Santa Cruz | Galapagos Island

Santa Cruz Island

The most visited Island of the archipelago

Located roughly in the center of the archipelago, the Island of Santa Cruz is the most populous of the Galapagos Islands and the second largest in the area, after Isabela. Dotted with a few small villages, the island is a large dormant volcano, which was once prone to volcanic eruptions. And now, the island is known for the queerest species that have evolved here, from giant tortoises to marine iguanas to blue-footed boobies to sea lions to the most evolving of all—the Darwin Finch. Santa Cruz is world renowned for the Charles Darwin Station, which is home to giant Galapagos tortoise.

Santa Cruz Island houses, the Darwin station, and the town of Puerto Ayora

The ideal and practical way to reach Santa Cruz is by air. Flights land on the Baltra airport situated on South Seymour or Baltra Island. You can take a bus route to Itabaca channel, which joins Baltra Island to Santa Cruz. The buses take passengers to Puerto Ayora, the largest town on the island. If you prefer the other way round, you can board a ship from Ecuador.

As far as climate is concerned, Santa Cruz is blessed with a favorable climate and hence pulls tourists all year round. Though there are regional climatic variations that occur because of altitude differences, overall the climate is inviting. While strolling down the island, after some time, you can find yourself driving past two or more distinct climate zones; you will never know when the dry, dusty landscapes diffuse into the foggy rainforest.

Getting to Santa Cruz is not that difficult, thanks to the ferry boats that offer a quick crossing between the Itabaca channel and Puerto Ayora. In addition to this, there are pick-up trucks that transfer passengers here and there on the island. The island is blessed with unique natural esthetics. Once you are at Puerto Ayora, you can take the help of a map and stroll on either side of the city to explore it further. The Charles Darwin Station lying about 1.5 km from Puerto Ayora is a turtle breeding center, where you can find the giant Galapagos tortoise. If you want to see the tortoise in the wild, El Chato Tortoise Reserve is a must-visit place. A 2.5 km-long road from Puerto Ayora will take you to Tortuga Bay, which is an exotic beach. You can catch a glimpse of sharks from across the bay.

If you are given to snorkeling, the Punta Estrada beach will indeed interest you. Snorkeling in the waters during high tide is fun. A water taxi from Puerto Ayora will land you there. For better access to the aquatic life within, trail further from the Punta Estrada beach and you will find yourself in Las Grietas, which is known for its exotic canyon brimming with water. Don’t miss out Lava Tunnels and Los Gemelos, which feature tragic remains of the past volcanic activity on the island.

Santa Cruz is also a great hub to enjoy visits to other Islands in the archipelago, the town of Puerto Ayora is the main departure point for day tours to the nearby North Seymour, Santa Fe, Plazas, Bartolome and Floreana Islands. At this famous port, you will also be able to find the speedboats that can take you to San Cristobal and Isabela. Being close to the most transited airport (Baltra) this is usually your first or last visit on a Galapagos cruise itinerary.

For accommodation, you will find a series of hotels lined in Puerto Ayora. There is a myriad of tourist hotels suiting every budget. Visit Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos to see esthetics of nature that are hard to be found anywhere else.

Galapagos travel

Santa Cruz Visitor Sites

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island

The Galapagos Islands unfold new horizons for adventures. A visit to the Galapagos makes you believe that somewhere on this planet, there exists a mystique land blessed with spectacular flora and fauna, which are hard to find anywhere else. The archipelago, indeed, is where you can catch a glimpse of exotic wildlife and unleash your snorkeling and diving fantasies.

Tortuga Bay beach is one of the most beautiful tourist attractions in the archipelago

Of all Galapagos tourist attractions, Santa Cruz sees more tourists than other islands, thanks to the hidden natural treasures confined to the island. And if you are keen to discover the exotic marine wildlife and kaleidoscopic birds, Tortuga Bay, which is located in Santa Cruz, is an ideal destination for you. You will get an eye full of sea lions, sea turtles, marine iguanas, and Darwin’s finches while you walk down the shore. If you are given to snorkeling or surfing, Tortuga Bay can fulfill all your adventurous desires.

Getting there isn’t difficult. You can board a bus from the Baltra airport, which will take you to Puerto Ayora via the Itabaca channel. Once you reach Puerto Ayora, you can stay there for a night in one of the hotels and hike in the morning to Tortuga Bay. It is a forty-five-minute walk from the main water taxi dock in Puerto Ayora. However, it might take you an hour to stroll down to the beach.

The white sandy beach is deep-seated, and while you straddle along the pavement, surrounded by the exotic forest abounded with candelabra cactus and prickly pair, you might come across a myriad of birds, including the most sought-after Galapagos finches.

Trailing along a rocky coastline packed with spectacular cactus forests, you can observe marine iguanas, brown pelicans, and blue-footed boobies. If you step further, you can catch a glimpse of a serene lagoon area at the extremity and enjoy snorkeling there. This junction is known as Playa Mansa. You can rent a kayak if you wish to spot sea turtles playing against the ocean waves.

For surfing the larger beach is great, yet it is not tranquil and even dangerous at times; therefore, you need to be careful while gliding past the turbulent waters. Sometimes a strong undercurrent flows, which can be dangerous if you are a novice. Also, don’t try to ascend on fragile sand dunes, as they are off limits.
A full day can be enough for Tortuga Bay. However, if you are willing to delve into the spot, you might consider a second day.

Bachas Beach

Galapagos Islands travel visitor site – Bachas beach

The sand at Las Bachas is made of decomposed coral, which makes it white and soft, and a favorite site for nesting Galapagos sea turtles. The Sally Lightfoot crabs are abundant on the lava rocks along the water’s edge. These crabs will eat anything they can get their claws on.

On this hike, you can see flamingoes, Sally Lightfoot crabs, hermit crabs, black-necked stilts, and whimbrels, and sea turtles.

Black Turtle Cove

Marine visitor site accessible by zodiac on Santa Cruz Island

What a fantastic site! Black Turtle Cove, a red mangrove lagoon on Santa Cruz, is a nursery for many sharks and rays. It is also a great location to observe mating sea turtles, after all, the site takes its name from the black sea turtles that mate in these calm waters.

There are large groups of resting white-tip reef sharks, schools of golden rays and spotted eagle rays, and a few juvenile scalloped hammerhead sharks and black-tip sharks. The water is nearly mirror-calm, and you often use paddles instead of the loud panga engines to move around the area.

Charles Darwin Reasearch Station

Charles Darwin – Visit the research station to learn about Evolution

The Galapagos Islands played a significant role in the history of evolution. The observations of flora and fauna of the islands greatly helped Charles Darwin in the development of his theories. Considered the most celebrated traveler of Galapagos, he, in fact, was the first person to conduct a scientific study on the Galapagos in 1835. He maintained in his later life that the facts he observed, especially on Darwin Finches, in the Galapagos were the source of inspiration for all his research and ideas.

The foundation of the Charles Darwin Station was laid to commemorate the famous association between Charles Darwin and Galapagos. Headed by a group of more than two hundred educators, scientists, and research volunteers, as well as support staff, this notable institution is committed to the preservation of ecosystems of the islands. Located at Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz Island, the biological foundation presents some great facts about the Galapagos environment that travelers otherwise may not pay heed to during their visit to the place.

The Charles Darwin Station aims to provide:

• Technical and information assistance for the Galapagos National Park Service as well as other branches of Ecuador’s government.
• Support to residents as well as scientists working in the Galapagos Islands.
• Environmental education to students and island communities and to travelers who arrive at the Galapagos every year.
• Hands-on training in science, education, and conservation for Ecuadorian university students participating in scholarships and volunteer programs of the Darwin Station.

The center is a reservoir of information on habitats and local conservation, as well as other fascinating relevant statistics. The most striking attraction of this station is certainly the Tortoise Breeding Center, where one can view tortoises of varied sizes and shapes. Travelers here can freely walk and get their photos clicked with the tortoises. Among other inhabitants at the center, you can see the land and marine iguanas and different species of birds.

The visiting fee for the Charles Darwin Research Station is included in the entrance fee for the National Park, which is around $100. The station is merely a half an hour stroll from the beautiful Puerto Ayora town center. Besides conserving the Galapagos environment and biodiversity, the center aims to educate people on conservation. Indeed, one gets the opportunity to learn about the rich history and nature of the islands by visiting the center.

Lava Tunnels

Volcanic formations on Santa Cruz Island in Galapagos 

When lava flows through the outer part of the stream gets cold and hardens, but the liquid magma within continues flowing. When it ceased empty tubes are left behind. This is what happened in Santa Cruz Island several times, leaving an island full of lava tunnels. The most frequently visited is the “Tunnel of Endless Love”, named so because of the heart-shaped hole in the roof of it. The tunnel is 800 meters long. Other tunnels can be visited out of town following the Cascajo street for one km, where a large sign announces them.

There are several natural tunnels (lava tubes): one 3 km from Puerto Ayora on the road to Bellavista, unsigned on the left, look for the black-and-white posts (tread carefully); barn owls may be seen here. Two more are 1 km from Bellavista; on pri­vate land, US$1.50 to enter, bring a torch or pay for one – it takes about 30 minutes to walk through the tunnels.

Twin craters

Twin craters in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island

The Gemelos (twins) are a pair of craters approximately 30 meters deep located on either side of the road to Baltra (the island where the airport lies). The holes could be created because of a volcanic explosion or because of magma chambers inside the earth.

You will find Los Gemelos on the road to Baltra, beyond Santa Rosa; if you are lucky, take a camioneta all the way. Otherwise, go to Santa Rosa, and then walk. It’s a good place to see the Galapagos hawk and barn owl. The surrounding forest is full of birds such as the vermilion flycatcher or the yellow warbler.
The highlands and settlement area of Santa Cruz are worth seeing for the contrast of the vegetation with the arid coastal zones.To Santa Rosa and Bellavista From San Francisco school in Puerto Ayora, 3 daily buses leave for Santa Rosa and Bellavista, 30 min trip, return immediately; fare for all destinations US$0.40. On roads to the main sites, hitching is easy but expect to pay a small fee.

Mount Crocker

Viewpoint in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island

Hike to the higher parts of the island called Media Luna, Puntudo, and Mount Crocker. The trail starts at Bellavista, 7 km from Puerto Ayora. A roundtrip from Bellavista is 4-8 hours, depending on the distance hiked, 10-18 km (permitted and guide not required, but a guide is advisable). Take water, sunblock, a long-sleeved shirt, and long trousers to protect against razor grass.

Some of the birds that can be spotted are the vermillion flycatcher, short-eared owls, and woodpeckers. The foot of Mount Crocker is where the broken lava rock begins to give way to soil. The mountain is covered in a dwarf forest with Miconia trees, shrubs, and ferns growing in the shallow, volcanic soil, there is no surface water to drink. The slopes of the mountain have proven to be a fertile collecting ground for scientists.

Ayora Port

Puerto Ayora

The Galapagos Islands are laden with absolute gems that add to their charm. It is a hub for nearly all activities in the islands where sun, sea, sailboats, and seabirds all co-exist in a harmonious equilibrium. Puerto Ayora is considered the largest town in terms of size and population in the Galapagos. It lies on the south of Santa Cruz Island and is well connected by ferry and road to the airport in Baltra Island.

With the population of more than 12,000, it is a prosperous coastal town with good restaurants, hotels, and other tourist facilities. The place boasts of one of the finest developed infrastructures in the whole archipelago. There are schools, grocery stores, hardware stores, clothing stores, marine stores, and telephone offices. It is one of the best places to stay in touch with the rest of the world, as it has plenty of cyber cafes. The cafes are equipped with premium facilities like webcams.

Puerto Ayora also houses the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation; thus, it is the center of the conservation efforts of the islands. Sojourners can travel to the Charles Darwin Research Station to know about the rich history associated with the Galapagos and the future conservation plans. North Seymour Island is just an hour away from the boat. The place has no human population and can be visited to see a range of animals with unique characteristics. Tortuga Bay is a short stroll from Puerto Ayora and has Galapagos crabs, birds, and marine iguanas. There also lies a natural mangrove where you can find gigantic Galapagos tortoise and reef white-tipped sharks.

The small place can easily be explored on foot. However, there are pickup trucks and taxis that operate around the place and into the highlands as well as across the island. There are water taxis that you can avail at the main dock; they will take you into either to the dock on the opposite side or to a waiting boat.
Puerto Ayora lies along the shores of Academy Bay, with temperature ranging between 18°C and 29°C. The place thus boasts of pleasant temperature throughout the year. The summer season usually starts from December and continues till May.

Places to See:

  • Las Grietas
  • Charles Darwin Research Station
  • Tortuga Bay
  • Bay Tour
Santa Cruz Highlands

Tortoises of the Galapagos on Santa Cruz, the highlands

Home to the most populous settlement in the islands as well as the Charles Darwin research center and the headquarters of the Galapagos National Park Service, Santa Cruz is the main hub of scientific and cultural events in the Galapagos.

As there is so much to see and to do here, Santa Cruz is a favorite with tourists who come to walk along the enormous lava tunnel, view the unique marine life in the coves and bays and see the magnificent Galapagos giant tortoises close up. A great way to get to know the island and its habitat is to spend a day hiking in its interior. The trail begins at Bellavista, 7km from the town of Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement in the Galapagos.

From Bellavista, the route takes you to the higher parts of the island known as Media Luna, Puntudo, and Mount Croker. As you travel through the highlands, you might spot vermillion flycatchers, short-eared owls, and woodpeckers. In fact, almost every bird known to exist in the Galapagos has been spotted on Santa Cruz.

Depending on the distance hiked, the circular route back to Bellavista is around 10-18km and should take between four and eight hours (of course you can take a taxi, or a white pickup truck to the main sites). And though it’s not required, your trip will be enhanced by employing a guide to lead the trek. Another highlight of a stop in Santa Cruz is a visit to Black Turtle Cove. The extensive mangrove lagoon is kept as a reserve for marine turtles and as it’s accessible only by sea as part of a Galapagos cruise.

Whether you want to discover the hidden interior of this fascinating island or explore the natural habitat of the magnificent Galapagos tortoises, a trip to Santa Cruz has everything that you’re looking for and more, and is sure to leave you with great memories of some fantastic experiences.

Dragon Hill

Dragon Hill, named before the iguanas land

A newer visitors site on Santa Cruz Island, Dragon Hill (Cerro Dragon) has recently been opened by the Galapagos Islands National Park administration. After a dry landing at a dock, the walk takes you to a hypersalinic (saltier than the ocean) lagoon behind the beach, often frequented by flamingos, common stilts, pintail ducks and other species of birds.

There is a short walk to the hill, which rewards with a great view of the bay and a nesting site of land iguanas. Many of the Iguanas that nest here have been repatriated by the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Conway Bay

Conway Bay, visitor site controlled by the National Park 

Conway Bay is a rarely visited landing site on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz Island (close to the Islet of Eden), inhabited by a large colony of sea lions. A colony of land iguana maybe observed. The maritime, very well represented iguanas are distributed along all the coast of Santa Cruz. At one point in time, there was a large colony of land iguanas also, these were wiped out by feral dogs.

The Charles Darwin Research Station has started a project to restore the land Iguana back to its natural habitat, it has started with Cerro Dragon(Dragon Hill) and will extend on to Conway Bay. You will usually have the whole beach to yourself and your group will be in complete privacy, as most of the boats offering Galapagos cruises do not include this site in their tour itineraries

Garrapatero Beach

Garrapatero Beach

Located on the northern side of Santa Cruz -Santa Cruz, this beautiful white sand beach can be found. By taking a 30 min taxi ride from Puerto Ayora and a 20-minute stroll you can get to the sandy shores of El Garrapatero Beach. The trail length consists of 500m and it takes around 20 min for visitors to complete the trail and arrive at the shore. It is open for visitors from 6 am in the morning to 6 pm in the evening.

As any other attraction in the Galapagos Islands, signs and limits must be respected throughout the trail in order to avoid any problems. Visitors should take in mind that any place forming part of the National Park is an area which has to be protected. Therefore, people are not allowed to destroy the habitat by throwing garbage, feeding nor disturbing the animals.

Tourists are recommended to take a water bottle with them as there will be no access to fresh water at the beach. This tropical paradise known as El Garrapatero is made up of 3 km (1.8 miles) of this buttercream icing colored sand. Surrounded by beautiful mangrove trees this beach is considered as the home for these unique and precious animals such as mockingbirds, herons, black needled stilts, finches, frigate birds and many more! Besides, tourists can find marine iguanas, sea lions, crabs, oystercatchers, ducklings around the shore.

In a lagoon found at the back left side of the beach, enclosed by mangrove trees, people may be able to find the main bird which identifies this beach; Galapagos-pink flamingos. The cerulean blue and clear water allows tourists to swim, snorkel, kayak and paddle.

One of the best things about this beach on Santa Cruz Island is Birdwatching, something that people of all ages can do, and everyone will certainly enjoy it. The little ones will have a great time by looking at all the animals, swimming as much as they want to in the low tide water pools found along the shore. Families can spend some quality time together by playing in the sand on the shore or by having a nice and short BBQ. Senior citizens can relax and rest by enjoying the beautiful sunsets, taking pictures and lying down on the sand as they hear the melodies of the birds.

Scuba divers can have fun doing their activities the entire year, although underwater exploration is recommended between June and November since it is considered as the best season to go there due to the water tides. El Garrapatero offers sun and a warm climate throughout the year; nevertheless, tourists may get some rain showers between February and April.

This beach can be considered as a place which is free of human invasion. The beach, tidal pools, and trails form part of the National Park, therefore, it is free of constructions or development apart from a small park ranger post which provides space for people to change and an ecological toilet. Hence this is why El Garrapatero is the perfect beach for anyone to have a great time as they enjoy the wonders of the Galapagos.


Whale Bay

Whale Bay, a historic location

Located on the western coast of Santa Cruz, Whale Bay is not landed on as much as it is pointed out from the cruise boats sailing by, it is a navigational and historical landmark in the Islands.

Whaler Bay is the site of one of the oldest whaling camps on Santa Cruz Island. It was to here and the other similar camps that the giant tortoises were brought before being loaded onboard the whalers and pirate ships.

Recommended cruise tours that visit Santa Cruz Island

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