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With a population of more than 12,000 people, Puerto Ayora is the biggest and busiest town in the Galapagos. Travel agencies, restaurants and gift shops line the main street. Santa Cruz is an excellent place to base yourself during a land-based trip to the Galapagos due to the wide variety of things to do on the island. You can also take day trips to the smaller, uninhabited islands like Bartolome, South Plaza, North Seymour and Santa Fe. From the main pier in Puerto Ayora, ferry rides are available to the three other inhabited islands: San Cristobal, Isabela and Floreana.
HOW TO GET TO PUERTO AYORA FROM BALTRA
You can get to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz’s main town, by first taking the free shuttle bus from the airport. They try to squeeze as many people onto the bus as possible so you will have to stand if you are one of the last to board the bus.
After a very quick ride, the bus will drop everyone off at the Itabaca Canal dock where you will board a ferry to Santa Cruz. All luggage is placed on the flat roof of the ferry. This ferry ride costs $1, so make sure to have some change ready.
Once you get off the ferry, you will see many taxi drivers hanging around. It costs $25-$30 to take a nonstop taxi ride to Puerto Ayora (45 minutes). If you want to stop at a tortoise ranch and Los Gemelos on the way, it will cost $50-$60. All taxis are white pickup trucks.
The cheapest way to get to Puerto Ayora is to take the bus rather than a taxi. A one-way ride costs $5 (as of July 2, 2018).
DAY TRIPS FROM SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
There are many boats that do day trips from Santa Cruz. If you want the cheapest price, you should walk around Puerto Ayora and ask at different agencies if they have any availability. However, during peak season, popular day trips like Bartolome and North Seymour sell out fast, so if you have your heart set on a particular day trip, I recommend booking in advance.
Some companies, like Yacht Santa Fe III, offer online booking. I took my day trips to Bartolome, North Seymour, South Plaza, and Santa Fe on this yacht and had a great experience. The yacht is spacious with a nice upper deck where you can sit and enjoy the view or even lie down and sunbathe. The crew members were very kind and both guides were excellent. Lunch and snorkeling equipment are included. There are 2 cabins and 2 bathrooms on the lower deck that you can use to change.
Bartolome has an unusual landscape formed by an extinct volcano. A lava formation called Pinnacle Rock is the island’s most prominent feature. Climb 372 steps for a breathtaking view of two golden-sand beaches and the volcanic island.
After enjoying the view, you will swim or snorkel at one of the beaches. Sometimes you can see penguins standing on the rocks or swimming nearby.
Main Attractions: Spectacular views, penguins
NORTH SEYMOUR ISLAND
North Seymour Island is a birder’s paradise! As you stroll down the trails of this island you will see blue-footed boobies, and frigate birds. On the rocky beach, you can sometimes see sea lions playing and splashing.
After visiting North Seymour, you will sail to Playa Las Bachas, a gorgeous white sand beach where you can either relax or snorkel. Sometimes you can spot flamingos in the nearby lagoon.
Main Attractions: Birds, particularly the red-chested frigatebird
SOUTH PLAZA ISLAND
One of the smallest Galapagos Islands, South Plaza has a large colony of yellow land iguanas. The island has vibrant red vegetation made from sesuvium as well as many cactus plants. Sea lions, blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies and swallow-tailed gulls can also be spotted here. You will go snorkeling at Punta Carrión next to the Itabaca Canal.
Main Attractions: Unusual red landscape, land iguana
SANTA FE ISLAND
On Santa Fe Island, you can enjoy the sight of dozens of sea lions lying on the white sand beach. On this island you can find several endemic species (found only on Santa Fe) such as the Galapagos Hawk, the Santa Fe iguana, Santa Fe lizard, and Santa Fe mockingbird.
Main Attractions: Sea lions, Santa Fe Land Iguana
When sailors landed on Pinzon during the 18th century, they introduced rats to the island. These rats ate tortoise eggs and even baby tortoises, drastically declining the tortoise population. In 2012, rats were completely eradicated from the island and in 2014 the first tortoises hatched on the island in more than a century! Since the tortoise restoration program is still ongoing, tourists are not allowed to land on Pinzon.
However, snorkeling day trips are available where you can snorkel in the water next to Pinzon Island. On this day trip, you can also snorkel at Daphne Major and visit the beach at Bahia Borrero.
Main Attraction: Excellent snorkeling opportunities
THINGS TO DO ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
VISIT A TORTOISE RANCH
In the highlands of Santa Cruz you can find many giant tortoises. At Rancho El Chato and Rancho Primicias, you can walk on a path around a grassy field and watch tortoises munching on grass. Rancho El Chato has a $3 fee while Rancho Primicias is free. Remember not to touch or feed the tortoises. If you want to take a photo with them, you can get the best shot by standing a couple of metres behind them. This will make the tortoise look larger. That way you won’t startle them either.
To get to one of the tortoise ranches, you can hire a taxi to take you there from Puerto Ayora. Usually the taxi will also stop at Los Gemelos. The driver will hang around the parking lot and wait for you. This excursion is often referred to as the “Highlands Tour” and costs $40-50 per car. You can also visit a tortoise ranch and Los Gemelos on the way to or from the airport which would save you a bit of money and time.
There are a few lava tunnels at El Chato as well as near the town of Santa Rosa. I only walked through one as I was more interested in the tortoises.
Los Gemelos are two huge sinkholes located in the highlands. Many interesting birds like finches and the vermillion flycatcher live nearby.
Las Grietas is a rocky gorge where you can go swimming or snorkeling in clear blue water. To get there, take a water taxi (less than $1) from Puerto Ayora’s main docks to Finch Bay Hotel. Follow the path for 15-20 minutes past Playa los Alemanes until you reach Las Grietas. There is a stall where you can rent snorkels. As the rocks are slippery, bring sturdy shoes.
The fish market is my favourite place in Puerto Ayora! In the morning and late afternoon, you can watch people chopping up and preparing fish while hungry pelicans and a sea lion wait for scraps. One time, I saw a fisherman spray a group of pelicans with a hose to keep them away from the fish, much to the delight and amusement of tourists. But the pelicans were not deterred and returned a few minutes later. The fish market provides hours of free entertainment!
Near the edge of town, you will find a path that leads to Tortuga Bay, a stunning white sand beach. Near the beginning of the path, you need to check in at the guard station. You will write your name, country, passport number and arrival time in a big book. This is your last chance to buy drinks or use the toilet for the next few hours as there are no food kiosks or toilet facilities at Tortuga Bay. On your way back you will need to sign out again.
Visitation hours are from 6am to 5pm. You will follow a long red pathway surrounded by cactuses and trees until you reach Tortuga Bay. Along the pathway you will spot many of Darwin’s finches chirping in the trees. Tortuga Bay is really split into two beaches: Playa Brava and Playa Mansa. The ocean is too rough to swim at Playa Brava but you can swim at Playa Mansa. You can see many iguanas here. There is a kayak stand at the beach where you can rent a kayak for a few hours.
You can also get to Tortuga Bay by taking a water taxi to and from the main docks, but they don’t come very often.
LAGUNA DE LAS NINFAS
About a 10-minute walk from the main road is Laguna de las Ninfas. It is a quiet and peaceful boardwalk where you can enjoy views of a lagoon, mangroves and birds.
CHARLES DARWIN RESEARCH STATION
The Charles Darwin Research Station is located a short walk from Puerto Ayora along Charles Darwin Avenue. Here you can learn about all the conservation and research efforts that go into protecting the wildlife of the Galapagos. You can see many giant tortoises and some land iguanas, but they are behind fences so it is more like a mini zoo and not as interesting as the tortoise ranches. Inside a glass case you can see the taxidermied Lonesome George, who was the last Pinta Island tortoise.
STROLL ALONG THE PIER AT NIGHT
At night, the main pier is a popular place for both locals and tourists to take a walk. Sea lions rest on benches, pelicans perch on railings and white-tipped reef sharks swim right below the pier. If you are lucky, sometimes you can spot sea turtles or rays.
The next three attractions (Playa El Garrapatero, Cerro Mesa, and Highland View Ranch) I recommend for people who have already visited the other attractions on Santa Cruz.
PLAYA EL GARRAPATERO
This is a quiet beach about 19km from town. You can sometimes see flamingos nearby. A round trip taxi there costs $30-40.
Cerro Mesa is a restoration project started by locals. Depending on the season, you can see giant tortoises on the property. Cerro Mesa has an amazing viewpoint where you can see a 360-degree view of Santa Cruz Island. Depending on how clear the skies are, you may be able to spot Baltra, Gordon Rocks, North Plaza and South Plaza. While Los Gemelos are the most famous craters on the island, the largest crater on Santa Cruz is actually located at Cerro Mesa.
HIGHLAND VIEW RANCH
Highland View Ranch is most famous for its “Columpio Magico” or Magic Swing. If you are daring enough, you can swing over the valley and get the perfect shot for Instagram (I wasn’t brave enough). If you still want to swing but are not brave enough for the Columpio Magico, there is a less steep swing in another part of the ranch.
At Highland View Ranch, there is a trail system that you can walk on to see various non-native animals (like donkeys), craters, and lava tunnels. At the traditional trapiche mill, you can watch Filemon the donkey walk in circles to extract sugar cane. You can even try a glass of fresh sugar cane juice!
WHERE TO STAY ON SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
You can find some cheap rooms for under $30, but note that air conditioning and breakfast probably won’t be included. You could also consider Couchsurfing with a local, which is free.
HOTEL SANTA FE
I stayed here for 4 nights and highly recommend it! Hotel Santa Fe is located on a quiet street near the trailhead to Tortuga Bay. Nearby are Los Kioskos, which are food stalls where you can find cheap food. The rooms are spotless and the staff are kind. I was glad to have a fridge in my room to keep my water cold. The wifi at the hotel was the best I had in the Galapagos.
The family who runs Hotel Santa Fe also owns a yacht for day trips as well as a travel agency called Galapagos a la Carte. If you want someone to book your tours for you or make a travel package, Byron is very helpful!
LA CASA DE JUDY
La Casa de Judy is a hotel a few minutes’ walk from the fish market and is also one of the closest hotels to the Charles Darwin Research Station. There is a large courtyard with a pool area, lounge chairs and breakfast tables. I stayed there for one night. The room was quite basic but all the staff I encountered were pleasant. Wifi was spotty in the room but decent in the courtyard.
FINCH BAY HOTEL
The Finch Bay Hotel is the only beachfront hotel in Puerto Ayora. You can relax in a hammock and enjoy the view of Playa de los Alemanes.
RED MANGROVE ECOLUXURY HOTEL
Located in a mangrove forest next to a bay, this hotel’s deck is often visited by sea lions and marine iguanas.
Located in the wet green highlands of Santa Cruz, Pikaia is an ecolodge with solar panels and a wind turbine. After a busy day of sightseeing you can relax in the infinity pool. The lodge has a luxury yacht for day trips. Every guest gets their own cabin aboard the yacht to shower and rest in. At more than $1000 per night, Pikaia Lodge definitely falls into the category of ultra luxury!
WHERE TO EAT IN PUERTO AYORA
A popular restaurant on Charles Darwin Avenue, Isla Grill is a great place for pork ribs, seafood and steak.
LA REGATA SUSHI-GRILL-BAR
Formerly known as Galapagos Planet, this restaurant is located on the main street near the docks and town square. It is the perfect place to sit and people watch. I ate here several times and enjoyed their seafood. Service is fast and friendly too.
This restaurant was recommended in many travel guides so I went there for lunch one day. I ordered fish but had to wait a very long time (almost one hour). This could have been because a large tour group was there at the same time as me and the staff were busy serving them though.
The Rock is a popular restaurant along the main road in Puerto Ayora. The service is slow but the seafood is delicious!
Bahia Mar is a new restaurant with a romantic oceanview atmosphere. I enjoyed watching the sunset from my table. I had the Tiradito de Atun (similar to sashimi) as my appetizer and the Langostino for the main course.
Founded by the same owner as Isla Grill, Almar Restaurant has a beautiful dining area overlooking the ocean. It is located in the Red Mangrove EcoLuxury Hotel.
Los Kioskos is a street filled with food stalls. At 6pm every night, the food stall owners move chairs and tables into the middle of street, transforming it into a food court. Because of the cheap prices, many locals like to eat here.