Almost everyone who plans a trip to the Galapagos visits Santa Cruz Island first. The majority of flights from the mainland come to the small but active airport on the Baltra, a former US military base during WWII. From there, they make their way to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz on a series of buses and a ferry, an hour or two of travel time. Time sensitive travelers might try to include a stop at Los Gemelos on the way.
Santa Cruz is a crowded island, the most populated of all the Galapagos Archipelago. It is a magnet for cruise ships and luxury accommodations as well as last-minute deals and hostel-like lodging for the more adventurous travelers. It is our least favorite of the islands. However, access to other, non-inhabited islands is unparalleled for island-hoppers. If you don’t have the money for a full-blown cruise, making Santa Cruz your home base opens up exploration of the stark volcanic landscape of Isla Bartolomé, snorkeling on Isla Santiago, and photographing the Golden Iguana on the red-tinged South Plaza Island.
My favorite locations on Santa Cruz Island are far removed from Puerto Ayora. For example, I would much rather spend an afternoon at El Garrapatero, a semi-protected beach accessible by road, than hike with dozens of fellow tourists to Las Grietas. The Charles Darwin Research Center, a bucket-list item for many Darwin fans, was a disappointment but the hike out to Tortuga Bay is definitely worthwhile, even on a crowded weekend. And we did love kayaking and snorkeling in the Itabaca Canal. But the highlands tour with visits to see Galapagos Tortoises and Lava Tunnels felt forced.
Just remember, staying on Santa Cruz Island means making a temporary home in a large town, with schools and grocery stores. While their are definite benefits, like the outdoor fish market and a small park full of mosaic tilework, Puerto Ayora is not an escape from people. Wildlife can be found on the edges, with seals visiting the seashore patio of the Red Mangrove and small marine iguanas sunning on rocks near the coastline. However, your best chance of enjoying the wildlife will be outside of the port city.
Great Photos from Santa Cruz Island
Here are a few of my favorite photos from our trips to Santa Cruz Island. I hope they capture your imagination and encourage you to explore some of the lesser visited destinations on the Galapagos Archipelago.