Galapagos Giant Tortoise
Iconic Gentle Giant of Galápagos
What you need to know about the Galapagos Giant Tortoise
The most iconic of the Galápagos wildlife, the Giant Tortoise is unmistakable and probably one of the best known of the archipelago's native species. Capturing a photograph of a Galápagos Tortoise in the wild is often the highlight of one of our cruises for many of our guests, and makes a truly iconic image to remind you of an amazing adventure.
There are actually 15 subspecies of Galápagos Giant Tortoise, and they can mainly be found on the lusher highlands of islands such as Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristóbal and Española. However if you visit Galápagos during the warm wet season you can find them taking advantage of the conditions at lower elevations. There are currenty around 30,000 individual giant tortoises living in the Galápagos.
The Galápagos Tortoise has one of the longest lifespans of any wild animal, with the average tortoise on the archipelago reaching 100 years old. One of the top questions our Galapatours guides are asked is “where did the tortoises come from?”. It’s actually thought that all the subspecies are descendants of either one pregnant female or a single breeding pair who ended up in the ocean and were taken to the Galápagos by strong ocean currents. Tortoises are naturally buoyant, and they can survive for several months without food or water, which means they could survive a long sea journey at the mercy of the winds, waves and currents. The tortoises were then able to evolve into their large size thanks to their isolation and lack of natural predators. These gentle giants found the perfect place to exist by accident!
At Galapatours we make sure that your cruise has the very best bilingual naturalist guides who will bring the lifecycle of these amazing creatures to life for you. If you visit during the warm wet season, they will do their best to find males challenging each other over females for the breeding season. The males test who is most dominant by seeing which can stretch their heads up the highest. These gentle giants will make memories of a lifetime from your Galápagos Island trip.
Galapagos Giant Tortoise: Interesting facts
The Galápagos Giant Tortoise is one of the longest-lived wild species - over 100 years on average!
Male tortoises can weigh over 500lb/230kg
When they are threatened, the tortoises pull their heads inside the shell, exhaling with a "hiss" sound
There are thought to only be 15,000 pairs Galápagos Tortoises in the wild
Galapagos Giant Tortoise: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the Galapagos Giant Tortoise can be observed
Arnaldo Tupiza Tortoise Breeding Center
A short walk from Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island will bring you to the Arnaldo Tupiza Tortoise Breeding Center. The short trail from town is lovely in itself - you follow a boardwalk that takes you across the wetlands and Opuntia cactus fields.
At the breeding centre you can see 5 different subspecies of Galápagos Giant Tortoise that are all native to Isabela, but currently threatened by habitat damage caused by introduced animals and volcanic eruptions. Here, the Giant Tortoise eggs are carefully incubated in a special hatchery, whilst the adults are cared for in large supervised corrals. This careful breeding program is aiming to increase the populations of these remarkable animals to ensure their survival as a wild species that's unique to the Galápagos.
Asilo de la Paz
Asilo de la Paz on Floreana is a historically important site for the Galápagos. It marks the place where some of the first settlers on the archipelago stayed, and you can visit these caves as well as the rare freshwater spring that made life possible for humans here.
The visitor center is located a short transfer from Puerto Velasco Ibarra on the western coast of Floreana. From the visitor center you can hike up to the top of a 1,470ft hill, walking through magnificent Scalesia forest and passing by a breeding centre where San Cristobal Giant Tortoises are kept - the native Floreana Galápagos tortoises are long extinct, hunted by humans for their meat.
The hiking trail up the hill is hard going in places, and our Galapatours guides really recommend good hiking footwear for this excursion - avoid open-toed shoes.
Ballena, or Whale Bay
This is one of the quieter and least visited sites in the Galápagos. Ballena, or Whale, Bay has a beach with green sand, caused by the high percentage of olivine crystals present here. This is also one of the few visitor sites in the Galápagos which is more open, allowing visitors to wander somewhat freely and explore for themselves.
Behind the beach is a hill, and the climb from the inland side is easiest to enjoy fine views from the top. It is thought that Whale Bay is so-named because it was a popular point for the whaling vessels to weigh anchor while their crews headed inland from here in search of fresh water. It's thought that in the 1800s this beach was the head of the only trail into the highlands of Santa Cruz. The crews would return to the semi-circular beach with water and with their prize of giant tortoise, which were easy to catch and were a good source of meat to stock up with for their journey back to their home ports. In fact, the small group of tortoises that live near the beach have been found to be Pinzon tortoises, and their presence may be the result of escapees from the whalers' clutches scurrying away from the beach.
The beach is good for snorkeling, and if you keep your eyes skywards you may also spot Galápagos Hawks circling overhead.
Charles Darwin Research Station
The world famous Charles Darwin Research Center is just a 10 minute walk from downtown Puerto Ayora, and is the home of the non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation.
Inside, you'll find exhibits about the geography, geology and climate of the Galápagos, and the evolution of her unique species. There is also lots of information on the Foundation's current conservation and education programs.
As well as conducting it's own key research, the Charles Darwin Center also hosts international scientists, and supports the work of government agencies like the Galápagos National Park.
Next door is the site of the Galápagos' first giant tortoise breeding center, where pioneering work has been done since 1965 for the preservation of these species. Here you can see newly hatched babies, up to juveniles and full-grown adults ready to be released back into the wild.
El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve
The inland areas of Santa Cruz provide fantastic opportunities to get close to wild Galápagos giant tortoises. These wonderful creatures can be seen roaming around in the agricultural fields, and also in the famous El Chato Tortoise Reserve, where the native vegetation is preserved.
The trail to the Reserve begins at Santa Rosa, about an hour's drive from Puerto Ayora, and during the dry season this is a haven for Giant Tortoises as they migrate from coastal to highland areas, and you can observe the natural behaviours of these truly wild animals.
There is a pond at El Chato that is often surrounded by tortoises, and sometimes even filled with them as they enjoy wallowing in the cool water. Surrounding the ponds are hundreds of acres of natural highland pasture and native Scalesia forest where you may encounter owls, Darwin’s finches, Vermilion Flycatchers, and Galápagos Rails.
For many Galapatours guests the highlight of their trip is following our expert guide into the ancient forest and then hearing heavy footsteps and crunching noises ahead, finally rounding a corner to see a truly wild Galápagos Giant tortoise doing what they have done for millennia before humans came to Galápagos.
Interpretation Center Gianny Arismendi
The Gianny Arismendi Galápagos Interpretation center in San Cristóbal, Galápagos, aims to provide a complete history of the Galápagos and give visitors a more holistic understanding of these islands' unique habitats and wildlife.
There are also interesting exhibits covering the Galápagos' human history, and the conservation efforts in place to preserve the archipelago, and undo some of damage human occupation has brought.
For those who are interested in the geology of the archipelago there is a complete exhibit on the volcanic birth of the Galápagos and how this impacted on the habitats present here.
Your Galapatours expert guide will be able to answer any further questions raised by your visit to the Center and can help you to link what you will learn here to what you will see as your Galápagos journey continues.
Where does the name Gianny Arismendi come from? The Directorate of the Galápagos National Park recognized park ranger Gianni Arismendi Guerrero, one of the park rangers of San Cristóbal, for his 27 years of work dedicated to environmental education.
La Galapaguera "Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center"
Also known as Cerro Colorado, this is one of the newer visitor sites in Galápagos and was opened in 2003. Previously accessible only from the coast via a long hike, it's now possible to travel by road from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where the trip takes about an hour.
This breeding station has an informative visitor center that allows you to learn about the origins and evolution of the Galápagos Giant Tortoises, and about the steps being taken to preserve the species from threats such as habitat destruction and introduced species.
In the center you will see baby hatchlings and young tortoises. After they reach 4 months old they are taken out to be released into the natural habitat in the area. There is a short hiking trail where you may be able to spot giant tortoises in the wild.
The vast majority of Isabela's human population live in Puerto Villamil, which still holds onto its traditional fishing port charm. Indeed many of Galapatours visitors tell us they think it's the prettiest village in the whole archipelago.
The main reason for this is that Villamil had little impact from tourism until the 1990s, the residents quietly making their living from fishing and farming. Then in 1996 a small runway was opened for flights for light aircraft operating inter-island flights. There are now 13 hotels and 18 bars and restaurants in town, compared to only 1 and 2 respectively in 1980! Despite this, the town still enjoys a relaxed and authentic atmosphere.
Villamil enjoys a beautiful long beach, which is picture-book tropics - palm trees line it's bright white coral sand. Behind the beach are several saltwater lagoons which are home to pink flamingos, pintail ducks and several other species. There are several visitor sites that can be the subject of excursions from town on foot, by minibus or panga.
Santa Cruz Highlands
Santa Cruz is the only island on the Galápagos that allows you to travel through every habitat type that exists in the archipelago. This makes the journey north from the coast up into the highlands a fantastic opportunity to experience the breadth of life that exists on these islands.
Your bus journey starts from Puerto Ayora on the coast and you slowly start to climb through the agricultural zone where open fields begin to give way to lush, green, mist-covered forests. This is a marked contrast to many of the islands which are at much lower elevation and much more arid. This rich verdant landscape is predominantly made up of dense Scalesia forest.
Your expert Galapatours guide will stop several times along the route to allow you to explore various different sites. Among the stops will be a Giant Tortoise reserve, and also a visit to the famous lava tubes. Over half a mile long, a walk through these natural volcanic features is eerie and unforgettable.
Also along the way you will stop for refreshments, and you'll be able to try locally-grown Galápagos coffee - we think it's among the best we've ever tasted!
Urbina Bay is one of the youngest features in the Galápagos. It was mainly formed in 1954, when a sudden uplift of the land raised the seabed by over 5 metres, and pushed the coastline over 1 km further away. This has resulted in the astonishing site of heads of coral stranded far from the water. Exposed to the air and elements, the coral heads are rapidly deteriorating and are one of the sights of the Galápagos that won't be around for much longer.
Once ashore, a long hiking trail will take you away from the beach and into the island's arid zone. In this habitat, you are likely to see wild Galápagos Giant Tortoises and Galápagos Land Iguanas. As the trail circles back towards the shore line you'll come across colonies of the unique Galápagos Flightless Cormorant.
This is a pleasant area for snorkeling, and as you enter and leave the water you might do so watched by some Galápagos Penguins, who have a colony nearby. This is also one of the best sites to see Galápagos Marine Iguanas feeding underwater.