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Most travellers who visit Galapagos end up on Santa Cruz sooner or later, and I was no exception. I came here twice – once voluntarily and once involuntarily.
My first involuntary stay, unavoidable due to all boat connections from San Cristobal to Isabela going via Santa Cruz, lasted only a couple of hours. I used that time to eat a giant cup of ice cream – a decision which I regretted later that afternoon when I took a boat to Isabela and desperately tried not to empty my stomach into the sea.
My second encounter with Santa Cruz Island was more fortunate. I stayed for three days, so I had a chance to properly get to know the island beyond the ice cream parlour. I saw giant tortoises, sea lions and marine iguanas, swam in crystal clear water and took selfies with pelicans. Santa Cruz has a lot to offer, so I highly suggest you plan to spend at least a couple of days here.
Our favourite things to do in Santa Cruz, Galapagos
#1 Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station
You can find the Charles Darwin Research Station, which is the hub of all current research conducted in the Galapagos Islands, close to Puerto Ayora. Lots of scientists, locals and volunteers from all over the world work here and they have a couple of exciting ongoing projects. For example, they are trying to find ways to deal with plants and animals imported from all over the world that threaten the local species. They also collect mangrove finch eggs and hatch them, helping the rare bird survive.
At the Research Station, you can learn about all of those projects. You can also see some of the animals living here, mainly giant tortoises. Did you know you can find lots of different tortoise species all over the islands? Some were on the brink of extinction when breeding programs managed to save them. Others have, unfortunately, gone extinct.
You may have heard of Lonesome George. He was the last of his species and died a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, despite many efforts, he could never successfully reproduce. His body has been conserved as a reminder of how humanity destroys Mother Nature all over the world, and you can see him as part of your tour through the Research Station.
1 – 2h
#2 Hike to Tortuga Bay
The short hike to Tortuga Bay is a must-do when you visit Santa Cruz. If you haven’t seen any marine iguanas yet, this is your chance. But even if you have, it is worth walking here for the endless white beach.
Entry is free, but you have to sign in upon entering the area. The hike takes you along a path through cacti and dry bushland with almost shade. It can get scorching during the day, so make sure to bring enough water.
Fortunately, after about an hour, you arrive at one of the island’s most beautiful beaches. You can wade through the water to cool down, watching the marine iguanas hunt for food.
I don’t recommend swimming here since the waves and currents can be rough, and there are no lifeguards. Instead, keep going until you reach the next bay. Here, the water is a lot calmer, and you have the chance of seeing sharks, sea lions and various other marine animals as you stay in the water.
If you have snorkelling gear, make sure to take it with you. You can’t find any rentals here except for kayaks which take you farther out into the bay. Also, as I said, make sure to bring enough water and some snacks.
And lastly, this place might be called Tortuga Bay, but that doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to see turtles. We didn’t. Maybe you are luckier than we are?
Even without any turtles, though, this beach is beautiful and if you can only visit one place on Santa Cruz, make it this one.
4 – 8h, depending on how long you stay
#3 Snorkel at Las Grietas
Las Grietas is a great place to go for a swim and to cool down. Grieta means fissure or crack, and Las Grietas is exactly that. A crack in between two cliffs, filled with a mixture of freshwater and saltwater.
It is hard to believe when seeing the water from above, but in some places, the channel is more than 10 metres deep. And the water is so clear that you have a great view if you bring your snorkelling gear.
On hot days, Las Grietas can get crowded. If you want your peace, swim to the very end and climb over the rocks. You will get to a second channel, with far fewer people.
While you won’t see many animals here, Las Grietas is a naturally beautiful place to take some great photos. If you have a dome for your camera (or are a bit lucky, like I was with my GoPro), you can get amazing split pictures here, showing the world above and underneath the water.
I swam to the very end and found a marine iguana there, the only wildlife in this place, but unfortunately, my GoPro was not good enough to catch a decent photograph. One day, I have to come back with a dome to take better split pictures!
Even if you don’t have a camera and just want to cool down, this is a cool place.
To get here, you have to take a water taxi from the docks. Just say you want to go to Las Grietas and people can point you to the right boat. From where you land, keep walking for about 15 minutes. You might see paths left and right, but these only lead to hotels so there is no way you can get lost here. You will come past salty lagoons and eventually reach Las Grietas.
Oh, and a word of caution. In theory, it is possible to jump from the cliffs. You might see locals do it. If any of them point out the exact spot where to jump and where to land, great. If not, don’t attempt it yourself. There are rocks underneath the surface so you have to know where exactly to jump so you won’t hurt yourself.
2 – 4h
#4 Visit the Santa Cruz fish market
The fish market on Santa Cruz is not very big. You might have three or four stalls selling fish at the most. Yet, this place is totally worth visiting, not for the fish (although, if you have a kitchen and want to cook, this is a great place to buy fresh fish), but for the pelicans that love to hang out here.
You might see the fishermen cut their fish and throw the garbage to the side. The pelicans have quickly learned that sitting there and waiting for fish heads is a lot easier than having to catch the fish themselves. That’s why you can always find a flock of birds on the edge of the water. Some have even become more courageous and are now trying to steal the beautiful fish on the counters.
The pelicans might be used to humans, but you should still try to keep a little distance. Remember that they are wild animals. Other than that, enjoy!
#5 Eat street food at the Municipal Market
If you leave the waterfront behind and keep walking along Avenida Baltra, you will eventually end up at an intersection with Calle No 55. Turn right here to get to the Municipal Market.
If you have tried to buy groceries on the Galapagos Islands, you will know that fresh produce is hard to come by. The Mercado Municipal is your best bet for getting fruit and vegetables, and also various cuts of meat. Plus, if you arrive here in the evening, you can find street food stalls set up at one end of the market.
We discovered these on our first evening on our way to our hostel. They offer probably the cheapest dinner you can get on Santa Cruz. We had hot drinks and empanadas, but there was more for sale at other stalls.Want to know which food to order? We have you covered in our
The Municipal Market is a very local place, and you will barely see any tourists here, which makes it even more authentic.
30min – 1h
Getting to Santa Cruz, Galapagos
You can find the biggest airport in Galapagos on Baltra, which is a tiny island just next to Santa Cruz. From here, you can take a bus to the ferry that crosses the channel between the islands, and then get back on a bus on the other side. Altogether, the trip takes around 30-40 minutes.
An alternative is to fly to San Cristobal. You could spend a few fun days here and then take a ferry to Santa Cruz. Ferries leave twice per day. If you’re prone to sea-sickness, make sure to stock up on medication before you leave as the ride can be rough.
Besides San Cristobal, Puerto Ayora connects to two more islands by ferry. You can go either to Isabela or to Floreana. Always book your ferry tickets as soon as you know when you want to go so you can reserve your spot. Also, while ferries to San Cristobal and Isabela leave twice a day, the one to Floreana only goes on Sundays and Tuesdays, so plan accordingly if you want to visit Floreana.
You can reach most locations mentioned above by foot. Puerto Ayora is small enough that you can walk almost anywhere, but if you get tired, you can also take a taxi.
In order to get to Las Grietas, you will have to jump on a water taxi in the Puerto Ayora harbour. It’ll take you across in a few minutes.
If you want to see any attractions outside Puerto Ayora, you will need to hire a taxi.
When to visit Galapagos
Travelling to Galapagos is great at any time of the year. We went in February and loved it. It was just the right time of the year to see lots of sea lion babies.
Galapagos experiences two seasons, the hot and humid season and the cold and dry one. The hot and humid season lasts approximately from December to May. Humid, in that context, doesn’t mean that it’ll rain all day. You’ll have a few showers in between, but afterwards, the sun will come back out. We had beautiful weather in February.
The cold and dry season lasts from June to November. This is the best time of the year to see marine life. Nutrients flood the waters around Galapagos during these months, attracting many animals. So if you want to go diving or snorkelling, you have a higher chance of seeing wildlife at that time.
That doesn’t mean that you won’t see any marine life during the hot and humid season! I got to see manta rays, parrotfish and many more when snorkelling on Isabela. So no matter when you go, we’re sure you’ll enjoy your visit.
We hope the above advice is useful to you and you now know about the best things to do in Santa Cruz, Galapagos. If you have anything else to add, please let us know in the comments below. Also, we would love to hear from you. What did you like on Santa Cruz? What didn’t you like? Do you have any restaurant recommendations (we don’t besides the market since we cooked our own meals)?
If you are travelling to Galapagos, make sure to also visit San Cristobal and Isabela. There is plenty of stuff to do on both islands! And if you’re afraid that travelling here is going to break your bank, check out our budget guide on how to best visit the Galapagos Islands.
While in Ecuador, it would be a shame to miss out on the rest the country has to offer. You have Guayaquil, Quito and so many more beautiful places that we highly recommend you take your time in this tiny country.
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