The Galapagos’ most populous and most visited island, Santa Cruz is best known for its giant tortoises, the prehistoric-looking creatures that have survived only in the Galapagos and the Seychelles. Santa Cruz is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station as well as a variety of marine and bird life, including Galapagos sea lions, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and frigate birds.
Situated in the Pacific Ocean some 650 miles west of the Ecuadorian mainland, Santa Cruz is the most human-oriented of all the Galapagos islands, which are of course best known for their indigenous wildlife.
Santa Cruz has the largest population in the island chain, the largest town in Puerto Ayora, the most commercial development, and is also the site of the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park, which spearhead the islands’ conservation efforts.
The City of Puerto Ayora
Puerto Ayora is the main city on Santa Cruz Island, and also one of the main cities in the Galapagos Islands. Here you can do some shopping, book tours, and enjoy fresh seafood. Many travelers to the Galapagos choose to stay in Puerto Ayora as a home base, taking day trips to the other major Galapagos islands.
Puerto Ayora is often many travelers introduction to the Galapagos, which means it's an introduction to the unique harmony with which human and animal live side by side on the Galapagos. Sea lions lounge about on park benches, pelicans squabble behind food stalls, and iguanas sun themselves without a care in the world. It can be a shock to the senses for dwellers of the rest of the world, who are so used to animals being quartered off in a zoo or national park.
Many of Santa Cruz island’s attractions are within reasonable distance from Puerto Ayora. It also offers a wide range of activities including horseback riding, kayaking, diving, snorkeling, highlands tours, and mountain biking.
The Giant Tortoises of Santa Cruz Island
It also draws the most visitors of all the islands, both because of its facilities but also because of its giant tortoises, whose numbers are now estimated at around 3,500. While that may equal just one-tenth or so of the Galapagos’ total giant tortoise population, Santa Cruz is the place where you’re virtually assured of seeing at least some of them.
That’s because scientists keep a number of giant tortoises in captivity at the Darwin Research Station, where you can watch them move slowly around their corrals – if you’re sufficiently patient. Weighing up to 500 pounds, the tortoises are in no rush – after all, they routinely live to be 100 or older and may live to be twice that age.
The story goes that Charles Darwin himself, who visited the Galapagos in 1835 on his famous voyage of the Beagle – which inspired his Theory of Evolution – brought back a giant tortoise to England, gave it as a gift, and the tortoise eventually lived to see the early years of the 21st century.
The Legacy of Lonesome George
For decades, the most famous resident of the Darwin Research Station was a giant tortoise called Lonesome George, so dubbed because he was never able to find a suitable mate -- despite yeoman attempts by scientists to spark his libido with a succession of eligible females. When Lonesome George died a few years ago, he was the last of his subspecies – leaving ten subspecies of giant tortoises still surviving in the Galapagos.
The total giant tortoise population in the islands now stands at something like 30,000 to 50,000, down from the perhaps 400,000 that once lived here, following mass slaughter by sailors seeking turtle meat as well as the introduction of invasive rats to the Galapagos, who competed with the tortoises for food and ate their eggs as well.
But the trajectory has begun to reverse itself – due to conservation efforts and the importation of amorous males such as the renowned Diego, who – having arrived from the San Diego Zoo – sparked a tortoise population explosion on the Galapagos island of Española.
Tortoises in the Wild on Santa Cruz Island
For all the ease of viewing the tortoises at the Research Station, though, nothing compares to encountering them in the wild. For that your tour guide will need to take you to the lush, often-misty highlands of Santa Cruz, where giant tortoises leave their habitat to migrate down to the island’s lowlands in search of mates.
Their three-to-six-mile journey – which can last up to two months at their snail’s pace crawl -- takes them across farmland where they can find pond water to immerse themselves, drink, and cool down. While the farms are privately owned, Ecuador’s national park service regulates the turtle migrations and mandates that the farmers allow tour groups to visit.
Santa Cruz Island: Face to Face With “E.T.”
Because the tortoises move so slowly, it’s easy to get close-up looks at these prehistoric looking creatures, whose facial and neck features served as the model for the alien E.T. in the 1982 Steven Spielberg movie. Another iconic figure in film science fiction -- Star Wars’ Darth Vader – may have been inspired in part by the tortoise's’ distinctive hissing sounds.
It’s relatively easy to distinguish the males from the females -- the males are twice as large – and they engage in a kind of battle for the right to mate with the female of their choice. But it’s pretty tame as such battles go – the lucky victor is the one who can raise his head up higher than his opponent.
Neck size is important to the tortoises and to some degree determines what they eat. Of the two main species found on Santa Cruz, the saddlebacks have longer necks – enabling them to reach the higher vegetation found in the lowlands -- while the dome shells, which represent the majority of the migrating tortoises, have shorter necks that can make do with feeding on highlands grasses.
After mating, most females remain in the lowlands to lay their eggs, while the dome shell males begin their arduous journey back to the highlands, having done their duty to propagate the species.
If you have more time on Santa Cruz than is required to visit the tortoises in both the highlands and at the research station, your guide may bring you to a beach occupied by sea lions and marine iguanas, or to an area inhabited by blue-foot boobies and other birds -- though other islands offer equal or better viewing of these species. In the end, Santa Cruz is all about the giant tortoises – one of the Galapagos’ most fascinating creatures.
Top 10 Things to See on Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island is one of the busiest islands for tourist activities. There’s a lot to do, and a lot more that can be done without a tour guide, as opposed to the other islands of the Galapagos, where some sights are off limits without a tour. Here are ten of the top things to see and do on Santa Cruz Island:
1. Charles Darwin Research Station - The research and discoveries of Charles Darwin were made famous shortly after his journey to the Galapagos. His relationship to the islands is partly why so many seek to explore the Galapagos themselves. There are many connections to Darwin over all the main islands you’ll visit on a Galapagos cruise, but this is the official research station in his name, which still operates, undergoing scientific research and conservations.
The Charles Darwin Foundation, is an international non-profit. Truly a place where international minds meet and share ideas, together pursuing research dealing with conservation, climate change, and other important issues facing humanity and animal populations around the world. Their work and studies are displayed for visitors to peruse.
The Research Center also has regular demonstrations, talks, and exhibits to help explain the significance of the Galapagos and introduce visitors to the various inhabitants the be encountered on a Galapagos tour.
Also part of the Charles Darwin Research Center is the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center. Beginning in 1965, this center is pivotal to the rehabilitation and reintroduction of wild tortoises to their respective islands. Visitors to the center can learn about the tortoises and their relationship with the islands, with the opportunity to observe multiple ages - from hatchlings to full grown- and species.
2. Santa Cruz Island Beaches - Tortuga Bay, Playa de los Perros, Garrapatero: The Galapagos is known for the wildlife, and less as a beach destination. But on Santa Cruz there are three lovely beaches to explore, the perfect place to relax before embarking on the rest of your Galapagos tour.
Tortuga bay has very strong undercurrents, so avoid swimming here unless you’re a very strong swimmer. But staying on shore is its own reward as you observe many land birds and enjoy the warm weather.
Playa de los Perros is small and takes a bit of effort to get to, but once you do be sure to head to a white-tipped shark pond to observe the sharks up close.
For the best combination of wildlife and beach-day, head to Garrapatero. A long stretch of white sands, with blue calm ocean waters, perfect for snorkeling and swimming. Nearby you can visit a lagoon where often flamingos and white-cheeked pintail ducks can be seen.
3. Tortoise Reserve - While the Galapagos Islands are collectively known for the famous Giant Tortoises, Santa Cruz island is one of the main places to see them, and the Tortoise Reserve is often one of the first stops for visitors embarking on their Galapagos tour.
4. Los Gemelos - Meaning “Twin Craters” this site beckons visitors who can follow the trail around the rims for beautiful views. This is also a great place for bird watching, including owls, finches, and doves.
5. Las Bachas - This nesting site for sea turtles is a wonderful, calm, hidden cove, ideal for a quiet getaway, as it also includes a lovely lagoon perfect for swimming. Flamingos can often be seen here, as can many other bird species of the Galapagos islands. Another interesting point nearby is a floating barge, a remnant of WWII when the island was used by American forces.
6. Cerro Dragón - An extremely important site to the history of conservation on the Galapagos Islands, Cerro Dragon (meaning Dragon Hill), has been used for the repatriation of land iguanas to great effect. They are transferred from an artificial breeding ground to Cerro Dragón in regular intervals, allowing them to adapt once again to the wild. Thus this is a wonderful and fascinating place to observe their behavior and patterns. Nearby there is wonderful snorkeling as well.
7. Plazas Islands - One of the best places for seeing a wide variety of the Galapagos famous species in one, quite compact place, the Plazas Islands are distinct and unusual. Also home to a forest of prickly cactus, they seem to be an amalgam of desert and ocean characteristics. You may also spot a rare hybrid iguana, the result of mating between a male marine iguana and female land iguana.
8. Media Luna and Cerro Crocker - This is where you can hike to the very top of the island for spectacular views. Your first stop along the trail, which begins in Bellavista, will be Media Luna, half of a crater in the Miconia Zone which is named for a unique vegetation only found on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal island. Here is also where you can spot nesting petrels Continuing on the trail, you’ll eventually reach the highest point of the island at Cerro Crocker. This is a great spot for photographs, encapsulating the ocean, island, and town of Puerto Ayora.
9. Las Grietas - Meaning “the crevices”, Las Grietas is a great place to swim, accessible by taking a water taxi from the mainland near Puerto Ayora. At Las Grietas you can see a unique natural phenomenon of fresh water essentially floating on top of salt water underneath. Also nearby is El Mirador where many finches can be observed - the very species that inspired Darwin.
10. Black Turtle Cove - At Black Turtle Cove, on Santa Cruz’s north shore, you can explore the beautiful Mangrove protected area, observe sea turtles feeding, three different species of shark in the clear water, and rays as well. You can also spot egrets and lava herons.
What to Pack for the Galapagos
The Galapagos are remote, surrounded by beaches, waters, and lava rock. Your packing list should be light, but you definitely want to make sure you have all necessities with you. The benefit of going on a Galapagos cruise will be the ability to bring a little bit more, as you’ll only be unpacking once.
1. Bring multiple bathing suits. Though it’s generally warm, and clothing will dry quickly, you’ll definitely want more than one suit because you’ll be in and out of the water constantly. It will also be a good idea to bring water clothes, to protect from the sun. It’s easy to forget your exposed neck and arms when you’re floating on top of the water gazing through goggles at the incredibly world below!
2. Bring a pair of hiking boots or tennis shoes. You’ll do a lot of walking around on the Galapagos. Hikes range from strenuous to moderate, to easy, so if you think you’ll be interested in this activity, definitely use up some room in your suitcase for a pair of sturdy, comfortable, close-toed shoes.
3. Sunhat, sunglasses, and strong sunscreen. As you’ll be out on the water regularly, and enjoying time ashore along the coast where there’s little shade, definitely bring plenty of sunscreen, the stronger SPF the better.
4. A multi functional, small day pack. Because most shore excursions will typically last half day to a full day, you’ll want a small to medium sized day backpack for storing water, cameras, sunscreen, phones, and anything else you’ll need. Make sure this is something you don’t mind getting dirty or wet.
5. Rubber soled water shoes. Consider bringing a pair of water shoes to protect against sharp coral reefs and for walking around lava rocks. These can be very useful as well to avoid slipping on board the boats that take you around to the many beautiful snorkeling spots on the Galapagos.
6. Layers! Layers is key for most destinations around the world, but in the Galapagos you may need a light sweatshirt for at night, even though it won’t seem like it during the day. Also consider a pair of long hiking pants to avoid bug bites.
Photography tips for the Galapagos
Without a doubt, you will leave the Galapagos with thousands of pictures, mainly of the incredible wildlife. Here’s some tips to help you make sure you make the most of your trip and arrive home with some amazing shots.
1. Bring multiple lenses - Learning from a photography professional, you’re going to want to be able to commit to several different types of shot, and this means different lenses. For the Galapagos, try to bring a telephoto lens and a macro lens. These are going to be the best way to capture the unbelievable wildlife on the islands.
2. Don’t be afraid to get up close - The animals in the Galapagos are famously used to humans, and this makes it very easy to get up close for spectacular macro shots. The proximity means you have a greater ability to capturing the personality, expressions, and textures of the animals.
3. Bring a len cloth - the last thing you want is a foggy lens to muddy up your image. Make sure you have a high end lens cloth ready to keep dust and condensation off your camera. In warm tropical environments, lens fogging is common - one good tip is to take your camera out with lens cap off a good few minutes before you plan to start shooting. This will give enough time to let any fogging dissipate.
4. Go on a Photography tour! - For serious amateurs and complete novices, photography tours are one of the best ways to learn and grow as a photographer. You’ll get to learn from a professional and get the best tips about how to best capture wildlife. When the wildlife is so entrancing, historic, and relatively easy to get close to, the thing that’s going to make your photos stand out is the composition and lighting - having an expert near to instruct you on angles, f-stops, shutter-speeds, and filters is an incredible asset. See all the Galapagos photography tours on Stride.
5. Get to know the animals - one of the key aspects to wildlife photography is knowing the best times to find them in action. Learn a bit about each major species to discover their habits. You may also learn when to best find them with the least amount of people around. Though sometimes you may want a human presence in your photograph - this can create a wonderful dynamic.
6. Get dirty! - Photography is about finding the best way to showcase your subject. In the case of wildlife, this often means getting down and dirty, wet and uncomfortable. To get the best angles, you will find yourself contorting on the ground on your stomach, or perhaps balancing as quietly as possible on a log or tree branch.
7. Bring underwater casing.- A lot of your time in the Galapagos will be spent in the water. While over the counter underwater cameras actually do an impressive job, if you want sharper and higher resolution photos, invest in an underwater casing for your DSLR or other point and shoot. If you’re wary of getting your nice piece anywhere near the water (understandable) look into smart-phone accessories. There are many ways you can make your camera phone into the perfect underwater photography tool.
Travel to the Galapagos: Practicalities and Logistics
Before You Go
The Galapagos are technically part of Ecuador, so the same visa requirements apply. Citizens of the United States, Canada and most European countries do not require a visa to travel to Ecuador, unless you plan to stay past 90 days. You will generally receive a free visa upon entry into Ecuador.
General travel insurance should suffice for a trip to the Galapagos. You will be spending a lot of time on the water with your tour, and any insurance specificities related to this can be answered by the tour company.
You do need a Yellow Fever vaccine for traveling to Ecuador. Proof of vaccination is required upon entry into the country.
Besides that, no additional vaccinations are required for travel to the Galapagos, but make sure all your regular vaccinations are up to date.
Zika has been reported in some parts of Ecuador, so those traveling with young children or who are pregnant do so at your own risk.
Bring hats and sunscreen! You will be outside and on the water for a large part of your visit, and the sun can be intense.