Santa Cruz’s name means Holy Cross in Spanish. The first Spanish visitors gave this island a Christian name. This island is the second lar
gest in the Galapagos Archipelago. However, with a population of around 12,000 locals, it is the most populated (by humans).
As the main port of the archipelago, Puerto Ayora is the capital of the island, and it is full of exciting places to visit. Travel agencies provide tours from the highlands to the beaches, as well as other special tours that include visits to nearby islands.
You will also find excellent handicrafts, jewelry shops, art galleries, restaurants, bars, bike rental shops, and kayaking, diving and snorkeling services! Just walk down the Charles Darwin Avenue and you will be enchanted by this delightful little city where urbanism and nature meet. This avenue goes alongside the ocean from the port to the Charles Darwin Foundation Headquarters.
Here are some of the attractions you cannot miss when staying in Santa Cruz Island!
Tortuga Bay Beach
Tortuga Bay is a beautiful beach of fine white sand, where you can spend the day by the ocean, relaxing by the sand or snorkeling in turquoise waters.
From your hotel, you can take a cab to the starting point of a 2.5km cobblestone path that was built in order to reach the beach by foot. As you make your way through the mysterious forest of tall Opuntia Cacti and volcanic rocks, finches, mockingbirds, yellow warblers and lava lizards will cross your path. The walk to the beach takes approximately 45 min.
Then, in the background, you will spot what seems like a dreamlike view. Walk into a beach of infinite white sand and turquoise waters. Every now and then you can encounter marine iguanas and sea turtles (who come here during nesting season!). Paradise awaits.
Charles Darwin Foundation Headquarters
A visit to the Charles Darwin Foundation Headquarters is a must! Here, you will find giant tortoise and land iguana breeding centers and learn about the breeding process of these animals in captivity. You will also discover the conservation efforts of the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park, and other important actions that have been taken for the protection of these endangered species and varieties. During the summer months (Jan-Apr) we recommend that you visit early in the morning to avoid the heat and the bright sun. Distances within the headquarters are short so you will be walking throughout this visit.
Along this route, you will find Opuntia Cacti, endemic to the Galapagos, surrounded by tame finches. If you observe closely you will be able to notice the variety of their beaks. It was this observation of adaptation that led Charles Darwin to his theory of evolution by natural selection!
Rancho Primicias is a private ranch located in the highlands, here giant tortoises live freely. During your visit, you can walk around vast lands where you cross paths with these giants. They slowly move about chewing grass or rest by the puddles when it gets hot.
Also, within Rancho Primicias you can visit a lava tunnel of impressive magnitudes.
El Chato Tortoise Reserve is also located in the highlands. This territory is part of the national park and home to giant tortoises who roam about making us wonder what this earth was like when dinosaurs were around. Besides seeing giant turtles in their natural habitat this is also a great spot for birdwatchers. You can observe several endemic birds. It’s better if you visit with a guide as the reserve is very extensive!
MAPRAE is an augmented reality museum that displays 55 visual objects of pre-columbian art. This museum is actually the first in the world that exhibits pre-columbian art using augmented reality! MAPRAE portrays our cultural heritages by merging technology with Ecuador’s artistic past. In an interactive visit, you will learn about the natural and cultural wealth of the country.
Lava tunnels in Santa Rosa
The lava tunnels near the village of Santa Rosa are another visit that you cannot miss. If you like caves, then you should venture into this experience. Explore underground lava tunnels just 2.5 km outside of Puerto Ayora where the entrance to a huge tunnel is surrounded by abundant plants. Inside, the temperature is cool and the walls formed by lava stretch for over a kilometer. While there is a tunnel that is not privately owned, most are, so you will need a guide to schedule your visit.
Las Grietas have been an all-time favorite for people visiting Santa Cruz. Between two cliffs a long stretch of turquoise water makes for a great day of swimming, snorkeling or diving. You can spot white tip sharks, marine turtles, rays, marine iguanas, and many birds flying overhead. Sitting on the rocky cliffs or diving into the water don’t worry! Animals in the Galapagos are tame, some say that this is the most enchanting part of the islands. It seems as if you’re in a museum where instead of going to find the attractions, they are all around you.
These volcanic rock formations are located 3 km from Puerto Ayora.
This beach is a great destination if you are looking to spend a day of peace. Resting on a bay surrounded by mangroves Playa Mansa is the ideal place for a refreshing swim, snorkeling or just relaxing by the sand.
19 km north of Puerto Ayora you will find “El Garrapatero Beach”. Prepare to encounter crystalline waters, small waves, white sand and a lagoon nearby where flamingos and finches roam about. From June to December it’s dry season but the landscape turns greener from January to May. Here you can swim or snorkel, and with authorization from the park you can plan a pleasant picnic by the beach. If you’re looking for a day to relax then this is the perfect destination!
El Puntudo/Cerro Crocker
At 860m, Cerro Crocker is the highest peak on the island! You can walk through trails but you will need a guide for this particular adventure.
Los Gemelos sinkholes
In a “Chiva”, cab or bus you can get to Los Gemelos. Two giant sink holresemble craters but they are actually not part of a volcano. Now they are covered with lush, green vegetation and a scalesia (endemic tree) forest is spread out throughout the sinkholes. The greater elevation generates a much humid environment than the one on the coast. It is breathtaking to observe these huge “twins”.
Laguna de las Ninfas
A tidal spot where saltwater and freshwater meet. This is the perfect place for birdwatchers! Also, if you’re looking to relax this is a beautiful and peaceful place to spend your day. Laguna de las Ninfas is located between the Charles Darwin Station and Tortuga Bay.
Punta Estrada Beach
Kayaking is a great way to visit Punta Estrada! This small bay is surrounded by mangrove forests and cliff walls where birds such as blue-footed boobies live. Here, boats are tied to the dock, where you can tie your kayak, put on your snorkeling mask and swim around. You can see rays, turtles, sea cucumbers, and many colorful fish.
*Puerto Ayora is a small town, wherever you are staying you can arrange for taxi pickups, schedule visits with guides and move around.
How to get there: Flights from Quito and Guayaquil have direct flights to Baltra. Once you reach Baltra airport, airlines provide a bus to the Itabaca canal (10 min ride). From there, ferries take you across the canal to Santa Cruz Island. To get to the town of Puerto Ayora you can either take a bus or a taxi for a 45 min drive. Along the way, you will travel from the arid coastal area to the highlands and then back to sea level.