Santa Cruz Island is the hub for travelers on cruises and island hopping tours. Its main port city, Puerto Ayora, is the place to stock up, relax over a good meal, and wander the oceanfront of Academy Bay and its market in search of the catch of the day.
Away from the city, the island’s stunning natural attractions on the coast and in the highlands reveal windswept beaches, reserves where giant tortoises freely roam, massive volcanic craters, and out-of-the-way swimming holes where locals dive from the surrounding cliffs into calm, tranquil, turquoise waters.
Today, Puerto Ayora is a far cry from the port that greeted the original settlers of Santa Cruz. The main island has plenty of restaurants, shops, and hotels to suit travelers of all shapes and sizes. It is the jumping off point for many tours and cruises in the archipelago.
The headquarters of the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station, are located here-the two organizations work in tandem to protect and preserve the natural diversity and wildlife of the islands.
Banco del Pacifico and Banco Pichincha have offices here that have ATM machines. There is also an ATM at the Proinsular supermarket, located at the end of Charles Darwin Avenue.
One of the few hospitals in the Galapagos is located on Balta Avenue, close to Charles Darwin Avenue. A Cruz Azul pharmacy is also located on Balta Ave. There is a hyperbaric medical chamber located at Charles Darwin and Piqueros Avenues.
Other services found in Purto Ayora are a post office, internet cafes, phone companies, and masseuses. Puerto Ayora has a handful of local art galleries including Maki-Art Gallery, the Angelique Art Gallery, Galeria Aymara, and Creative Force Art. Some of the shops around town sell jewelry made by local women using recycled materials-part of a program spearheaded by Sarah Akot, a Ugandan artist in a partnership with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions.
Along the bay on Charles Darwin Ave during the week is the island’s fish market where fishermen bring their catch to the dock. Stalls are flanked by hungry sea lions and pelicans, who are fed by those cleaning the daily catch before distributing it to the restaurants and residents of Santa Cruz.
A weekly farmers market takes place on Saturdays and is located close to the Avianca Airline office on Rodriguez Lara and San Cristóbal Avenues. Local merchants sell fruits, vegetables, and locally-made cheese while food stalls dish up delicious Ecuadorian food made from fresh ingredients.
For local seafood and Ecuadorian fare head to Calle de Los Kioskos along Charles Binford Ave. Almuerzo, a set lunch that includes soup and a main course, is served daily. Entrees include dishes of goat, meat, chicken, and fish. Sopa Marinera is a popular soup made from shrimp, octopus, fish, and plantain. Cazuela Mixta is a traditional main course made from a mixture of seafood, peanuts, and plantain.
There is a well-rounded mix of international restaurants in Puerto Ayora offering Italian, Argentinian, Japanese and sushi, American, vegetarian, and curry dishes.
The Charles Darwin Research Station was founded in 1959, the same year that the Galapagos National Park was established. It is host to hundreds of scientists and volunteers each year, who carry out valuable research in the islands that contribute to the preservation of the islands and their wildlife.
Located a short walk from town, the station is home to a tortoise breeding center. Tours of the facilities walk you through the different stages of growth of tortoises, from hatching to adulthood-when the lumbering giants are reintroduced to the wild.
CDR and the Galapagos National Park have successfully reintroduced giant tortoises to islands whose populations have been rendered extinct including Floreana and Santa Fe. Other parts of the tour explain the natural history of the islands and the work that CDR is doing around the archipelago.
The first inhabitants of Ecuador have been traced back in history to10,000 BC. Historic sites of hunter-gatherer and farming cultures have been found throughout the country. Pyramids and burial mounds have revealed statues and pottery that are exhibited in museums in Quito and Guayaquil.
The Augmented reality Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Puerto Ayora has 55 archeological pieces from different cultures before the Inca. The museum revolves around a new concept-visitors download an app to their smartphones after entering. Once installed, guests point their phones at the artifacts and receive detailed information about the piece and the history of the culture to which it belonged.
Activities–shopping, art galleries, restaurants, tours
The tropical beaches of Santa Cruz are picture perfect places where sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, sea turtles, marine iguanas, and flamingos mingle on swathes of sand under the sunny, blue skies of the island.
The waters and coral reefs off the shores are brimming with sea life, where vibrant schools of fish- spanning the colors of the rainbow- attract sea turtles, reef sharks, and sea lions.
Snorkeling, swimming, surfing, and kayaking are adventures into the underwater world of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world.
Tortuga Bay, an exceptional tropical beach that is included on lists of the world’s best beaches, is southwest of Puerto Ayora. The trailhead starts after a short walk from town and winds through mangroves along the coast. At the end of the mile and a half walk, the scenery opens up into a tropical paradise that draws travelers and wildlife alike.
The first stretch of white sand is Playa Brava, where marine iguanas sun themselves on the warm, soft sand amidst the stunning turquoise waters offshore. This is the place to surf, and locals are often spotted hanging ten early in the morning before the mid-day sun sets in.
At the end of Playa Brava lies Playa Mansa, a protected lagoon where a large colony of marine iguanas lives. The calm waters are ideal for swimming or kayaking- boats are available on land for rent by the hour.
Located northeast of Puerto Ayora, El Garrapatero is a windswept stretch of beach reached after a 15-minute walk through a towering cactus forest. manchineel trees, one of the world’s most poisonous tree, also line the path. The deadly trees and their fruit, are clearly marked, but keep in mind that contact with the sap alone can cause a severe rash.
Wildlife found at El Garrapatero makes exploring a mix of active endeavors and observation. Sea lions greet sun lovers on the beach, flamingos feed in the lagoon in the mangroves a short walk inland, finches fly in the branches overhead, and the tidal pool off the coast is a great place to snorkel and swim with sea turtles and lions, reef fish, and marine iguanas.
Located on the northern tip of Santa Cruz opposite Puerto Ayora, Bachas Beach is a small, pristine stretch of sand that is a major sea turtle nesting site in the islands.
During nesting season, from January until June, early morning visits lead to discoveries of tracks in the sand. Keep an eye out for posting from the Galapagos National Park marking protected areas.
The name, Las Bachas, is a local word taken from the English, “barges.” The U.S. Navy abandoned two ships here from their base on the nearby Balta Island after the end of WWII.
The swath of land is a swimming beach and the place to find marine iguanas, sally-lightfoot crabs, and flamingos-found in the nearby saltwater lagoon. Finches, warblers, gulls, whimbrels, and blue-footed boobies are just a few of the birds that fly overhead and fish in the nearby waters.
Playa de Los Perros, nearby to Puerto Ayora, is reached by a short panga ride from town. The small islet and the nearby pool are the places to find marine iguanas and white-tipped reef sharks.
The clear waters lend themselves to snorkeling with brightly-colored, exotic fish while blue-footed boobies circle overhead in search of their next meal.
On the way to Las Grietas, Playa de Los Alemanes is a charming beach for swimming, snorkeling, surfing, and kayaking. After a short water taxi ride across Academy Bay from Puerto Ayora, a short hike on a marked trail ends at a boardwalk that surrounds the beach.
Black Turtle Bay, on the northern coast of Santa Cruz, is a peaceful estuary reached and explored by panga. Three kinds of mangroves-red, white, and black are found in the area.
The Galapagos National Park’s rules require that the motor of pangas are turned off when approaching the cove- where green sea turtles and a variety of sharks and rays swim in the clear waters. The sanctuary is also home to blue-footed boobies, pelicans, and herons.
Activites-Swimming, surfing, kayaking, snorkeling, and day trips
Marine Life-Marine iguanas, rays, sea lions and turtles, reef fish, and white-tipped reef sharks
Wildlife-Sea birds, Galapagos hawks, sally-lightfoot crabs,
The highlands and their two towns of Bellavista and Santa Rosa are home to El Chato Reserve, butterfly farms, lava tunnels, and a myriad of wildlife that turn the head around every bend and corner.
Founded in 1964, El Chato Tortoise Reserve is close to the small town of Santa Rosa. The reserve is split into two parts, La Caseta and Cerro Chato. Cerro Chato’s trails are well marked and the easiest to navigate, while the overgrown paths of La Caseta present more of a challenge. La Caseta is sometimes closed by Galapagos National Park rangers who work in the area building walls to protect Giant Tortoises from predators including wild pigs and dogs.
The trails and ponds of both sections are the places to find giant lumbering tortoises, slowly moving through the fertile flora and peacefully resting under trees and in shallow waters. The large expanse of land is also home to giant lava tunnels, formed centuries ago when the outer crust of flows cooled and the molten lava of the center kept moving to the coast.
Descending into the earth and exploring the lit tunnels is an adventure that uncovers the origins of Santa Cruz, bringing to light the volcanic explosions that formed the island.
Twin Craters are a set of massive magma chambers whose roofs collapsed. Located just past Santa Rosa, the impressive overgrown pits are surrounded by Scalesia forest, where different species of Darwin’s finches, Vermilion flycatchers, and short-eared owls live in the branches.
Trails skirt the rim of both craters, under a canopy of trees that grow up to 65 ft. tall. The Scalesia tree is endemic to the Galapagos, and because of efforts by conservationists, the forest around Los Gemelos is one of the largest in the islands.
Located between the towns of Santa Rosa and Bellavista, Steve Devine’s Butterfly Farm is a private farm where hoards of tortoises roam the large estate.
The Devine family are part of the original settlers of the island, moving to Santa Cruz in 1949. More than twenty species of Galapagos birds live on the 500-acre property, including owls, flycatchers, finches, mockingbirds, and doves. The farm’s restaurant and café are a relaxing place to take in the scenery over a coffee or tea before heading on to the next stop.
The highlands of Santa Cruz have a few coffee farms that are open to the public-Lava Java and El Trapiche, take you through the coffee growing process from growing the beans to the final product. El Trapiche also grows sugar cane, and a visit includes watching the cane being processed by a centuries-old, mule-driven grinder.
Activities-Hiking, biking, and exploring the farms, reserves, and trails of the highlands.
Wildlife- Giant tortoises, short-eared owls, finches, flycatchers, mockingbirds, and doves
5) DIVE SITES
There are six dive sites within short distances from Santa Cruz Island that are explored on day trips from the island. Normally tours stop at two sites during a trip, and the different sites have difficulty ratings ranging from beginners to experienced divers. The Galapagos Islands are considered to be one of the world’s best places for scuba divers. The vast underwater world of the Galapagos Marine Reserve is home to sharks, rays, hundreds of species of fish, underwater canyons, and sheer coral reefs.
Guy Fawkes Rocks is a dive site of four islets on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz. An intermediate site, depths of 80 ft. open into sheer coral slopes with cavities where white-tipped reef sharks feed. Green sea turtles, eagle rays, and sea lions also frequent the area.
A beginner to intermediate dive on the western coast of Santa Cruz, Punta Carrión has depths the reach 90ft. below the surface. Marine life that frequents the area include marbled and eagle rays, sea lions and turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, the occasional hammerhead, scorpion fish, and schools of brightly colored reef fish. During the guara season, dolphins have been spotted in the area.
Located in the eastern coast of Santa Cruz, Gordon Rocks is a top dive site in the central Galapagos. Suited for intermediate and advanced divers because of the strong currents of the area, the submerged, eroded cone of an extinct tuff cone volcano is home to a great number of white-tipped, Galapagos, and hammerhead sharks.
There is a 90ft. or 30 meters drop to the sandy sea floor. Nicknamed the “washing machine,” because of the strong currents and coral walls, the site not only attracts sharks, but mammoth Mola Mola or Sun Fish, sea turtles, schools of barracuda, manta, sting and marbled rays, eels, yellowtail surgeonfish, and king angelfish.
The South Plaza Anchorage dive site is off the eastern coast of Santa Cruz. It is an easy dive with a depth of only 25ft. or 8 meters. Schools of reef fish and sea turtles and lions are frequent visitors to the area. The site is one of the places in the islands used for training and is an ideal location for night dives.
Located on the western side of Academy Bay, Caamaño Islet reaches depths of 50ft. or fifteen meters. Its sheltered location makes it a great spot for beginning divers. Marine life that frequent the area and are often spotted include sea lions, a variety of rays, marine iguanas, sea turtles, and the occasional shark swimming through ballooning schools of rainbow-colored reef fish.
Located on the west side of Academy Bay with depths of 35ft. or 11 meters, Punta Estrada is suitable for all levels of divers. Marine iguanas, sea lions, and schools of reef fish are spotted here. Nicked named “Sea Turtle Canyon,” sea turtles are often spotted during diving lessons, and night dives. The site is frequented by underwater photographers because of the shallow depths and clear visibility.
Note: All information is intended as a general guide of what you might be able to see or do on this island. In reality, wildlife sightings are by nature unpredictable, and activities may be subject to change by your guide or the National Park Authority.