Santa Cruz island offers such a cornucopia of attractions that it is easy to spend several days exploring its coasts and highlands.
Many make for perfect half or full day trips. You can get to many of the sites on your own, but if you’re short on time, booking a tour with a local agency will allow you to see several sites in one outing. Ambitious independent travelers can cram two attractions into one day – but relax and enjoy this paradise.
Pack a picnic lunch (remember to take your recyclables and trash back to civilization!) and head on out to these top nine things to do and see on Santa Cruz Island. All sites are open 6 a.m. – 6 p.m.
1. Fisherman’s Wharf
In downtown Puerto Ayora is the Muelle de Pescadores or Fisherman’s Wharf. Twice daily, fishermen set up shop selling the day’s catch. Multitudes of pelicans, frigate birds, herons and other sea birds as well as sea lions are on hand, making for great photos ops.
2. Jardín Cerámica
Walk through the arching dragon gateway and into the fantasy-filled Jardín Cerámic. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza riding hobbyhorses and a mermaid playing with lobsters are just two of the ceramic murals you’ll find in this garden created by local artist Cristina Nelson Gallardo. This is a pleasant rest stop on your way to (or back from) the Charles Darwin Research station.
3. The Charles Darwin Research Station
At the end of Avenida Charles Darwin is the world-renowned Charles Darwin Research Station. Check out the new museum, observation tower, native gardens and the library. Also onsite is the breeding center, and corrals with giant tortoises and land iguanas. Be sure to take your photo with the Charles Darwin statue at the Fischer Sciences Building. End your walk with a refreshing dip at one of the station’s beaches. Playa de la Estación is on the road from town, and near the Charles Darwin statue is the gate leading to Playa del Director and Playa Ratonera, both popular with local surfers.
4. Playa de los Alemanes
From the city pier, take a water taxi ($0.80, $1 on weekends) to the other side of Academy Bay. Once embarking there, walk past the inland lagoon with pintail ducks, stilts and other waterfowl, to Playa de los Alemanes, next to the exclusive Finch Bay resort. This small, tranquil cove has a white-sand beach.
5. Las Grietas
From Playa de los Alemanes, a trail passes by salt flats (salinas) and the Gus Angermeyer museum ($1) and ends at Las Grietas. Here, two high, steep walls embrace a narrow arm of the sea that washes into a deep crack in the ancient lava rock. This is a fantastic place for a refreshing swim and snorkeling. Las Grietas can be crowded on weekends and holidays.
6. Tortuga Bay
Tortuga Bay is Santa Cruz’ most popular beach. A long wooden boardwalk cuts through dry forest, emerging at the first beach, Playa Brava. The strong sea here is unsuitable for swimming, though ideal for surfing. On a clear day, you’ll see Floreana and Santa Fe islands. Walk to your right to Playa Mansa, a mangrove-encircled cove with tranquil waters. Kayaks can be hired here. Plan your visit for early morning or late afternoon, as the walk along Playa Brava is unshaded and the mid-day sun guarantees sunburn.
7. Lava Tunnels
Lava tunnels are natural formations in the once-molten rock that flowed from the volcanoes that formed Santa Cruz Island. They are often home to owls. Even though they have electric lights, bring along a flashlight. The nearest to Puerto Ayora is El Mirador, three kilometers (1.8 miles) on the road to Baltra. Other lava tunnels are on private land at Bellavista and Santa Rosa villages. You can visit the tunnels on a tour, or catch the chiva (bus) at the bus stop (parada) one block north of Puerto Ayora’s municipal market on Avenida Baltra.
8. El Chato
If you long to see giant tortoises in their natural habitat, then head to El Chato Reserve in the highlands of Santa Cruz, near the village of Santa Rosa. The lagoon here is also nesting grounds for rail and ducks. Frigate birds are often seen. El Chato can be visited on a day tour to the Highlands, or on your own.
9. Los Gemelos
Straddling the highway to Baltra are Los Gemelos, twin volcanic craters covered with scalesia forest. Darwin’s finches and the elusive vermillion flycatcher may be seen here. Los Gemelos are several kilometers north of Santa Rosa village, and most easily visited on a day tour to the Highlands.
Local tour agencies offer highland tours and cruises to Playa Punta Estrada, Islote Caamaño, Playa Las Bachas, Caleta Tortuga Negra and Plaza Sur. Santa Cruz is an excellent base to plan scuba diving expeditions. Not only can you dive in Puerto Ayora’s own Academy Bay, Gordon Rocks, Seymour Norte and other spots are close by. Guy Fawkes Sur, Punta Carrión and Punta Estrada are good for snorkeling.
Visiting Santa Cruz Island
Boats to the other inhabited islands all leave from Puerto Ayora’s pier.
Have you been to a place or done an activity on Santa Cruz island that you would recommend to fellow travelers? Share your tips in the comments below.
Photo credit: Diego Delso