Santa Cruz is the most important (although not the largest) island in the Galapagos Islands archipelago, in Ecuador. It contains the largest town in the Galapagos Islands, Puerto Ayora, which is the only location on the island with tourist infrastructure, on the southern side of the island, and is connected by road and ferry to the airport on Baltra Island. It is also home to the Galapagos National Park administration, the Darwin Foundation, and the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Due to the central location of Santa Cruz in the archipelago, Puerto Ayora makes the best base for those wishing to visit the Galapagos while staying onshore. Although it is a small town, it has the best infrastructure in the Galapagos with the largest number of hotels and restaurants, as well as shopping and supplies. Services include grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, boat supplies, a small hospital and a hyperbaric chamber.
European and American interest in the Galapagos was stimulated by the publication of William Beebe's book Galapagos: World's End in 1924. This book inspired the beginnings of the eco-tourism that today dominates the Galapagos economy. Tourism began, however, as only a trickle (one of those early tourists was U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited the islands in 1938). There was also a trickle of Europeans immigration to the Galapagos around this time. The largest group was 60 Norwegians, persuaded to settle on Floreana in 1927 by several young journalists and a whaler who had written about the Galapagos. Floreana turned out to be anything but the paradise the promoters promised, as the colonists came to realize after the promoters left. Most managed to survive for a difficult year or two there. Some of the survivors eventually returned to Norway, others moved to the settlement on San Cristobal, and others settled on Academy Bay on Santa Cruz, joining another group of Norwegians that had set up a cannery there the year before. Within a few years, most of the colonists left as well, but a few remained. A few years later, other Norwegians came to Santa Cruz, as well as a sprinkling of others from Europe, America, and Ecuador, all seeking a simpler life. Among them were the four Angermeyer brothers from Germany, who settled on Santa Cruz in 1935. Their descendants still live there and operate touring yachts and a hotel in Puerto Ayora.
The island is administrated as a single municipality, but contains several towns:
- 1 Puerto Ayora - largest town in on the island and the only one with major tourist accommodation
- 2 Santa Rosa - at the center of the island
- 3 Bellavista - near Puerto Ayora
- 4 Cascajo - very small
Access to Santa Cruz is almost exclusively by air, with planes landing at the 1 Seymour Airport on the small nearby island of Baltra.
Inter-island flights are available from EMETEBE Airlines, which operates nine seater aircraft to transport passengers and their luggage from San Cristobal Airport to Isabela, Santa Cruz and Baltra islands. Bookings can be done directly through EMETEBE's website or a travel agent.
As of Nov 2022, upon exiting the Baltra airport, board a bus to the Itabaca channel for US$5 (you buy the ticket in a booth in front of the bus stop). Proceed on a ferry/a smaller water taxi for $1. At the other end of the canal you can ride the bus into town ($5, paid to the bus driver) or take a taxi ($25).
For the reverse direction, buses from Puerto Ayora to the channel only leave in the morning. Times may vary. Check locally at the time (at least a day before your flight). If you have an afternoon flight, you'll have to take a taxi ($25) or find alternative transport.
There is public transportation (operated by Ferry Galapagos) via local speed boats to both San Cristobal and Puerto Villamil on Isabela daily. They leave at 7am and 3pm, the ride takes 2 hours and tends to be rough and noisy ($35.00, Nov 2022). If you suspect you may get seasick then you likely will, so consider taking a seasickness pill. Also the four seats at the end of the boat are less bumpy than the side ones. Some of these boats can have a bathroom, but there are no other services available on them and passengers should carry their own water or snacks.
Many people arrive annually by private yacht as part of a trip around the world. Puerto Ayora and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno are the main ports of entry in the Galapagos - however most sail boats will enter at Puerto Villamil. Boating in the Galapagos is restricted. A non-Ecuadorian vessel arriving from a non-Ecuadorian port may stay up to 20 days in a single port. Arrival fees are approximately $130 plus $3 per tonne for the vessel, plus $110 per person for the Park's pass and island immigration. National Immigration and Customs are about another $50.
A permit to visit the five ports in the Galapagos (Puerto Ayora, Baltra, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Puerto Villamil and Puerto Velasco Ibarra) can be obtained by applying in advance with a ship's agent. These permits cost $300 for the vessel, in addition to the fees above. This permit is the only way for an Ecuadorian vessel or a vessel arriving from mainland Ecuador to visit the Galapagos. Licensed Yacht Handling Agencies can assist private vessels secure cruise permits.
The only paved road on the island is between the Itabaca channel and Puerto Ayora. Busses will transport airport passengers from the ferry to Puerto Ayora and back. There are also white pick-up trucks functioning as collectivo, just wait at one of the parades but they usually won't go further than Santa Rosa. They also double as taxi
Puerto Ayora is small enough to explore by foot. Most tourism is concentrated along the waterfront. White pickup truck taxis operate and can provide transportation around town, into the highlands, or across the island. Water taxis are available at the main dock and can take you to either a waiting boat or the dock on the other side.
In and around Puerto Ayora
- 1 [formerly dead link] Charles Darwin Research Station, Avenida Charles Darwin (Located at the end of the road on the eastern edge of town). M-Sa 6AM to 6PM. 1.5 km west of the centre of Puerto Ayora. It has a turtle breeding area and interesting information about the conservation of the unique biosphere of the Galapagos, and extensive exhibits on the natural history of the islands. The breeding programs at the station allow visitors to see many iguanas, tortoises, and other animals in various stages of their lives. Until his death in 2012 the station was also home to Lonesome George, a tortoise found on Pinta island who was believed to be the last of his sub-species. George became a symbol of the park and for many years was known as the rarest creature in the world. Visiting the research station is free but you can also take a guided tour of some parts of it for $10 (Nov 2022), you will find guides waiting for you next to the road there.
- 2 Tortuga Bay. 6AM-6:30PM daily. A 2.5-km long trail from Puerto Ayora leads to this beautiful beach with a strong undertow. If you walk about 1 km further down the beach you reach a calm bay known as Playa Mansa. The visibility in the water isn't perfect, but close to the mangroves white tip sharks can be seen. Marine turtles, pelicans, and blue heron sightings are also common. Kayaks can be rented at the end of Playa Mansa for $10 (Nov 2022) per hour per person. Visitors must register at a 1 gate at the beginning of the trail. Free.
- 3 Punta Estrada beach/German beach. A small beach good for snorkeling especially with high tide. Take a watertaxi ($1.00, Nov 2022) from Puerto Ayora to the Hotel Finch dock. Free.
- 4 Las Grietas. A spectacular canyon filled with crystal clear water. Good for snorkeling. A local swimming hole made from a large crevice between volcanic rock. The water is clear and emerald green. You can snorkel here but there isn't much to see besides a few large fish, probably as the water is a mix of the sea water and filtered rain water. Taking a snorkel is worth it as there is a series of tunnels created by fallen rocks. Getting here. From Puerto Ayora pier, hail over a yellow water taxi and tell them you want to go to Las Grietas. $1.00 (Nov 2022) will get you a one way trip and drop you off at Angermeyer Waterfront Inn. Follow the well marked (green and white posts) path through the iguanas, German's beach, the salt pans, and the lava rock path to Las Grietas. Along the path is a detour to the left. Well worth the short walk to look down at the crystal clear water and the length of Las Grietas. Closes at 5pm. Getting away. Back at the pier hail over a water taxi that's waiting not to far from the pier.
Unfortunately these days you can only do it as a guided tour, there are guides waiting at the entrance to the Las Grietas area. Having said that you may need to wait until at least a few people arrive, it shouldn't be longer than 30-40 minutes though. There is a bar close to the entrance where you can wait for the next tour, it has a nice view over the salt lake. $10.
- 5 Laguna Las Ninfas. A pretty lagune with a footpath. Free.
Elsewhere on the island
- Lava Tunnels - the longest (up to 3 km) are on private property off farms near Bellavista or Santa Rosa; count on $5 entry fee. There is a small one 2.5 km out of Puerto Ayora on the road to Baltra which can be visited for free.
- 6 Los Gemelos. Two sunken volcanic craters sit on a high point of the island in a cloud forest. They are 7 km from Santa Rosa on the road to Baltra. The craters are close to the road. Vermillion flycatchers can be seen here, as well as the woodpecker finch and short eared owls. There's short circuit walk.
- 7 El Chato Tortise Reserve. Private tortoise reserve 3 km from Santa Rosa where gigantic tortoises can be seen in the wild. With two lava tunnels. $5 entry (Nov 2018). Free Galapagos and lemongrass tea.
- 8 Garrapatero Beach. A 35 minute drive from Puerto Ayora, then a 20 minute trail leads to this beach consisting of black lava, white sand and a turquoise sea. No guide is necessary, and swimming and snorkeling are permitted. Wildlife includes: blue-footed boobies, pelicans, crabs, and marine iguanas. Behind the beach are mangroves and a small lagoon where Bahama ducks and pink flamingos can be seen. Camping is possible with a pre-arranged permit from the National Park office in Puerto Ayora, but be prepared for many mosquitos after dark.
- Snorkeling - good places are Tortuga bay, Punta Estrada beach and Las Grietas.
- Mountain biking - in Puerto Ayora there are several places to rent mountain bikes. The price is around $15 for a full day.
- Bay Tour
Diving in the Galapagos isn't cheap - count on paying at least $150 per dive.
- 1 Academy Bay Diving, Av Charles Darwin (Across from the volleyball courts), ☏ +593 85859405, firstname.lastname@example.org. 7AM-8PM. Professional and experienced guides, excellent equipment and local knowledge. Offers diving trips, day tours, cruises and more.
- Scuba Iguana, Av Charles Darwin (close to the entrance of the Darwin station), ☏ +593 5 2526497, email@example.com. One of the first dive companies in the Galapagos. Scuba Iguana has their own boats and dock.
- Sub Aqua, Av Charles Darwin, ☏ +593 5 2526350, firstname.lastname@example.org. Located across from the fishermans dock, Sub Aqua offers daily dive trips.
- Macarron, Av Charles Darwin, ☏ +593 5 2524080, email@example.com. One of the most professional and experienced divers in Galapagos, Macarron's equipment is high quality and he often leads the daily dive trips himself.
Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar. Bring bills in smaller denominations. $100 bills are accepted in Ecuador, but only at large businesses or big hotels.
- Banco de Pacifico (On the road towards the Darwin Station). It gives cash advances, changes cash or cashes in travellers' cheques. It will not always work, so bring at least enough money to survive the first few days.
- Banco Pichincha (On the road heading towards Baltra.). The lines are normally much shorter than at Banco de Pacifico making it easier to get cash advances or other transactions.
- Banco Bolivano ATM (In front of the main dock.). As with some ATMs in Ecuador you are limited to a $300 per transaction limit and you may need to do several transactions in order to get the amount of money you desire.
- Angermeyer Point (take a water taxi to the private dock on the other side). With the most scenic view in Puerto Ayora, meals are served both inside and outside waterfront. Angermeyer Point is a popular destination for groups or those wanting to celebrate with a romantic meal.
- Red Mangrove Restaurant and Sushi Bar, Av Charles Darwin (Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge). 6PM to 9PM. Maki rolls, sashimi, sushi and other Japanese dishes along with exotic drinks served waterfront.
- La Dolce Italia, Av Charles Darwin (Front of the Port Captain). Lunch and dinner. The island's Italian restaurant.
- Garrapata, Av Charles Darwin. M-Sa 9AM -10PM. Outdoor covered dining serving seafood and pasta dishes.
- Hernan Cafe, Av Charles Darwin y via Baltra (in front of the park). One of the more popular restaurants in town with a variety of breakfasts, sea food, pizza, hamburgers, sandwiches and ice creams. Best coffee in town, also has WiFi.
- Isla Grill, Av. Charles Darwin (opposite Banco Pacifico). Excellent seafood grills, pizzas and cocktails. Always full and for a good reason! Free Wi-Fi.
The water quality in Puerto Ayora is poor so visitors should only use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth. This advice comes from the scientists at the Charles Darwin Station which study the water on the island.
Puerto Ayora nightlife is not comparable to many tourist destinations. It is more relaxed. There are several bars and discos where you can go out and have a good time.
- Limón y café, Av. Charles Darwin. Chill out with a beer or play some pool or tablefootball. There is also small dance floor to watch the locals dance salsa or for non-locals to try to dance it.
- Bongo Bar (The Bongo), Av Charles Darwin (upstairs from Garrapata). nightly except Sundays. Drinks, music, videos and pool one of the most popular destinations in Puerto Ayora.
- The Rock, Av Charles Darwin. Clean, well lit and comfortable place to enjoy a drink and enjoy a conversation.
Accommodation in Puerto Ayora is generally over-priced. There might be a 22% tax added. There are several places which privately rent rooms for $10.
- Amigos (Next to Cafe Limon (no sign)). One of the cheaper places to stay. Nice family which allows guests to use the large kitchen. You'll hear the music from Cafe Limon until it has to close at 2AM. $12.50.
- B&B Peregrina, Av. Charles Darwin. Clean rooms have air-conditioning and a private bathroom with hot shower. A small breakfast is included in the price.
- Capitan Max B&B, Charles Binford St. Six clean and well maintained rooms. Air-conditioning and a private bathroom with hot shower. Breakfast included. ~$90.
- [formerly dead link] Casa del Lago, Near the Ninfas lake, firstname.lastname@example.org. A small artistic lodging house and restaurant. Rooms include well stocked kitchen with refrigerators. ~$70.
- Casa Surf, ☏ +593 5 2526935, +593 5 2524113, email@example.com. Silviana rents rooms and apartments for $10-15 per person. $10-15.
- Hotel Espana (Av Charles Darwin), ☏ +593 52526108. Check-in: noon, check-out: 10AM. Nice clean hotel near everything. Single room with air-con, cable TV, wifi is $30 a night. Dorm room minus air-con was around $20. Breakfast not included. $20.
- Hotel Fernandina, firstname.lastname@example.org. From $90 including tax and breakfast.
- Hotel Solymar, Ave. Charles Darwin (Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos), ☏ +593 5252 7015.
- Finch Bay Galapagos Eco Hotel, ☏ +593 5 2526297, +593 5 2526298. Unique location and friendly staff. Numerous activities to choose from, such as SCUBA diving, snorkeling, mountain biking and PADI diving programs. From $250.
- Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge, Av. Charles Darwin y Las Fragatas, ☏ +593 5 2526 564. Built inside a mangrove forest in front of the sea between the bustle of downtown and the Charles Darwin Research Station: a 5-minute walk to either. Luxurious rooms, friendly English speaking staff, eco-conscience, restaurant with sushi, day tours, dive tours, and island hopping with lodges on Isabela and Floreana.
- Hotel Santa Cruz. One of the cheapest hotels in town, but it has little else going for it. Rooms have private bathrooms with cold water. Approximately $15.
- Semilla Verde Guest House, Km 12, via a Baltra (Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos), ☏ +593 87 103 006, email@example.com. An ecologically sound alternative to a hotel in downtown Puerto Ayora. Boutique-style guesthouse set in five hectares of private cloud forest, with nature trails, wild Galapagos giant tortoises and native birdlife. Very few guest bedrooms ensure privacy and intimacy. Pure Pacific rainwater showers and drinking water, hot water, biodegradable soaps. Native English speaking owner. Unique Trip Design service.
It is possible to visit the following islands as day tours from Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora is the best place on the islands to arrange a boat trip. Head out to one of the other islands:
- North Seymour
- San Cristobal
- Santa Fe