Santiago Island, also known as San Salvador, lies at the heart of the Galapagos National Park between Isabela Island and Santa Cruz Island. Spanning an area of approximately 585 square kilometers, Santiago is the fourth largest island in the Galapagos and as with the other islands in this region is defined by its volcanic landscape.
Approximately 750,000 years ago, Santiago Island was formed from a shield volcano eponymously named Santiago. Volcanic structures of this type are recognized by low, flat summits surrounded by extensive flow fields of lava which characterize the environment of Santiago Island.
Beyond Santiago’s interesting geological backstory, the island also has a rich history of human exploration. In fact, Santiago was just the second Galapagos island visited by naturalist Charles Darwin and the island where he chose to stay for the most amount of time. It was here that collection the majority of his samples that would later inform his famed theory of evolution.
Today, Santiago is known as a true gem for nature enthusiasts and features three main visitor sites. These include Sullivan Bay, an otherworldly landscape created by recent volcanic activity; James Bay, a historic salt mine with a beautiful black beach teaming with marine life; and lastly Sombrero Chino, a tiny lava islet surrounding by fantastic snorkeling sites.
Sullivan Bay (Bahia Sullivan)
If you are exploring the Galapagos on Aqua Expeditions’ East Galapagos Itinerary, you will visit Santiago island on day three of your seven night cruise. The day begins bright and early with a dry landing at Sullivan Bay to embark on a hike across its recent pahoehoe lava flows — a lunar-like landscape thought to have been formed just 150 years ago. Along the trail, our expert naturalist guides will tell you all about the volcanic process that created Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island, and the Galapagos Archipelago.
Pahoehoe lava flows can by identified by their smooth surface made of corrugated lava that resembles the swirling or rippling of rope. The name of this formation comes from the Hawaiian verb ‘hoe’ which means ‘easy to walk’. In contrast, fields of A’a lava, which can be found on Fernandina Island, are the opposite. A’a flows have rough, rubbly surfaces composed of broken lava blocks that make walking incredibly difficult. Some posit that A’a flows have been so named because when first discovered by early settlers, they stood upon them with bare feet and exclaimed ‘ah ah’ with pain. However, a more likely explanation is that A’a is derived from a Hawaiian verb meaning ‘to burn’, referring to the jagged surface of the fields. Whichever explanation suits your fancy, there is no doubt that it is a landscape unlike anywhere else on earth.
James Bay (Port Egas)
James Bay, or Puerto Egas as it is also known, is a unique visitor site renowned for its stunning volcanic shoreline. This site is home to a diverse range of marine, land, and bird species which visitors can expect to see up close as they embark one of Puerto Egas’ two hiking trails.
The first trail is a coastal path that meanders along the rugged shoreline, offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, visitors will observe a variety of endemic wildlife, including sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and marine iguanas. This trail is also knows for its green sea turtle nesting sites and if you are lucky you may even witness the tiny turtles emerging from their nests or swimming in the rock pools nearby. The fur seal grottos are the endpoint and highlight of this trail. Fur seals tend to shy away from the heat of the equatorial sun. Instead, they seek out shade, and can be found resting in caves or crevices of the volcanic shoreline.
The second trail breaks away from the coastline, heading two miles inland through an arid zone, towards a salt mine crater. The ‘mine’ is actually a small volcanic cone that transforms into a salt water lagoon in the wetter months and dries up during the hotter part of the year. Multiple times throughout the 20th century, there were attempts to mine salt from the crater to no avail. Today, the salt water lagoon is often home to Galapagos flamingos and a wealth of other bird species, including the Galapagos hawks, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, Darwin finches, and even flightless cormorants.
Chinese Hat Island (Sombrero Chino)
Sombrero Chino, also known as Chinese Hat Island, is a beautiful and unique visitor site located just off the southeast tip of Santiago Island in the Galapagos. This small island owes its name to its shape, which resembles an old-fashioned Chinese man’s hat. The island is surrounded by crystal clear waters and boasts a beautiful white coral beach that gives way to a primeval landscape of volcanic rubble.
The beach on Sombrero Chino is home to a small colony of Galapagos sea lions, marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and a variety of shorebirds. Visitors may even get the opportunity to snorkel with Galapagos penguins, whitetip reef sharks, sea lions, and various species of Galapagos fish in the clear waters surrounding the island.
Marine Visitor Sites
Santiago Island has seven distinct marine visitor sites, located primarily on the north and southeast ends of the island. The sites include Puerto Egas, Albany Islet, Piedra Blanca at Buccaneer Cove, Cousins Rocks, Bainbridge Rocks, Don Ferdi Rock, and Beagle Rocks. These spots are prime diving and snorkeling sites which offer explorers an unforgettable insight into life in the Galapagos beneath the waves. From sea lions, fur seals, and sea turtles to rays, sharks, moray eels, sea horses, and stunning underwater geological formations, these dive sites are incredible and provide you with an extraordinary glimpse into the rich diversity of Galapagos marine ecosystems.
Where to next: Bartolome Island
For those exploring the Galapagos Islands with Aqua Expeditions on board the Aqua Mare, Santiago Island is visited on our East Galapagos Itinerary. After a thrilling day Santiago Island’s key visitor sites of Sullivan Bay, James Bay, and Sombrero Chino, guests will return to the 50-meter superyacht for refreshments and a scenic sunset as we head for our next destination — Bartolome Island.
Here, guests will visit the islet’s two visitor sites: Bartolome Panoramic Viewpoint, where explorers will avail postcard perfect views of Bartolome Island’s famous pinnacle rock; and Pinnacle Rock Beach, one of the Galapagos National Park’s best snorkel spots.
Book an expedition on Aqua Mare to discover the elusive wildlife and dramatic volcanic landscapes of the Galapagos Archipelago. Curated with exclusivity and personalized service enabled in mind, the yacht is the only one in the Galapagos Islands to have a one-to-one crew to guest ratio. Plan your trip now and feel free to reach out to our Expeditions Consultant with any questions you may have.