“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!

Sullivan Bay

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!

Pinnacle Rock stands watch over Bartolomé Island. The orange spot at the top on the left-hand side is the lighthouse, with trail railings to its right.
An inviting-looking beach on an unnamed island in Sullivan Bay.
Interesting formations along volcanic ash cliffs.
Lava works like caulk to fill in cracks that have formed in the rock.
Home sweet home…
…blue-footed boobies – and penguins as well – often sit with their feet facing the rocks to keep them cool.

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.

On the lookout.
Getting ready to take off.
Blue feet in flight.
Upside-down and ready to dive.
Splash!

*     *     *     *     *

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.

Beginning the hike.
The Tequila plant grows in Bartolomé’s lava, with gray hair-like leaves that help prevent moisture evaporation and reflect sunlight.
A lava cactus blooms among the rocks.
Looking down from where we started as another group begins their walk…
…and looking up at where we were headed.

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.

The final stretch…almost to the top!
Lighthouse at the summit on Bartolomé.
We made it!
The iconic Galápagos view of Pinnacle Rock and dreamy-looking islands in the distance.

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.

14 Comments

  • Excellent! Thank you so much for taking me along on another adventure! Your easy style of writing is exceptional!

    • Erin, “spectacular” is definitely the word here. It’s really an unforgettable place, isn’t it? Glad you managed to pick a non-windy day!

  • Above all, I am captivated by this unique part of the world. It really is unlike any other in terms of landscape, flora and fauna, isn’t it? Thank you for introducing me to these curious islands, Mary. I’m really enjoying the adventure!

    • Gill, that is so true! This little corner of the planet is unlike anywhere else, and the most fascinating thing to me is that the islands are completely different from each other. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’m delighted that you’re enjoying the blogs!

  • I’m glad to see your “Celebrity” marked zodiac, and as avid cruisers too, my husband and I am amazed that you were able to have such great excursion days. Is this soley a Galapagos cruise, or do you have other ports too, besides just these in Ecuador neighborhood? I’m going to have to look into this. We are doing the Panama Canal with their new locks this December, and looking forward to wonderful new things to learn. Thank you for sharing your great insights. It excites me.
    Carol

    • Carol, Thank you for stopping by! I’m so glad to have provided a little insight into a potential travel destination. This was solely a Galápagos cruise, with a pre-cruise tour in Quito. A post-cruise extension to Machu Picchu was also offered, which we did not do. The excursions were fantastic – there were two each day – and the naturalists hired by Celebrity did an outstanding job. Please feel free to contact me if you have further questions!

  • Thank you for the lovely pictures. I would love to see that view but am not sure about the climb. Stairs are my nemesis. What is the pace like? I’m slow on stairs but can easily walk a mile at a good clip. At least I’m forewarned! And I remember you mentioned about 150 stairs in the walk around Darwin Lake

    • Hi Eileen, the pace on the Bartolomé hike is quite moderate. There are flat boardwalk stretches in between the stairs, and the naturalist stops at a couple of lookout spots along the way to give everyone a break. I’m always lagging behind taking photos, and I never felt rushed! The Darwin Lake steps, although fewer, are much steeper, but again it isn’t a fast pace. The bigger challenge at Darwin Lake is maneuvering up the embankment at the landing. It isn’t steep or long, but there are a few rocks to navigate. I hope this helps! I would recommend mentioning any concerns to your naturalist and not missing anything you really want to do.

      • Thanks for the advice – I usually lag behind so as not to hold up those going faster. (I used to be the first one there to get the pictures before everyone else got there – not anymore.) I think with the leisure pace I can do it. And thanks for the heads up about Darwin Lake. Because of knee issues, the steeper the steps, the harder it is. It’s much easier to walk up slopes although around there I understand you need to tread only where permitted. I look forward to the rest of your trip so I can gauge my days. Too late I learned there’s no elevator on the Xpedition and we’re on deck 6. NO rooms available now on deck 5…… So I’ll have to plan my days well!

        • You’re so welcome, Eileen! I’m always delighted to share my experiences. You are in for a fabulous time in the Galápagos, no matter which excursions you choose. The naturalists are really helpful with advising where you will be permitted to walk. For what it’s worth, my husband and I are fast-paced walkers at home, but did not choose any of the excursions that were designed for a brisk exercise walk or hike. We wanted to “soak in” every minute and not feel rushed when taking photos. Also these are not your typical trails, and it was great to have time to watch out for rocky terrain as well as Galápagos creatures who might be crossing our path 🙂

          • Thanks for your reply. I feel more comfortable knowing you saw so much without every vigorous trail. I’m looking at other sources and will continue to watch your coming posts. Am very curious about the Prince Phillip steps – saw a photo but is looked slow but doable. What’s your opinion?

  • Hi again Eileen. Our itinerary did not go to Prince Phillip steps. We were on the Inner Loop of the islands. There might be some different stops, depending upon which ship you’re on. Good luck with your plans. You’re very wise to get a feeling for each landing before you arrive!

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