Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island

Volcanic activity has long since ceased on Santa Cruz, the second largest of the Galapagos Islands located in the center of the archipelago. The name Santa Cruz is Spanish for “Holy Cross.” This Galapagos island has a long history of human settlement and agriculture which has, unfortunately, left the landscape permanently altered by invasive species. Human development began in the 20th century on Santa Cruz when settlers from the United States and Europe moved to the area between WWI and WWII. The variety of geology, wildlife, and vegetation attracted travelers and made for an attractive area to call home. The small towns of Bellavista and Santa Rosa were established in the humid highlands where farmers raised cattle and planted crops such as avocados, coffee, sugarcane, bananas, oranges, and lemons.

Today Santa Cruz is the main tourism hub for all of Galapagos, given its proximity to the airport on Baltra to the north. It is the only island in Galapagos where the roads are established enough to allow visitors to easily access the interior and higher elevations of a Galapagos island. Puerto Ayora, situated in Academy Bay on Santa Cruz’s southern coast, is the port town that serves as a base for most Galapagos travelers. The water facing streets are lined with hotels and restaurants that look out onto the sail boat filled bay with sea birds soaring overhead and the rocky shores dotted with marine iguanas. Puerto Ayora is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the Galapagos Islands. The village of Bellavista, the second most populated area on the island, is located 7 km inland from Puerto Ayora. Once a farming center, it grew exponentially during the housing boom when those who work in Puerto Ayora began to move away from the hustle and bustle. The town is the starting point for hikes or horse rides to Media Luna and Cerro Crocker at the top of the island. Various farms around both Bellavista and Santa Rosa, the now center of the island’s farming community, have restaurants and some have entry points from which to explore the underground lava tubes.

Santa Cruz Island

Being the center of activity, Santa Cruz offers many visitor sites and educational destinations. The Charles Darwin Research Station, a ten minute walk from town, is the operational center of the international non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation. The visitor center contains exhibits dealing with climate and geography and provides insight into the evolution of flora and fauna as well as current conservation programs. The Darwin Station conducts research and provides technical assistance to other researchers and governmental agencies, in particular the Galapagos National Park.

The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center, a long-term program run jointly by the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Charles Darwin Foundation, began in 1965 to save the giant tortoise population on Pinzón. It was quickly expanded to include other populations, in particular that of Española where only 14 individuals remained. As of 2008, more than 4,000 young tortoises from eight different populations have been repatriated to their island of origin, with nearly 1,500 going back to Española. The center offers a look at a variety of tortoises including hatchlings, juveniles, and full-grown individuals.

Santa Cruz Island

Las Grietas and El Mirador are also within walking distance of Puerto Ayora. Las Grietas, located across the bay opposite the town, is accessible only by water taxi. From the landing pier there’s a trail that passes by lagoons, a beach, and a residential zone before reaching the cliffs of the main crevice. In this crevice, salt water from the ocean settles on the bottom while fresh water from highland runoffs settles on top. Taking care in getting down the rocky slop, this is a great place to enjoy a swim. El Mirador can be accessed from Puerto Ayora by foot, bicycle, or car. El Mirador is a partially collapsed lava tube that can be explored without a flashlight due to its’ extremely wide mouth and short distance. The lava tube is located in the arid zone where many of Darwin’s finches can be seen, as well as a barn owl said to be residing in the tube.

There are three wonderful swimming and snorkeling beaches on Santa Cruz. Tortuga Bay is about an hours walk from town along an established trail that highlights some of the island’s land birds. Once the trail reached the shore, there are two beach options. The long beach is open to the ocean and has strong undercurrents, while the second beach to the north boasts calm waters more conducive to swimmers of all levels.

Playa de los Perros is a very short beach (only 75 m) out on the western outer point of Academy Bay. It is reached by an 8-minute boat ride from the town’s main pier followed by a ½ km or so of rough trail. There is also a pond where white-tipped sharks can be observed. Swimming in this pond is, of course, not encouraged.

Garrapatero is a long white beach (approximately 1,500 m long) located 19 km to the northeast of Puerto Ayora. It can be reached by boat (20 minutes) or car, through Bellavista and Cascajo (50 minutes). From the parking area it’s just a short walk to the beach. In addition to the beautiful white sand beach, there is a lagoon where flamingos and White-cheeked Pintail Ducks are present. Camping is allowed at both Tortuga Bay and El Garrapatero by special permit from the Park.

Santa Cruz Island

A journey across Santa Cruz into the highlands not only lands you at the Tortoise Reserve, but is also an amazing way to explore Santa Cruz’s diversity. Beginning at the coast and traveling north towards Baltra, the road climbs through the agricultural zone and into the mist-covered forests of the highlands. The towering canopies, thick land cover and looming mist give the area a feel of a rainforest. Santa Cruz possesses all of the various life zones present in the archipelago, with wonderful birding opportunities. Whether it’s the bright red feathers of a Vermilion Flycatcher, the short-eared owl or one of Darwin’s finches almost every land bird present in the islands can be found here. The highlands area is also home to the amazingly prehistoric giant tortoise whom roam free through the farming pastures and in the Tortoise Reserve itself. Visitors are welcome to wonder through te reserve as well as some of the farming properties to spend up close, quality time with these gentle giants.

A dinghy ride into Black Turtle Cove, located on the north coast of Santa Cruz, a bit west of Baltra, provides a window into a quiet Galapagos hideout. Once in the cove, the boats are required to cut the engines and simply glide while exploring the mangrove-sheltered cove. Sea turtles feed and mate in the calm waters and three species of sharks are present including the black-finned reef shark, white-tipped reef shark and the Galapagos shark. Groups of spotted rays are also often seen, as are egrets and lava herons.

A bit west of Black Turtle Cove is Las Bachas, a sandy white-coral beach known to be a major nesting site for sea turtles as well as an excellent place to swim. The remains of a floating dock used by Americans during World War II can be found here. The name “Las Bachas” resulted from poor pronunciation on the part of some locals when saying “barges” – as remains of barges from WW II were found there. A lagoon behind the beach often has flamingos, white-cheeked pintail ducks, and migratory birds.

One of the least visited sites, Whale Bay is an open area where you are free to wander a bit. The boundary is a semicircle that extends 250 m around the base of the hill. Climbing the hill is best done from the inland southern side. The beach has taken on a green-color due to the olivine crystals found in the sand.

Santa Cruz Island

The Plazas Islands are twin islands off the east coast of Santa Cruz. North Plaza is closed to visitors while South Plaza is a highly sought after site. Both islands were formed by geological uplift and tilt to the north, with cliffs on their southern coasts. Despite its small size, South Plaza is home to a large number of species, including a large population of sea lions, a healthy population of land iguanas – some of the smallest in the islands, numerous marine iguanas, and cliffs full of nesting seabirds, such as Swallow-tailed Gulls, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Audubon’s Shearwaters, Nazca Boobies, and several other species. Much of the island is covered with Sesuvium, a succulent plant species that is green to yellowish in the wet season and a bright red in the dry season. The island also has a forest of large, prickly pear cactus, which provides food for the land iguanas. The circular trail leads up to the 25-m-high cliff on the south side of the island where many seabirds nest. Occasionally hybrid iguanas have been observed on South Plaza, the result of a cross between a male marine iguana and a female land iguana.

Six dive sites are located around Santa Cruz. These include: Guy Fawkes Rocks, Punta Carrión, Gordon Rocks, South Plaza, Caamaño Islet, and Punta Estrada. Sea lions, sea turtles, various species of sharks and eels, and schools of pelagic fish are present at many of these sites. Gordon Rocks, just to the east of Islas Plazas, is one of the most visited dive sites for day tours out of Puerto Ayora. There divers can explore the waters with hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks, manta rays, eagle rays, sea turtles, large schools of fish, sea lions, and fur seals. The underwater walls of the rocks have a high abundance of sessile organisms creating a spectacular array of colors that seem as though they’re glowing.


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