Fernandina—Punta Espinoza

Route map



map_BahiaElizabethThe 3rd largest island in the archipelago and named for King Ferdinand of Spain, Fernandina holds the honor of the youngest and the most active volcanically.  (Some say that it may be one of the most volcanically active in the world.)  The most recent eruption of its only volcano—Volcán La Cumbre (meaning “the summit”)—occurred on April 11, 2009.  In the past, scientists thought that a volcanic hot spot exists around Fernandina, which accounted for the creation of the volcanic islands in this archipelago.  However, recent research suggests that the hot spot may actually be ~100 miles southeast—closer to Isabela and Floreana.  You can read more about the complex geophysics of the new thinking about this hot spot here.  No worries—it’s a very readable summary of the extremely technical scientific article.

Fernandina is also possibly one of the most pristine islands on the planet, with no introduced species.  Everything found on Fernandina either arrived there without the help of humans or evolved in place.  Because of—and to help maintain—this pristine status, Fernandina offers only one landing site:  Punta Espinoza (also spelled “Espinosa”), a stretch of lava and sandy beach located on the northeastern coast at the base of Volcán La Cumbre.  Punta Espinoza means “spiny point”—an apt description of the stark, dramatic sand and lava field that stretches to the ocean.

punta_espinoza_foto_01The above photo is from the header slide show on the National Park’s Web page about Punta Espinoza.  You can see the 2 different landing points, depending on the level of the tide, as well as the variety of paths to follow (the yellow lines).  Click here or on the photo to read the rest of the page about this landing. 

In 1994, tectonic action resulted in the entire area’s uplifting 20 – 36”, leaving the specially constructed landing dock inaccessible in all but high tide.  (At lower levels, you have to scramble across the rocks to get to the path.)


Wednesday, May 15, afternoon

The captain headed us toward Fernandina over the lunch break, located a short distance across the Bolívar Channel from Urbina Bay.  Once he dropped anchor, we headed out for a quick snorkel from the pangas.  The most memorable encounter during this outing was snorkeling near the largest Marine Iguana I’ve seen.  (These western islands host the largest Marine Iguanas in the archipelago.)  Looking rather like a monster from a B-grade Japanese horror film, it moved smoothly along the rocks within about 15 feet of us.  I’m not very good with sizes, but this critter was perhaps 4 feet long.  Wow!  For just a moment, I could understand Darwin’s referring to them as “imps of darkness.”  The Galápagos Marine Iguanas are the only sea-faring lizards in the world.  They don’t use their feet and legs in the water; instead, they hold their extremities close to their bodies and propel themselves through the water powered only by their long, flattened tails.

After a shower and change of clothes, we headed to Punta Espinoza for a long walk.  MarineIguanas_1Our first encounters on land were massive piles—likely numbering in the hundreds—of Marine Iguanas (left), a species endemic to the archipelago.  Fernandina likely has the largest population of Marine Iguanas of any island in the archipelago—estimates suggest as many as 385,000 individuals on this island alone.  Marine Iguanas are cold-blooded; since they spend considerable time feeding in the cold Humboldt Current, they have to warm themselves by basking in the sun on the black lava.  They regulate their internal temperatures by varying their MarineIguanas_3position with respect to the sun.  For maximum warming, they flatten their bodies so that they can get full sun on as much of their black skin as possible.  As they warm up, they move to face directly into the sun and raise themselves a bit off the lava, to lessen the amount of solar heat, capture any cooling breezes, and avoid overheating.  As a result, you often see masses of these gregarious iguanas lying together, all oriented in the same direction like black, spiky weather vanes.  (You can get a sense of this in the photo above, right.  Click on any photo to see a larger version of it.)  Most iguanas eat only once a day; after diving and swimming in the cold waters, where they can lose up to 20 degrees F due to the cold, they have to come ashore and warm up before digestion can begin.

As we walked by another cluster of iguanas, we could occasionally hear MarineIguanas_4what sounded like little sneezes—and, in a manner of speaking, they were.  Each iguanas have special glands located between the eye and the nostril to remove excess salt from its very salty environment and it diet of marine algae.  The glands open into the nose and the salt is ejected with a stream of air through their nostrils.  Ah-choo!!!

Some of these iguanas look as if they had lichen growing on them (below), but those patches are just variations in their skin color.

MarineIguana MarineIguanas_2

Continued on p. 2; click below.

8 Responses to Fernandina—Punta Espinoza

  1. liz says:

    DO YOU THINK 10 DAYS IS TOO LONG? We have narrowed it down to Celebrity. LaPinta or Silver Sea. Any thoughts please?


    • Tina says:

      Ahhhh–in my mind, 10 days on the water is NOT too long! (I take you mean a 10-day cruise rather than a 10-day trip that includes time in Quito/Guayaquil before and after a shorter cruise.) On some 10-day itineraries, you can even get to all 4 of the most distant islands (Genovesa, Fernandina, Isabela, and Española) without paying the price for the full 15 days. Those itineraries are the best, in my opinion. But I don’t know if any of these has one of those special itineraries.

      I don’t personally know the boats you’ve listed. I do know, from reading on TripAdvisor, that Silver Sea has been having some issues since its recent maiden voyage. Many who reserve it have expected extremely high-quality service (from other experiences with the company) and have been disappointed by what appears to be a bit of a “learning curve.” It sounds like they’re starting to work things out; but for the price, you might want to give it more time to iron out the bugs. It is also the largest boat working in the archipelago (100 passengers); if you’ve read many of the entries on this blog, you’ll know that I’m a much bigger fan of the smaller boats (16 – 32 passengers).

      The Celebrity is almost as big as the Silver Sea (90 passengers). It tends to get fine reviews, but it may attract a crowd that’s a bit more in the “cruise” world (since it has a vast reputation for more “traditional” cruising) than might be desirable for such an active and hands-on destination as the Galápagos. But that’s my bias and may not be yours.

      La Pinta is 48 passengers, so still large by Galápagos standards. But of the 3, I’d vote for it (without, of course, knowing the itinerary–which is critical!). I know several folks who have been on it and rave about it.



  2. liz says:

    Thanks for the prompt response. I am having a lot of trouble picking a ship. We are looking at Celebrity because it has a 10 day itinerary. However, I agree with you that a smaller ship could provide a much improved experience. We are also considering LaQuinta because they are smaller and offer the glass bottom boats but they only have a 7 day itinerary. I am also concerned about engine noise and anchor dropping as mentioned on your web site. I do not do well if I have not slept.
    We do not want to go to Machu Pichu so Road Scholar won’t work. DECISIONS DECISIONS. Any advice? Then there is always Silver Sea and Lindblad. It is a bit overwhelming.
    As to timing. I think we would like to avoid the rainy season so probably the dry season will be best for us. It does not look like you miss a lot by going in the dry season. Any thoughts on season??


    • Tina says:

      I’m not familiar with La Quinta in the Galápagos fleet. Perhaps you mean La Pinta? Let me know it that’s what you’re thinking of. I might be able to help a bit more.

      I personally think the anchor dropping is more disturbing than the engine noise. To lessen that, you can find (or ask your agent) where the anchor is and look for a cabin as far from it as possible. On most of the better boats, the engine noise is more like white noise and far less jarring than the anchor. A larger boat will lessen both of these issues, but then there’s that trade-off with intimacy. Keep in mind, though, that many people have nice experiences on the larger boats. If your trip would be made less wonderful by losing sleep, that might make the intimacy of a smaller boat less desirable for you. Indeed, many decisions…

      The major thing you’ll miss by going during the dry season is vegetation. Oh–and breeding songbirds. Since few people go to the archipelago for either of those, I’d say you won’t miss much. (If you were to go late in the dry season (mid- to late Dec.), you run the risk of not seeing the Waved Albatross. We really preferred the dry season (Sept.) for its more moderate air temps and much lower humidity; it was really hot and humid in May (toward the end of the wet season). But the waters are definitely cooler and the waters have a higher probability of being rough in the dry season. Again–so many trade-offs.

      Probably not much help, since there are pros and cons to any boat, any cabin, any season. You might consider working with a travel agency that specializes in Galápagos travel. They can be really helpful in considering your priorities and pointing you to a variety of options. Just a thought.



      • liz says:

        I did mean LaPinta. La Quinta is a motel chain.(LOL) I think a travel agent is a good idea but I don’t know where to start to find a good one. Thanks again for you help.


      • Tina says:

        Hi, Liz–

        La Pinta is a lovely boat, by all reports I’ve read, although I don’t know it personally. I think it holds 48 passengers–some sites classify it as a cruise ship, but with only 48 passengers, it’s on the small size of that classification.

        You mentioned not going with Road Scholar since you don’t want to go to Machu Picchu. But the trip we did with them was only to Quito and the Galápagos. They still offer it, so you might check it out: It’s called The Galapagos–Natural and Cultural History and it’s at http://www.roadscholar.org/n/program/summary.aspx?ID=1%2B1ZZ%2B38&MC= . We’ve traveled on 2 Road Scholar trips and both were extremely well organized and great fun.

        Other agencies that get consistently good reviews are Happy Gringo, Columbus Travel, and CNH Tours. We used CNH Tours for our return trip last year and we were really pleased with Heather’s help. All of these have a presence on the Internet, so you could check out their Web sites. They also have a variety of ways to communicate (Skype, live chat, e-mail, phone). So you might formulate some beginning questions, send them to each, and see who responds quickly and in a manner you like.



  3. elizabeth says:



    • Tina says:

      Hi, Elizabeth–

      As I recall, we snorkeled with a few penguins off Fernandina but they didn’t get very close. Our best views, though, were on the panga rides around Elizabeth Bay and Tagus Cove. If you’re on a cruise that goes to Fernandina, you’ll also go to at least a few landings on the western shore of Isabela, where we saw the greatest number of these adorable sprites. In case that’s something you’re wondering about…



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