Santa Cruz supports one of the largest human populations of the five inhabited islands. Some 8,000 residents are distributed between the cattle-farming communities in the lush highlands and the coastal town of Puerto Ayora.
Here you can visit the Charles Darwin Research Station to see the huge land tortoises, or los galapagos, which once flourished in the islands. The populations were decimated in the early 1800s by the whaling ships that stopped in the islands to fill their holds with fresh meat. A bus ride into the highlands takes you to Los Gemelos, two deep pit craters situated in the Scalesia forest with lots of interesting bird life. Or, go for a trek through giant lava tubes, or to the Tortoise Reserve to search for giant tortoises in their natural surroundings. On the north shore of the island, accessible only by sea, is an extensive mangrove lagoon called Black Turtle Cove. Here in the peacefulness of the mangroves turtles break the surface of the still waters, while fish, rays, and small sharks cruise below.
As pointed out, Puerto Ayora is the economic center of the Galapagos Islands. All the tour boats visit Puerto Ayora, anchoring in Academy Bay so there are many hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, discotheques, bars, internet coffee shops and other stores where tourists can spend their time shopping or getting to know other people.
A good way to wind down after a Galapagos Islands cruise is to take a stroll through the town of Puerto Ayora (population 8,000).
If you decide to stay in Puerto Ayora, within a few days, you'll feel right at home with the locals. They're so accustomed to one-day tours, that once you're around for a while, they'll warm right up to you. Soon, Santa Cruz Island will work its charms, enchanting you with its lazy afternoons to hectic nightlife (especially on Thursdays and Sundays when most tours either are starting up, finishing, or stopping mid-week!).
The bay is full of sailboats, sea birds fill the air and marine iguanas line the shore. Though a thriving center of commerce people enjoy a laid back island attitude. Most travelers to the Galapagos will include a visit to Puerto Ayora during their trip. Most cruises include a visit to the Darwin Station and arrange free time to explore the town and shop for souvenirs. This may be the only opportunity to souvenir shop in the islands.
Stores carry everything from t-shirts to jewelry, post cards, books, beach ware and ceramic items. The grocery store offers the opportunity to stock up on any forgotten items, snacks, beverages, or other items you might desire on board. If you are in need of additional money, the Banco del Pacifico offers cash advances on Master Card. They also offer a Cirrus ATM machine, though it does not always work.
Puerto Ayora offers options for visitors who prefer to sleep ashore or extend their stay in the islands. There are a variety of tours available allowing visitors to design their own Galapagos experience including day-trips to a number of the islands, dive trips, kayaking, highland tours, hiking, mountain biking and horseback rides.
Whatever you do, Santa Cruz is worth a stay. Take time to enjoy a vacation while getting to know who lives on these amazing islands.
Charles Darwin Research Station
The Galapagos National Park offices are based here. Scientists, park rangers, and park managers make huge efforts to preserve and protect the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Station is also a tortoise breeding and rearing center, where tortoises of different subspecies are prepared for reintroduction to their natural habitats.
Established in 1961, the CDRS ensures the survival of the flora and fauna unique to Galapagos through its research and education. Visitors will see Lonesome George, the last surviving tortoise of the subspecies from Pinta Island. Your guide will take you through a nature trail and the Van Straelen Visitor's Center, where you can get more information on the conservation work being done by the CDRS.
Santa Cruz highlands tortoise reserve
A bus will take you into the higher elevations of Santa Cruz, and along the way you will experience all seven different vegetation zones. A visit to the tortoise reserve offers the opportunity to see tortoises in the wild.
The Reserve is made up of tortoises that weigh 200 pounds and are as wild as they can get, so be careful. Because the reserve is not inside a regulated section of the park, you can go there without a guide. Hiking from Puerto Ayora to the Reserve takes about two hours through dense and low growing vegetation. To return you can rent a horse. Depending on the time you vsit the highlands, you can watch red, orange and yellow little birds playing with the blooming flora, and harvest and eat tropical fruits.
The highlands are located in the northern part of the island and can reach elevations up to 1500 meters. The vegetation here is abundant, lush and the weather moist.
Los Gemelos (The Twins)
These are two large craters in the middle of the island, either side of the one road crossing the island. They are the remains of volcanic magma chambers which collapsed and the vertical sides are now covered with vegetation. Although many native plants have been overtaken by introduced species there are, nevertheless, many Scalesia trees. Vermillion flycatchers can be seen here, as well as the woodpecker finch and short eared owls.
When lava flows 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 shapped 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 torch or pay for one - it takes about 30 mins to walk through the tunnels.
Hike to the higher parts of the island called Media Luna, Puntudo and Mount Crocker. The trail starts at Bellavista, 7 km from
Located on the north shore of Santa Cruz, close to the Baltra Airport, Las Bachas is a swimming beach that serves as a Visitor Site on your first or last touring day. There's not much to see while snorkeling. One of the few remnants of the U.S. World War II presence in the Galapagos, a floating pier, can be seen here. On this hike, you may see flamingoes, Sally Lightfoot crabs, hermit crabs, black necked stilts, and whimbrels. The sea turtles nest off the beach as well.
A one hour walk (five km) west from Puerto Ayora on a marked and cobbled path. The path is good for birdwatching, it is easy to spot several species of finches as you walk along the path. Start at the west end of C Charles Binford; further on there is a gate where you must register, open 06.00-18.30 daily. The sunsets here are excellent. Take drinking water and do not go alone (occasional incidents have been reported). Also take care of the very strong undertow at the main beach, this is mainly used for surfing. The surf is calmer on the next cove to the west, this is the swimming area and a nice spot for relaxing.
The white sand beach is considered by many the nicest of the archipelago. It name comes from the sea turtles that go there to lay their eggs. Other species can be found, including pelicans, flamingos and marine iguanas.
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 ferral 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.
El Garrapatero beach
On the Northern side of the Island of Santa Cruz after crossing the highland farmlands and small villages is El Garrapatero beach. You can get there from Puerto Ayora after a 30 minute taxi ride, and a 15 minute walk.
El Garrapatero is a wide bay with multiple sandy beaches. Behind the beach is an area with a fresh water lake where you can come across pink flamingos, herons, grebes, stilts and other shore birds. It is also a nice area for swimming.
Located on the western coast of Santa Cruz, Whaler 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.
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.
Black Turtle Cove
This wonderful site is located on the northern portion of Santa Cruz Island. The tour consists of a-panga ride through a series of mangrove-surrounded coves and inlets. Here one often views several pairs of mating marine turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, and beautiful, yellow cow-nosed rays. In order to avoid disturbing the wildlife, the outboard motor on the panga is turned off and passengers are urged to be very quiet. This visit is frequently at the beginning or towards the end of tours originating at Baltra Airport.