Out of all the inhabited islands in the Galapagos, Santa Cruz Island is by far the most developed one, visited by almost every traveler making their way to this part of the world. Santa Cruz often serves as a starting point for tours and cruises in the Galapagos. Thanks to the nearby airport on Baltra Island, it is also the most accessible island to fly into for those looking to explore the Galapagos independently.
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The streets of Santa Cruz’s main town, Puerto Ayora, are filled with shops, restaurants, art galleries, and tour agencies, and you can spend days getting your fix of delicious seafood and souvenir shopping. There is so much to do and see on Santa Cruz Island that you’ll need at least 4-5 days to soak it all in!
We traveled to Santa Cruz Island as a part of an 11-day Galapagos Island tour with Galakiwi, but once we realized how much there was to do on the island, we decided to extend our stay for a few more days.
If you are spending a few days in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, here are some top activities to add to your to-do list.
Top Things to Do: Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands
Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 1.7 km (1 mi)
Whether Santa Cruz is the first stop on your Galapagos Islands tour or the last, a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station is a must. Founded in 1959, the station serves as the headquarters for scientific research and environmental education in the Galapagos.
Here, you can learn more about the various animals inhabiting the islands. While visiting, you will see tortoises in multiple stages of growth, get up close with the late Lonesome George and learn the story of the extinction of his species. You will also learn more about the land iguanas breeding project and get an overall feel for the critical conservation and sustainability work behind the scenes in the Galapagos.
Come Face-to-Face with Tortoises at the El Chato Tortoise Reserve
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 21 km (13 mi)
There is no better place to admire giant tortoises in the wild in the Galapagos Islands than by visiting the El Chato Tortoise Reserve. Here, tortoises can be found roaming free in their natural environment across thousands of square meters in the Santa Cruz highlands. You’ll discover tortoises of all sizes and ages, with some as old as 100+ years!
Be prepared for lots of photo ops, but don’t forget to respect their environment and keep your distance (at least 2 m).
Explore the Lava Tunnels
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 20.6 km (12.8 mi)
Formed by the solidified molten lava flow, the lava tunnels on Santa Cruz Island abound. There are a few great tunnels located right inside the El Chato Tortoise Reserve but head to the tunnels near Santa Rosa town if you want to explore further. Here you’ll find lava tubes that are more than 1 km (.62 miles) in length and get a chance to get a real feel for what life (or lack thereof) is like inside.
Spend a Day at Playa Brava/Tortuga Bay
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 4.5 km (2.8 mi)
Playa Brava, sometimes referred to as Tortuga Bay Beach, is one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever visited. The beach is located at the end of a 2.5 km (1.55 miles) trail, southwest of Puerto Ayora, and despite being a bit of a hike away, it’s a spot worth visiting while exploring Santa Cruz Island.
Silky white sands and turquoise waters look incredibly inviting, but unfortunately, high winds and strong currents make it more of a surfing beach than a swimming beach. Luckily, you’ll find Tortuga Bay at the end of the beach, a sheltered bay with plenty of shade and shallow calm waters where you can relax and enjoy a laid back beach day.
Take a Refreshing Swim in Las Grietas
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 3 km (1.9 mi)
Imagine giant rocks split in half, forming a crevice filled with cool waters perfect for a relaxing swim. This is Las Grietas, a spot loved by the locals and frequented by curious travellers. Head there for a midday swim, and don’t forget to bring your snorkelling gear to admire the rocks beneath the surface.
After cooling off, follow the path above to get a great view of Las Grietas from above.
Witness a Frenzy at the Fish Market
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 0.5 km (0.3 mi)
You won’t find many guidebooks recommending Puerto Ayora’s fish market as a must-see, but we loved hanging out there. Located just off the small docks in Pelican Bay, the Fish Market is a great spot to visit at around 4-5 pm when the anglers bring in their catches and the market gets swarmed by pelicans and frigate birds.
You’ll also spot an occasional sea lion or 3, begging for fish scraps under the table. They put on an awesome show, so don’t forget your camera!
Scuba Dive at Gordon Rocks
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 20 km (12.4 mi)
You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a liveaboard to experience incredible diving in the Galapagos. A short boat ride away from Santa Cruz Island, you’ll find Gordon Rocks, two rock pinnacles teeming with astonishing wildlife beneath the surface. The dive sites at Gordon Rocks are great places to spot sea turtles, black and white tip reef sharks, manta rays, stingrays, and the elusive hammerhead sharks.
Strong currents in the area make Gordon Rocks most suitable for experienced divers, but anyone with an Open Water certification is welcomed.
Kayak on Playa de Los Alemanes
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 1 km (0.6 mi)
Playa de Los Alemanes, a small quiet beach in front of the Finch Bay Hotel, is a great spot to relax for the day. You can enjoy the sun, shade, and shallow waters or rent some kayaks from the hotel and head out for a kayak around the bay. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife in Academy Bay—you never know who might decide to join you in the water.
Have a Beach Day at Playa El Garrapatero
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 21.3 km (13.2 mi)
This gorgeous golden beach lies on the secluded shores of eastern Santa Cruz. Garrapatero Beach is a hotspot for snorkelling, swimming, and sunbathing, and you’ll often have the whole place to yourself. Other than, of course, the abundant wildlife that calls the beach home. Watch for sea lions, sally lightfoot crabs, sea birds, and other shorebirds like frigates and blue-footed boobies. After the beach, take a short stroll to the lagoon where flamingos graze in the shallow waters.
Have a Picnic at Laguna Las Ninfas
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 0.5 km (0.3 mi)
The brackish water of Laguna Las Ninfas is home to various interesting sea life and shorebirds. It’s just a short stroll from the main harbour and one of the best Puerto Ayora activities near the town centre. Make your way around the lagoon on the wooden boardwalk and stop for a relaxing picnic at one of the many lookout points
See Wildlife in its Natural Habitat at Playa Las Bachas
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 39 km (24.2 mi)
Bachas Beach, located on the north coast of Santa Cruz, has a peaceful shoreline and a visitor site that’s only accessible by boat. The beach is a fantastic place to see birds, marine life, and flamingos in the nearby saltwater lagoon.
The beach is interesting thanks to its World War II history. When American barges washed up on the island of Santa Cruz, locals coined the name “bachas” as an adapted Spanish pronunciation of “barges.” Now, it’s an excellent spot for birdwatching, beachcombing, and snorkelling. Some Galapagos tours will also stop at nearby Black Turtle Cove to see sea turtles amongst the mangrove lagoons.
Hike Around Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill)
Distance from Puerto Ayora: 30 km (18.6 mi)
On the northwest coast of Santa Cruz, Cerro Dragon is a favourite stop on many Galapagos cruises. It won’t take long to figure out how it got its name once you see the armies of land iguanas that reside here. Funnily enough, land iguanas were once nearly wiped out by feral dogs. But, thanks to conservation efforts by Galapagos National Park, they’re now thriving again.
Getting to Cerro Dragon is boat access only, but it’s well worth the trip. Dragon Hill has one of the longest trails in the Galapagos Islands that winds through different vegetation zones, all teeming with wildlife. You’ll walk through desert and cactus forests while yellow warblers and Darwin’s finches fly overhead. Once at the summit, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the north shore and surrounding islands.
The Best Santa Cruz Hotels
Hotel Costa del Pacifico
There are dozens of hotels in Puerto Ayora, ranging from high-end luxury resorts to small B&Bs and hostels. For most of our time in Santa Cruz, we stayed at the small, locally owned Hotel Costa del Pacifico for most of our time in Santa Cruz. The hotel was centrally located and had everything you needed for a comfortable stay on the island: AC, good shower, wifi connection, a 24-hour supply of cold and hot water (you can’t drink tap water on the island), and a comfy bed.
At the time of our stay, breakfast was not available at the hotel, but Sonia (the owner) was working on building up a terrace and hoping to start offering breakfast to her guests by the end of 2017.
The hotel perfectly blends homey comforts with travelling on a budget, with rooms starting at USD $70 per night. For more information about Hotel Costa del Pacifico and to check availability for your travel dates, click here.
Hotel Ninfa has a prime location, just 5 minutes from Tortuga Bay and the Charles Darwin Research Station, with many shops and restaurants with ATMs and a supermarket close by. You can take a cooling dip in their outdoor pool if you don’t fancy the beach. They also have bicycles available so you can explore Santa Cruz Island in a green way! Rooms at Ninfa start at USD $130 per night and can be reserved here.
Semilla Verde Boutique Hotel
One of the best Santa Cruz hotels is the Semilla Verde Boutique Hotel. It’s set a little further away from the centre of Santa Cruz as a rural retreat, secluded and surrounded by nature. The traditional guest house also boasts a negative carbon footprint through various green initiatives and eco-design. The funds raised through the hotel go back into the local economy and conservation projects.
They also have yoga retreats and tour packages available for those who wish to have a unique experience on Santa Cruz Island! Rooms at Semilla Verde start at USD $195 per night. Click here to book.
Lonesome George Eco Lodge
For another sustainable hotel option while visiting Santa Cruz, Galapagos, check out the Lonesome George Eco-Lodge. The family-run lodge is located 15 minutes from the La Estación Beach in Puerto Ayora by foot, 2 minutes from the famous fish market at Pelican Bay, and just 200 m from the main street. If you wish to explore a little further, they also have free bikes for you to use. It’s an excellent budget-friendly option at USD $68 per night with a central location you can’t beat.
Conveniently located 5 minutes from the harbour, Hotel Fiesta offers eco-friendly accommodations in a laid-back setting. The hotel has many common areas, including a large, sun-soaked swimming pool. They’ve eliminated all plastics from the property and celebrate locally-sourced food and tours. Rooms start at USD $120 per night and can be booked here.
Adventure meets luxury at Pikai Lodge in the secluded highlands of Santa Cruz. Set atop volcanic craters, Pikai Lodge offers 3-7 night all-inclusive packages in an ultra-modern building complete with an infinity pool. The lodge has stylish rooms with private balconies with access to an onsite restaurant, spa, and outdoor firepit. Pikai recognizes sustainability in everything they do, from energy conservation to reforestation and achieving carbon neutral status. For the whole experience, 3-night packages start at USD $4,305 per person (all-inclusive).
Where to Eat: Isla Santa Cruz Restaurants
While Santa Cruz Island may be better known for its nature and wildlife than its cuisine, there are still plenty of options to experience the traditional flavours of Ecuador. Here are a few Isla Cruz restaurants you should definitely take the time to visit.
The restaurant of the Finch Bay hotel offers sustainable fine dining with the freshest organic ingredients, combining traditional Ecuadorian dishes with International flair. While the menu is mostly seafood, they do offer a good range of vegetarian options with a lot of the herbs and produce coming from their own vegetable garden.
The Galapagos Deli is hard to beat for more down-to-earth, simple food that is equally delicious. They have a great selection of pizza, sandwiches, salads, homemade bread, ice cream, smoothies and more! They also have vegan and veggie options and can cater to those with gluten allergies.
Located in the heart of Puerto Ayora, the Isla Grill offers good, hearty food and a fun atmosphere. They do have a vegetarian grill option, plus a veggie pizza and salads to choose from. They also do great cocktails; try the mojito!
La Garrapata Galapagos – Resto Bar
La Garrapata is an excellent spot for anyone wanting to sample fresh, local foods sourced from producers in the Galapagos Islands. They also make a point of employing and training staff from the local community, and they are considered one of the leading eco-restaurants helping with the sustainability and conservation of the Galápagos Islands. They offer a varied menu with plenty of vegetarian options and a great selection of Ecuadorian specialties.
Essential Travel Info for Visiting Santa Cruz, Galapagos:
Getting to Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador:
Most travellers arrive on Santa Cruz Island by plane from the mainland (the airport is located on Isla Baltra, just a short ferry ride away from Santa Cruz). Avianca, TAME, and LATAM have daily flights from Quito, connecting through Guayaquil. It is also possible to arrive in Santa Cruz by boat from Isabela and San Cristobal (for around $25-35 USD).
Getting around Santa Cruz Island:
Puerto Ayora town is small enough to get around on foot, but you’ll need a water or land taxi to get to destinations outside of the centre. Water taxis are readily available at the pier, and no ride should cost more than $1. Pickup trucks function as land-based taxis in town.
Want more on Santa Cruz, Ecuador? Watch our video highlights from the island below!
Disclaimer: Our trip to Santa Cruz was a part of our partnership with Galakiwi, a land based tour operator in the Galapagos. Our accommodation at Hostal Costa del Pacifico was provided courtesy of Sonia. But as always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own, regardless of who is footing the bill for our experience.