Out on the eastern side of the archipelago, with a shape resembling a “shrivelled appendix” according to 1940s travel writer Victor von Hagen, SAN CRISTÓBAL is the administrative seat of the Galápagos and at 558 square kilometres is its fifth largest island. Wreck Bay, at its western tip, is the site of the provincial capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a peaceful town slowly awakening to the rustle of tourist dollars since the island’s airport opened in 1986. In its favour is the excellent Centro de Interpretación, which concentrates on the human and natural history of the islands, plus the nearby islets León Dormido (Kicker Rock) and Isla Lobos, which often feature in local excursions. On the rest of the island, points of interest include the highland town of El Progreso, site of Manuel Cobos’s tyrannical colony, Laguna El Junco, the largest freshwater lake in the Galápagos, and Punta Pitt, the archipelago’s easternmost point.
Cerro San Joaquín (summit measurements range from 730m to 896m), whose windward slopes are fertile enough to be farmed, dominates the southwestern half of the island. The northeastern area has the characteristic volcanic landscape of the archipelago, a collection of lava flows, spatter cones and other volcanic features.
Founded by the colonist General Villamil in the mid-nineteenth century, PUERTO BAQUERIZO MORENO was named after the first Ecuadorian president to visit the islands, in 1916. Despite being the capital, it’s a sleepy town, virtually lifeless in the heat of the early afternoon, only coming alive fully when the sun sets over the bay. It may not get as many visitors as Puerto Ayora, but there is a burgeoning industry here: along the waterfront, a glut of travel agents, cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops all show a town keen to cut itself a larger slice of the tourism pie. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is a bit short of things to do, but there’s enough on the island to keep visitors busy for a few days. Just outside the port, the Centro de Interpretación has great displays of the archipelago’s human and natural history, while spots on the coast nearby, such as Tongo Reef west of town, have become the focus of the Galápagos’ growing reputation as a surfing hot spot. The waves are best from December to February at the beginning of the warm-wet season, when the water is also warmer.
The one stand-out attraction of the town is the Centro de Interpretación, the Galápagos National Park’s exhibition centre located about twenty minutes’ walk north of the centre along Avenida Alsacio Northía. The displays cover everything from geology, climate and conservation, to attempts at colonization in the 1920s, and have detailed explanations in Spanish and English. Impressive installations include a reconstruction of a ship’s hold stuffed with overturned giant tortoises as they would have been stored by the pirates and whalers – one beast has its leg cut off for the boiling pot. Talks, lectures and concerts are held regularly in the open-air theatre and audiovisual projection room within the complex.
Behind the last exhibition room at the centre, a path leads up to Cerro de las Tijeretas, or Frigatebird Hill. It’s only twenty minutes’ walk through fragrant palo santo forests to a viewpoint at the top, where you’ll have a fine panorama of the yachts in Wreck Bay, Isla Lobos to the north and León Dormido to the northeast. Below, a rocky cove echoes with jockeying sea lions while frigatebirds circle in the air above. They nest here in March and April and are seen less frequently during the cool-dry season. A series of paths network around the hill, so you can do a circuit; it’s relatively easy to stay oriented. One trail leads to the Tijeretas cove, where you can snorkel, while others go down to the road back to town past the interpretation centre. Heading away from town to the north, you’ll come to a secluded beach, the Playa Cabo de Horno.