Touring Santa Cruz Island in Galapagos

We have been on the road for about 3 months now, and so far one of our absolute highlights was the glorious 2.5 weeks we recently spent doing land-based travels in the Galapagos . It was an adventure for the ages so our next couple posts will focus on what to do and see in each of the islands we visited, starting with touring Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz Island is the most developed and widely-considered to be the “main” island in Galapagos, although it is not the largest island. It’s main city of Puerto Ayora is 12,000 people strong and features a lively food and drink scene as well as lots of access to the outdoor adventures that brought you to the Galapagos in the first place.

Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands - The Starting Point of Most Land Based Tours

Things to do in Santa Cruz Galapagos

Cycling on Santa Cruz

There are excellent cycling opportunities in Santa Cruz. Bikes can be rented from a number of places for about $15usd per day and there are a number of places that can be accessed by bicycle. There is a separated bike lane that is lit at night which will take you to the nearby town of Bellavista. There you can visit the Lava Java organic coffee farm for delicious coffees and amazing views, as well as the longest lava tunnels on the island. If you’re feeling stronger you can continue cycling another 13km up to Santa Rosa in the highlands where you can visit a tortoise sanctuary and more lava tunnels, or turn west toward the secluded El Garrapatero beach. Keep your eyes peeled for wild giant tortoises as you leave Puerto Ayora!

Once you’re past Bellavista, you will be cycling along either unpaved, rural roads or paved two-lane highways, but there will be so little traffic and people are used to driving slowly around cyclists so it’s safe to explore the island on two-wheels. We even had a police escort to the java farm! We stopped to ask for directions and rather than just pointing the way, a cop jumped in his car and guided us to farm, lights flashing and all which we found pretty hilarious and aslo somewhat comforting. Clearly cops in the Galapagos aren’t so busy fighting crime that they can’t be helpful too.

Some of the bike rental shops will even give you a map to use, so be sure to ask if they have one. We found the map we received very useful but unfortunately lost it along the way so we can’t share it here.

Lava tunnels on santa cruz island
The lava tunnels on Santa Cruz Island

Guided bike tours can also be arranged that will take you to a Tortoise Centre, some lava tunnels, and an organic farm for abut $50usd.

As of June 2018, Santa Cruz Brewery had a deal that if you rented a bike from Bike and Smile for $15, you could get a free pint from the Brewery if you showed your receipt, so go enjoy a delicious post-ride pint, you’ve earned it.

Beaches on Santa Cruz Island

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay is hands down Santa Cruz’s most beautiful beach. It is accessible by 2.5km footpath that features no shade, so be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen. It is free to visit, but you will need to register at the entrance and there are some snacks and drinks available for purchase there.

The first beach is vast and expansive, but the tides are swift and swimming is not allowed. You may see people kite-surfing or surfing there.

Tortuga Bay Santa Cruz Island Galapagos
Tortuga Bay

Continue walking until you get closer to the mangrove. Once there you can swim closer to the rocks or walk through the mangrove to a secluded beach on the other side. You can snorkel and swim there, but when we went the visibility wasn’t very good. Some people have reported seeing small sharks and rays hanging out along the mangrove.

Las Grietas/Alemanas Beach

From the Santa Cruz pier, take a water taxi to the dock by the West Finch Bay resort for about 0.80usd. From there you can follow a path to Las Grietas which are a cool set of water-filled caves with clear water for snorkelling and swimming. If you swim past the first cave, you will have more solitude and may see some interesting creatures like a spotted tiger-snake and small parrotfish. There is also a pool behind the main entrance to the cave which we only noticed from the hike above after we left the caves, so be sure to check that out. You’ll likely have it all to yourself.

Las Grietas, Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands
Las Grietas, a popular swimming hole and snorkelling location

After swimming in the caves, you can do a walk to some scenic viewpoints overlooking the ocean and the island, then head back toward Alemanas beach. It’s a nice small place where you’ll be sure to see some Darwin’s finches and marine iguanas. Some people had luck spotting things when snorkelling there, but visibility was bad for us when we went. Still, it was a nice, relaxed beach to hang out at and have a picnic. The cute as can be finches will be sure to take care of any crumbs you may happen to drop. When you’re finished, head to the pier again to wait for a water taxi to bring you back for another 0.80usd.

There is a restaurant halfway between the beach and the caves, but it doesn’t have much for selection so better to stock up on snacks ahead of time.

Charles Darwin Research Station

Only a ten minute walk from the centre of town, the Charles Darwin Research Station is the home of the Charles Darwin Foundation international NGO. There heaps of research is done on the local flora and fauna, island geography and other fascinating topics. We were lucky enough when we visited to land upon it during its once a year open house. There were almost 20 different stations where people explained their research projects and if you visited them all, you got a sweet prize. We ended up spending a whole afternoon there and learned a ton! There is only one restaurant which didn’t look too appetizing and was expensive like most places in the Galapagos so we recommend packing food or eating before getting there.

Tortoise at the Darwin Research Centre
Tortoise at the Darwin Research Centre

Attached to the Research Station is a Tortoise Centre where you can see tortoises of various ages in natural-looking enclosures. Turns out giant tortoises are super randy so you will no doubt see some mating. Enjoy the show, and the sound they make is like a cow snoring or something like that so you won’t soon forget it.

There is also a small beach where you can snorkel so bring your equipment too.

Puerto Ayora Fisherman’s Wharf
Visiting the Fisherman’s Wharf it not a beach, but a fun and free activity on Santa Cruz is to go and check it out on Avenida Charles Darwin. There you will see frigate birds, pelicans, and sea lions all trying to steal a snack from the fishermen bringing in and cleaning their daily haul. Striated herons and marine iguanas can also be spotted by the wharf.

Puerto Ayora Fish Market
Puerto Ayora Fish Market

Puerto Ayora Pier

Some people snorkel at the pier but we weren’t especially comfortable trying it there since there were too many boats in the water for our liking. Still, it’s worth walking by because you can sea sea lions, great blue herons, blue-footed boobies flying, and sally lightfoot crabs.

Day Tours from Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Island has by far the largest selection of day tours that you can take and recommend budgeting for at least a few becuase each of the islands has its own special charms to offer. There are highland tours on the Island to Tortoise Centres and the Los Gemelos Craters for example, as well as numerous options to visit other islands. The choices can be overwhelming, so let us help prepare you for the onslaught of information you will receive once you step foot on the island. Here are some of the most popular day tours that can be taken from Santa Cruz island.

Seymore Norte/North Seymour

This island is the best one for seeing famous Galapagos birds such as the cute and hilarious blue-footed booby, swallow-tailed gulls, and frigate birds. Nesting season is from June to August so if you visit during this time, you have a good chance of seeing all kinds of cute fluffy chicks and mating displays. You can also see the silly-looking, yellow land iguanas here too.

Baby Blue-footed Boobies on North Seymour Island, Galapagos
Newborn baby Blue-footed Boobies on North Seymour

The birds are habituated so you can get extremely close to them. Either before or after the guided walk on the island, you will also do some snorkelling where you can see some small schools of fish and we saw a green sea turtle.

A tour will set you back about $160-180 per person.

Frigate Bird at North Seymour - seen on a land based tour
Frigate Bird at North Seymour

Bartholomé
This island is famous for landscapes and features one of the most iconic vistas of the Galapagos. Here you will go on a guided walk of the island and snorkel as well. The snorkelling is better than North Seymour and one person we met who did the tour said he almost high-fived a Galapagos penguin while swimming (not a guarantee of course)! We met a couple that seemed to have done almost every single one of the day tours and this was one person’s favourite tour.

A tour will set you back about $160-180 per person.

Pinzon
This tour is famous for snorkelling and you will have the opportunity to see a great variety of marine life. It should only set you back $100 or so. This was the other person’s favourite tour of the couple that seemed to do it all.

Isabela
This jam-packed tour takes you to Isabela island where you can see flamingos, penguins, boobies, and potentially a rare pacific seahorse while snorkelling. It requires a 2 hour each way ferry ride, so we recommend going to Isabela on your own and staying there at least a couple nights. It’s a beautiful place to stay but this tour is great if you are short on time. An Isabela tour can be found for as little as $100.

Flamingo on Isabela Island
Flamingo on Isabela Island

Floreana

Although we didn’t make it there, Floreana island can be easily visited as a DIY day tour from Santa Cruz. As of June 2018, ferries leave from the Puerto Ayora pier every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at about 7:00am. Tickets can be purchased for $25-35usd one way. Once on the island, people can rent bikes for $10-15usd and cycle to beaches and snorkel spots to tour the island at their own pace. Ferries return around 3pm.

Where to Dive

We dove at Seymore Norte and Mosquera which are terrific sites to start with if you are new to diving in the Galapagos. It will be colder water with less visibility, but these sites are suitable for novice and intermediate divers. We saw hammerhead sharks off in the distance, black-tipped and white-tipped sharks, a giant-mandibled manta ray, and hundreds of Galapagos garden eels.

Gordon Rocks is one of the most famous sites accessible from this island, which is at a crater with strong currents, including ones that can push you down into the crater. Many operators say you need at least 30-50 dives to be able to do it safely. That said if you are keen to do it, many will take you to Seymore Norte or Mosquera first to see how you do. If they feel like you are a strong enough diver, you can try Gorden Rocks on your second diving day. There you can see hammerhead sharks, mola molas, and even whales if you’re lucky.

Most operators will have you do a test dive to ensure that your equipment works and that you have necessary survival skills such as mask-clearing. I was glad we did it because I ended up needing more weight than usual for all my Galapagos dives.

White Tipped Shark while diving North Seymour
White Tipped Shark while diving North Seymour

Diving ranges from $160-180usd per day which includes equipment and a hot lunch onboard. We recommend Scuba Iguana for their consistently-good ratings and avoiding buying from a storefront. We ended up diving with a company that charged people $20 more per person for the SAME dive as us and had really bad reviews. It ended up being fine, but diving is not a sport that you want to skimp on.

In addition to diving, walking and snorkeling tours, interested people can also book fishing trips from any of the agents on the island.

Where to Stay

We did a combination of Couch Surfing with a lovely family and their super-cute animals which we loved, and stayed at Hostal Espana which is a great budget option. It was a nice-sized room with private bathroom, air-conditioning (which we didn’t need to use), TV with cable, and a small kitchen on the main floor for cooking for about $35usd per night. The Wi-Fi sucked but that’s  the case everywhere in the Galapagos Islands.

Where to Eat and Drink on Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Breakfast

If you’re eating on a budget, bakeries are your friends in the Galapagos. You can get delicious cinnamon buns and croissants for 0.25-0.50usd. Splurge on coffee because otherwise you’ll be drinking instant Nescafe which is something no one should ever have to do.

There is a somewhat booming coffee scene on the island and Coffee Lab was handsdown our favourite coffee place. There we got to enjoy a carafe of French press coffee with freshly ground beans just like we make at home. It cost like $5usd but if you’re coffee friends like us, it’s #worthit. Coffee Lab is a nice stop on the way to the Charles Darwin Research Station. We also sampled the coffee at the place across the street which claims to be the best on the Island, but our vote for what it’s worth is Coffee Lab.

Lunch

Almuerzos exist on the island but you will pay $5-8 instead of $2.50-$4 like you would elsewhere in Ecuador. Just like almuerzos on the mainland, you will be fed a positively stupid amount of food so stock up and eat something small for dinner. For those who may not know, almuerzos are the “daily menu” that are usually advertised on a white erase board and feature soup to start, a main dish that typically includes rice with some kind of protein, and a fresh-made juice of some sort. You may also get a dessert if you’re lucky. Most of the time for us it was tasty stewed fruit.

Dinner

There are so many delicious ways to waste money on dinner on this Island, so splurge or save as you see fit.

Midori Sushi
Positively delicious sushi in a fun atmosphere but not overly wallet-friendly. I had my birthday dinner there and the wine comes in litre bottles. It was a fun night.

Los Kioskas

This is a unique dining experience that you should budget for at least once while on Santa Cruz. Here you wait until about 6pm for the vendors to set up tables and stalls and take your pick for what you want to eat. Most places are serving catch of the day seafood, including whole lobsters (the langostina-kind, not sure what they’re called in English, they’re not as good as Atlantic lobsters IMHO) that they will grill up right in front of you. You will be eating at picnic tables besides some new friends. White erase board “mienestras” (like almuerzos but for dinner) exist too but generally cost about $10usd.

Los Kioskas Santa Cruz
Los Kioskas

The best Empanadas in South America*

*To date.
A nice Australian couple showed us where to find these amazing empanadas and these are a must-try if you’re in Santa Cruz. A 10 minute or so walk from the main street, these ladies set up shop around 5pm off Calle No #55 and Ave Baltra (Note that streets on Santa Cruz are numbered in Google Maps but not on the street itself where they are named…hopefully this gets you in the right direction!). These ladies make the most delicious empanadas we have ever tasted (so far) until late at night, so you can have them as a late-night snack too. The empanadas are made fresh right in front of you and we tried just about every kind when we were there, such as shrimp and cheese for $2, chicken $1, and carne (or meat) for $1. Be sure to use some of the green sauce and garnish with their tasty slaw too. We found that after a large almuerzo, a couple empanadas were all we needed for dinner. Seriously, these empanadas are so good that we sometimes hesitate to eat empanadas elsewhere because we know we’ll be disappointed. These ladies were so sweet and also sell a milk and corn soup-type thing that we never tried, but maybe should have. Other vendors sell grilled meats nearby too.

Empanada Stand Puerto Ayora
Hard at work making more empanadas!

If you love street food, there are also stalls a few steps away between Calle 6 and 7 where you can get pinchos, empanadas, and grilled chicken and fries. You should be able to eat for $2-$10 depending on how hungry you are.

Santa Cruz Brewery

This micro-brewery makes incredibly delicious beers and quite possibly, some of the best chicken wings in the world. We may have just been craving some tastes from home, but we thought the wings were downright delicious. As of June 2018, they had a good pint+wings combo that is worth checking out. It also features friendly service and good Wi-Fi and just happens to be within spitting distance of Hostal Espana. We went for delicious beers more than once during our time on the island.

Beer tasting at Santa Cruz Brewery
Beer tasting at Santa Cruz Brewery

Super Crazy Happy Hour

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Super Crazy Happy Hour. Drawn to it by its completely goofy name, it turns out that they make a pretty mean caipirina and mojito cocktail for only 3 for $10. Do stop in with caution because I swear they get stronger as the night progresses and you don’t want to be hungover in the Galapagos. There is just too much to see.

Super Crazy Happy Hour Galapagos
Super Crazy Happy Hour!

Proinsular Market (Grocery Store)
Here you can get groceries for self-catering but they will be more expensive than on the mainland. Stock up on dried goods ahead of time if you like, but you cannot bring anything organic onto the islands and there will be dogs sniffing your luggage both at the docks and at the airport. For veggies, we always recommend checking out the local market rather than the super market because you will almost always get better variety and prices. There is a small veggie market on Ave Baltra and Calle #55.

To conclude, there are so many things to do both on Santa Cruz and from the island. If you only visit one island in the Galapagos or are short on time, we recommend this one for the wide-range of activities and tours that are possible. Of course, we recommend visiting the other inhabited islands and staying in Galapagos for a couple weeks, but this island will give you a taste of the best when short on time. If you’re only able to make it to one island, make it Santa Cruz.

Sunset on Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
Sunset on Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
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