The easternmost island of the Galapagos, San Cristobal is named for St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. It holds the distinction of being the very first island Charles Darwin landed on during his voyage on The Beagle in 1835. It was this pivotal journey that led Darwin to confirm his theories of evolution and natural selection. These theories were complete game changers in the scientific, anthropological, and archaeological world, and are still the go to benchmarks for studying evolution.
San Cristobal also houses the esteemed Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS) - an extension of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. This institution is a working school continuing much of the scientific research instigated by Darwin.
Originally named Chatham for the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt, San Cristobal is home to the oldest permanent settlement in the Galapagos, a result of the fresh water source from El Junco Lake. After Darwin’s visit, others took advantage of the island’s natural resources.
Businesses flourished on San Cristobal until the 1960s, beginning with the Orchillera Company which was established in 1858 by Manuel Cobos and his partner José Monroy. The company harvested a special lichen indigenous to the islands to create dye.
Later Cobos went on to establish a leather factory and fish oil production center known as “El Progreso”. His horrific treatment of those who worked for him (he used many of the convicts sent from Ecuador to the San Cristobal penal colony, established in 1880, as slaves) ultimately led to his demise after they turned on him.
Other businesses, particularly in the fishing industry, tried to establish themselves, but the cost of running them from such a remote location prevented any profitability.
Today San Cristobal is one of the most common islands visited by Galapagos tours and cruises.
Top 10 things to do on San Cristobal Island
1. Sea Lion Rookery - A great introduction to the rich wildlife legacies on the Galapagos, and often a first stop right off the airplane. Observe sea lions among the coral sands and various rocks, as several bird species loudly make their presence known.
2. Interpretation Center - A fascinating stop for learning the history surrounding the Galapagos Islands, both human and natural. The interpretation center opened in 1998, and provides an in depth overview of the fascinating Galapagos, including demonstrations, films, photographs, and visuals in chronological order.
3. Frigatebird Hill - After visiting the interpretation center, head up along a short trail nearby to see Frigatebird Hill. From here you’ll be able to observe magnificent Frigate Birds and Great Frigate Birds, both in the same colony. Many wildlife tours make this a fun stop as you learn the differences between them.
4. Ochoa Beach - Near Isla Lobos, many Galapagos tours will combine a visit to Ochoa Beach with a visit to Isla Lobos. Spot Ghost Crabs and Hermit Crabs, birds, and enjoy snorkeling in the calm waters, where a large amount of sea urchins can be discovered. Have your underwater camera ready!
5. Cerro Brujo - The beautiful coral sands of this beach welcome visitors eager to take in yet another of the Galapagos unique sights. The swimming and snorkeling is spectacular here, as are the bird watching opportunities.
6. Tortoise Reserve - The Galapagos is famous for large tortoises, and here is one of the main places to observe them. The wildlife in the Galapagos famously does not fear humans, and make it remarkably easy to get extremely up close, which makes for incredible photographs.
7. Punta Pitt - Volcanic rocks, which don’t appear like they could foster life, nevertheless do just that here. Plant life such as Saltbush and spiny shrubs, cacti and red Vesuviu, and Palo Santo trees all thrive here.
8. Puerto Chino - A lovely white sand beach, perfect for a half day getaway during your Galapagos vacation. Nearby, there is a restoration project for endangered plant species.
9. Isla Lobos - Many cruises to the Galapagos that explore San Cristobal include a visit to this tiny islet, just one hour off the shore. Especially known for the delightfully quirky Blue Footed Boobies, Isla Lobos is also a place to occasionally see sea lions and fur seals. Scenic and calm, Isla Lobos beckons many a snorkeler to the beautiful waters.
10. Leon Dormido (Kicker Rock) - though this tour is an extravagance, involving an additional boat trip, it’s well worth doing. Take a 1.5 hour excursion from San Cristobal toward the rock formation, looking like it was perfectly split in two, one large rock and one tall and skinny, coming to a sharp point toward the sky. There is no beach to disembark at, but excellent snorkeling and photo opportunities.
What to Pack for the Galapagos
The Galapagos are remote, surrounded by beaches, waters, and lava rock. Your packing list should be light, but you definitely want to make sure you have all necessities with you. The benefit of going on a Galapagos cruise will be the ability to bring a little bit more, as you’ll only be unpacking once.
1. Bring multiple bathing suits. Though it’s generally warm, and clothing will dry quickly, you’ll definitely want more than one suit because you’ll be in and out of the water constantly. It will also be a good idea to bring water clothes, to protect from the sun. It’s easy to forget your exposed neck and arms when you’re floating on top of the water gazing through goggles at the incredibly world below!
2. Bring a pair of hiking boots or tennis shoes. You’ll do a lot of walking around on the Galapagos. Hikes range from strenuous to moderate, to easy, so if you think you’ll be interested in this activity, definitely use up some room in your suitcase for a pair of sturdy, comfortable, close-toed shoes.
3. Sunhat, sunglasses, and strong sunscreen. As you’ll be out on the water regularly, and enjoying time ashore along the coast where there’s little shade, definitely bring plenty of sunscreen, the stronger SPF the better.
4. A multi functional, small day pack. Because most shore excursions will typically last half day to a full day, you’ll want a small to medium sized day backpack for storing water, cameras, sunscreen, phones, and anything else you’ll need. Make sure this is something you don’t mind getting dirty or wet.
5. Rubber soled water shoes. Consider bringing a pair of water shoes to protect against sharp coral reefs and for walking around lava rocks. These can be very useful as well to avoid slipping on board the boats that take you around to the many beautiful snorkeling spots on the Galapagos.
6. Layers! Layers is key for most destinations around the world, but in the Galapagos you may need a light sweatshirt for at night, even though it won’t seem like it during the day. Also consider a pair of long hiking pants to avoid bug bites.
Photography tips for the Galapagos
Without a doubt, you will leave the Galapagos with thousands of pictures, mainly of the incredible wildlife. Here’s some tips to help you make sure you make the most of your trip and arrive home with some amazing shots.
1. Bring multiple lenses. - Learning from a photography professional, you’re going to want to be able to commit to several different types of shot, and this means different lenses. For the Galapagos, try to bring a telephoto lens and a macro lens. These are going to be the best way to capture the unbelievable wildlife on the islands.
2. Don’t be afraid to get up close. - The animals in the Galapagos are famously used to humans, and this makes it very easy to get up close for spectacular macro shots. The proximity means you have a greater ability to capturing the personality, expressions, and textures of the animals.
3. Bring a len cloth - the last thing you want is a foggy lens to muddy up your image. Make sure you have a high end lens cloth ready to keep dust and condensation off your camera. In warm tropical environments, lens fogging is common - one good tip is to take your camera out with lens cap off a good few minutes before you plan to start shooting. This will give enough time to let any fogging dissipate.
4. Go on a Photography tour! - For serious amateurs and complete novices, photography tours are one of the best ways to learn and grow as a photographer. You’ll get to learn from a professional and get the best tips about how to best capture wildlife. When the wildlife is so entrancing, historic, and relatively easy to get close to, the thing that’s going to make your photos stand out is the composition and lighting - having an expert near to instruct you on angles, f-stops, shutter-speeds, and filters is an incredible asset. See all the Galapagos photography tours on Stride.
5. Get to know the animals - one of the key aspects to wildlife photography is knowing the best times to find them in action. Learn a bit about each major species to discover their habits. You may also learn when to best find them with the least amount of people around. Though sometimes you may want a human presence in your photograph - this can create a wonderful dynamic.
6. Get dirty! - Photography is about finding the best way to showcase your subject. In the case of wildlife, this often means getting down and dirty, wet and uncomfortable. To get the best angles, you will find yourself contorting on the ground on your stomach, or perhaps balancing as quietly as possible on a log or tree branch.
7. Bring underwater casing. - A lot of your time in the Galapagos will be spent in the water. While over the counter underwater cameras actually do an impressive job, if you want sharper and higher resolution photos, invest in an underwater casing for your DSLR or other point and shoot. If you’re wary of getting your nice piece anywhere near the water (understandable) look into smart-phone accessories. There are many ways you can make your camera phone into the perfect underwater photography tool.
Travel to the Galapagos: Practicalities and Logistics
Before You Go
The Galapagos are technically part of Ecuador, so the same visa requirements apply. Citizens of the United States, Canada and most European countries do not require a visa to travel to Ecuador, unless you plan to stay past 90 days. You will generally receive a free visa upon entry into Ecuador.
General travel insurance should suffice for a trip to the Galapagos. You will be spending a lot of time on the water with your tour, and any insurance specificities related to this can be answered by the tour company.
You do need a Yellow Fever vaccine for traveling to Ecuador. Proof of vaccination is required upon entry into the country.
Besides that, no additional vaccinations are required for travel to the Galapagos, but make sure all your regular vaccinations are up to date.
Zika has been reported in some parts of Ecuador, so those traveling with young children or who are pregnant do so at your own risk.
Bring hats and sunscreen! You will be outside and on the water for a large part of your visit, and the sun can be intense.