South Plaza Island
Not 15 miles of the east coast of Santa Cruz, lies a pair of crescent-shaped islands known as the Plazas (named after the former president of Ecuador, General Leonidas Plaza). The northern of the two isles is closed off to visitors, operating as a research site for scientists and conservationists. The southern isle, known as South Plaza Island, is a vibrant destination teeming with endemic wildlife and is one of the last stops on Aqua Mare’s East Galapagos itinerary – a perfect way to cap off the adventure of a lifetime.
So, what can visitors expect upon arrival on South Plaza? Well, as with many of the other islands in the Galapagos, this little islet features a healthy population of sea lions and bird life. However, unique to South Plaza is its richly hued sesuvium fields and elusive hybrid iguana. It is also made up of various habitats, from a white sandy beaches to arid shrub land, cacti forests, and steep cliffs allowing travelers to explore varied landscapes and while keeping an eye out for the fascinating creatures that call this island home.
Fields of technicolor
Low-growing sesuvium – also known as Galapagos carpet weed – is one of the scene-stealing highlights of South Plaza Island, covering the island in swathes of vibrant color year-round.
Like most of the endemic species that inhabit the archipelago, Galapagos carpet weed has evolved to survive the elements of this remote and tiny (just 0.13 square kilometer) island. Throughout the year, rainfall varies greatly. Some months such as February and March receive an average of 65 – 85 millimeters of precipitation as opposed to June and July which are largely dry, receiving a mere 2-4 millimeters of rain. During the wet season sesuvium coats the island in lush green carpeting. When rain becomes scarce, the plant sheds as much chlorophyll as possible turning the fields from sunset orange to blushing red and finally at the peak of dry season, deep violet. Once the rainfall returns to South Plaza Islands, sesuvium will slowly begin producing regular levels of chlorophyll and revert back to its original green hue.
In the midst of the island’s color-changing plains explorers will sight towering Opuntia Cacti (also known as prickly pear cacti) and white rocks coated in lichen. Thanks to the technicolored hues of the Galapagos Carpetweed, massive green cacti, and white lichen rocks, South Plaza has gained a reputation for being the most colorful island in the Galapagos Archipelago. Not to mention, all this is surrounded by a stunning sea vista of bright cerulean blue.
South Plaza’s famed hybrid iguana
It is no secret that the Galapagos is renowned worldwide for its thriving population of land and marine iguanas, so it probably does not come as a surprise that both species can be found on South Plaza Island. However, there is a third, more elusive subspecies that calls this island home – the hybrid iguana.
Marine iguanas are unique to the Galapagos and are the only lizards on earth that have adapted to live in the ocean. They have short blunt snouts that enable them to forage for algae underwater and they have been known to spend up to 30 minutes fully submerged. Unlike their land dwelling cousins who live largely solitary lives, marine iguanas can be found in their hundreds, clustered together along the shorelines of islands across the archipelago. Land iguanas, as the name suggests, spend their time further inland feeding on the fruits and flowers of Opuntia cacti. They are easily identified by their pale yellowish coloring and much larger stature (up to 3 feet in length or more). Marine iguanas on the other hand are black when young and display varying colors such as blue, green, and red in adulthood.
Now, it is not unusual for both species to inhabit the same island. What is unique about South Plaza is that the island is just 130 meters wide, resulting in overlapping territories. This has afforded land iguanas and marine iguanas to cross-breed resulting in the birth of the hybrid iguana.
First spotted in 1977, this new generation of lizard is hard to find. It is not known exactly how many inhabit South Plaza but they number much fewer than their parent species as they are sterile. Visitors exploring South Plaza should keep their eyes peeled for individuals with dark hides featuring light speckles, mottling, and a banded body. Banded is key here as neither land or marine iguanas display this quality.
Exploring South Plaza on foot
If you are discovering the wonders of the Galapagos with Aqua Expeditions, guests on the east itinerary will embark on a two hour hike of South Plaza island guided by a naturalist expert – make sure to pack sturdy walking shoes as the terrain is uneven. After a dry landing, guests are welcomed to South Plaza by a colony of friendly sea lions and a mess of marine iguanas basking in the sunshine or foraging for algae in the shallows. From the coastline, the trail diverts inland through a prickly pear cacti forest laced with brightly pigmented sesuvium. Pay attention as you cross from seafront to forest, this is where the territory of land and marine iguanas overlap and if you are lucky, a hybrid iguana may cross your path.
As the trail progresses, so does the incline as visitors make their way to the cliff plateau for staggering panoramic views across the South Plaza and the Pacific Ocean. This is also the perfect spot for bird life enthusiasts – blue footed boobies and nazca boobies nest on the cliff top and fish in the rich waters below. Other birds you are sure to sight include cactus finches, tropicbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, and shearwaters to name a few.
Where do we go next?
South Plaza island is visited on the penultimate day of Aqua Mare’s East Galapagos Itinerary. After an afternoon hiking around the islet with an expert naturalist guide uncovering South Plaza’s picturesque landscapes and unique wildlife, guests return to the region’s only superyacht for a final briefing and farewell toast.
After disembarkation on your 8th day with Aqua Expeditions, guests will be led on one last excursion on Santa Cruz Island to visit the iconic twin craters of Los Gemelos, before heading to the airport. Here, you will have the chance to immerse yourself in the lush green scenery of the highlands as you soak in a stunning view of these massive volcanic sinkholes – with the aid of our fabulous guides you may spot short-eared owls or even a vermillion flycatcher.
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.