About 25km northwest of Santa Cruz, SANTIAGO – officially called San Salvador – is the fourth-largest island in the Galápagos at 585 square kilometres, and the last unpopulated one to have been abandoned by human settlers. In the early nineteenth century, Captain Porter is reputed to have set four goats free on the island, which swiftly set about multiplying, soon causing extensive damage to the island’s native wildlife. Before trained hunters, aided by dogs and satellite tracking systems, could get to work on the island’s 100,000 goats, its rampant feral pig population had to be eradicated, a mammoth task that took 28 years and was finally completed in 2001; the last goat was destroyed in 2005. As well as Santiago’s four visitor sites, there are some interesting satellite islands, such as Rábida, Bartolomé and Sombrero Chino, and its proximity to Santa Cruz means the majority of boat tours stop somewhere in this area. Day-trip boats based in Baltra also occasionally call at Bartolomé.
BARTOLOMÉ, positioned a few hundred metres off the east coast of Santiago, holds the best-known landmark of the Galápagos, the teetering dagger of Pinnacle Rock, a jagged remnant of an old tuff cone overshadowing a streak of pale sand at the southwestern end of the island. The many tours that come here usually combine a hike to the island’s summit (114m) and a refreshing swim beneath the Rock, where you’ll get some fine snorkelling and perhaps catch a glimpse of Galápagos penguins zipping by schools of colourful fish. If you don’t see them here, you’ve a better chance of spotting them from a panga on the shaded cliffs each side of the bay.
The trail to the summit begins at the man-made dock on Bartolomé’s northern point, before crossing a parched landscape relieved only by a scant covering of silvery Tiquilia – just about the only plant that can survive such dry, ashy soil – and the infrequent slitherings of a Galápagos snake. The trail loops round to the east and climbs up several hundred wooden steps to reach the top of the hill, from where there’s the famous view of Pinnacle Rock. On the opposite side a stunning moonscape vista unfolds, with large spatter cones and lava tunnels dropping to the southeast to reveal the Daphnes, Baltra, Seymour Norte and Santa Cruz in the distance.
Bartolomé’s second trail begins at the beach and leads through the mangroves and dunes across the island’s isthmus to a second beach, patrolled by sharks and rays and out of bounds for swimmers. Marine turtles nest here at the outset of the warm-wet season.
North of Puerto Egas, on the other side of a lava flow, lies Playa Espumilla, a tawny beach couched in mangroves, favoured by marine turtles as a nesting ground. Feral pigs that dig up and eat turtle eggs have been a serious problem here in the past, but a recovery is expected following the completion of the eradication programme. A trail leads inland from the beach, weaving through the mangroves alongside a salty lagoon into thick vegetation, home to Darwin’s finches and flycatchers.
Many boats cruise by Buccaneer Cove, roughly 8km north of Puerto Egas and a favourite hide-out of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century freebooters looking to careen their boats and stock up on food and water. Fifty-metre tuff cliffs, spattered with guano, taper down to a short, dusky beach and then rise in the north forming pinnacles and spurs. Pre-Columbian pottery shards discovered here led archeologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl to suggest mainland fishermen had used the cove as a campsite long before the arrival of the pirates, probably in the wet season when a freshwater stream ran down to the beach.
On the eastern side of Santiago, Sulivan Bay, named after Bartholomew James Sulivan, a lieutenant on the Beagle, is one for lava fans. A trail leads across a vast, century-old flow of pahoehoe lava, a petrified lake of rumpled ooze, intestinal squiggles and viscous tongues, punctuated by oddities like hornitos, solidified pimples made by bursts of gas, and moulds of tree trunks that vaporized in the heat. Two large tuff cones dominate the lava field, and in the cracks and crevices you’ll see the layers of previous flows beneath. In this barren landscape, the pioneering Mollugo and the lava cactus Brachycereus are the only plants that can eke out life.