The Galapagos Islands figure on most people’s bucket list. From white sand beaches to incredible wildlife encounters, it really is a once in a lifetime experience. Santa Cruz is the second-largest island after Isabela and most cruises start here. However, it is possible to explore the islands on your own. So if you’ve decided to organize your own island-hopping tour or have a few extra days before or after your cruise, here’s a complete guide to visiting Santa Cruz!
How to Get There
Santa Cruz is the most densely populated island, and where most cruises depart from. To get there, fly to Seymour Airport (GPS) from Quito or Guayaquil with latam, tame or avianca. The airport is actually on Baltra island, just north of Santa Cruz. The two islands are separated by the Itabaca Channel so if you land at Seymour Airport, you’ll have to catch a bus right outside of the airport that will take you to the channel. It’s a 10-minute ride and the ticket costs $5. Then, you’ll have to hop on a ferry that costs $2 to reach Santa Cruz. Once on the other side of the channel, you’ll have to take a bus or a taxi through the highlands to go to Puerto Ayora, located 42 km away. The public bus takes about an hour and costs $2 while the taxi gets to town in about 45 minutes and charges around $20.
If you are already in the Galapagos Islands and are island-hopping, you can take a ferry from San Cristobal or Isabela. There’s usually a boat that leaves early in the morning and another one in the afternoon. The ride lasts about two hours and costs between $25 and $30.
Best Things to Do in Santa Cruz
Being the second-largest island in the Galapagos, Santa Cruz features very different types of landscapes. From hanging out with giant tortoises in the highlands to snorkeling in Tortuga Bay’s clear waters, the island has a lot to offer, including many free amazing activities. It is also a great base to explore the neighboring islands with day tours. Without further ado, here are the best things to do in Santa Cruz!
Snorkel at Las Grietas
Located near Puerto Ayora, Las Grietas is an impressive volcanic crevasse filled with crystal clear emerald green water. Swimming in the calm waters between the two cliffs is an incredibly relaxing experience. The water is so clear that you can see big fishes meters down, without ever being able to guess where the bottom lies. Getting to Las Grietas is pretty easy. Take a water taxi at the pier in Puerto Ayora and cross the harbor for 80¢. You will be dropped off by the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn. From there, follow the marked path that winds through lava rocks, a cacti forest, and passes by a salt mine, and the beautiful secluded beach of Playa de Los Alemanes. Make sure to bring your own snorkeling gear and go early. Las Grietas is one of those places that is best appreciated without the crowds.
Learn about the islands’ history at Charles Darwin Research Station
The Charles Darwin Research Station is a great site to visit at the beginning of your trip to the Galapagos to learn more about the islands’ history, the challenges they face, and the ongoing research projects across the islands. A short 20-minute walk from town, the station also has a breeding program for giant tortoises. 11 subspecies can be observed, as well as Lonesome George, who was the last Pinta Island tortoise. The entrance is free.
Meet the Locals at the Santa Cruz Fish Market
In the Galapagos Islands, wildlife is everywhere. Sea lions rest on the pier’s benches while marine iguanas bask in the sun in the middle of the street. In some way, they have adapted to town life. Some of them even became loyal customers at the fish market. Locals, including sea lions, Galapagos brown pelicans, and frigatebirds, gather every morning along the waterfront to sell (or eat, hum) fresh fishes and lobsters. A visit down to the fish market is a free and fun experience to combine with another island adventure!
(Read more: A Guide to Visiting San Cristobal Galapagos)
Relax at Tortuga Bay
Santa Cruz’s hidden gem. Tortuga Bay is actually two beautiful white-sand beaches that stretch beyond the horizon: Playa Brava and Playa Mansa. They are both located within a protected area so you have to walk along a 2.5 km stone path to reach the first pristine beach. You can’t swim or snorkel at Playa Brava but keep walking for about 10 minutes to reach the second beach, Playa Mansa where you can swim. I didn’t see any sea turtles but did spot many marine iguanas and tropical fishes. Make sure to bring your own gear because there are no rental shops around. The access to Tortuga Bay is limited from 6 am to 6 pm and the entrance is free.
Encounter Giant Tortoises at El Chato Reserve
Did you know that the Galapagos Islands were named after their most famous inhabitants? That’s right, with once 13 subspecies, the Giant Tortoises left their mark on the islands. To encounter them in their natural habitat, go to El Chato Reserve situated in the highlands of Santa Cruz. You can hail a taxi in Puerto Ayora, catch a bus or rent a bike to get there. We rented bikes for $5 each and took a bus that left us in the town of Santa Rosa for $1. Then, we biked down an unpaved road to reach the reserve’s entrance. Admission costs $5. Once you’ve toured El Chato, hop back on your bike and enjoy biking back down through the highlands to Puerto Ayora!
Go Underground Through Lava Tunnels
Witnesses of the Galapagos’ volcanic origin are omnipresent across the islands, like lava tunnels. Dotted around Santa Cruz, especially around Bellavista and Santa Rosa, the remains of past lava flows are mainly located on private property. However, a few farms in the area offer tourists to visit them. If you take a tour of El Chato Reserve, look no further as there are three lava tunnels you can explore on the property. Another popular option is El Mirador off the road to Baltra, near Puerto Ayora.
Explore Other Islands
While the island is filled with hidden gems and free things to do, this guide to visiting Santa Cruz wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the Galapagos’ most pristine places. Take a one-day tour to one of the neighboring islands to make the most of your trip, and see other wildlife and landscapes you wouldn’t encounter on Santa Cruz. My sister and I opted to visit Bartolomé Island and Sullivan Bay from Santa Cruz, but there are many other options, depending on your itinerary and what’s most important to you!
(Read more: 6 Best Day Tours in the Galapagos)
Where to Stay
Puerto Ayora is the most densely populated town in the Galapagos, and aside from the sea lions, marine iguanas and pelicans roaming around, it feels like any other coastal town in mainland Ecuador. Most hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies are around Avenida Charles Darwin with a few exceptions like the Angermeyer Waterfront Inn or the Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel that are on the other side of the harbor.
- Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel – Great Location
- Hostal El Paraiso – Where I Stayed
- Galapagos Cottages – Best rated on Booking.com
If you’re heading soon to the Galapagos, don’t forget to check out my ultimate one-week island-hopping itinerary, and San Cristobal guide. As always, don’t hesitate to ask questions or share your thoughts in the comments!
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