This article was originally written in 2017 but has been updated in 2019 to include the latest info about what to do on Santa Cruz Island.
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, and, thanks to the nearby airport on Isla Baltra, it is also the easiest island to fly into for those looking to explore the Galapagos independently.
The streets of Santa Cruz’s main town, Puerto Ayora, are filled with shops, restaurants, art galleries, and tour agencies, and while 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.
Visit the Charles Darwin Research Station
Whether Santa Cruz is the first stop on your tour of the Galapagos Islands 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.
It is here that you can learn more about the various species of animals inhabiting the islands, get to see tortoises in various stages of growth, get up close with the late Lonesome George and learn the story of the extinction of his species, find out more about the land iguana breeding project, and get an overall feel for the important conservation and sustainability work that goes on behind the scenes in the Galapagos.
Come Face-to-Face with Tortoises at the El Chato Tortoise Reserve
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 of high pastures. You’ll find 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
Formed by the solidified molten lava flow, the lava tunnels on Santa Cruz Island abound. There are a few awesome tunnels located right inside the El Chato Tortoise Reserve, but if you want to explore further, head to the tunnels near the Santa Rosa town. Here you’ll find tunnels 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
Playa Brava, often referred to as Tortuga Bay Beach, has got to be one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever come across on our travels. It’s 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 definitely 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, at the end of the beach, you’ll find Tortuga Bay, 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
Imagine giant rocks split in half forming a crevice filled with cool waters perfect for a refreshing 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
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 4-5pm when the fishermen 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
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 incredible wildlife beneath the surface. The dive sites at Gordon Rocks are known to be great places to spot turtles, white and black tip sharks, manta rays, sting rays, as well as the elusive hammerheads.
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
Last, but certainly not least is 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 the wildlife; you never know who might decide to join you in the water.
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 the majority of our time in Santa Cruz, we stayed at the small, locally owned Hotel Costa del Pacifico. The hotel was centrally located and had everything you need 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.
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 Science Station on foot, and is surrounded by shops and restaurants with ATMs and a supermarket close by. If you don’t fancy the beach, you can take a cooling dip in their outdoor pool. They also have bicycles available so you can explore Santa Cruz Island in a green way!
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 their 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!
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.
Where to Eat: Isla Santa Cruz Restaurants
While Santa Cruz Island may be better known for its nature and wildlife rather 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.
For more down-to-earth, simple food that is equally delicious, the Galapagos Deli is hard to beat. They have a great selection of pizza, sandwiches, salads, homemade breads, ice-cream, smoothies and more! They also have vegan and veggie options and can cater to those with gluten allergies too.
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 a great 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 Galapagos 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:
Most travellers arrive to 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? Watch our video highlights from the island below!
BEFORE YOU GO: DON’T FORGET TRAVEL INSURANCE
We can’t stress enough the importance of travel insurance, especially in a place like the Galapagos. Whether you just plan to explore the islands, do a little bit of hiking, or scuba diving being protected on your travels is an irreplaceable peace of mind. We learned about the importance of travel insurance the hard way and now we never travel without coverage.
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.