Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz (pop. 15,000) is the economic, tourism, and geographic center of the Galápagos. It’s the best base to explore surrounding islands on day tours and to pick up last-minute deals. As for the island itself, many of its attractions can be seen independently, which is not the case in the rest of the archipelago.
Puerto Ayora is the archipelago’s largest port and tourism hub, with the widest selection of hotels and restaurants. On the edge of town is Charles Darwin Research Station, the most convenient place to view giant tortoises up close, including the famous Lonesome George.
A 45-minute walk west of Puerto Ayora is the sandy expanse of Tortuga Bay, the longest beach in the Galápagos. Another short hike from town are the brackish waters of Las Grietas, fissures in the lava rocks that make for a relaxing, cool dip.
In the verdant highlands of Santa Cruz, there are several attractions that make an interesting day trip: Los Gemelos (The Twins) are two 30-meter-deep craters with abundant birdlife. East of Bellavista are the lava tunnels formed by the solidified outer skin of a molten lava flow. The biggest highland attraction is the huge El Chato Tortoise Reserve where these giant creatures roam in their natural habitat.
On the north side of the island, Bachas Beach is a frequent stop on tours to nearby Seymour Norte, Plazas, or on the way from the airport. The beach still contains wreckage of U.S. military barges from World War II as well as populations of Sally Lightfoot crabs and flamingos in nearby lagoons. Less frequently visited are the lagoons of Black Turtle Cove and Cerro Dragón.
Charles Darwin Research Station
About 15 minutes’ walk east of town is the headquarters of the Charles Darwin Foundation (tel. 5/252-6146, www.darwinfoundation.org, 7 a.m.–6 p.m. daily). The station was opened in the 1960s as a research and breeding center for endangered native species. There’s an information center, a small museum, and a tortoise breeding and rearing center, where endangered subspecies are hatched and cared for until they can be released into the wild.
The highlight of the visit is the giant walk-in tortoise enclosure, where you can meet the giants face to face. There are 11 different subspecies, and the most famous resident is Lonesome George, the last surviving member of the Pinta Island subspecies. He has been here since 1971 and attempts to mate him with females of other subspecies have failed, so his species may die with him.
Note that the station is on every tour itinerary, so it’s a good idea to get here early to avoid the crowds. A small beach just outside the station is open 7 a.m.–6 p.m. daily.
This tiny island off the north coast of Santa Cruz is the best place to see large colonies of blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds. You can decide for yourself which has the most interesting mating ritual—the boobies marching around displaying their blue feet or the frigates inflating their red chests to the size of a basketball. The 2.5-kilometer trail loops around the island and takes over an hour. At the end, you can appreciate the amazing sight of marine iguanas, sea lions, and red Sally Lightfoot crabs sharing the rocky beaches. Note that this is a very popular island and gets rather crowded, so the national park has raised the price of day trips, which average $125 pp from Puerto Ayora.
Getting to Santa Cruz Island
CITTEG, based at the new bus terminal two kilometers north of town, sends buses to the airport 7 a.m.–9:30 a.m. The trip costs $1.80 pp one-way and takes under an hour. If you miss the last bus at 9:30 a.m., a taxi ($15) is the only way to the airport.
There are daily services on small lanchas (speed-boat ferries) connecting Santa Cruz with San Cristóbal (2 hours) and Isabela (2.5 hours). Both routes cost $25 pp one-way. There is only one service per day; the ferries leave Isabela at 6 a.m. and San Cristóbal at 7 a.m., and depart Puerto Ayora for both islands at 2 p.m. If passenger numbers are larger, two boats run, and they can get booked up, so reserve one day in advance (there are a couple of kiosks opposite the dock). It can be a bumpy ride, particularly in the afternoon, so don’t eat a big meal beforehand.
White camionetas (pickup trucks) are available for hire all around town, and most destinations cost $1. You can also negotiate prices to go into the highlands (usually $30 for a half-day). Water taxis wait at the dock to shuttle passengers to boats waiting in the harbor ($0.60 pp daytime, $1 at night).
If you’re in a hurry and can afford the extra cost, take an interisland flights with EMETEBE (Los Colonos and Av. Charles Darwin, top fl., tel. 5/252-6177). Small eight-seater planes fly half-hour routes between San Cristóbal, Baltra, and Isabela several times per week. Prices are from $160 one-way, $260 round-trip, plus $15 taxes. TAME (tel. 5/252-6527) has an office at Avenida Charles Darwin and 12 de Febrero, and Aerogal (tel. 5/244-1950) has an office at Rodríguez Lara and San Cristóbal.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition