Barking sea lions. Crystal pools tucked between volcanic cliffs. Tortoise ranches. Fresh, sizzling seafood. Santa Cruz Island is one of the Galapagos’ most populated islands, and the central town of Puerto Ayora is as close to bustling as you’ll find in the Galapagos: docks send ferries to and from other islands, restaurants and sizzling kiosks tucked into hidden alleys sell grilled and fried fish, and tortoises roam the cooler inland air of the elevated Highlands.
Santa Cruz is home to many of the Galapagos’ best attractions, activities, and educational opportunities. It’s a must-visit whether you’re planning a land-based Galapagos trip or stopping by on a cruise – like, literally you can’t miss it: you’ll either fly here or stop here on a cruise.
Years ago, we published the story of our visit to Santa Cruz, Galapagos. It’s a great post and fun to read, but in typical 2016-travel-blog fashion, it’s not terribly useful. So we created this post: a definitely-very-useful travel guide that will help you plan your visit to Santa Cruz, Galapagos!
Psst: Planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands? Take a look at these other posts to help you plan:
We’ve also created a detailed 15-page downloadable guide to visiting the Galapagos Islands. Sign up below to get the guide send straight to your inbox!
How to Get to Santa Cruz, Galapagos
There are only two ways to get to Santa Cruz, Galapagos: by air or by ferry.
Santa Cruz’s airport is called Baltra, and you’ll be able to fly here from Quito or Guayaquil.
Once you arrive, everyone will board the shuttle to the docks. Santa Cruz Island is a free 5-minute ferry ride from the Baltra docks. From the docks on the Santa Cruz side it’s about a 45 minute drive into Puerto Ayora.
To get to Puerto Ayora from the airport, you can take a white pick-up truck taxi – you’ll find many waiting dockside. The price is set, but everyone is going the same direction, so don’t be afraid to split a taxi with another traveler!
The much cheaper option is to take a bus, also located dockside. There are limited airline arrivals each day, so expect to wait a little while for the bus to fill up fully before it leaves. The bus will take you to the market at the center of town, about half a mile from the sea and most hotels/hostels.
If you’re coming from the other main island in the Galapagos, San Cristobal, you’ll take one of the twice-daily ferries to Puerto Ayora. It’s best to purchase your tickets at least a day in advance as their seats are limited – you can book your ticket online on Bookaway. The ride is about 2 hours. Pop a Dramamine before you leave to head off seasickness!
Tips for Visiting Santa Cruz, Galapagos
Santa Cruz Island is one of the 3 inhabited islands in the Galapagos – but even though it’s a populated island, it’s still full of wildlife – the magic of the Galapagos!
The main town in Santa Cruz is the coastal port town of Puerto Ayora, where you’ll find plenty of hotels, restaurants, and all of the comforts you’d expect from a small island town (don’t get too fancy, though. The internet can be spotty. Some nights, we couldn’t even watch Netflix! I know, shocking). Santa Cruz is also home to one of the two airports in the Galapagos Islands, so there’s a good chance you’ll either by flying into or out of here.
Around every corner is another opportunity to see brightly colored crabs, snoozing sea lions, and cuddling marine iguanas. You’ll find many of the best restaurants, hotels, and day tours in Puerto Ayora.
- Most places in Ecuador don’t accept credit cards, or charge extra to do so. The Galapagos Islands are no exception: cash is king. Luckily, there are ATMs galore on Puerto Ayora and loads of shops, restaurants and bars to spend your cash in! Stock up on cash here, because some of the other islands like Isla Isabela have NO ATM’s at all.
- Bring sunscreen with you from the mainland. It’s insanely expensive here, and you’ll need it for the extra strong rays due to the proximity to the Equator. Make sure to bring reef-safe sunscreen for when you’ll be in the water, to protect the coral reef and other marine wildlife that live in the Galapagos!
- There is a huge grocery store right by the main dock in town, where we picked up groceries for snacks and breakfast. You can also pop to the top floor for a cheap coffee and pastry with a sea view. But keep in mind that most hotels won’t have a kitchen.
- We recommend booking tours and accommodations online in advance if you can. You can book your Puerto Ayora day tours as soon as you arrive on the island and you’ll save some money this way, but there’s also a good chance you won’t be able to do every tour you’d like as there is a limited number of spaces available and tours are subject to strict regulations. Plus, it’s just kind of stressful to not know what you’ll be doing until you arrive! (We learned this from experience.) To book a day trip or tour, just find any tour operator – their offices are all over town – or visit the kiosk near the docks. Be aware that you’ll need to pay for your day tours upfront with cash.
Santa Cruz, Galapagos: Things to Do
Puerto Ayora is the main hub for the Galapagos Islands, and a good home base to do the Galapagos without a cruise. There are plenty of activities you can do on the island itself, plus loads of day trips and tours.
For the full story of our visit to Santa Cruz Island – mistakes, mishaps, and all – head over to this post.
Visit the Fish Market
The Puerto Ayora fish market is a must-see and perfectly captures the magic of the Galapagos Islands. Yes, it’s the best place on the island to purchase freshly caught seafood (if you’re lucky enough to have a kitchen to play with, this is very exciting!), but it’s also just, like, a vibe. For one thing, there’s Lupe.
Lupe the Sea Lion is a regular at the Puerto Ayora fish market. She positions herself behind the counter directly underneath the cutting board, where she knows she’ll get fed scraps and skin from the fresh fish fillets all day long! She’s like a pet dog that’s also an adorable sea lion. We want one!!
You’ll also find a small crowd of hovering pelicans and herons, and sometimes napping sea lions as well. Make sure to stop by during the week when it’s open!
Snorkel in Las Grietas
Las Grietas is a beautiful clear pool between two sheer volcanic cliff faces – hence the name, which means “The Crevices.” During midday when the sun is high, the pool is a bright, clear blue, and the sun’s rays sparkle all the way to the bottom of the deep pool, making for incredible photos and views. You can jump off the dock into the water if you like, and climb up the cliffs to jump from the rocks if you dare! Las Grietas is the best snorkeling on Santa Cruz Island by far.
To get to Las Grietas from Puerto Ayora, take a water taxi from the docks and ask for Punta Estrada or just say you’re going to Las Grietas – they’ll know what you mean. It’s a ridiculously short ride and the water taxi is under $1.
Once you’re dropped off, you’ll walk past a fancy hotel and a couple of high-end bars and restaurants (this is the expensive side of Puerto Ayora). Walk along the boardwalk (it’s the only option for you to walk on, so you won’t get lost). The boardwalk will take you past Punta Estrada, a small cove where you can swim, with a beach during low tide.
Keep walking down the boardwalk past some interesting pink-tinged salt flats. After about 15 minutes you’ll reach Las Grietas! Keep walking down the boardwalk until you get to the entrance where you sign in and wait for your turn to enter with a guide (you may wait 15-10 minutes to go with a bigger group). tl;dr follow the only path until it ends. Easy enough, right?
Here are a few tips for visiting Las Grietas:
- There are actually 3 pools in Las Grietas and two entrances. Your guide decides which entrance you will go to, and that’s where you enter, but you can climb through to the other ones. Swim all the way to the end of the first pool, climb (carefully!) over the rocks, and swim through the second pool to access the hidden third pool. To get to it you’ll either have to carefully climb over more rocks (seriously, be careful. Jeremy slipped and cut his foot here) or take a deep breath, dive down, and swim through the underwater cave. When there are no people in the pool, there are hundreds of fish swimming in this section undisturbed, and it’s absolutely incredible.
- Your visit is limited to 90 minutes, but once you’ve finished, you can walk back and stop at Playa de los Alemanes and spend the rest of the afternoon and sunset there, so pack plenty of water and snacks.
- Snorkeling at Playa de los Alemanes can be a mixed bag, but if you are keen to try, then aim for the mangroves on your right to see sharks at high tide, or swim right out to the furthest rocks to find sea snakes at low tide.
Visit the Kiosks
The Kiosks/Los Kioskos are the best place to eat in Puerto Ayora. The Kiosks are a seafood alley: a street lined with small, locally-owned restaurants all cooking variations of incredibly fresh, locally caught seafood purchased from the fish market earlier in the day.
You’ll hear sizzling from the charcoal parillas and smell smoky, grilled fish long before you stumble across this little alley.
Once you arrive, you’ll find the street filled with tables, happy tourists, and locals mingling among the various kiosks, all of whom are advertising a variation of the same items, loudly proffered by servers thrusting menus and whole raw fish under your nose, all accompanied by the sizzle and tantalizing smell of charcoal-grilled fish.
This is Puerto Ayora’s culinary specialty: a huge smokey charcoal grill, the Picallada, built like a chimney and stoked with blow dryers to stay hot all night long.
Everything from fresh whole fish rubbed with spices and nestled in tin foil, to octopus laid directly on the grill for a perfect char and sear, to the bubbling seafood casserole in clay bowls, to hot buttered ears of corn, are all smoked and roasted on that same grill. And it’s freaking delicious.
Walking through the alley is a little like wearing a bulls-eye on your forehead: every step you take, someone hands you a menu or a fish or lists several items and their prices at you, all in rapid-fire Spanish. But honestly, you can’t go wrong: pick anywhere, and order whatever they recommend. It’ll be great.
Our favorite part about Los Kioskos? The best food in Puerto Ayora is also the most budget friendly! A whole brujo fish to share is $15 at Sol y Mar, one of our favorite kiosks in seafood alley. Their grilled and fried whole fish, grilled octopus, seafood cazuela, sopa de queso (delicious cheese soup) and various batidos (fruit milkshakes) are all excellent.
The kioscos are located at Baltra & Charles Binford. It’s easy to walk from anywhere in town. You can also always take a cheap pickup truck taxi. If you need to, ask any local for help finding los kioskos – they’ll all know.
Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station
The Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz is less of a station and more of a complex: the main building is filled with information and a few small exhibits, but the main attractions are all outside.
Turtles are bred in a section of the center – each big island in the Galapagos has its own land turtle breeding center, we learned.
As we watched giant old tortoises munch on turtle snacks and slowly chase each other around, we learned that for years, the tortoise breeding center tried its best to produce offspring that would continue the survival of a tortoise species with only one existing member: Lonesome George.
Unfortunately, lack of understanding of tortoise lineage lead to a fatal flaw: the females being mated with Lonesome George were hybrid species, meaning that they could not successfully mate with the old tortoise.
He died a few years ago, taking his entire species with him.
Happily, advances in tortoise breeding have made it possible to resurrect this species from extinction: by breeding tortoises containing a high percentage of the genes of Lonesome George’s species, after a few generations a fully genetically identical tortoise will be born!
That’s some Jurassic Park sh**, right there. Science is so cool.
Along with tortoises, you can spy land and marine iguanas basking near the center.
Eat & Drink in Puerto Ayora
The main stretch of Puerto Ayora is the best place to stop for a meal, a drink, or a nightcap! Here are a few of the best places to eat and drink in Puerto Ayora:
- For a small and cheap dinner, walk up to the market (corner of Avenida Baltra and Islas Duncan) from 6pm onwards for empanadas. Two stalls serve savory and sweet (Nutella and banana – suuuuuper heavy but so yummy) empanadas for $1.5-2.5, with salads juice or the traditional colada morada, a thick drink from cornflour, pineapple juice and berries ($1).
- The best coffee in Puerto Ayora can be found at 1835 Coffee Lab, a roastery serving locally grown Galapagos coffee.
- You’ll find plenty of places to get drinks for Happy Hour along Charles Darwin avenue, the main street in Puerto Ayora. Stroll through around sunset to take advantage of the best 2-for-1 drink offers!
- Your best ice cream after a long day at the beach is Galapagos Deli. One scoop is biiiiig and two are too much, but we have a tip for you: You can ask for two flavors in one scoop, so try creamy chocolate with a local fruit, such as Mora, the locally grown blackberry.
- Try a typical local breakfast at Tropic bird Cafe: facing the sea right next to the fish market, this $5 breakfast and lunch spot is actually very popular with the locals. Try an encebollado with chifle, fish soup with a side of fried plantain chips to crush up in the soup.
Swim in Tortuga Bay
Tortuga Bay is named as one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador, but it’s because of its pristine white sand, not because it’s teeming with turtles. Also, the visibility in the water was awful for snorkeling. We kayaked around the bay looking for rays, sharks, and turtles, and only managed to see a few tiny fish.
It was, however, a great beach day, which was worth the trip even if the snorkeling wasn’t! We recommend spending a day relaxing on the beach, swimming, and kayaking in Tortuga Bay.
To get to Tortuga Bay, you can take a water taxi ($10 each way) that goes around the perimeter of the island to and from Puerto Ayora. You can catch one at the main docks in Puerto Ayora. Check timetables though or you may miss the last one and end up walking.
However, we think the best way to get to Tortuga Bay from Puerto Ayora is by walking. From the Puerto Ayora pier, cross the main road and reach Baltra Avenue. It’s a red cobblestone street with a bike lane. Walk 2 blocks and you’ll reach Charles Binford Street. Turn right. Follow Charles Binford Street out of town until you reach the end of the street, after about 10 minutes.
At the end of the street is a staircase up a short hill. At the top of the hill is a little kiosk where you’ll sign in to enter the park.
From the kiosk is a smooth cobblestone path – stroller friendly, we saw a few families – that you’ll walk down for about 45 minutes. It’s not the prettiest walk unless you enjoy seeing the same cactus and stubbly tree scenery for 45 minutes.
You’ll reach the beach and be rewarded with an incredibly beautiful view. The water here is too dangerous for swimming, so there’s usually nobody here. Turn right and walk down the beach for a stunning 15 or so minutes until you reach the end of the beach.
To your left are some rocks where you can see nesting marine iguanas and watch turtles swim in the open ocean. If you come during low tide, there is a secluded little beach with shade from where you can see the mile-long Tortuga Bay in its entirety.
To the right you’ll find Tortuga Bay – look for people swimming and sunbathing on the shore of a big horseshoe-shaped bay!
Walk to the end of Tortuga Bay and follow the path to the right to get to Playa Mansa, the calm, lagoon-like part of the beach where you can finally find shade and – if you are lucky on a quiet day – spot little sharks in the shallow water.
Here are a few tips for visiting Tortuga Bay:
- Pack in everything you will need for the day as there is nowhere to buy anything at the beach. We advise bringing tons of sunscreen and sun protection (the sun is much stronger here on the equator!), a lot of water (remember you have a long sunny hike to and from Tortuga Bay), a packed lunch and snacks, toilet paper (there isn’t a bathroom, but you can find a spot if you need one in the bushes), a towel, and of course your swimsuit!
- The water is comfortable for swimming without a wetsuit and is pretty shallow during low tide.
- We rented snorkel gear for $14 and schlepped it along with us on the walk, but it definitely wasn’t worth it – this isn’t a good snorkel spot. There are supposed to be reef sharks, rays, and turtles in the water, but it’s deep and murky and you can’t see anything.
- We rented kayaks for $20 an hour from the lone vendor on the beach. We attempted to snorkel in different spots in the bay that were too far to swim to, but that didn’t pan out. If you enjoy kayaking just for the sake of it, rent a kayak. Otherwise, you can skip the kayak rental. If you are quite confident in your swimming abilities, swim out a little farther from the beach and you will start seeing turtles in the water.
- You can see iguanas during low tide on the main stretch of the beach as well as sunbathing at the very end of the beach before getting to Playa Mansa. You can also find turtles by walking left at the end of the beach to the little lookout made of lava stones where you can see them swimming in the water.
Visit a Tortoise Ranch
You’re not going to go to Galapagos without seeing its most famous inhabitant, right?
While you may spot them on the side of the road or go to a breeding center, you can see them in all their glory (and gigantic size!) at a ranch in the Highlands, the inland part of Santa Cruz Island that sits at about 2,000 feet of elevation higher than the coast. The air up here is cooler, which makes it the perfect habitat for tortoises!
There are two main ranches to choose from, both cost $5 (which includes a guide to show you around) and have a restaurant and café should you want a snack or lunch overlooking tortoise.
To get to the tortoise ranches, take a bus from Puerto Ayora to Santa Rosa ($1-1.5) and then walk (plan 90 minutes) following the only path in the village and turn left at the sign to the ranches. Follow the road and at the end, turn left for Primicias (farther away) and right for El Chato. Once you get in Santa Rosa, you can also hope to find a taxi to take you the rest of the way.
You can also rent a bike and cycle to Santa Rosa (you better be in very good shape and cycle regularly) or pop the bike on the bike rack on the bus to Santa Rose, then bike the rest of the way there.
Alternatively, you can take a taxi ($40 round trip) which will wait for you there.
Here are some tips for visiting tortoise ranches:
- El Chato has three small lava tunnels, so you can start with a shorter one and work your way up to the longer, darker ones (in case you get claustrophobic!). Primicias has one, almost a mile-long tunnel with no way of exiting earlier or turning around.
- Don’t wear your best clothes — you’ll be walking through high grass, crawling into an empty tortoise shell, and walking around muddy fields, so be prepared!
- Bring a sweater and/or raincoat; even when it’s sunny on the coast, it can get very wet up in the higher-elevation highlands. And bring socks! It helps avoid ant bites in the tall grass. Plus if it’s muddy, the ranches will give you rainboots.
Swings at Highland Views
Highland Views is a farm inland – in the higher elevation, cooler part of Santa Cruz island known as the Highlands – that’s open to tourists ($5). Here you can walk around the farm and take un stunning views that stretch all the way across the island to the sea, befriend and feed farm animals, and see a demonstration of how they make sugarcane juice. But the real draw are what Instagrammable dreams are made from: swings!
How crazy you want to go on the swing is up to you: there are no rules – and no safety belts. Stand up or simply sit; either way, the first moment you swing your feet forward and overlook the entire island and see all the way to Santa Fe is exhilarating.
Tip: You’ll get the best picture if your photographer stands on the side of the big posts holding the swing.
Oh, and don’t forget to chill in the hammock and pet the dogs before you leave!
- To get to Highland Views, you can take a taxi for $15. Or for the cheaper and more adventurous route, catch a bus from the corner of Baltra Avenue and Isla Duncan to El Cascajo for $1 – there is one in the morning and one after lunch. From Cascajo, walk back down the hill you came up with and you’ll find the path up to Highland Views.
Garrapatero Beach is a hidden gem in the Galapagos – a stunning quiet beach (except on weekends) where you can swim and kayak in the crystal clear water, relax on the soft white sand, or stroll along the beach laced with volcanic lava rock.
There’s not much to see in the water, so leave your snorkel gear at your hotel, but the landscape is gorgeous. Spend all day sitting in the shade, watching the pelicans on the water and jumping in the waves. And keep an eye out for flamingos!
Plan for an all-day excursion and pack a lunch to bring with you (we recommend a pulled pork sandwich from Island Deli). There is a bathroom and changing area available here, so you can shower before you head back.
- To get to Garrapatero Beach, you can take a taxi from Puerto Ayora (about $20 each way) – be sure to let them know you’ll need a return ride. To add a scenic vista, negotiate for your taxi to drive you back via the highlands. It costs a little more, the views are worth it as you return home. You’ll also get a chance to breathe in the cool, high-altitude, air for a while – a refreshing change after a long day at the beach!
- You can also rent bikes in town ($10-15, ask for a lock) and bike there, a little under 5 miles (prepare for hills). You will stop at least twice to enjoy the view and snap pics, or just because there’s a tortoise on the road. For the way back, book a taxi in advance ($20) as there is no signal and the way back is STEEP!
Santa Fe Island Day Trip
We took the Santa Fe Island day tour from Puerto Ayora. The tour was over 8 hours long: we left at 8am and returned at 5pm.
First, we spent over an hour relaxing on a beach. None of the group knew we were going to be parked at a beach for over an hour, so nobody had brought anything to do, blankets, sunglasses, etc – we were all prepared to just hop in the ocean and snorkel. There was a lot of grumbling and boredom. I spent an hour building a sand castle. There are worse ways to waste time, but I do wish we’d had some advance notice.
Next we went to a rocky cliff face to snorkel. The current was incredibly strong; this is not your average relaxing snorkeling and swimming was difficult! We did see some pretty fish – the water was deeper than most of the other tours we went on.
After snorkeling, we went to another area, a bright blue lagoon, where we finally were able to swim with sea lions along the rocks where they lay relaxing. Then a provided lunch, then another optional hour for swimming, and then an odd 30 minutes of our boat trying to catch fish for the next day’s lunch; then finally we returned.
The best part of this tour was that it wasn’t rushed; we weren’t constantly having to keep up with a group or all trailing the same animals. Also, there are 3 separate locations, 2 of which have unique snorkeling opportunities, so it wasn’t repetitive or boring at all.
Here are some tips for the Santa Fe tour:
- If you do this tour, do it earlier in your trip as you’re unlikely to see much that’s new and exciting if you’ve already been snorkeling a lot.
- You can book the Santa Fe tour online in advance, or book at the docks once you arrive.
- Our tour didn’t include wetsuits, but the water is frigid. Rent wetsuits at any agency in town for the day.
- The provided masks were poorly made – two of the air tubes, including mine, fell off in the ocean. We were then asked to pay for the lost tubes (I politely refused). Yet another reason why we recommend bringing your own snorkeling gear as part of our Galapagos Packing List.
Seymour Island Day Trip
On this all-day tour you’re likely to see frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, and swallow-tailed gulls as you hike around the island. Then, you’ll go swimming and snorkeling with sea lions. You could spot flamingos and sharks, too!
This is an all-day, 8 hour day trip that leaves at 8 am. Once picked up, you’ll drive for about an hour to Itabaca Canal before boarding your boat.
You’ll head to an area to hike and walk around, as well as visit a blue-footed boobies nest – if you’re lucky, you’ll see them doing awkward little courtship dances during mating season! You’ll visit Las Bachas Beach for snorkelling and swimming before heading back to your hotel.
Lunch, snorkel gear, and a wetsuit are provided.
If you’re not visiting Isla Isabela, this might be your only chance to see blue-footed boobies – and those silly little birds are well worth the excursion. Otherwise, you might want to wait until you can take the Los Tuneles tour on Isabela Island, which is similiar.
You can book this tour online in advance, or once you arrive in Puerto Ayora at any local tour operator or at the kiosk by the docks.
Santa Cruz, Galapagos Hotels: Where to Stay
There are plenty of hotels on Santa Cruz Island located in Puerto Ayora, ranging from inexpensive to more luxurious. Expect decently sized private rooms with private bathrooms, hot water, towels, drinkable water, and the works for around $50-70 a night, or a bit higher if you opt to include breakfast.
Here are our picks close to the main stretch of Puerto Ayora:
- Mid-Range Hotel: Sueno Silvestres is located close to the Charles Darwin research center and a few blocks away from the beach & main street of Puerto Ayora in a nice quiet and private area. Our room was large, hot water was plentiful, there were free towels and drinkable water provided, and the owner Carlos was friendly and welcoming. Breakfast is available for an extra fee.
- Vacation Rental: This spacious modern loft has ocean views EVERYWHERE – from the living room, the private balcony. This sunny little apartment nestled in the treetops is just a 5-minute walk away from the main town stretch – AND it’s under $100/night!
- Budget-Friendly Hostel: Hostal Vista al Mar has dorm rooms (including all-female rooms) and a guest kitchen and a garden for $15-20/night. That’s an amazing value for the Galapagos!
Most hotels in Santa Cruz are located within a 10-minute walk from the docks, kiosks, and grocery stores in Puerto Ayora. But a few hotels are located on the Punta Estrada Waterfront near the quiet Alemanes Beach. It’s a short water taxi ride back to the main stretch in Puerto Ayora. (And very close to Las Grietas!)
Here are our picks for where to stay in Punta Estrada:
- Finch Bay is hands down the nicest hotel in Santa Cruz. Think luxury everything. There’s even a private dock with a private yacht for guests. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, A/C, a gorgeous swimming pool and restaurant, and a pier with yachts to visit the islands. Breakfast with bacon, sausages, pancakes, fresh fruits and eggs is served daily.
- Hotel Angermeyer Waterfront Inn is in a picturesque hotel made of lava stones and driftwood. Huge windows overlook the sea as you dine on your included breakfast or enjoy a cocktail by the fireplace. Sunbathe, chill, or snorkel on the private waterfront!
Psst: Planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands? Take a look at these other posts to help you plan:
We’ve also created a detailed 15-page downloadable guide to visiting the Galapagos Islands. Sign up below to get the guide send straight to your inbox!
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