“I am very anxious for the Galápagos Islands. I think both the geology and the zoology cannot fail to be very interesting.”
~Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle
It’s the most iconic photograph of the Galápagos Islands.
Like the blue-roofed whitewashed hillside houses of Greece’s Santorini or the unmistakably stunning Eiffel Tower in Paris, the image of a soaring pointed rock formation from the top of somewhere is the imprint of what comes to mind when dreaming about traveling to the Galápagos. Before starting my research, I had no idea where this photo could be taken. But it turns out that the top of somewhere is an island called Bartolomé.
Bartolomé is a small barren islet in Sullivan Bay, just east of Santiago Island, where we had hiked at Puerto Egas two days earlier. It was named after Sir Bartholomew James Sullivan, a friend of Charles Darwin and principal surveyor aboard the HMS Beagle. Despite its size, it is considered the most visited and most photographed island in the archipelago.
Before our visit to Bartolomé, Herb and I joined a zodiac cruise around Sullivan Bay. As we were leaving the Flora, we couldn’t help but notice a new passenger who had joined the ship, making himself quite comfortable on a zodiac that clearly wouldn’t be leaving its berth for a while!
Our zodiac cruised past Pinnacle Rock, the landmark obelisk-like formation that is actually a volcanic cone, formed when magma burst through earth from an underwater volcano. Just beyond sits Bartolomé. We could see railings marking the trail at the top where we would be hiking and a bright orange structure that we would later learn is a lighthouse.
We sailed past a beautiful white sand beach toward rocky cliffs formed from volcanic ash. Galápagos penguins, blue-footed boobies and Sally Lightfoot crabs were making their homes along the cliffs. It was the first time since we’d been in the Galápagos that wildlife sightings didn’t catch me by surprise. In that moment, it felt as if I had become so accustomed to my new surroundings that I almost expected to see these creatures when rocky cliffs came into view!
What did surprise me was the show the blue-footed boobies were putting on. It was fishing time in their world, and dozens of these fascinating birds soared overhead, spinning their bodies downward at lightning speed, dive-bombing into the water, marking their spots with forceful splashes. It was extremely tricky to photograph the scene from a bobbing zodiac with uncooperatively fast subjects, but I tried to capture the essence of what we were experiencing.
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Hiking to the Top of Bartolomé
At first glance, Bartolomé is a forlorn-looking place. Reddish-brown rocky terrain and almost no vegetation reveal the island’s volcanic origins. The walk to the top begins at the zodiac landing, where a wooden staircase constructed by the Galápagos National Park Service winds its way along the route. It’s a gradual climb, with a flat boardwalk leading to 380 steps as well as several lookout points for taking a break.
As we climbed higher, a strong wind was beginning to make itself known, creating an even moodier feeling to the setting. Despite having its chinstrap securely fastened, my safari hat kept trying to fly off my head, at one point requiring the hood from my shirt to keep it secure! Our naturalist Maria seemed surprised by the weather and told us that this late-afternoon extreme wind was unusual on Bartolomé. The silver lining was a gloriously blue sky, with wonderfully clear views.
That evening back on the Flora, I thought about how extraordinary it had been to stand at a place that I had seen only in photos, but had long imagined in my mind. Like putting a name with a face, I now know where that famous photograph of the Galápagos had been taken and the climb it took to reach it. And now whenever I see that iconic image in a travel story, I will think of Bartolomé Island and being surrounded by an unrelenting wind and the most peaceful shades of a shimmering blue water.