Located in the center of the Galapagos islands, Santa Cruz, will most likely be “home base” for your Galapagos land-based itinerary. Santa Cruz is not a large island but it is the most densely populated of the Galapagos islands. It is also the best spot to be for a lot of the day tours to uninhabited islands and scuba diving locations.
Top Things to Do on Santa Cruz
Tour the Island by Taxi
We actually ended up on Santa Cruz two different times during our trip to the Galapagos and we did this same taxi tour both times. It is not a normal tour (meaning you don’t book it at the travel companies in town). All you need to do is flag a taxi and tell them to take you to the lava tunnels, craters, and turtle farm. We ended up paying about $40 per taxi for the tour which is a great deal given the tour lasts several hours.
As you head out of town your first stop will be the craters. These are huge sunken holes formed as the soft ground is washed away. You cannot hike down into the craters but take a few minutes to wander the paths that connect the craters and make sure to yell down into them as the echo is pretty great.
The second stop of the tour is the Lava Tunnels. The cab driver will drop you off at the entrance and then pick you up about half a mile down the road at the exit. The tunnels were formed by rivers of super hot lava and they are pretty impressive. There are slippery rocks to climb over so it is best to leave anything you don’t want to get dirty in the cab (we did not have any fear of getting things stolen. People in the Galapagos are super nice). One other important note is that there is a section where you have to crawl on your hands and knees under a rock arch. Check out the video below of my super cool parents climbing though.
This is the highlight of the taxi tour. Entrance is $5 and the tortoise selfies are priceless. There are huge tortoises wandering all over this ranch, playing in mud, sleeping, and eating everything they can find. We had so much fun tossing the guava fruit to them and watching them slowly meander over to sloppily chomp them down. You also have the chance to climb into a real tortoise shell to take your Instagram to the next level.
Once you have seen all of the tortoises you can handle, hop in your taxi and head back to town for a well deserved happy hour.
Rachel and I also visited Las Grietas twice on our trip to Santa Cruz. It is an absolutely perfect place to cool off on a hot Galapagos day. It is a long crack in the rocks filled with the most beautiful clear turquoise water. There is a dry area to leave your stuff and you are only allowed in the water for 45 minutes at a time so it does not get too crowded. The water is pretty cool compared to the hot Galapagos weather but it is definitely worth the swim. There are actually three separate swimming areas so if you just keep swimming back (and climbing over some rocks) you will eventually get to an area that you have all to yourself! There is also a great section where you can swim under the rocks rather than going over (see video below).
To get to Las Grietas from town take a water taxi across the marina to the other side ($0.50). Once on the other side follow the signs past the salt mine and German Beach (Playa Alemania) to eventually end up at Las Grietas. The walk is about 1.5 miles and you will definitely be ready to jump in once you get there.
German Beach (Playa Alemania)
On your way back down from Las Grietas, you will pass the German Beach. We went one time and had great visibility and saw a couple of turtles and sharks. The second time it was super murky but we still saw an eel and parrotfish. I think it just depends on the currents. Either way, it is a great spot to relax and cool off.
We have mixed feelings about Tortuga Bay. The bay itself is murky and the walk to get there is long. But on the way, you see a gorgeous white sand beach and can swim with the marine iguanas!
Walk about 45 minutes down the trail to the beach. It is hot so bring plenty of water. There are cacti lining the trail and it is a fairly easy walk.
You’ll soon arrive to a stunning beach with relatively no-one around. You can dip your feet to cool off, but there is a rip-tide so avoid swimming. Keep walking right and you’ll come to a pool where marine iguanas swim to get from the ocean to the beach. This spot is the best in Galapagos for seeing marine iguanas. And you can even sit in the pool with them!
One you get to Tortuga Bay, the sand is nice but the water visibility is like a lake! It was very murky both times we visitied. A local man told us that the trick is to swim our farther along the left side rocks and trees to see wildlife. We sure did! The only problem is the visibility is still only 3 feet or so, and you are seeing sharks and giant stingrays! Super creepy. You can rent kayaks and while they are a little pricey they are definitely the better way to view the creatures from above. Plus it is a pretty far swim!
If you don’t feel like walking back, there is a boat that will take you back to the Santa Cruz pier. We did this once and there was a huge swell so the boat ride was an adventure in itself!
Laguna Las Ninfas
We stumbled across this natural preserve while wandering around the island. It is a great stop to get out of the sun as its wooden walkway is mostly covered by the mangroves and trees. There happened to be a large sea turtle floating near the path while we were there which was awesome. I would not hike two miles or anything to get here but if you are in the area it is definitely worth the stop. The best part is it’s free!
Charles Darwin Center
The Charles Darwin Center is obviously a mandatory stop on your Galapagos tour. We enjoyed reading all of the information about how they were able to save the giant tortoises (except poor Lonesome George) and what all Darwin did while he was on the island. The Darwin Center is free to get into and you can still see the preserved Lonesome George if you want to. The Darwin Center also has tortoises from some of the different islands so you can really see how different they are. While we were visiting there were a few groups of tortoises that appeared to be breeding and it was pretty funny to hear the noises they make. It was even funnier when we found out that all of the tortoises we were looking at were male!
Aside from the Darwin information and getting to see the tortoises, the Darwin Center is also a great spot to go to the beach! Make sure to bring a snorkel. We had a great time swimming near the rocks just outside of the Darwin Center at Playa Estacion. Be prepared: it can be pretty cold sometimes! Be sure to walk around the area. There are marine iguanas EVERYWHERE!
Every afternoon the fishermen pull up their boats and unload their catch in the center of town. From there they clean it and prepare it to be sold. Normally something like this would not make a very interesting stop but this is the Galapagos! Like clockwork every day when the fisherman show up so do the sea lions and birds. It is super fun to watch how nature and people interact. The birds are pretty stealthy, the sea lions… not so much. Insider Tip: observe the animals closely. We saw a sweet mom and baby sea lion nursing.
Santa Cruz Pier
You’ll likely use the Santa Cruz pier to get to and from the islands. Hang out for a while and you will see sea lions sleeping on benches and schools of sharks and rays in the water!
Rent a Kayak
On our last day on Santa Cruz we wanted to do some more snorkeling and get into the cool water. We thought about doing a snorkel trip but in the end decided to just rent our own kayak and do it self-guided. We ended up kayaking over to our own private version of the Las Grietas complete with blue-footed boobies!
Having already seen hundreds of sea lions and turtles while snorkeling our main goal in diving the Galapagos was to see the hammerheads. We tried to see them from San Cristobal at Kicker Rock but we did not see any there so Gordon Rocks were our last chance.
If you spend any amount of time on Santa Cruz you will surely hear a few Gordon Rocks horror stories. Its nickname is the washing machine and it is apparently very well deserved. The whole reason Gordon Rocks exists is that two currents come together bringing with them food and hammerheads. Luckily for us on the day we went the current was not very strong at all and the visibility was amazing. Although we did not get the huge schools that you can sometimes see at Gordon Rocks, we did see a few large hammerheads. But by far the coolest (and most unexpected) thing we saw were the giant sunfish (mola mola). I had no idea they were so huge and it was crazy to see how fast they were despite their giant and awkward size.
Aside from the hammerheads and sunfish, I could not get over how gigantic the schools of fish were. They looked like huge walls moving across the blue backdrop. This is by far one of the best dives I have ever done.
Seymour and Mosquera
For our second dive, we did either Seymour or Mosquera. I am honestly still not 100% sure which. We were told that it depended on conditions and I don’t think I ever asked which one we ended up doing. We saw a couple of giant Galapagos sharks and a bunch of weird eels but overall I liked this dive less than Gordon. Again I think it depends a lot on the conditions when you go as I have heard some amazing things about the Seymour dive. But to me it didn’t have that Galapagos mindblowing effect.
Getting to Santa Cruz from Baltra Airport
Once you land at Baltra airport you will wait in a queue for customs (even though you probably arrived on a domestic flight from Quito). You will then have to go to a second counter to pay the $100 USD cash only park entrance fee. (There is an ATM in the airport if you need it). After you receive your entrance ticket into the Galapagos you will place your bags into a scanner which makes sure you are not bringing any fruits or vegetables onto the island. Make sure you do not have any food leftover from the plane in your bag. My brother forgot that he had an apple in his backpack so he was forced to wait an extra 30 minutes while they made copies of his passport and documented his infraction.
Once outside you will get on a bus which will take you to the Baltra ferry. The bus is $1 and takes about 10 minutes. The ferry is super short as it just takes you across the channel and it costs $3. From there you have transportation options to get to central Santa Cruz. A taxi will set you back around $18 but we recommend taking the public bus for $1. The bus will let you off in the center of town one block away from my favorite empanada lady. The ride from the ferry dock to town takes about 45 minutes. Insider tip: Keep your eyes peeled while on the ride. We saw tortoises every time we did it!
Where to Stay on Santa Cruz
As I mentioned we visited Santa Cruz twice on our trip. The first time with my parents and the second time with my younger brother and friends from college. On both occasions we had Airbnbs and I highly recommend them both. The one we stayed at with my parents (here) was located more in the local part of town. And it is perfectly situated next to my all-time favorite empanada lady. The second Airbnb (here) is located a short walk from the Darwin Center. We also spent a few nights at the Bambu Hotel before our friends arrived. It was a super nice budget option!
Although we did not stay there as they were full we did walk by and take a look at the Lonesome George Eco Lodge. The owner was super nice and it seemed like a great place to stay. It is in a similar location to the second Airbnb listed above. Haven’t tried out Airbnb yet? Click here to get a $40 travel credit.
What to Eat on Santa Cruz
Just thinking about typing this my mouth is starting to water and my stomach is grumbling. Santa Cruz has by far the best empanadas I have ever had. Ever. If you leave the pier and head straight up into town you will eventually see the market and street food area on your right (calle 55) next to the municipal market. It is a bit of a walk but 100% worth it. The empanada lady usually gets there around 4:00 pm. (I prefer the first lady on your right if you are looking at the food court). The basic cheese empanadas are $1 but I recommend you fork over the extra .50 and get the shrimp. Fill that bad boy up with the salsa and homemade salad and you are ready to eat like a king. For real, go here and get the empanadas. They are that good.
Coconut Ice Cream
This one does not need any explanation. It is super hot in the Galapagos but thankfully on almost every corner, there is someone selling the most delicious coconut ice cream I have ever had. We ended up liking the ice cream at Café Hernán the best but you really can’t go wrong. We had two a day sometimes!
The street kiosks in Santa Cruz are on a whole new level. We had everything from grilled whole fish to lobster cazuela and it was all AMAZING. Walk up and down the street to see what looks the freshest, discuss a discounted price, and then get ready for one of the best meals of your trip. Insider tip: you can bring your own wine or beer.
Santa Cruz Brewery
Good beer is hard to find in Latin America. So we had low expectations for the Galapagos considering they are islands 600 miles from the mainland. But sure enough there is a craft brewery in Santa Cruz and it is great! The IPA runs out quick so get there early.
1835 Coffee Lab
If there were such things as Michelin stars for coffee shops I would give this place one. Whether you are an avid coffee drinker only sipping the finest grounds from the most elaborate preparations or just a person that enjoys a cup of coffee this place is a must visit. The barista Jonathan is a true artist and master of his craft. (For real they play a highlight reel of him competing in the background). They roast all of their own beans on site and get most of them from the local Galapagos farms. I had the cold brew and then went back for a V60, but you really can’t go wrong with this place. They also put out some bomb desserts.
Although we felt that San Cristobal and Isabela put out a more “Galapagosy vibe” we truly loved our time on Santa Cruz. The town is great and there is plenty of natural beauty and wildlife to keep you busy.
Want more information to plan your trip to Santa Cruz? Check out the Galapagos Lonely Planet here.