A day trip to Bartolomé Island was the top thing on my list for our stay on Isla Santa Cruz. The reason I was so determined to make it there despite the lengthy travel time and the high cost – it was by far our most expensive day trip – was because it is one of the best chances you have to encounter Galápagos penguins (Pingüinos in Spanish) in the wild if you are not able to do a cruise. And it paid off for us! We got very lucky and encountered several of them while we were snorkeling. Even though a few weeks have passed since that experience, I still sometimes find myself marveling that “wow! I am a person who swam with penguins.” That doesn’t seem possible, but it is on Bartolomé and Santiago where the day trips go.
Note: This post contains affiliate links, and should you choose to make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
What’s included in a Bartolomé Island day trip in the Galápagos?
Day trips to Bartolomé typically include two stops – a scenic, uphill hike on Isla Bartolomé itself and snorkeling in Sullivan Bay. These islands are located right next to each other, and until you’re very close (or looking from the elevated vantage point on Bartolomé) it’s hard to tell that they’re separate landmasses. Expect your day trip to last all day and provide you with a full lunch. Some boats offer breakfast as well while others have a light snack in the morning. You’ll also have round trip transportation from Puerto Ayora and should have snorkeling gear and towels to borrow. Most of the boats do not offer wetsuits, so you’ll have to provide your own if you need one. We visited in March during the season with warmer water and found it perfect for swimming, but we were told by several guides that the June-December season has much colder temps. Check with your tour provider to find out exactly what kind of gear they have.
Your Bartolomé Island day trip
Day trips to Bartolomé begin with a bus ride from Puerto Ayora. Your tour company will either pick you up at your hotel or from a designated meeting point near the Puerto Ayora docks. Be warned that you’ll have an early start this morning, but it is so worth that early alarm clock. Our tour with the Yate Altamar began with a bus pickup right across the church near the ferry docks. There was another bus there picking up a group for a different tour, so make sure you confirm that you’re on the correct bus with the driver.
Note about Yate Altamar: If you’re checking out their website ahead of time, it did not have fully accurate information as of March 2021, which I admit sent me spiraling into a minor panic the night before our excursion when I realized that 1. The agency who booked it told us we were supposed to meet at the bus by the docks while the website said they pick you up at the hotel and 2. We were scheduled for a Friday tour, but their website said that they only go on Sundays and Tuesdays. Everything worked out though – it was just outdated information – and we did in fact get to go on our dream day tour.
Once you’re on the bus, your trip starts with a ride across the whole island to a dock on the north side. If you flew into Baltra, which is the airport for Santa Cruz, you’re very close to where you first landed on the island. The bus ride took about 45 minutes and we saw a few Galápagos tortoises near the road. Cutting across on the bus saves a lot of sailing time and frankly the bus ride’s a little smoother than the choppy water can be at times.
At the dock, we had a few minutes to use the bathroom if we wanted (your boat will have bathrooms so don’t worry if you don’t have time) or grab snacks at a little kiosk. They had things like chips and pop and a single ham and cheese sandwich that the person in line in front of me snagged. We had been told that breakfast was provided on the boat by the travel agent who booked us, but luckily I double checked with our guide and found out that that wasn’t the case with just enough time to scramble and pick up a bottle of Coke and a couple bags of chips and call it breakfast.
On the docks, we received life jackets for half of our group. There was a small, inflatable dinghy that had to take us out to the larger boat so the half of us with life jackets loaded up first and got settled on the yacht. The boat then returned to shore to grab the other half of the group. If you are particular about where you sit on the yacht – perhaps towards the back for motion sickness reasons or towards the front so you can take pictures – you might want to try to get on that first boat if you’re part of a larger group so that people arriving before you don’t snag the seats you want. But you know, don’t throw elbows or anything.
We loved Yate Altamar, which was our boat for the day. Out of the 4 excursions we did, it was by far the best boat we were on. There was a large interior area that had tables, seats, and the kitchen, which was phenomenal for a break from the wind and the sun. There were two bathrooms on the lower level. Passengers could also inch along the outside to sit on the bow of the boat or climb up a ladder to sit on the bridge. The bridge was where we chose to spend most of our time because we loved the view and the shade it provided because we are not people who are meant to exist under the equatorial sun.
On the way out, we passed two smaller islets off the coast of Santa Cruz, Daphne Major and Daphne Minor. Daphne Minor was further away in the distance, but we swung close to Daphne Major to look at the cliffs along the edge which are home to all kinds of birds. We saw lots of boobies as well as pelicans and plenty of sea lions (though by this point in the trip you may well be bored of the sea lions as they’re absolutely everywhere on the islands). We also got lucky and saw several large manta rays close to the surface right by the island, though you’re much more likely to see the birds. This little detour only took a couple minutes and then we were on our way.
Hiking on Bartolomé Island
After we passed Daphne Major, we continued north for about an hour and a half until we arrived at Isla Bartolomé. The yacht anchored in deeper water and used the little dinghy to ferry the group half at a time to the landing dock on Isla Bartolomé. The water in the cove we were in was very choppy that day and those little boats are quite small so we were really feeling the waves. I had brought a dry bag with me for the day but I hadn’t brought it for the little hike on Bartolomé for some reason, and as I sat there clutching my expensive camera to my chest while we bobbed up and down over the waves, I very much wished I had brought the dry bag with me. However, our boat driver was phenomenal – absolutely true talent navigating the swells and he got us all to the dock safe and dry and most importantly with no ruined electronics. Hopping off the bobbing boat onto the landing was very slippery. The guide showed us how to grab his wrist for the best grip while we were in the dinghy and he provided a steady hand and boost onto the dock, but it was slick for the first several steps.
We had to wait there for a few minutes as the dinghy returned to the yacht to grab the rest of our group, but we were entertained in the meantime by watching a blue footed booby diving into the water for fish. If you’d already seen them walking on land, they look pretty derpy and it’s easy to picture them sort of bobbing along like ducks (what they’re called in Spanish). Once you see them fishing though, you will absolutely be amazed by them. They above the water and when the booby spots something it wants to eat, it folds itself into a streamlined form like an arrow and plunges into the water head first to catch whatever it’s after. It’s incredible to watch and I hope you get a chance to watch some of them hunting while you’re in the Galápagos Islands!
Once our whole group was together on Bartolomé, we started climbing up the stairs. The main attraction on Bartolomé is a hike to the highest point on the island, which gives you a viewpoint over that famous pinnacle you’ve probably seen on travel brochures as well as, you know, right here. Most of the hike is up a flight of wooden stairs built into the island with varying degrees of wobble. I will admit they some of the steps and level boardwalk pieces were a bit rickety, but the good news is that they’re just there to protect the land from erosion, not span any real distances. Even if one were to break under your weight, you wouldn’t really go anywhere because you’re not really more than a foot off the ground at any point. We tried to walk in the center as much as possible since that’s where the support for them was strongest.
Our guide gave us a ton of information about the different type of volcanic features that we could see along our walk as well as off in the distance on Isla Santiago. I thought it was fantastic because we’d done a few other day tours at that point and we’d learned a ton of fascinating info about the wildlife that we were seeing, but we hadn’t really heard much about the volcanic history of the Galápagos Islands til that point. We also learned a bit about the black lava fields on nearby Santiago, which created during an eruption in the 1800s. We’d seen plenty of volcanic rock in the Galápagos Islands, but nothing like the rolling fields of pahoehoe lava.
Along the way, our guide pointed out tuff cones, spatter cones, lava tubes, and other volcanic formations. At one overlook, there were several rocks set aside for us to take turns holding. Our guide lifted up a large chunk of pumice to show us how lightweight it was compared to other stones. You’d almost think it was a movie prop. Another rock had a pearly sheen to it and was an example of volcanic glass.
When we made it to the top, we had several minutes to take photographs of the famous view of Bartolomé’s pinnacle. There was another boat visiting at the same time as us, but the area never felt crowded. After enjoying the view, we made our way back down to the landing and once again returned to the yacht in two separate groups.
By this point (due to our definitely inadequate breakfast) we were starving and were delighted to be greeted with a snack of Oreos and iced tea. Normally in Ecuador and other parts of South America, it’s not advised to drink the water, but in the Galápagos Islands bottled water is used for just about everything so we enjoyed some of that as well.
After everyone was back on board, the yacht repositioned toward the narrow channel separating Bartolomé and Santiago. We were told to change for swimming and everyone scrambled around getting their bathing suits on or taking off the extra layers covering them. There were several people looking at something along the shore, so I went out and spotted a sea lion snuggling adorably on some rocks and it was only after I’d snapped a few pictures that I realized that everyone was actually marveling at the penguin standing nearby. It was the first of a few that we’d end up seeing that day.
Swimming with Galápagos penguins
Once again, we were divided into two separate groups. The first group rode the dinghy to the sandy beach in Sullivan Bay with the intent to start there and snorkel along the rocks out toward deeper water. Our group left second and rode the dinghy out to the deeper water to snorkel toward shore. I preferred the deeper water start because I figured it would be easier to get out of the boat in the water and onto it along the shore than the other way around.
The water here was chiller than we’d encountered in Tintoreras or Los Tuneles if you’ve ever experienced either of those though it was very pleasant for us Midwesterners used to the Great Lakes. We saw lots of fish along the rocks, but was otherwise not that remarkable. With the exception of one brilliant red and purple fish, I saw all the same ones right in the harbor on San Cristobal a couple days later. We were more than halfway to shore and I was starting to think our quest to swim with penguins was a bust when the dinghy driver (who was following alongside the group) started yelling that he saw penguins up ahead. I popped my head out of the water and sure enough, three of them were bobbing on the surface right along the shore not too far away. They dove down under the water and I realized that they were swimming right toward us. One penguin passed so close to me that I could’ve touched it. I was so excited by the moment that I didn’t even manage to snap a picture with my underwater camera. They went by in a flash and though I turned around to try to follow them they were much too fast for me. The penguins kept going right along the shore past the whole group that was snorkeling. I still can’t believe I didn’t take in a whole mouthful of saltwater when I saw them swimming right by me.
We kept on swimming toward shore and eventually waded up onto the beautiful sandy beach on Isla Santiago. The white sand is punctuated by craggy black lava rocks along the sides and in the center and a trail marked with posts leads off into the lava field – which from up close looks like it’s from another planet. I was excitedly asking my husband if he’d seen the penguins and lamenting my inability to snap a picture when another person from our group yelled that they saw more penguins at the far end of the beach. I grabbed my snorkel and mask and started wading into the water, heading in their direction. When they started to approach me, I flopped down in the shallow water and again they swam right by me. For a second, I thought one of them was going to run straight into my head until it dodged to my right at the last second. And just like that, they were gone again, zipping past me toward the rocky outcroppings where we’d started our snorkeling.
I continued to snorkel around the boulders in the center of the beach, but since I hadn’t grabbed my fins before splashing back into the water, it was a lot more work to swim against the waves. I eventually returned to shore and took a short walk toward the lava rocks. The landscape there is fascinating and I wished I’d had shoes to explore further. I eventually returned to the water and was surprised by one more pass of penguins to end the day! Shortly after that, the dinghy arrived to return us to the boat and we very reluctantly grabbed our things and piled on.
We were thrilled to find a hearty hot lunch waiting for us when we returned to the yacht. We were in Ecuador for two weeks, and this was definitely the best meal I had. The chef said it was brujo aka scorpionfish with mini potatoes and mixed veggies. For dessert, we got a sliced banana with fruity sauce that they said was meant to look like the pinnacle on Bartolomé. Water was included with our meal and Coke and beer were available for an additional cost. This will vary by boat though.
After we finished our meal and everyone changed back into their clothes, we set off for our lengthy boat ride back to the harbor. We were treated to the sight of a few manta rays jumping out of the water along the way. (Am I the only one who didn’t know that this was a thing they did before I went to the Galápagos Islands?) We didn’t do a pass near Daphne Major this time and just headed in to anchor. Once again, we headed to shore in two shifts on the dinghy. We had to wait a few extra minutes for it to make a third trip to retrieve the crew so they could ride the bus back to Puerto Ayora with us. We were dropped off at our hotel just before 5 pm delighted with how the day had gone.
How to book a day trip to Bartolomé Island
Have I convinced you to add a day trip to Isla Bartolomé in the Galápagos Islands? If you’re not visiting with a guided tour or cruise, you can book day trips either online in advance through booking sites like Viator or through one of the many travel agencies in Puerto Ayora. They’re everywhere, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding one – we passed at least 5 just on our way to dinner the first night in town.
While I prefer the security of having a tour in place in advance, you’ll find much better prices if you wait to book when you’re on Santa Cruz. We had originally booked one on Viator, but after asking around in Santa Cruz, we found the tour we ended up taking on Yate Altamar for $140 less than we would’ve paid otherwise. If you’re on a tight schedule and don’t have a lot of flexibility, you may want to pay the extra money to book ahead of time if you really want to go to Bartolomé Island in case tickets are sold out before you arrive. Each boat has a different schedule (some go Tuesdays, some go Fridays, etc.) Case in point: when we were trying to rebook our tour in person, we only had the availability to do this tour on one specific day. The first few agencies we stopped at all had slots the day before, but only one managed to find us spots on the day we could go. Had we had more flexibility, we could’ve easily fit it into our schedule, but we easily could’ve missed out otherwise. It’s also worth noting that on our visit in March 2022, our guide was telling us about how one of the yachts that used to do Bartolomé day trips had recently caught fire and sank on a repositioning trip – no tourists were on board – so you can expect there to be one less boat than usual for the foreseeable future.
Note that in order to do a Bartolomé Island day trip, you have to spend the night before and night of on Santa Cruz, ideally in Puerto Ayora. The bus leaves too early for you to make it if you’re flying in or taking one of the ferries to Santa Cruz in the morning and returns too late to catch a flight or afternoon ferry. When they say full day, they mean it.
What to bring for a Bartolomé Island day trip
- Bathing suit
- Wetsuit (optional) – recommended by guides if you visit from June-December or if you’re sensitive to water temps
- Rashguard (optional) – This saves some sunscreen application if you’re prone to burning (like I am).
- Clothes – I wore my bathing suit under my clothes in the morning and put the same clothes back on after swimming with dry underwear and a sports bra.
- Shoes – We wore water shoes with rubber soles, but better hikers would’ve been welcome while climbing on Bartolomé.
- Sunglasses – You are at the equator
- Reef safe sunscreen – Same as above
- Underwater camera – I used an Olympus T-6 that three of our guides raved about as their favorite underwater camera. I was very pleased with it compared to my old GoPro and highly recommend it.
- Dry bag – I had the 30L size and it had just the right amount for two of us.
- Bottled water – Even though the boat provides some, it would not have been enough for the two of us all day, particularly in the tropical heat and humidity.
- Anti-fog spray – We got a shampoo/soap mix to keep out masks from fogging, but if you don’t like the shampoo on your face, this stuff works like a charm.
- Snacks (optional) – We tossed some candy in our bag to munch on during the day.
What an amazing experience! I love penguins and visiting the Galapagos Islands is a dream I’ve had for a while!
Wow! Swimming with penguins – bucket list territory. And in such an incredible volcanic landscape too. What an experience. We once walked with fairy penguins in Australia which was magical too (not least because of their name).
Gosh this looks like an incredible experience and one I’d love to try one day. I absolutely love penguins!
We’ve had some great sailing day trips, but swimming with penguins??? We have a new line on our Bucket List, thank you. 🙂