SAN CRISTOBAL (CHATHAM)

San Cristobal Island is the fifth biggest and easternmost island of the Galapagos. It is about 30 miles (48 kilometers) long and 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide. The highest point is 2,395 feet (730 meters) and its land area is 215 square miles (557 square kilometers). San Cristobal is comprised of three or four fused volcanoes, all extinct. The Ecuadorians named it San Cristóbal after Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. It is also called Chatham by English after the Earl of Chatham.

San Cristobal is the only island with permanent fresh water, located near the top of the island in a small lake called El Junco. Because of the water, the island was settled early in Galapagos history, and was the home of the islands' governor when Darwin visited in 1835. This was Darwin's first stop in the islands.

Though this island hosts the second biggest population besides Santa Cruz, it's not often visited on cruises or by individual travelers. San Cristobal is charming and its capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, is the capital of the islands. About 5,400 people live here, and many work for the government, in fisheries (the Galapagos' second largest income source) or in tourism. The Interpretation Center is also located here, newly opened by the Galapagos National Park Service, and is an extraordinary contribution to the information and education of the island community and the traveler. There is a bank and facilities for tourists, though is by no means close to Puerto Ayora's amenities. Puerto Baquerizo has an airport with flights from the mainland although most visitors land at Baltra.

On a trail that leads from the Interpretation Center we find Frigate Bird Hill. Here it is possible to see Magnificent Frigate Birds and Great Frigate Birds in the same colony. This is the perfect place to compare and learn to distinguish them.

About 500 people live in El Progresso which has a rather sordid past. In the mid-1800s a penal colony was established there for prisoners from Ecuador. This was later taken over by Manuel Cobos who treated the convicts as slave laborers. Unsurprisingly, the convicts murdered Cobos during an insurrection. Today the town is a sleepy farming community.

On San Cristobal we may be lucky to see the Red-footed Booby - the least seen of the boobies. It's also the home of the Chatham Mockingbird, only found here on the island. There are many visitor sites, some of which can be reached by foot from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It's a charming, peaceful island and worth the visit. Take your time in the village to get to know the people. It's a great change of pace from the tourism in Puerto Ayora.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno: Founded by the colonist General Villamil in the mid-nineteenth century, town was named after Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno, the first Ecuadorian president to visit the islands, in 1916. Despite being the capital of the Galapagos, it's a sleepy town, virtually lifeless in the heat of the early afternoon, only coming alive fully when the sun sets over the bay. It may not get as many visitors as Puerto Ayora, but there is a burgeoning industry here: along the waterfront a glut of travel agencies, cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops all show a town keen to gain a larger part of Galapago’s tourism. Just outside the port, the Centro de Interpretacion has great displays of the archipelago's human and natural history. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno has also become the focus of the Galapagos' growing reputation among South Americans as a surfing hotspot, and the waves are best at the beginning of the warm-wet season, when the water is warm enough not to need a wet suit. Tongo Reef, west of town, is one of the better places to surf.

Puerto Baquerizo Moreno has two main streets: on the waterfront, the Malecon Charles Darwin is where you'll find several restaurants, souvenir shops and the hotel. Running parallel to it, a couple of blocks to the east, is the main thoroughfare.

Kicker Rock: Off the coast of San Cristobal are a number of steep, rocky islets that rise 500 feet almost vertically from the sea. There’s good snorkeling around the islet opposite Punta Pitt, but the most impressive of these solitary, sea-girt towers is Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion), also known as Kicker Rock. This twin-peaked cathedral of stone has vertical walls on either side of a canal through which small vessels can navigate. Huge, cackling colonies of sea birds nest in its walls, and it's a popular spot for scuba diving.

Interpretation Center: Opened to the public in 1998, the Galapagos National Park Visitor Center in San Cristobal presents a complete and documented history of the Galapagos, its ecosystems, flora and fauna. It is also the place where different cultural activities take place like theater, exhibitions and workshops (dance, painting, etc.) The Visitor Center is open to the public every day from 7am to 12pm and 1:30pm to 5pm.

El Progreso: In spite of a dire history, the island of San Cristobal has plenty to offer visitors. El Progreso, as Cobos’ small plantation village was ironically called, still exists and can be reached by truck or bus from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, or by walking five miles (eight kilometers.)

El Junco Lake: Six miles (ten kilometers) further up the road is the beautiful crater lake of Laguna El Junco, where you can walk around the rim, which is rich in plant and bird life. From the crater you can look out over most of the island, including the 900 meter (3,000 feet) peak of Cerro San Joaquin. To the northeast you can also see the cliffs of Punta Pitt, the most spectacular site on San Cristobal.

Punta Pitt: As with most visitors’ sites on the Galapagos, the only way to reach Punta Pitt is by boat. Disembarking onto the small beach, visitors are confronted by the strong stench and cacophony of barking sea lions. This is a bachelor colony, and most are exhausted from fighting and mating. They won’t budge an inch as you approach so you have to step around their basking bodies while being careful to avoid the source of the strong stench. A steep gully leads up the cliff to a breeding ground for Boobies of all three varieties: Red-footed, Blue-footed and Masked. It’s the only place in the Galapagos where you can see all three species nesting together.

Galapaguera: The view of sea lions from the top of the cliff over the beach is magnificent, as are the contours of the barren, wind-eroded peaks of the island. The trail across the Punta Pitt site offers a closer look at the hardy vegetation that manages to thrive in this volcanic wasteland. From Saltbush and spiny shrubs next to the beach the trail leads up to an area of Palo Santos trees, big yellow-green shrubs, tiny cacti and, in the dry season, carpets of red Vesuvius. A short distance westward along the coast from Punta Pitt is the new visitors’ site of Galapaguera, where giant tortoises can sometimes be seen.

Isla Lobos: Less than an hour from San Cristobal, Lobos Islet is a seasonal nesting location for the Blue-footed Booby, although it is named for the Sea Lions sometimes present there.

Playa Ochoa: A small island just an hour from San Cristobal. A subtle introduction to the Galapagos with a short trail leading to a sand beach good for swimming. Pelicans and other Galapagos sea birds fly overhead.

San Cristobal - Chatham
   
General Information  
Area : 215 square miles (557 square kilometers)
Maximum Altitude : 2,395 feet (730 meters)
Population : 5,500
Geographic Features : Beaches, islets, eroded tuff cone, official capital, green beach.
Getting There : Airline, panga, private tour, ferry between islands.
Getting Around : Hiking, snorkeling, panga, bike.
Major Sites : Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido), Interpretation Center, El Progreso, Junco Lake, Punta Pitt, Galapaguera, Frigate Bird Hill, Isla Lobos, Playa Ochoa.
Observations : San Cristobal is the capital of the islands. Here we find internet, post office, long distance phone calls, hospital, airlines and bank services.
Flora : Candelabra Cactus, Prickly Pear Cactus, Palo Santo, Salt Brush.
Fauna : Sea Lions, Crabs, Sea Turtles, Boobies (Blue-footed, Red-footed and Masked), Frigate Birds and Great Frigate Birds, Chatham Mockingbirds, Pelicans, Tropic Birds, sea birds.
Activities : Walking, snorkeling, scuba diving, bird watching, cycling, sun and beach, bars, restaurants, tours and surfing.