Santa Cruz Island is the main tourism hub in the whole of the Galapagos Islands. It’s the second largest in area and sits at the center of the archipelago. Thanks to its close proximity to the main airport on Baltra Island just to the north, many tourists pass through Santa Cruz and its principal city, Puerto Ayora, located on the island’s southern coast.
Puerto Ayora is the largest settlement in the entire Galapagos archipelago, and is home to approximately 12,000 people. It also has the most amenities of all the islands in the Galapagos, including banks, a hospital, post office, restaurants and small hotels. Other notable settlements include the village of Bellavista a few miles inland, and the farming community of Santa Rosa in the island’s humid highlands.
Despite being the most developed of all the Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz is nonetheless bursting with natural attractions. Whether you want to hike, swim, relax or explore, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for both independent excursions and organized tours.
Main Visitor Sites on Santa Cruz Island
As mentioned above, there are plenty of tourist attractions on Santa Cruz Island. Some of these are easy to reach independently from Puerto Ayora, while others may require a guide and/or permit. We’ll start with the attractions closest to Puerto Ayora and then head further afield.
Charles Darwin Research Station (and Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center) — Located a 10-minute walk from the center of Puerto Ayora, the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) was founded in 1959 and serves as the international headquarters of the Charles Darwin Foundation. The free-to-enter visitor center provides plenty of information about local flora and fauna and ongoing conservation projects. The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center, meanwhile, was established to save nearby giant tortoise populations, which were in danger of disappearing. Visitors can see a range of turtles at the center, from hatchlings to juveniles to fully-grown adults.
Las Grietas — These crevices, formed by past volcanic activity, provide some of the most interesting swimming and snorkeling opportunities in the Galapagos. Easy to reach independently from Puerto Ayora, the crystalline waters are a fascinating mix of fresh water at the surface and salt water below.
Lava Tubes — The volcanic past of Santa Cruz is most dramatically visible in the various lava tubes scattered across the island. These tunnels were formed by lava flowing beneath the already hardened surface of a lava flow. You can visit a partially collapsed lava tube just outside Puerto Ayora. Others are found near Bellavista and Santa Rosa. Some are free to enter, but lava tubes on private land often charge a small fee. The longest lava tube on the island is about one-and-a-quarter miles long and is accessible to tourists.
Beautiful Beaches — Santa Cruz has some beautiful beaches that can be reached without a guide. Head along a trail to the southwest of Puerto Ayora and you’ll reach Tortuga Bay (a one-hour trek). Here you’ll find two beaches; the shorter beach in the bay is the calmest and more suitable for swimming, the other is better for surfing. Keep an eye out for white-tip sharks, marine turtles, pelicans and blue herons. Another stand-out beach is Garrapatero, located along the coast to the northeast of Puerto Ayora. It’s a long stretch of white sand with a small lagoon where you can spot flamingos. You can reach Garrapatero easily by boat or road.
The Highlands (and Tortoise Reserve) — The highlands rise up in the center of the island and are full of strange volcanic formations and a wealth of flora and fauna. At the very heart of the island you’ll find Los Gemelos, two massive sinkholes in the middle of the dense forest, accessible via a short hike from the Santa Cruz Highway that bisects the island from north to south. Another popular attraction in the highlands is the Tortoise Reserve, where you can see wild tortoises as they slowly make their way through the forests. You can reach the reserve from Santa Rosa.
Media Luna and Cerro Crocker — If you want to reach the highest points on the island, start from Bellavista just to the north of Puerto Ayora. From here a trail leads up to Media Luna, a half crater that’s home to one of the main petrel nesting colonies in the Galapagos. Head further up the trail and you’ll eventually reach Cerro Crocker, the highest point on the island, with excellent views south to Puerto Ayora and the sea beyond.
Cerro Dragón and Venecia — Dragon Hill, located on the northwest coast of the island, is home to a repopulated iguana colony. The breeding and rearing program was a response to the devastation of natural iguana colonies by feral dogs. It’s now a great place for observing land iguanas on Santa Cruz. Just north of Cerro Dragón are the islets of Venecia, where boat rides provide opportunities to see sharks, rays and sea turtles.
Las Bachas and Black Turtle Cove — These are two of the best locations for wildlife watching along the island’s north coast, just to the west of the ferry terminal to Baltra. The beach of Las Bachas is a major nesting site for sea turtles, while nearby lagoons are frequented by flamingos, white-cheeked pintail ducks and a range of other migratory birds. A mile or so to the east is Black Turtle Cove, a quiet spot surrounded by mangroves. It’s a great place for shark spotting, with three resident species: black-finned reef sharks, Galapagos sharks and white-tipped reef sharks. Rays are also common in the cove. Visiting regulations are strict; tourists can only enter the cove in boats with their engines turned off.
Read more about this Island at Galapagos Conservancy.
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