As mentioned in the Galapagos Island hopping article, Santa Cruz is considered the main island within the archipelago. It has the largest population of the islands with over 20,000 people and Puerto Ayora is the main tourist area located in the south.
We arrived into Puerto Ayora following the 40 minute bus ride from the airport and had great difficulty in finding our pre-booked accommodation. The streets are not all clearly marked and after walking around for some time a 4×4 approached us offering rooms at a nearby hotel. Finding out that the place was cheaper, but with similar facilities, we took a leap of faith and jumped in.
Galapagos Dreams was both a small hotel and travel agency located just 10 minutes’ walk from the port and main centre, where you can find restaurants, hotels, hostels, banks with cash points, pharmacies and small supermarkets. We were given a large room with air con, private bathroom, king size bed, breakfast and offered full use of their small kitchen, and all for just $40 a night. A good price by Galapagos standards.
We soon learned that Santa Cruz offered tours to most of the nearby islands, including: Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal, Santa Fe, North Seymour, South Plaza, and Bartolome.
Over the course of the following days we took day trips to:
We also did a half day trip on Santa Cruz for $25 each to go and see the highlands known as Punta Alta. The tour included a visit to the lava tunnels; a beautiful underground series of caves created by the lava. However, the tour was an experience in itself and as a note be prepared to get dirty!
The tour then continued onwards to observe the giant tortoises in the wild at Rancho Primicias. There is an additional entrance fee to the property of $3 each. A fun thing to note is that at this centre there is a giant tortoise-shell which you can get inside of. Needless to say watching people scrambling in and out is amusement in itself!
You can also choose to do a half day tour of Tortuga Bay and Garrapatero which are the 2 main beaches, for around $35 each. However, as you can also get to Tortuga Bay by yourself we opted to skip this “tour” and just visit the bay by ourselves. To get there ask for directions from anywhere near the port, a taxi should cost $1. From the town it’s about a 10 minutes’ walk to the entrance and from there you will need to walk 45 minutes to reach the first beach.
Here you come across amazing stretches of white sands and this beach is definitely more for the views than anything else, however, if you like to surf then this is also the beach for you. If you want to swim or snorkel you will have to continue onwards for another 20 minutes to Tortuga Bay. On your way you have the option to walk around the point which is full of marine iguanas sunbathing, they are not aggressive but do keep your distance as you never know with wild animals.
Tortuga Bay is a small bay with still waters where you can swim, snorkel or hire a kayak. It is worth noting that the beaches close at 6pm and the park guards start moving you out by 5pm.
Another area worth seeing is Las Grietas, an unusual rock formation with a narrow pool at the bottom. The water here is crystal clear but also cold, so ensure that if visiting during the winter months you bring a wet suit for the snorkelling. To get there simply take a water taxi for $0.60 each at the always chaotic port of Ayora and ask for Las Grietas.
You will be literally taken across the port to a set of stairs, from here follow the signs all the way until you reach a guard by the gorge. The signs seem to stop once you reach a swamp like area but there is a path going around and onwards through some amazing landscapes. The half hour’s walk takes you first through a beautiful beach area and then around the back of the hotel.
The other place we visited in Puerto Ayora was the Darwin Research Centre, where you can see different species of giant tortoises as well as a couple of land iguanas, whilst learning about the efforts made by the foundation to conserve the islands. The entrance is free and is again within easy walking distance of the main area.
There are of course plenty of other areas to explore in Santa Cruz and depending on your time and budget you can spend a few days exploring the island alone.
The best eating area in Puerto Ayora is located a few blocks away from the port, heading left along the main road, towards the Sir Francis Drake hotel. From about 7pm you will find numerous stalls and tables in the street offering all manner of foods, mainly of course fresh fish. The prices here are also the best in the area, with the exception of Mar y Cris, located halfway between the street foods and the port.
In total we spent 7 nights in Santa Cruz including our arrival and departure night, taking in 3 day trips to islands and exploring the island itself.