Santa Cruz Island is considered the heart of the Galapagos Islands due to its privileged location. It has become the most populated island in the province, the archipelago’s tourist center, and the most visited of all the islands since most commercial flights from the mainland land there, while most cruises that tour the archipelago depart from there. In this note, we want to tell you what to do on Santa Cruz Island once you are there, so we present you with a list of 14 places you cannot miss during your visit. In this way, you will know the main activities to do on Santa Cruz Island and make the most of every minute of your stay.
How to get to Santa Cruz Island?
We invite you to review our note on how to get to Galapagos from Ecuador, where you will find what to do after arriving in the Galapagos Islands so that you will know how to get from Canal de Itabaca, on Baltra Island, to Puerto Ayora, the cantonal head of Santa Cruz and the most extensive and populated city of Galapagos.
Activities to do on Santa Cruz Island
1. Charles Darwin Research Station
One visit you cannot miss if you are visiting Puerto Ayora is Charles Darwin Research Station (ECCD), considered the operational arm of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF). This site has particular importance because “the mission of the Charles Darwin Foundation and its Scientific Station is to provide knowledge and support through scientific research and complementary actions to ensure the conservation of the environment and biodiversity of the Galapagos Archipelago” (CharlesDarwin Foundation, 2022). The Charles Darwin Research Station “has worked on conservation, restoration, and sustainable development projects to ensure good management of the archipelago. More than a hundred scientists, educators, research assistants, support staff, and volunteers worldwide have participated in this effort” (Charles Darwin Foundation, 2022).
Once at the station, we recommend you visit the collections of natural history specimens of the Galapagos and the Charles Darwin exhibition hall, where “you will find extensive information on almost 60 years of scientific research in the archipelago” and a large and impressive skeleton of a Bryde’s whale” (Charles Darwin Foundation, 2022). In addition, in the station facilities, you will find the statue of Charles Darwin with which you can take photos.
The Charles Darwin Research Station also features an observation deck, cafeteria, library, and native gardens. This place is a short distance from the center of Puerto Ayora and is open to the public from Monday to Sunday, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. The place operates every day of the year, including holidays. You can go to this site on foot, by bicycle, or through a private tour.
2. Turtle route
The Turtle Route is a self-guided tourist trail located in the protected area of the Galapagos National Park. This path leads to the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center and to the “Symbol of Hope” room, where Lonesome George is exhibited, a gigantic male tortoise from Pinta Island, “which was one of the most famous reptiles in the world for having been the last surviving individual of the species Chelonoidis Abingdonii” (Charles Darwin Foundation, Remembering the story of Lonely George in the Galapagos Islands, 2022).
Lonesome George “became an emblematic species for the archipelago and the world. He died in June 2012 of natural causes, and after his death, George was taken to New York, where he was embalmed and then remained on display at the Museum of Natural History in this city until September 2014. Four years after his death, George returns to where he spent his last years of life and is exhibited as the main part of the new interpretive path of the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park called “La Ruta de la Tortuga”. Lonesome George is a clear example of the effects that human impact has caused on various species. However, it also represents the effort of science to protect those that remain. (Charles Darwin Foundation, Remembering the story of Lonesome George in the Galapagos Islands, 2022).
The Turtle Route “is a path with footbridges of treated wood and volcanic stone walkways, which leads the visitor through four interpretive rooms with the themes: Everything changes; Curious Traveler; New Travelers; and Giant Tortoises” (Ministry of Tourism of Ecuador, Minister of Environment inaugurates new trail “La Ruta de la Tortuga,” 2022). The trail culminates with the display of the embalmed body of Lonesome George in the Symbol of Hope room.
You can go to this site on foot, by bicycle, or through a private tour.
3. Station Beach
This beach, popular with tourists and locals, is located next to the Charles Darwin Research Station (ECCD) and the Galapagos National Park. It is surrounded by mangroves and volcanic rocks and has an area of 300 m² approximately. You can find the famous Galapagos manzanillo tree, known for producing a toxic white liquid; hence we recommend you not touch its leaves or eat its fruits.
Visiting this beach is another top thing on Santa Cruz Island because it is where you can go after visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station (ECCD).
The station beach is an ideal place to swim and snorkel. You will have the opportunity to admire the fauna. You can get to this beach on a private tour or on your own, either by walking or bike. Visiting hours are from 07:30 to 17:30.
4. Tortuga Bay / Tortuga Bay
If you want to visit a paradisiacal and distinguished beach on Santa Cruz Island, you must go to Tortuga Bay. On this white sand beach and crystal clear turquoise water, known as the most famous beach in the Galapagos, you can: tan, swim, surf, snorkel, or kayak. In addition, Tortuga Bay is an ideal place to observe wildlife, such as marine iguanas, lava gulls, colorful crabs, ground finches, sea lions, sea turtles, white-tip sharks, and some other species. Also, the salty lagoon behind the mangroves is often frequented by flamingos. Tortuga Bay’s white-sand beach gets its name from being a nesting site for the black sea turtle.
In Tortuga Bay, you can find Playa Brava, where, as its name indicates, the water currents are strong; hence it is considered a perfect place for surfing. Playa Mansa is also an area of mangroves, a bay with a stream, and an excellent place to swim, snorkel, and kayak.
Tortuga Bay is located on the south coast of Santa Cruz Island, a few kilometers from Puerto Ayora. To get to this site, you can take a 40-minute walk from Puerto Ayora until you reach Playa Brava. The trail is paved, flat, and easy, and as you walk, you can enjoy an ancient lava field colonized by palo santo trees and Opuntia cacti. You can arrive at this beautiful beach independently without needing guides or transportation. Or, if you prefer, you can take a maritime transport that will take you to Tortuga Bay beach from the docks of Puerto Ayora. Whichever option you choose will depend on your budget and your physical condition. Entrance to the beach is free, and visiting hours are from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
If you visit this beach, we recommend you bring everything you need, since it is a natural place where you will not find shops or tourist facilities. Don’t forget to bring: water, snacks, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a towel, and sports shoes for the walk.
All visitors must register at the small cabin of the Galapagos National Park at the beginning of the trail before leaving for the beach. Remember that when visiting this site, you must compulsorily respect all the rules of the National Park, the leading environmental authority of the Government in the Province. Additionally, remember that you must maintain a two meters minimum distance from the animals you find during your visit and remember to take all the garbage that you generate with you.
Recommended reading: Things to do in Galapagos that you cannot miss.
5. Las Grietas
Las Grietas is composed of walls of volcanic rock where the sea enters. These natural pools of crystal clear water are ideal for swimming or diving while an unusual and unique landscape surrounds you.
This site is 3 km from Puerto Ayora, west of Academy Bay or Bahía Academia. To get to this site, you must take a water taxi, which leaves from the municipal dock of Santa Cruz Island to the pier of a private hotel. From the hotel, take the path that is signposted to Las Grietas. You must walk for approximately 15 minutes along a way that passes through saltwater lagoons. Finally, you will find some wooden steps that lead directly to the inviting waters.
You can go with a tour guide or do it on your own. In addition, we recommend that you take only a few things with you since a swimsuit, sunscreen, towel, and money will be enough objects for you to enjoy a relaxing and refreshing bath. Visiting Las Grietas is a plan that only takes about half a day, which is essential to consider when planning your visit.
6. El Garrapatero Beach
Another beach on Santa Cruz Island that we recommend you visit is El Garrapatero beach. Garrapatero beach is located on the east coast of Santa Cruz Island, northeast of Puerto Ayora. It is a beach located in the rural area of the Bellavista parish via Cascajo, and the beginning of the trail is 19 km from the city. The beach has an extension of 1.5 kilometers surrounded by mangroves. It is ideal for people who choose tranquility and want to snorkel, kayak, or camp. El Garrapatero beach is one of the few places where the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park allows camping. Remember that for this, it is necessary to obtain camping authorization through the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park.
You can go to El Garrapatero beach on your own, or you can do it in the company of a tour guide. If you do it on your own, a taxi can take you from Puerto Ayora to the beginning of the trail and pick you up later. From the trail start, you must take a 15-minute walk to the beach. The exact distance you will have to walk is 870 meters. On the way, you will see candelabra cactus, palo santo, muyuyo, among other species. If you prefer to get directly to the beach, you can take a water taxi, a trip around 20 minutes from the port.
Do not forget that in the Galapagos, regardless of the beach you are on, you can enjoy unparalleled flora and fauna, and El Garrapatero is no exception. Ghost crabs, resident and migrant seabirds, flamingos, iguanas, and other species will accompany you during your visit. Also, remember that the beach of El Garrapatero is a pristine natural area and does not have tourist facilities, so you must bring your provisions.
7. High Zone of the Island – Giant Galapagos Tortoises. Ranch Firsts.
If you are still wondering what to do on Santa Cruz Island, visit the well-known Rancho Primicias. In the Santa Rosa parish, Rancho Primicias is a nature reserve located 30 minutes from Puerto Ayora, in the upper area of the island. This site attracts thousands of tourists annually because it is possible to observe giant tortoises in their natural habitat. You can take pictures inside the shells of the giant tortoises; enjoy the restaurant on site; or acquire a series of agroecological and organic products, brand Primicias, which are marketed there.
In addition, you can go through a lava tunnel 400 meters. The lava tunnels on Santa Cruz were formed when the outer layer of molten lava, the product of volcanic eruptions, solidified. Still, the liquid magma inside continued to flow, leaving behind a series of empty tubes. People can walk through these underground channels and may have the chance to see the owls that live there.
You can get to this site by bus (the terminal is located on Av. Baltra in front of the Municipal Market), by taxi, or through a tour package from a travel agency.
8. The Twins
During your visit to Santa Cruz, you should visit Los Gemelos, one of the most important natural attractions in the Galapagos. Los Gemelos is located in the rural area of Santa Cruz, in the Santa Rosa parish, on the Puerto Ayora-Canal de Itabaca highway.
The Twins are two large depressions of volcanic material and areal, called that way because they are formations located one in front of the other, while a road separates them. They were formed by a prolonged process of slow subsidence of the earth and are the product of a succession of eruptions at a time when the island was still an active volcano. Geologically speaking, they are recognized as crater holes.
It should be noted that this is the only place on the island surrounded by a native scalesia forest. In addition, several species of land birds inhabit the area, including the famous witch bird.
You can get to know this site with a tour guide or do it yourself. If you are going to do it on your own, you can take a taxi in Puerto Ayora, or if your physical conditions allow it, you can make the trip by bicycle. The route is 21 kilometers long, and there is a bike path for this purpose. Admission to this site is free; opening hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
9. Las Ninfas Lagoon
Another thing you can do on Santa Cruz Island is to visit the Laguna de las Ninfas. Located within the urban area of Santa Cruz, this is a place of singular beauty, which is surprising because it is an authentic remnant of peace. Laguna de las Ninfas is a seawater lagoon traversed on a wooden bridge, an installation that allows you to enjoy the beauty of the place. The lagoon is surrounded by two of the four mangrove species in the Galapagos Islands, specifically the white and red mangroves. It is open to the public, with free admission, and you can visit it during the day since entry at night is prohibited.
10. Fishermen’s Wharf
Another thing to do on Santa Cruz Island is to visit the famous fishermen’s pier. This place “is located in the Pelican Bay neighborhood, on the main tourist artery of Charles Darwin Avenue, half a kilometer from the Gus Angermeyer Tourist Pier […]. At the Fishermen’s Wharf, you can enjoy seafood, ready for sale, a product of artisanal fishing activities, allowed in the Marine Reserve” ( GAD Municipal de Santa Cruz, 2022).
It is a great place to admire the hard work of the fishermen and a perfect place to see many sea lions, pelicans, herons, frigate birds, and seagulls, among others. Many tourists visit this site throughout the year due to the large concentration of animals that occurs in the site, which does not move from there until they get a long-awaited bite of food.
11. Las Bachas Beach
Like other beaches in Santa Cruz, this is a beach with crystal clear waters, white sand, and calm seas, which is why it is one of the ideal beaches for snorkeling. It is located north of Santa Cruz and has a total extension of approximately 1 km.
This is one of the main nesting sites for sea turtles on Santa Cruz Island. In addition, near the beach, it is possible to observe flamingos, waterfowl, migratory birds, and, of course, the impressive iguanas of that area of the Galapagos cannot be missed.
Remember that this beach must be included in your chosen tour itinerary. You can visit Las Bachas from Monday to Sunday from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Remember that this beach does not have tourist facilities, so you must bring your provisions.
12. Punta Estrada Beach or Germans Beach
Just five minutes from Puerto Ayora, you can find the beach of Punta Estrada, better known as the beach of the Germans, which owes its name to the colony of Germans that settled in this area at the time of colonization of Santa Cruz Island.
This is a beach with calm, intense turquoise waters and sand of coral origin and shells, surrounded by mangroves; a perfect place to sunbathe, snorkel and relax after so much physical activity. You can access this beach only by sea, and you can do it through the water taxis that leave from the Gus Angermeyer Pier. You will arrive at the Punta Estrada dock and find a path leading to the beach. The boat ride lasts approximately 5 minutes.
13. Bahía Ballena
Bahía Ballena, or Whale Bay, located on the west coast of Santa Cruz Island, is an inlet of green sand located at the base of Cerro Ballena. It is one of the oldest whaling camps on Santa Cruz Island. In the past, there and in other similar camps, they took giant tortoises to be loaded aboard the whalers and pirate ships as food for subsequent voyages. One of the highlights of this bay is the green sand beach, a color that gives it a large percentage of olivine crystals, the same ones that originate from volcanic materials. It is impossible to access it on your own, so it is necessary to take a tour to reach this destination.
14. Dragon Hill
Cerro Dragón, or Dragon Hill, located to the northwest of the Island of Santa Cruz, “is made up of a trail that runs through three different environments in just 1-mile length. It bears that name because, in 1975, it was one of the only places on Santa Cruz Island where land iguanas (Conolophus Subcristatus) were found in a healthy state. That same year, the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation began a conservation program for land iguanas. […] Cerro Dragón has been open for tourism since 1993” (Directorate of the Galapagos National Park, Cerro Dragón, 2016). At this site, you will also be able to see: flamingos, Galapagos finches, yellow warblers, boobies, and frigate birds. It is impossible to access it on your own, so it is necessary to take a tour to reach this destination.
Frequently asked questions
How to get around in Santa Cruz?
You can move around the island in buses, taxis, or bicycles. The buses will take you to the island’s rural areas, while the taxis will take you to both the urban and rural areas. Also, if you prefer to get around on bicycles, there are many places where you can rent them during the day.
How much time does it take to spend on Santa Cruz Island?
Puerto Ayora, located south of Santa Cruz Island in Bahía Academia, is the archipelago’s main tourist and economic center. The island of Santa Cruz is a place that travelers prefer since most cruise ships depart from there and because there is a great commercial activity and a wide and diversified range of tourist establishments and services. On Santa Cruz Island, souvenir shops, discos, bars, cafeterias, and art galleries can be found. We recommend that you spend at least a few days on this island, as Santa Cruz has a series of tourist attractions you will not want to miss during your visit to the Galapagos. Many tourists include a few days off to enjoy Santa Cruz before or after their tours of the enchanted islands.
What is Santa Cruz Island known for?
Santa Cruz, after Isabela Island, is the second largest in the archipelago and the most inhabited of the Galapagos Islands. The island of Santa Cruz is the central economic axis of the islands and a fundamental strategic point for getting to know the islands. Puerto Ayora is the cantonal capital of the Santa Cruz canton and the largest and most populous city in the province of Galapagos. It is known as “The Heart of the Galapagos” for being the archipelago’s economic center and privileged geographical location.
Is it worth visiting Santa Cruz Island?
Yes! it is worth visiting Santa Cruz Island. Suppose you wonder what is unique about Santa Cruz Island. In that case, this island has places that are as paradisiacal as they are unique in the world, so visiting it is essential if you have the opportunity to tour the Galapagos Islands. On the island, there are highly distinguished tourist attractions, such as the Charles Darwin Research Station (ECCD), Solitaire George (located on the “Turtle Route”), Tortuga Bay, Las Grietas, and Los Gemelos, among others. Remember that you can only be sure that you have known the Galapagos Islands if you have visited Santa Cruz Island.
What animals live on Santa Cruz Island?
We cannot name the enormous amount of fauna that inhabits this island. Still, on it, you will find brown pelicans, frigate birds, marine iguanas, multicolored crabs, blue-footed boobies, the gigantic Galapagos tortoise, manta rays, and the tip reef shark white, among many others.
What is the best time to travel to the Galapagos?
Since you have read our note on what to do on Santa Cruz Island, we also recommend you review our article on the best time to visit the Galapagos, so you can discover the ideal time to make that long-awaited trip to the second-largest marine reserve on the planet, declared a World Heritage Site in 1978 by Unesco.
Galapagos is an unmissable destination in Ecuador, and Santa Cruz Island is the heart of this world-famous archipelago. Now that you know what to do on Santa Cruz Island, we invite you to discover it in our company. We will provide advice and continuous accompaniment during your trip. For more information, check out this unique selection of the best Galapagos tours from our partner Viator (Tripadvisor).