We’ve visited the Galapagos Islands three times including week-long cruises on four different boats, time spent exploring the towns and sites on inhabited islands, and a week spent SCUBA diving in the far north of the Galapagos. Ultimately, we spent nearly six weeks in this wildlife-filled archipelago. That’s more time than Charles Darwin! Use our Santa Cruz Island Travel Guide to discover things to do, the best hotels, and more to make the most of your trip to the Galapagos.
Santa Cruz Island Travel Guide
Santa Cruz Island is the main tourism hub in the Galapagos Islands and the second-largest island in the archipelago. Santa Cruz Island is also home to Puerto Ayora which is the largest population center in the Galapagos with about 12,000 residents.
The oval-shaped island includes a bustling port and coastal beaches, an area of Sonoran-esque grizzled scrub, stoic cactus, and shades of tan and grey in the mid-elevations, then a highlands area with volcanic craters and lusher vegetation thanks to mountain mist. Travelers to the Galapagos Islands land at one of the two airports in the Galapagos: San Cristóbal Airport on San Cristóbal Island or Seymour Airport on Baltra Island which is separated from Santa Cruz Island by the narrow Itabaca Channel.
It was raining when we first landed at Seymour Airport and we missed the last bus into town so we took a taxi. As the driver sped over the water-logged, pot-holed road (probably on bald tires), we engaged him in conversation in the hope that if we humanized ourselves he would think twice about wrapping his tiny white truck around a giant Galapagos tortoise. Then we saw an actual Galapagos giant tortoise on the pavement and our driver told us this is not common and is a sign of good luck. Our good luck was that we made it to town in one piece.
The grandly-named Santa Cruz Highway runs across the island and the town of Puerto Ayora is a ramble of streets, hotels, hostels, and restaurants (from budget to seafood splurge). The waterfront walkway and roadway in town is where tourism development is most apparent with many tour companies, souvenir and craft shops, bars, and restaurants rubbing shoulders. There is an ATM in Puerto Ayora, but sometimes it is out of cash so bring credit cards (increasingly accepted) and some cash (Ecuador’s official currency is the US dollar).
Near the port and pier, you’ll find an open seafood market where fishermen clean their catch. This attracts a comical cast of opportunistic Galapagos sea lions and brown pelicans who jostle for scraps like unruly pets under the dinner table. You can see them in action in our video at the end of this post.
Galapagos sea lions hang out on any unmanned boat in the port on San Cristobal Island. Marine iguanas like to sunbathe on the stairs of the pier. And golden cownose rays hang out under the busy pier.
Puerto Ayora may be the largest settlement in the Galapagos Islands, but the animals still get the run of the place.
Things to do on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos
Tour the Charles Darwin Research Center
The Charles Darwin Research Center, on the edge of Puerto Ayora, is the research facility of the Charles Darwin Foundation. The center, which opened in 1964, is focused on eco-sustainability and the protection and restoration of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos.
Visitors are welcome at the not-for-profit center (entry is free, but you can make a donation). In addition to an interpretation center and gift shop, there’s a trail that takes visitors past various parts of the center including the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center (which is managed by the Galapagos National Park). At this tortoise nursery, young ones are sorted by species and age into dozens of. The babies stay at the center for 4-6 years until they’re large enough to be released into the wild. There are also enclosures where adult tortoises live and (hopefully) breed.
In the Galapagos, tortoises have evolved into distinct sub-species on different islands where the size and shape of the shell, length of the neck, and other details have evolved to allow the species to best exploit the food sources around them. For example on islands where most of the food is found high up in vegetation, shell shape has adapted to allow the tortoise to extend its neck longer in order to reach the food.
The most famous resident of the Charles Darwin Research Center was a male Pinto Island tortoise He was soon dubbed Lonesome George because he was the last known member of his particular species. Lonesome George was brought to the research center in the hope that a female partner would somehow be found allowing the couple to breed and bring the species back from the brink.
Unfortunately, a female Pinto Island tortoise was never found and though Lonesome George bred with a few females from closely-related species, no eggs ever hatched. Lonesome George died in 2012 at more than 100 years old and experts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City taxidermied his massive body before returning it to the Galapagos. Lonesome George is now on display at the Charles Darwin Research Center.
See Galapagos giant tortoises in the wild
To see Galapagos giant tortoises in the wild, head to the sometimes misty highlands of Santa Cruz Island and visit one of the private reserves where these massive animals go about their natural business.
Our guide told us that the owners of a few large farms on Santa Cruz Island are working with national park and tourism officials to make concessions that allow some portion of their land to generate to a wild state which encourages wild tortoises to pass through. We visited Rancho El Chato 2 Reserva Ecologica where we saw dozens of Galapagos giant tortoises as we wandered around the 30 acre (12 hectare) ecological reserve.
The giant creatures didn’t seem to even notice us as they wandered (very, very slowly) past on their way to cool off in ponds, gobble up the grass, make the most of mud holes, and flirt with each other. Don’t miss the tortoise tryst in our video at the end of this post.
Go inside a lava tube
Santa Cruz Island has a few lava tube formations. They’re sort of like an elongated lava cave and they develop when low-viscosity lava hardens into a thick crust that forms a roof over a lava channel or a pāhoehoe style flow with lava moving under the surface. Some lava tubes on Santa Cruz Island extend for miles. There are a few places where you can see inside a lava tube, including one at the Rancho El Chato 2 ecological reserve.
The lava tube at Rancho El Chato 2 was surprisingly spacious and well lit (lights were installed for safety but bring a flashlight if you want to be able to see well). The elegant, gently curved shape of the tube was almost sculptural. Walking slowly past the jagged lava walls deep into the tube was a very intimate way to witness the awesome power of volcanoes.
Visit Tortuga Bay
A 1.2 mile (2 km) walk or a short water taxi ride from the town of Puerto Ayora will get you to Tortuga Bay. This gorgeous arc of white sand faces a serene protected bay which is great for swimming and snorkeling with plenty of marine life to see including sharks, rays, and marine iguanas. Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island is one of the loveliest beaches in the Galapagos.
Check out the Los Gemelos sinkholes
The islands in the Galapagos archipelago are volcanically formed and Santa Cruz Island is no exception. At Los Gemelos, visitors can see two “twin” sinkholes, one on either side of the Santa Cruz Highway.
The large depressions were formed by the collapse of a magma chamber and are now covered in vegetation.
Cool off in Las Grietas
Las Grietas (which means The Cracks or The Crevasses in Spanish) is named for deep cracks in the volcanic shoreline. Seawater and a fresh water river have filled these spaces with crystal clear water.
Visitors can swim in the deep and reliably calm water through the narrow channels bordered by dark lava walls. It’s one of the most dramatic ways to cool off in the Galapagos.
Swim and explore at Playa el Garrapatero
For some chill time, head to Playa el Garrapatero (Garrapatero Beach) on the eastern portion of Santa Cruz Island. A 30-minute taxi ride from Puerto Ayora followed by a short walk delivers visitors to a large beach and a protected bay that’s good for swimming.
Flamingos, blue-footed boobies, and marine iguanas are seen here and there are also tidal pools to explore. You can also camp at Garrapatero Beach with a permit.
Santa Cruz Island hotels
As one of the main tourist hubs in the Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz Island has a lot of hotels in all price ranges with more being added every year. Most of the hostels and budget accommodations are clustered in the center of Puerto Ayora. During our first visit to Santa Cruz Island, arriving passengers hurried from the airport to town to snag a room at the best budget offerings before they filled up. We also stayed at the following hotels which we can recommend highly.
Pikaia Lodge: luxury in the highlands
When Pikaia Lodge opened in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island in 2014 it immediately became one of the top luxury hotels in all of Ecuador. The 14 rooms at this all-inclusive hotel, are chic and spacious. The pool is sexy. The spa is indulgent. The place is full of modern art and decor that celebrates the nature of the Galapagos.
Pikaia also utilizes an impressive array of eco measures and has perfected service at the hotel and during guided excursions (also included in rates). No wonder Pikaia Lodge is part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group. Get more about this luxury Galapagos hotel in our full review of Pikaia Lodge for Luxury Latin America.
Galapagos Safari Camp: glamping in the Galapagos
Galapagos Safari Camp has been offering glamping since long before it became a tourism buzz word. The 10 safari-style luxury tents are raised on stilts and are big enough to include an indoor sitting area, bedroom, and full bathroom as well as a covered front porch with a hammock. Bathrooms are large and modern (we had a small yellow tree frog living in our shower) and decor details (wood floors, textured tile, a stone sink) are simple but stylish.
Galapagos giant tortoises have been known to wander through the 100 acre (40 hectare) property in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island which also includes a small pool and a large common building and indoor/outdoor dining areas. Rates include breakfast and dinner (guests are usually out on excursions midday) and it’s worth adding on sunset cocktails on a nearby viewing platform to immerse yourself in your surroundings.
Angermeyer Waterfront Inn: history and hospitality
The Angermeyer Waterfront Inn was created by members of the Angermeyer family who were very early settlers in the Galapagos. Parts of this playful and comfortable hotel in Puerto Ayora were built incorporating local lava rock and driftwood and one of the rooms was created inside the hull of a beached boat.
Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel: style and service
A recent renovation of Finch Bay Galapagos Hotel upgraded the decor in all rooms, suites, and common spaces to give this hotel the look and feel of a classic laid back beach resort with muted shades of grey, brown, and other earth tones along with shocks of blue, orange, and yellow and plenty of natural materials including reeds, wood, and bamboo. There’s a full-service spa, an organic kitchen garden, a lovely pool, and the massive breakfast buffet is a winner.
See more of what Santa Cruz Island has to offer in our Galapagos travel video, below.
More Galapagos travel tips
Part 1 in our Galapagos Islands Travel Guide series gives you the facts you need to plan your trip to the Galapagos Islands. Part 3 tells you what to expect during boat excursions to remote locations on Santa Cruz Island. Part 4 covers highlights from North Seymour, South Plaza, and Daphne Islands. Part 5 is our San Cristóbal Island travel guide. Part 6 covers what to expect during boat trips to Cerro Brujo, Punta Pitt, and Kicker Rock around San Cristóbal. Part 7 reveals highlights of visiting Santa Fe Island.
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador
Here’s more about Island Travel
Here’s more about Galapagos Travel