Santa Cruz is the first island most people visit when arriving in the Galápagos Islands, and offers the largest array of activities. There are lots of dive sites nearby, plenty of day tours, as well as free activities to fill up your days on the island. Puerto Ayora is the main base, and is the best place in the Galápagos to find tour agencies offering last minute cruises and day tours. It’s also packed with souvenir shops and cool restaurants. We spent six days here, splitting our time between two day tours, two dives and two days exploring the islands free hikes, snorkels and beaches.
How to Get There
Most people will arrive in the Galápagos at the Baltra airport, which is on an island just north of Santa Cruz. All flights to the Galápagos originate in Guayaquil at the domestic airport, and take about 1 hour and 40 minutes. You can’t bring any fruit or seeds foods, or any live animals/plants on the flight, and you’ll need to pay $20 USD in the Guayaquil airport for screening services. Also note that mainland Ecuador is one hour ahead of the Galápagos.
When you arrive at the Baltra airport you’ll need to pay the $100 USD entry fee and collect your luggage before catching the free airport bus to the Itabaca Channel, which separates Baltra Island and Santa Cruz Island. The ferry across the channel costs $1 USD. Then to finish your journey you can choose to take a 45 minute taxi into Puerto Ayora for $20-$25 USD, or sweat it out on the bus for an hour for $2 USD (its really not that bad!).
We also travelled from Santa Cruz to both Isabela Island and San Cristobal. This requires taking a $30 USD ferry. The ferries are smaller 28 person boats, and a batch leaves for the other islands once in the morning (7-9am) and once in the afternoon (2-4pm). You can book a ferry ticket from any tour agency. The length of the inter-island trips mostly depends on the ocean conditions (and how crazy your driver is) but to give you an idea, our trip from Santa Cruz to Isabela took 2 hours 45 minutes, the trip back took 1 hour 45 mins (our driver was crazy) and the trip from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal took 2 hours.
For more details on organizing and planning out your travel to and from the Galápagos, check out our overview post here.
Where to Stay
- Hotel Crossman – We loved this hostel, and compared to most in Puerto Ayora it was pretty cheap. The first night we booked we paid $35 USD, but after that we booked long term for $30 USD/night. The showers were hot, the kitchen area was well equipped (important to cook to save money on food in the expensive Galápagos), and the rooms were comfy. It’s also just a short walk from the main pier and grocery store, and had free drinkable water which was key. The wifi was a little in and out, and there wasn’t always someone at the desk, but overall the place was a great deal! You can book online here.
What to Do
- Las Grietas – Snorkelling Las Grietas (translates to “cracks”) is a must if you’re spending any time in Puerto Ayora. The only cost is a $0.80 water taxi fee (both there and back), and snorkel gear (approx. $5 USD) if you don’t have your own. Not to worry, if you forget, there was an adorable old man renting out gear on the walk to Las Grietas! The water taxi takes you 2 minutes from the main pier to the start of the path (yes, only 2 minutes, but there’s no other way to get to that path!). From there it’s a 15-20 minute walk to Las Grietas, the only slightly confusing part of the path is cutting across a beach – just keep going and you’ll find the path on the other side. Once you’re there, stash your clothes and jump into the crystal clear ocean water that has gathered in this scenic crevasse. The first swimming area is generally pretty crowded, but if you’re up to it you can cut across a slippery rocky area at the far end, which leads to a second swimming area. We were the only two people in the second area when we were there! Swimming through Las Grietas is really cool, being surrounded by walls on both sides, and seeing fish swimming beneath you in extremely clear water. You’ll probably also find a couple small marine iguanas and crabs chilling among the rocks. Also make sure to check out the short hiking trail (about 5 minutes) that starts right before you arrive at the crevasse, which takes you along the edge of Las Grietas to a great lookout point.
- Charles Darwin Research Center – The largest breeding centre in the Galápagos, this research centre named after the father of natural selection is a must see. As a bonus, it’s completely free and only a 10 minute walk from town. Follow Ave Charles Darwin east out of the town, and you’ll quickly arrive at the research centre. There you can check out the many famous Galápagos Tortoise species from the different islands, ranging in age from tiny new hatchlings to full grown adults. You’ll also find lots of information on the unique biodiversity of the islands, and its growing threats. Most importantly you’ll find Lonesome George (although the poor guy is now deceased and stuffed) the last of his species and an icon of the Galápagos Breeding movement. It’s a great place to go on your first day in The Galápagos; it will give you lots of information for the beautiful space around you!
- Tortuga Bay – Are beautiful white sand beaches your thing? Then you should definitely make time to visit Tortuga Bay! Walk west out of town down Charles Binford Ave, past Hotel Crossman and the Galápagos Centre of Renewable Energy, and you’ll arrive at the start of the path. Sign in, then enjoy the scenic 45 minute – 1 hour hike where you can see the famous endemic Opuntia cacti and lava lizards along the way. The beach is beautiful, and although you can’t swim, you can take in the turquoise water and white sand beaches, while looking out for marine iguanas, pelicans and pipers. Note: food isn’t allowed on the beach to reduce litter, so if you want to have a picnic or snack, make sure to be discreet and pack up everything. Also don’t feed any animals!
- Tortoise Reserve – Seeing the famous Galápagos Tortoises in the breeding center is cool, but seeing them in their natural habitat in the Santa Cruz highlands is cooler. Unfortunately it’ll cost you a little bit to do this. The two reserves are called El Chato and Rancho Primicias, and entry is $5 USD for both (includes rubber boots for when it’s muddy). Getting to the reserves is also a little difficult, and will probably cost you a chunk of change unless you want to run or walk the 21 km into the highlands. You can rent a bike for $15-$20 USD for the day, and take the well maintained bike path along the highway to get there. You can pay a taxi $40 USD to take you there, wait for you, and return you back to town. Or you can get creative like us! On one of our dives we asked our taxi driver (which was included in the cost of the dive) to drop us off in Santa Rosa, a little town on the main highway where the path to the reserves starts. You can walk the 3.5 km from there to the reserves (it’s often muddy, so bring proper footwear). You’ll see lots of tortoises wandering around the grasslands while you’re walking down the road, there’s something amazing about walking down the road and seeing giant tortoises lazily grazing on either side. When we headed back to Puerto Ayora we walked back to Santa Rosa and easily found a ride back into town for $1 USD each (most taxis and people are heading into town anyway to make some money, so they will graciously give you a cheap ride to town).
- Lava Tunnels – Exploring the lava tunnels in the Santa Cruz highlands is a very cool experience, and entry is completely free! However, you run into the same problems as above when trying to get to the highlands. We suggest combining both activities into one trip, as it only takes 15-20 minutes to hike the lava tunnel. You’ll find the lava tunnel on the way to Rancho Primicias (take the left road at the split on the way to the tortoise reserves). The tunnel is huge, though there is one small section you’ll have to crawl through. The whole route is lit so no need for flashlights. It’s very astounding to think that lava flows carved out these massive underground tunnels.
- North Seymour – This day trip is a great combination of wildlife viewing and amazing beaches, and is especially known for it’s encounters with the nesting native bird species. We booked through an agency called Albatross for $150 USD, and were on a boat called the King Marine. We were picked up at 8am and headed north to the Ithabaca Channel on a bus, where we met our naturalist guide Soham and started our trip. The first half of the day we visited Bachas Beach, the most beautiful white sand beach we encountered our whole trip. Our guide showed us lava lizards, sally lightfoot crabs, pelicans, and marine iguanas on our way to a lagoon where we found two flamingos. After that we had about 45 minutes to chill on the beach or do some snorkelling, we opted to snorkel and saw lots of fish and a sea turtle. We then headed over to North Seymour, enjoying a lunch of pasta and seafood, juice, and fruit for desert along the way. The main draw of this trip is the second half, when you arrive at North Seymour, known as a bird paradise. The island is a major breeding ground for frigate birds and blue footed boobies, and we saw a lot of baby frigate birds in late October when we were there. You can get insanely close to these birds, and gain an intimate view into their lives. During our 1.5 hour hike around the island we also encountered yellow land iguanas, and baby sea lions along the coast. After snacks on the boat on the way back to the ferry landing (Ithabaca Channel) we boarded the bus at 4pm and made it back to Puerto Ayora just before 5pm.
- Bartolomé – This day trip is all about the landscapes, including arguably the most iconic Galápagos landscape called Pinnacle Rock. We booked through Galápagos Discovery for $160 USD after comparing prices at different agencies, and were on a boat called Galápagos Shark II. This is a very early pickup at 6:15am, but does include a nice breakfast of eggs, bread, cheese, a ham slice, and watermelon right away, as well as juice and tea. You’ll eat this while the boat is driving to Bartolomé, which is about a 2 hour trip. You also pass by Daphne Major on the way, close enough to see crabs, and Nazca boobies nesting among the rocks. You have about an hour on the island, while your guide explains how the lava flows and topography of the island were formed. Bartolomé is very barren,;you’re not visiting for the wildlife but instead for the unreal lava landscapes. At the end of the hike you’ll reach the iconic Pinnacle Rock view, a lava rock structure jutting out of the ocean below. We then headed over to a beach just across the channel on Santiago Island for some beach chilling or snorkelling, and on the way saw a Galápagos penguin and passed very close to the Pinnacle Rock. The snorkelling was fairly cold (wetsuit rental for $5 USD) but the marine life was plentiful, including three turtles! See if you can get a cheaper wetsuit rental at an agency before you leave, and bring one with you to save money! We had lunch on the way back at about 1:15pm, which consisted of some yummy fish, rice, steamed veggies, cole slaw, and juice with some chocolate cake for dessert. You could also buy beer and soda. The trip back took 2.5 hours in rougher seas, and they did have seasickness pills available. Right before docking they set out a great snack spread of including kiwi, watermelon, bananas, popcorn, chips, Oreos, crackers and jam. We were back in town just before 5pm.
Pinzón – We didn’t go on this particular tour, but we did get information on it. The quotes we got for the day tour ranged from $130-$160 USD. It is a snorkel based tour, once you head to the Ithabaca Channel you’ll head west and hit up some good snorkel spots near Daphne Major/Minor, a nice white sand beach, and on Pinzón Island. Pinzón is known as one of the few places in the Galápagos where you can swim with Galápagos penguins. You’ll also have a chance of seeing sea lions in the water, and Galápagos tortoises on land.
- North and South Plazas – We also didn’t partake on a tour to North and South Plazas Islands, but we did snorkel here during a break between our two Gordon Rocks dives, and we got information on the tour from local tour companies. The quotes we got for this day tour ranged from $130-$160 USD. This time after heading up to catch your boat at the Ithabaca Channel you’ll head east and traverse the small channel between between the two islands, sighting nesting bird species. On the island you’ll see land iguanas and a large sea lion colony. Some tours include a snorkel at the island, while others only snorkel once you’re back in the Ithabaca Channel, so make sure you clarify where you are going to snorkel. When we snorkelled briefly at Plazas we saw a couple wandering black tipped sharks and played with some young sea lions in the water, it was a lot of fun!
- Mosquera and North Seymour – We booked all of our dives through Albatros Diving on Ave Charles Darwin, and they were extremely helpful. Even though we only had 13 dives under our belt at the time, we wanted to dive the well known, more advanced site Gordon Rocks. They suggested that we dive Mosquera and North Seymour with them first, then if they thought we could handle it they would give us the green light for Gordon Rocks. Their dives cost $150 USD/person if you book more than one dive with them, which includes all equipment, a dive guide and a yummy lunch of fish, rice and veggies. Our 45 minute dive at Mosquera was a slight drift dive, and we saw tons of fish and some rays. During our break we had some cookies and bananas and snorkelled at North Seymour, where we saw a white tip reef shark and some sea lions. Our second 45 minute dive at North Seymour we saw a bunch of sharks dozing on the bottom and a sea turtle. On the way back we had our lunch and made it back to the ferry pier at 1pm.
- Gordon Rocks – This dive site is on most divers’ bucket lists, and is known for its amazing coral covered walls and shark sightings, including the elusive hammerhead. The rocks seem to jut out of the middle of the ocean off the east coast of Santa Cruz. It is a more advanced dive, as sometimes the current can be dangerous, so most dive shops will only take advanced open water divers or experienced open water divers. The dive was $150 USD booked through Albatros Diving, which included all equipment, guide and lunch (fish, rice and veggies), and both of the dives were at Gordon Rocks. We saw a couple Mola Mola (so amazing!), a bunch of sea turtles, a Galápagos shark and a Hammerhead shark in the distance. During our break we had a fun snorkel at Plazas Island, where we swam with playful sea lions and saw a small barracuda. We were back at the ferry pier at 1:30pm. Definitely one of the best diving sites we’ve ever been to.
- Darwin and Wolf Island – This dive site is easily the best site in the archipelago, but requires a live-aboard as it’s pretty far away. This is obviously expensive, but worth it if you are an advanced diver. We didn’t quite have the experience, but once we have some more dives logged we’ll definitely be back!
Where to Eat
- Cheap Food Street – This is definitely the best budget restaurant choice in Puerto Ayora. All of the budget restaurants have gathered on Charles Binford Ave., and their tables take over the street at 6pm. Dodge past promoters shoving menus and live lobsters in your face and look for meal specials (usually if you ask for menu del dia that will translate) for $5-$6 USD. These will include a starter soup, a main consisting of rice, beans/potatoes and your choice of meat, and juice (we recommend staying away from the chicken…on one occasion, Devon got chicken that was purely just the ribs with barely any meat on it). On the other hand you could share a full lobster meal, cooked fresh for $20-$25 USD (an insane price considering how much we would pay back home). The streets aren’t well labelled, but if you walk 3 blocks north up the main street starting near the pier, the restaurants are on your right. They’re hard to miss at night, as they take over the whole street.
- Supermarket – If you are staying for a while and have access to a kitchen in your hostel, buying food at the supermarket is definitely the cheapest option. It is definitely more expensive than on the mainland, but the prices are not outrageous. Try to bring dry foods (pasta and snack bars etc.) from the mainland and supplement from the supermarket with foods you can’t bring over. We were able to cook for $3-$5 USD a night with buying everything there, and although it didn’t save a ton it was a nice break from the menu del dia for every meal.
- Il Giardino – We checked out this restaurant for our splurge day, and weren’t overly impressed. We stayed away from the really expensive ones, and paid about $10 USD for a salad or burger. As with most restaurants it also had a 2 for 1 happy hour.
- Bone – This is just a little cafe, but had cheap toastadas (basically grilled cheese with ham) for $3 USD. A great quick snack spot.
- Kale – We had a decent cheap breakfast here, it’s on the same street as Hotel Crossman. Nothing special, but it’s also hard to find cheap simple breakfast spots on the island so it’s unique in that sense.
- Your Guide to Visiting the Galápagos Without a Cruise
- San Cristóbal
- 10 Ways to Save Money in the Galápagos Islands