Visiting Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Travel blog full guide to visiting Santa Cruz, the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Things to do, things to see, where to go in Santa Cruz, where to go in the Galapagos.

Visiting Santa Cruz, in the Galapagos Islands

Perched on the steps leading into the bus, I watched dirt tracks and dense tropic greens whiz by underneath my feet. The loud chatter of the Ecuadoreans that joined me on the floor drowned out the mumbled complaints of the rich tourists, who were kicking out at us for disturbing their leg space. No matter the rudeness, or the crassness, or the seeming lack of appreciation for their surroundings, there’s no way that the tourists can get you down. This is the Galapagos. This is the dream.

Fragrant blooms of flowers you’ve never seen shade giant, crimson crabs scuttling through the sand. The lush, volcanic route into town seems utterly unperturbed, until we reached Puerto Ayora. As far as Ecuadorean towns go, this was essentially a buzzing metropolis. There were people and cars, shops, hotels, bars, restaurants. Though the islands remain relatively untouched, Puerto Ayora has long been the hub of inhabitation for all of the Galapagos. A crucial base for any traveller looking to explore the islands by land, or a jump-off point for cruise shippers, there’s plenty of options for cheap hotels, and even an area with cheap Ecuadorean street-eats.

Wander down to the port, milling with tourists and workers alike, and watch enormous pelicans swan-diving into the bright blue seas. Peer down into the waters and you can spot small sharks and massive fish flapping underfoot, a first glimpse into the incredible marine biodiversity of the islands.

1. Snorkel through Las Grietas

A towering black canyon carved by lava, the sun cuts straight through the centre of Las Grietas, illuminating the pools between her walls. Scattered amongst the rocks are families, locals taking their children out to snorkel with the flocks of tiny fish, in between cruise ship stops. Though the islands are incredibly touristy when the ships stop, it’s rare to see many other foreigners during the peaceful in-between hours.

Formed by a long-gone volcanic eruption, the pools are a combination of fresh and sea water, with fresh waters flowing from the island’s highlands through underground filtration system. A testament to a world without people, there are many examples throughout the islands of how the earth has developed without being influenced by human populations. Though it is impressive to see how ancient peoples manipulated the earth for survival and improvement of life, this feels rarer. This is how Darwin came to propose one of, if not the most important scientific theories in history.

You can take a snorkel from the town with you, it’s only around 10-15 minutes walk away from Puerto Ayora. Stop at a beachy cove en route, to see local children and iguanas paddling in the low tide, and continue down the desolate, cobbled pathway to the canyon. Jump straight from the edge of the dock into a crowd of fish, perfectly visible through the silvery waters. The first waterway you pass has a few tourists, a few locals. Clamber (carefully!) over the rocky passage at the end of this pool to find a second basin, significantly less inhabited by fellow swimmers. Float through fields of little fish, onwards to the third pool, to find it virtually deserted. This is the peak of the snorkelling in the area, with no splashing swimmers to disturb the sea life.

Languish in the lava-wrought lagoons as long as you please, but try to avoid the massive crowds of cruise shippers that come into the area at around 5pm. Try to enjoy the experience untarnished by crowds.


2. Tortuga Bay

Pristine beaches lay almost deserted, save for languishing aquatic iguanas, stretched in the blistering sun. Skeletal relics of the dinosaur age, these critters are one of the Galapagos’ more famous sights, the only breed of iguana that swims. You’ll find them wriggling through the water next to you if you opt to swim out in one of their favourite areas, including the beautiful banks of Tortuga Bay.

Despite being clear to the touch, the water in the bay isn’t particularly good for snorkelling. Opt instead to float with far less purpose, swim in the warm waters, possibly even spot reef tip sharks head for their nesting spot amongst the low mangroves. Else, you can just lie out on snow white sand and watch pelicans diving for their dinner.

The beach is an easy hike away, around 40 minutes from Puerto Ayora, or else you can take a watertaxi from the port. The hike isn’t strenuous, but it isn’t particularly interesting either, and may be tougher if you attempt it at the height of day. The sun here is no joke.

Baby tortoises at Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador. Travel blog guide to Santa Cruz, Galapagos, budget land travel in the Galapagos Islands.

3. The Charles Darwin Research Station

Though smaller and slightly less impressive a site than her sister station in Isla Isabela, the research station on Santa Cruz may be your first opportunity to set your sites on a genuine dinosaur. The breeding centre is dedicated to the preservation of giant tortoises. Though they never succeeded in creating thoroughbred offspring from the famous Lonesome George, the giant tortoises that live there now are a close match.

Bigger than you could imagine, the wrinkled and elderly tortoises meandering round the centre are actually pretty sprightly at only 100 years old. The numbers of tiny baby tortoises wrestling for leaves fills you with hope for the future of this species, and serve as a reminder of the things that humans have ruined and the things that they’ve managed to save. Giant tortoises were plentiful when discovered, but so many served to line the stomachs of British sailors that their number dwindled quickly. Explorers and capitalists alike served to disturb their environments, introduce destructive foreign creatures like dogs and horses, and harm the development of the species. Projects like this centre are evidence that, even when we push the nature to its brink, it is possible to scrape back some semblance of preservation and hope. Something to think about, these days.

Though the island boasts better infrastructure and resources, it is perfectly possible to get away from the bustling streets of Puerto Ayora whilst in Santa Cruz. If you want to stay closer to town, you can watch sea lions and pelicans tussle for position to collect scrapes at Santa Cruz fish market. Or, you can head to Binford Street to sample some Ecuadorean seafood from local stands.

Buy yourself an onwards ticket, and embark for the best of all the inhabited islands- Isla Isabela.

Check out my guides to a budget trip in the Galapagos, to Isla Isabela and to San Cristobal for more information.

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