There are 13 main islands and six smaller undeveloped islets in the Galapagos Islands archipelago. Most trips begin on the main island of Santa Cruz, where the majority of residents live and many of the activities are based. In fact, it’s only feasible to self-explore the towns on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Isla Isabela without a licensed guide. Even then, you can’t venture much beyond the limits of these Galapagos Islands towns without a guide.

The bustling port town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island is an ideal place to be based. Most of the Galapagos Islands cruises depart from here or Baltra Island, which is next door. The important Charles Darwin Research Center is located here, which is the best venue in the Galapagos Islands to learn about the giant endangered Galapagos tortoises before venturing into their natural habitat in the Cerro Chato Tortoise Reserve.

Santa Cruz is also home to some of the Galapagos Islands’ prettiest beaches at Tortuga Bay, Las Grietas and Playa de los Alamanes. Three volcanic peaks are clustered at the heart of the island, waiting to be hiked to their panoramic summits, while mountain bikers and horseback riders will find miles of amazing, empty trail to cruise. Great snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands can be found right off the coast of Santa Cruz as well as decent surf and nice sea kayaking.

San Cristobal Island is the other hub of human activity in the Galapagos Islands. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is its main town, and a great base for accommodation and amenities. The natural highlights here center around the cool sea lion colony at La Loberia and the hiking trails of La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado, one of the Galapagos Islands’ most recently established preserves.

San Cristobal has some great places to eat, sleep and have a drink by the beach. Its seaside Malecon promenade is perfect for an evening stroll. Isabela Island is the sleepy alternative for tourism in the Galapagos Islands, as things are just getting started on this tiny island. Travelers seeking a more natural, remote experience of the Galapagos Islands should consider basing themselves here.