Galapagos sea lions, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz island, Galapagos

Santa Cruz Island: In the Middle of the Galapagos

In Galapagos Travel Planner’s continuing series on the colonization of the Galapagos Islands, today we visit the history of Santa Cruz Island.

Santa Cruz Island is, in truth, in the middle of it all in the Galapagos Islands. This isle is right in the middle of the archipelago and it is the focus of the Islands’ flourishing tourism trade. Also called Indefatigable, it is the second-largest Galapagos Island.

After landing at the Seymour Airport on Baltra Island, you take a bus (free) down to Itabaca Canal, a narrow strait separating Baltra from Santa Cruz. After the short ferry ride across the canal ($1), you then board a public bus ($2), take a taxi or a pre-arranged private transfer across the island to Puerto Ayora. This is the longest road in all the Galapagos.

As you rise in altitude, sere landscape surrounds you. But once you reach the heights and descend to the southern coast, civilization marks the land. The village of Santa Rosa blurs with El Carmen, then Bellavista. The island’s vegetation once more thickens until Puerto Ayora begins sprouting across the rough lava rock.

Santa Cruz began to be colonized in the 1830s, but it never had grandiose development schemes as did Floreana, San Cristóbal and Isabela, nor ever a prison colony. Its population was always much smaller and widely fluctuating. Perhaps, in part, this was due to the fact Santa Cruz does not have a permanent source of freshwater.

Most people chose to live around a wide bay on the southern coast of Santa Cruz (later to be named Academy Bay, for the California Academy of Sciences research vessel Academy, which almost ran aground on a reef in the harbor, in 1906). Other settlers went to the highlands for its cooler climate and the more plentiful light rains. These enterprising folks carved farms and homes out of the lava landscape, and founded Bellavista.

The first half of the 20th century saw many Europeans arriving on Santa Cruz. After the fishing plant on Floreana went bust in the 1920s, some of the Norwegians moved to this island. In 1937, in the shadows of the rise of Nazi Germany, four young brothers of the Angermeyer family came. (Hans’ daughter, Johanna, recounts her family’s saga in My Father’s Island.)

During World War II, many island residents worked on the US military base at Baltra. After the war, the wooden barracks were moved down to Puerto Ayora to become the islanders’ homes. You can still see some of them in the port town.

In 1959, with the establishment of the national park and the Charles Darwin Foundation, the search for a home base for these institutions commenced. In the end, Santa Cruz Island was chosen for its central location (in the middle of the Galapagos archipelago) and its easy access to the islands’ only airport. The Charles Darwin Research Station opened in 1964. Since then, it has provided essential support to the national park, in research and training. Its relationship with Ecuador recently has been renewed for another 25 years.

With the founding of the national park and the research station, the population on Santa Cruz Island began to bloom. In 1958, even Isabela had more inhabitants. Workers, tourism entrepreneurs and tourists all came to be part of the action. Now this isle in the middle of it all has over 12,000 residents. Bellavista village in the highlands is now a bedroom community of Puerto Ayora.

Upon arriving to Santa Cruz from another Galapagos island, you’ll be struck by the vast difference. Unlike other Galapagos port towns, Puerto Ayora is more like a typical beach town as you’ll find on any tropical isle. The streets are solidly lined with souvenir shops, hotels, travel agencies, restaurants and bars. In the highlands are luxury hotels and glamping. Several banks, pharmacies, hospital, and the Galapagos’ only hyperbaric chamber also serve tourists. Puerto Ayora also is the main hub for the inter-island ferries, and you’ll have to transfer here to go to any of the other inhabited isles.

And even though Santa Cruz wasn’t on Charles Darwin’s itinerary, you will find his presence throughout Puerto Ayora – as you will sea lions lounging on benches and marine iguanas sprawled across the sidewalks.

Been to Santa Cruz island? Do you have any tips for future travellers?

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Photo credit: Rein Ketelaars

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