There are 13 different islands in the Galapagos archipelago. Visiting them all at once would be ideal, but unfortunately, this can be quite difficult to accomplish. When travelling to the Galapagos, it is essential to make sure that you choose an itinerary that includes the highlights of the islands that you most want to see. It could be a particular island, a location, or a place with your favourite wildlife. Our travel specialists will be able to help you make the right choice for you. For us, it is quite simple: the perfect Galapagos itinerary is not complete without a visit to Santa Cruz.
Yes, to experience the perfect Galapagos trip, we recommend you begin and end your journey in Santa Cruz. Even though Santa Cruz is not the biggest island on the archipelago (that would be Isabella island), here, you can find some significant landmarks of the Galapagos islands such as The Charles Darwin Research Station, Los Gemelos (The Twins), Cerro Dragon, and more.
So, whether you have heard of these places or not, it doesn't matter. All you need to know now is that you can't miss them! - Keep reading and find out more about this Galapagos' one of a kind island.
Santa Cruz is a fantastic island in the Galapagos that offers you the chance to experience all seven vegetation zones of the archipelago. It is among the most popular islands in the Galapagos along with North Seymour, Santa Fe, Isabela and Rabida.
Santa Cruz is located in the centre of the Galapagos and is the second largest island in the entire archipelago. Its capital is Puerto Ayora, the most populated urban centre in the islands, so you get to not only experience nature but also the more “urban” side of the islands. You will see small villages where people spend their time working in agriculture and raising cattle.
Still, as fascinating as it is to see the locals and their way of life, the highlight of Santa Cruz- as with the rest of the Galapagos – is the island’s unique wildlife and landscapes. Santa Cruz Island is a dormant volcano, known for its dramatic beauty, vegetation and wildlife. The last eruptions occurred here 1.5 million years ago, but you can still see the traces of the event by heading deep into the island’s lava tunnels, many of the tunnels stretch for thousands of metres beneath the ground, with ceilings high enough for you to walk through.
Other highlights on the islands are - Los Gemelos or "The Twins (two big holes formed by the collapse of a magma chamber). Tortuga Bay (land iguanas alert!). The Charles Darwin Research Station (need we say more?). Garrapatero (for the best swims with flamingos!). Las Grietas (a little water gem on the island); and so much more!
Let's start with one of the most iconic places in Santa Cruz – the Charles Darwin Research Centre. Created in 1964, and operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation, this centre supports the Galapagos National Park by providing educational tasks and is therefore extremely important in the conservation of the Galapagos unique species. This is also the right place to learn more about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, his expeditions, as well as all the species that he studied to develop his famous theory. When in doubt the Charles Darwin Research Centre is a fantastic way to start any Galapagos trip. Here you will not only learn about the magnificent Galapagos giant-tortoises but also be able to see them first hand in their different life stages.
What exactly will you be seeing? - You will learn all about the centre's giant-tortoise breeding program; you will see lots of cute baby tortoises; adult tortoises; various plants; and even iguanas. Yes, contrary to what you might think, land iguanas also inhabit the centre, they first came here as the result of a rescue done back in the ‘70s when wild dogs nearly wiped out an entire colony of 500 iguanas. At the time the Charles Darwin Research Centre rescued about 60 survivors to rebuild their population. From that moment on a land iguana breeding program was initiated, and it has been so successful that it is still active to this day. Finally, you will also be learning about Lonesome George, who was famous for being the last of one of the Pinta island subspecies.
Tortuga Bay, as the name suggests, is a famous turtle nesting location in the Galapagos Islands where you can enjoy the sight of one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire archipelago. Not only that, but it is also number 10 on the list of 'the top of the best beaches in the world' by Trip Advisor. Here you can enjoy the beautiful white sand, the turquoise waters, as well as the opportunity to view species such as - marine iguanas chilling in the shade, seagulls, crabs, and sometimes, even the famous blue-footed boobies, make an appearance. The easiest way to reach Tortuga Bay from Puerto Ayora is to walk, bike or take a water taxi. If you are on a cruise, you don't need to worry about transport as everything will be planned. The area welcomes visitors every day from 8 am till 6 pm, and at the bay's entrance, you will find - a conservation centre; a ranger station with restrooms as well as a snack shop; there is also a car park; and, finally, some bike racks. If you have the chance to walk down Tortuga Bay you will at some point find Playa Mansa, a stunning location that features a lagoon, and that is a favourite for adults and kids alike. At Playa Mansa there are also kayak rentals available, but this might already be included in your cruise, depending on the ship you choose.
Garrapatero is another wonderful beach in the Galapagos and one of the best places to visit in Santa Cruz. Here you can enjoy the beautiful expanse of white sand and spot Galapagos land iguanas relaxing on the rocks. The beach is only 30 minutes away from Santa Cruz's capital, Puerto Ayora, and it is quite easy to get here. If Garrapatero is on your itinerary, you can expect to see a pristine corner of the Galapagos, away from all the noise, where you can switch off and enjoy the mesmerising nature. For a better view of the wildlife in this area, pay close attention to the lagoon right behind the beach where you can find; flamingos, black-necked ducks, Galapagos finches as well as migratory birds. However, the wildlife spotting is not the only fun in Garrapatero. Beautiful tidal pools form here which you can easily explore by swimming, kayaking and snorkelling.
The one of a kind scenery that you can witness in the Galapagos is the result of millions of years of volcanic action. One of the places where this is most visible is at 'Los Gemelos' (the twins). If you are wondering what exactly you can view here, as the name suggests, 'Los Gemelos' consist of two craters found on each side of the road that links Baltra airport with Puerto Ayora town. The twins are the result of a massive magma chamber collapse; the largest chamber is 1300 feet across and 2,300 feet deep. If picturing this only is already impressive, just imagine when you are there. Even though it is not possible to go around the big crater holes, there are a few simple (and short) trails that you can take to witness these two gigantic beauties. Scalesia forest surrounds the craters, so do take some moments to appreciate the nature around, as it is usually possible to spot both vermilion flycatchers as well as short-eared owls around this area.
Las Grietas, or 'the Cracks', is a beautiful spot where deep, cool, ocean water runs through a crack located between two tall cliffs. This incredible place in the Galapagos is incredible mainly due to its size - Las Grietas is 10 meters deep, 7 meters wide and 100 meters long. Plus the scenery here is as dramatic as it is beautiful. There are cliffs of dark volcanic rock rising on each side, and contrasting against the stunning emerald green, water. It's like being on the set of an adventure movie where all the locations look too over the top beautiful to even exist, only Las Grietas, actually does! Needleless to say that bringing your camera is a must. If you like your photos to be more on the daring and adventurous side, there's a tunnel underwater which is about a meter long, and that you can comfortably swim through with one deep breath. Just imagine taking a picture while you are doing this! Still, if experimenting with pictures is not your thing, you can always just sit and relax in Las Grietas looking into the beautiful emerald green water. We recommend that you might like to visit at sunset, as the way the light plays in the Las Grietas is otherworldly.
If you thought Los Gemelos was the only remaining volcanic evidence in Santa Cruz, then you were wrong. Another main attraction on the island comes from the same type of volcanic evidence, and it's called 'Lava Tunnels'. Just imagining walking through a long tunnel that was created by flooding lava, well, that's exactly what you will find there! These incredible underground tunnels are located southeast of the village of Santa Rosa and are more than 1km long. If you are wondering how these were formed than the answer is simple – Millions and millions of years ago, the cooling of the outside layers of the lava created a crust around it while hot lava was still inside. Then the lava flowed out, and that created the tunnel as we see it today. Once you get inside and start descending into the tunnels via stairs, you quickly stop being able to see the sea as the darkness of the tunnels become more imminent. Even though they have lights hung throughout, the visibility is quite limited, so you need to be careful as you walk along the tunnels. The tunnels are mostly wide and spacious with high ceilings. However, there is a part halfway your tunnel journey where you have to crawl on your hand and knees to get through to the other side. Don't worry as this is not very long still, you might get a bit muddy, so practical clothes and shoes are a must. Sturdy shoes are best as there is limited visibility and the floor is uneven and slippery at times. It might be dripping inside the tunnels so if you think this would bother you bringing a rain jacket might also be a good idea. Still, no matter how muddy or wet you do get in there, it is all worth it in the end. - You will, after all, have the experience of walking through lava that once used to flow! How unique is that?
If you are like most tourists you will want to observe the local people and customs. The best way to do it? Head down to the Santa Cruz fish market! All you need to do is get up early and head to Avenue Charles Darwin where the market is located. Here you can watch the fishermen reeling in their catch fresh from the sea, cutting it up and getting it ready to sell. Make sure to stop and ask where the 'pescado encocado' (fish cooked in a coconut sauce) comes from. In the fish market, everything is done in a traditional way, so it is great just to slow down time and observe how people greet each other, talk with each other and appreciate their unique local ways. You will also be able to see large pelicans flying around as they are drawn here by the smells of fish. They will then wait patiently on the roofs, for any spoils thrown out by the fisherman. However, the pelicans are not the only ones enjoying themselves, the atmosphere in the market is always so cheerful and lively that spending a couple of hours there is nothing else but pure joy. The truth is, wherever you go in the archipelago, the Santa Cruz fish market is one of the best places to experience the typical and happy, Galapagos island life.
Even though we chose Santa Cruz as the one element that can't be excluded from a Galapagos trip, choosing only one Galapagos island as your favourite might seem like an impossible task to complete. We understand. Most visitors agree on the fact that there isn't a 'best' island in the archipelago, but that all of them together are the highlight. Every island has something special to offer, and unique memories can be made anywhere. The wildlife, the scenery, and the birdwatching opportunities are as unforgettable in Santa Cruz as they are in Isabella or Floreana island. The unexpected can happen anywhere on the archipelago, and there isn't one island that can be seen as disappointing or less worthy of a visit. The truth is, no matter where you are in the Galapagos, you will always feel like you are in the presence of something remarkable.
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