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Most travellers who visit Galapagos end up on Santa Cruz sooner or later, and I was no exception. In fact, 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 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.
#1 Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station
The Charles Darwin Research Station is located close to Puerto Ayora and is the hub of all ongoing research in the Galapagos Islands. Lots of scientists, locals and volunteers from all over the world work here and they have a couple of very interesting ongoing projects. For example, they are trying to find ways to deal with plants and animals imported from all over the world that are now threatening the local species. They also collect finch eggs and hatch them, helping the rare mangrove finch 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 there were lots of different 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, he could never successfully reproduce. His body has been conserved as a reminder of what humanity did to 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 of marine iguanas yet, this is your chance. But even if you have, it is worth coming here for the endless white beach and beautiful nature. You have to sign in upon entering the area, but entry is free. The hike takes you along a path through cacti and dry bushland and there is little shade. It can get very hot during the day so make sure to take enough water.
Fortunately, after about an hour, you then 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. There are no rentals here except for kayaks which take you farther out into the bay. Also, as I said, make sure to take 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 cool down. This crack in between two cliffs is filled with brackish water, a mixture of freshwater and saltwater. While you won’t see many animals here, it 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 take a decent picture. 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. While you might see paths left and right, 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 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 get fresh fish), but for the pelicans that love to hang out here.
You might see the fisherman cut their fish and throw the garbage to the side. The pelicans have quickly learned that sitting there and waiting for fish heads being thrown at them is a lot easier than having to catch the fish themselves, so 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.
Since the pelicans are so used to humans, it is very easy to take pictures of them. Still, try to keep a little distance and 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 since they were located almost next 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. This is a very local place and you will barely see any tourists here, which makes it even more authentic. Check out my guide on food to try in Ecuador.
30min – 1h
I hope the above advice is useful to you. If you have any updated information, please let me know in the comments below. Also, I 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 I highly recommend you take your time in this tiny country.
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