the mainland saw it abandoned by the 1960s.
Today the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is home to government offices, an Ecuadorian Navy facility and a bustling airport. It boasts the second largest population in the archipelago after Santa Cruz, with the majority making a living through artisanal fishing and tourism. It is also home to the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS) of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, which conducts vital research projects throughout the islands.
Kicker Rock - Kicker Rock, which also goes by León Dormido, is another one of the best snorkeling sites in the Galápagos. Much like Devil’s Crown, Kicker Rock is the eroded remains of a volcanic parasitic cone that rises above the. Unlike the low-level crest of Devil’s crown, however, Kicker Rock is a megalith that rises over 500 feet above the ocean. From afar, Kicker Rock resembles a sleeping lion (hence it’s Spanish epithet), and there’s a broad, vertical fissure that divides the landmark and creates a narrow channel. Though Tropicbirds, Blue-footed boobies, and frigatebirds enjoy congregating on Kicker Rock’s steep slopes, the real draw is the marine life. Spotted eagle rays, sea turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, the Galápagos shark, and hammerhead sharks are all drawn to the mild currents of the channel.
- Interpretation Center - Run by the Galapagos National Park, this visitor center offers a fascinating insight into the geological formation of the islands, its ecosystems, flora and fauna. Two interpretation panels detail the natural and cultural history of the archipelago, making it a good first port of call for visitors arriving into the Galapagos Islands at San Cristobal.
- Frigatebird Hill - A 45-minute trail leads from the Interpretation Center up to Frigatebird Hill where both magnificent and greater frigatebirds can be seen in the same colony. Cacti and acacia trees line the way and lava lizards are often spotted en route. There are magnificent views from the lookout at the top, all the way to Kicker Rock in the west and Shipwreck Bay to the south.
- Isla Lobos - A one-hour boat ride from San Cristobal lies the islet of Isla Lobos, which is named after the colony of sea lions that are usually present here. It also features a seasonal nesting site for blue-footed boobies and frigatebirds, with fur seals sometimes present as well. Isla Lobos is renowned for its tranquil atmosphere and is a popular destination for snorkeling excursions to spot a variety of pelagic fish, Galapagos sharks, eagle rays and sea turtle. Visits to Isla Lobos are sometimes combined with an excursion to nearby Ochoa Beach where ghost crabs, hermit crabs and sea urchins can be found.
- Cerro Brujo - One of the first sites to be visited by Charles Darwin when he arrived in 1835, Cerro Brujo is the remains of a tuff cone and offers spectacular snorkeling from its coral sand beach. Pelicans, blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls can all be spotted here, together with sea lions and marine iguanas, and its lagoon was long used as a salt mine by the people of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
- La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado - Located in the southeast of the island, this tortoise reserve was established by the National Park in 2003 to help boost the population of San Cristobal’s giant tortoises. It’s a great place to get up close to these fascinating creatures in a semi-natural habitat while learning about their origins, evolution and current threats to their survival. In addition to breeding tortoises for release back into the wild, Cerro Colorado is one of the few places to see the endemic and threatened Calandrinia galapagosa plant.
- Punta Pitt - Located on the eastern side of San Cristobal is Punta Pitt, which is famed for its raucous colony of bachelor sea lions. A steep trail leads from the beach up the cliff to a breeding site where all three species of Galapagos boobies can be seen (red-footed, blue-footed and Nazca), together with two species of frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls and storm petrels. The trail leads through tracts of palo santo vegetation, saltbush and red vesuvius, with expansive views from the top of the cliff over the beach.
- El Junco Lagoon - Nestled in the highlands of San Cristobal, El Junco Lagoon is a 45-minute drive from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno through a diverse array of ecosystems. The lagoon lies in a caldera and is named after the sedge that grows along its shores, with walks along the rim offering panoramic views across the island all the way to Punta Pitt. El Junco Lagoon is a renowned bird watching site, with white-cheeked pintail ducks, common gallinules and the endangered Chatham mockingbird spotted here, together with frigatebirds who come to bathe and preen their feathers.
Unique Wildlife Encounters
- Galapagos Marine Iguanas - Endemic to the islands, the Galapagos marine iguana is unique amongst reptiles in its adaptation to life along the shoreline. While there are healthy populations of marine iguanas on other islands in the archipelago (including Isabela and Fernandina), the genetically distinct marine iguanas on San Cristobal are declining in number. The “Punta Pitt” population is named after its location and is so genetically diverse that it may be identified as a sub-species. Feral cats are the biggest threat to the population and are currently being tracked using GPS collars to help implement a feral cat control program on the island.
- Chatham Mockingbird - Endemic to San Cristobal, the Chatham mockingbird inhabits subtropical and tropical dry forests, as well as tracts of mangroves across the island. It features a narrow white collar and prominent streaking on its sides and breast and can be identified by a loud and melodious call. Chatham mockingbirds breed between October and April and are best spotted around El Junco Lagoon.
Surprising Fact - Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is renowned for the resident sea lions that laze about its urban streets, often seen lounging on benches and even wandering around the port.