An American's Guide to Galápagos Islands: Bartolomé and Pinnacle Rock

Bartolomé (Isla Bartolomé), a barren volcanic islet located just off the east coast of Santiago Island in Sullivan Bay, is the most visited and most recognizable island in the Galápagos. This tiny islet is dramatic and stark with its iconic, leaning, volcanic obelisk jutting out of a yellow sand beach. At first glance it appears that Bartolomé and near by Santiago Island have virtually no plant or animal life, but like everywhere else in the Galápagos, there is an abundance of both plants and wildlife if you look closely.

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Mornings in the Galápagos are often cloudy or foggy, depending on the time of year. Those clouds and fog quickly burn off and rarely lead to much rain. These are truly desert islands.

Above: Phillip posing on Santiago Island with Isla Bartolomé and Pinnacle Rock visible across Bahía Sullivan.

Below: Playa Dorada, adjacent to Pinnacle Rock.

Bartolomé's obelisk is called Pinnacle Rock, a volcanic cone, formed when magma was expelled from an underwater volcano; the sea cooled the hot lava, which then exploded, only to come together and form this huge rock made up of many thin layers of basalt.

The island and Pinnacle Rock look familiar because they've appeared in many movies. The most memorable was perhaps their important role in the the 2003 Russell Crow film “Master and Commander."

Visitors have access to two sites: one that involves a climb to an incredible viewpoint and the other at the beach where snorkeling and swimming is enjoyed. Birdwatchers can see Galápagos Penguins, herons, and Galápagos Hawks.

Bartolomé Island was named after Sir Bartholomew James Sulivan, a friend of Charles Darwin who served as principal surveyor and second-lieutenant aboard the HMS Beagle.

The Galápagos Penguins, the second smallest penguin species in the world, have established a small breeding colony in a cave behind Pinnacle Rock.

In 1982, these animals suffered a massive decline during El Niño when the overall population in Galápagos declined from nearly 15,000 to fewer than 500 birds and they have been slow to recover.

The most recent cause of concern came in July 2008 when a Plasmodium parasite species was found in Galápagos Penguins. Researchers are worried that this parasite could potentially lead to avian malaria. The penguin population in Bartolomé will be monitored to ensure their health and survival.

On our visit today we see only two penguins though guides assure us more are nesting in small caves inside Pinnacle Rock. Underwater we have some of the best snorkeling in the Galápagos with massive schools of Yellowtailed Surgeonfish (and others).

Massive schools of Yellowtail Surgeonfish greeted us in Sullivan Bay

Prionurus punctatus gets its common name from the sharp (but apparently unused) black and white scales that point to its tail.

We land our zodiacs across the small bay, opposite Pinnacle Rock. Then proceed to climb a 600-m trail to the 114-m summit (the climb includes a wooden staircase constructed by the Park Service to protect the island from erosion).

The summit provides spectacular views of Pinnacle Rock, the immense black lava flows at Sullivan Bay and the rest of Santiago Island, and Daphne Major and Minor.

Along the way, various volcanic formations including spatter and tuff cones and lava flows are seen.

The climb also gives the visitor a unique insight into species adaptation.

The Tequila plant, which appears to be dead brush, is actually made of leaves covered with small gray hairs, which help prevent moisture evaporation and reflect sunlight.

Close up of Gray Matplant (aka Tequila plant; Tiquilia nesiotica)

Later we land on the north beach adjacent to Pinnacle Rock. Swimming is allowed on the northern beach when no sea turtles are present.

This site is one of the smaller Green Sea Turtle nesting beaches in the archipelago (nesting season is from January to March). A second beach across the bay is used by visitors during turtle nesting seasons.


(Brachycereus nesioticus)

Endemic to the Galápagos, we see a few hardy specimen hanging on to the cliffs of Bartolomé.

The complete range of this species occurs within the Galápagos National Park and natural World Heritage Site.

The spiny clumps grow up to 24 inches tall (60 cm).

Visitors have the opportunity to swim with colorful fish, sea lions and Galapagos Penguins, as well as swim and snorkel around Pinnacle Rock. Galapagos Penguins are usually seen playing.

A short trail through the vegetation leads the visitor to the southern beach (no swimming allowed), where stingrays, Spotted Eagle Rays and Black-tipped Sharks can be seen. White-tipped Sharks are present close to shore at both beaches.

One of our guide giving a very long, early morning explanation of a rock (or something), on the lava fields of Santiago Island. They mean well, but. . . the lectures can be mind numbing. We were never out of their watchful eye which might be good for the Galápagos, if they can control tourism and preserve the flora and fauna of these unique islands.

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