Santa Cruz is the most populated and second largest of the Galapagos islands. It has a very different vibe to the islands of San Cristóbal and Isabela. It is more built up with lots of restaurants that cater from the basic to the more luxurious needs. We didn’t see much wildlife here in terms of seals, marine turtles and boobies so that’s where the other islands win. In saying that however we did not do any of the tours on offer in Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora is the main town on the island where it is best to place to base yourself for your stay while there. Check out our Santa Cruz Galapagos Budget guide below on free, cheap and other things to do on this island.
Santa Cruz – the main island on the Galapagos
We spent 7 days in total in Santa Cruz; 4 before going to Isabela island and 3 before our flight. There is also an airport on this island, Baltra, which makes getting here very easy. Overall we spent $350.20 for 7 days in Santa Cruz for a breakdown of prices check here. We did as many cheap and free things we could find so continue reading our guide to find out our top tips.
Santa Cruz Guide and Top Things To Do
El Chato Tortoise Reserve
Overview: free roaming tortoises, small lava tunnel
Cost: Cheap – $2 (Bus) or $7 (if payment is necessary)
This was the best park we visited in all the islands as the tortoises roam more freely instead of being in the enclosures. There are small trails you follow to try and spot this peaceful giants. They offer complementary tea and\or coffee and it’s good! We saw a sign stating it was $5 to enter but there wasn’t any one around to register or pay so we are not sure about the payment scenario. There is also a small lava tunnel on site which was really cool and our first lava tunnel experience.
The road to El Chato
Check out the Giant Tortoises!
There is another reserve in the opposite direction (Rancho Primicias – Giant Tortoise Reserve $5) but we were advised by Laura that El Chato was best. Let us know in the comments below if you went here!
The lava tunnel at El Chato
To get to El Chato Tortoise Reserve:
We got the Santa Rosa bus from outside a green shop before D’Willy. The bus cost $1 each way to Santa Rosa.The walk from Santa Rosa to El Chato is about 7km so be prepared for sun and walking. Follow Maps.Me for directions. Otherwise look out for taxis.
The sign says it all..
There is the option of visiting this reserve as part of the taxi tour which also visits Los Gremlos (twin crater lakes) and a lava tunnel and costs approximately $40 – 50. Try find people to share or if you are only interested in going to the reserve ask a few different taxis who can drop you out for a fraction of the price.
Overview: snorkeling, small canyon, can get busy
Cost: Cheap – $1.60 for the water taxi
Las Grietas is a beautiful swimming spot inside a volcanic crevice. Sounds cool and it is! The highlight is the view of the rock formation over the reflective water and being able to swim through this long crevice spotting the large fish. We saw some eels, striped fish and big white lipped fish. The water found in the crevice is a mix of water which has filtered down from the highlands and sea water.
The walk to Las Grietas is also nice where you walk past Finches Bay / Alemania beach, Salinas pink salt ponds, and some opuntia cacti. Make sure to go early to try and avoid crowds. We arrived around 9am just before a group of tourists, thankfully. This place would not be great with big groups around as it is narrow.
After a quick dip and snorkel we walked along the short Bay Trail which gave more vistas of Las Grietas and a bay.
To get to Las Grietas:
Go to the port and ask for a water taxi to Las Grietas. It’s a short water taxi (80c each way) ride across. Walk past Alemania beach and follow the trail past the salt ponds. On our return there was a taxi waiting.
Overview: quiet beach, okay snorkeling, easy to get to
Cost: Cheap – $1.60 for the water taxi
Playa Alemania is a nice quite beach for some relaxation. There is not much shade so make sure you have sun-cream and a hat. Its an okay place to snorkel and you may spot some sharks beside the mangroves. Visibility gets better the further out you swim. We saw two types of rays, eagle and sting, and some fish.
Alemania beach – when the cloud cleared for 10 mins!
A good idea is to combine a visit to Playa Alemania and Las Grietas together which can be easily done, but make sure you head to Las Grietas first, and relax at the beach afterwards. Bring snacks too.
To get to Las Grietas:
Follow Las Grietas instructions i.e. water taxi.
Darwin Research Station and Estacion beach
Overview: Lonesome George, information, tortoises
Ready for more tortoises? Always! Head to the Darwin Research Station to see lots of different breeds of tortoise and maybe spot some tortoises getting freaky. That sound!! There is a trail around which you can follow, Routa de las Tortugas, which includes some information and thought provoking illustrations.
Successful breeding project
Watch out for the opening hours which affects the Lonesome George exhibition, we ended up waiting for an hour to see the Galapagos’s most famous son. It was a bit random, waiting 2 minutes to acclimatise on either side, with 5 minutes with George himself. On the route there were two land iguanas but their enclosure was a bit lacking and sad. The enclosures here are much smaller which is a pity.
You can see all the different Galapagos tortoises here!
At the end of the trail, there is a statue of Darwin, a shade area and the interpretation centre which houses the bones of a whale and has more information on preserving the eco-system so its worth calling in. The whale bones are pretty impressive.
We spotted these Marine Iguanas on the way!
Afterwards we chilled out on Estacion beach, but in all honesty it is tiny and not worth going to if time does not permit. We did witness some old man washing his private parts in the water so maybe if your into that head there?!?
To get to Darwin Research Station:
Walk along the malecón until the end and continue walking.
Tortuga Bay and Playa Mansa
Overview: white sandy beach, swimming iguanas, busy, snorkeling
Cost: Free (walk)
Tortuga Bay is a beautiful beach with soft white sand with the trail head only a short walk from Puerto Ayora. We headed to La Tortuga on a Monday morning and arrived around half 9. It was very busy, even at that time. It is a long enough walk to get to the bay, about 2.5km walk. You must register in the Galapagos Park Service cabin on arrival and exit and it is a good idea to use the toilet here as there are no toilets after this point. The beach is open from 6am until 6pm.
Playa Mansa – it looks nicer when its sunny, probably
Some sharks in shallow water!
The way to Tortuga Bay
As is it unsafe to swim in La Tortuga (Playa Bravo) due to dangerous currents we headed to Playa Mansa, which can be found at the end of Tortuga, past some mangroves. Mansa Bay has very calm water and lots of shade. We found a tree just before a group of 40 kids arrived! The visibility was really poor but near the mangroves you can spot white tipped sharks, rays and octopuses (if you are lucky). In between Tortuga and bay there is a small rock pool where there are lots of small fish, pelicans and swimming iguanas!
A swimming Iguana!
Don’t forget to bring food so you can enjoy the beach all day.
To get to Tortuga Bay:
To get to the trail head you can walk (Maps.me) or get a taxi and follow the path from there for another 30 – 45 minutes. There is an option to get a water taxi which costs $10 pp each way to/from the pier in Puerto Ayora.
Galapagos Renewable Energy Center
Overview: Books about Galapagos animals, info on renewable energy
The Renewable Energy Center can be found on the way to Tortuga Bay. It gives some information on renewable energy sources and Galapagos initiatives. There are lots of interesting books about the Galapagos animals and a David Attenborough movie upstairs. It was very weird watching the movie while being in the Galapagos and brought it home how lucky we were to be there.
Watch out for the lunch time closure as we were asked to leave in the middle of the movie.
Laguna Las Ninfas
Overview: Quiet, boardwalk, mangroves
Laguna las Ninfas is peaceful area where you can learn about the different mangroves and try to spot them as you walk along the boardwalk. There are some fish swimming in the water and we even saw a sting ray. It is located in town so check out Maps.me for its location.
Pier at night
Overview: Animals hanging around
We headed to the pier on our last night to see the fish being illuminated by lights under the water. It was pretty cool. There were lots of baby sharks, fish, pelicans and of course some seals lounging about on boats and benches.
Lazy sealions in action
Overview: Seals, pelicans and frigates waiting for an easy catch
After the fishermen catch their fill,its back to the market to do some cleaning, gutting and selling. Its the gutting part that attracts so many of these animals waiting for an easy meal. It is a sight to behold. Head early morning and hopefully you’ll see some activity. Make sure you watch out for the sleepy iguanas along the path too.
The fish market
Kiosk Street is unmissable, especially at night where the street is lined with tables and chairs. We ate in Mar y Sol for $4 Almuerzo. It is not fancy but it did the trick. There are lots more restaurants offering the same or slightly different food options for $5.
For good tasting and cheap food head to the kiosks beside Los Pinguinitos (check out Maps.me) and the Sports Center (tennis \ volley ball courts). You can find huge empanadas for $1 and salchipapas and drink for $3.
Brief overview of our 7 day itinerary
- Day 1 – El Chato Reserve and walk around Santa Cruz
- Day 2 – Darwins Research Station and Estacion Beach
- Day 3 – Tortuga Bay
- Day 4 – Las Grietas and Playa Alemania
- Day 5 – Laguna las Ninfas and the fish market
- Day 6 – Renewable Energy Centre and pier at night
- Day 7 – Flight back to Guayaquil
All the above activities can be done easily in 4 days. Days that are underlined above can be done in one day. We had time so we relaxed and spread out the activities.
Other things to do in Santa Cruz
- Taxi tour – Los Gremlos (twin crater lakes), a lava tunnel and Tortoise Reserve. Costs approximately $40 – 50.
- Garrapateros beach – taxi is approximately $40.
- Lots of day trips for diving or snorkeling i.e. Gordons Rock, North Seymour Island.
- Organise a cruise or liveaboad expedition.
Where we stayed
For the first 4 nights we stayed in an Air BnB just a short walk away from the start of the malecón. Our hostess Laura was really nice and we joined her and her teaching buddies on a day trip to see the tortoises. For our last 2 nights we stayed in Carliza which was really central and had internet which allowed us to reconnect after our stay in Isabela island.
Santa Cruz Galapagos Budget Guide