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Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos


Located in the center of the Galapagos, Santa Cruz Island is at the heart of human activity in the archipelago. The round volcano-shaped island is home to white-sand beaches, green Scalesia forests, hundreds of lava tunnels, thriving wildlife populations icluding the Galapagos Giant Tortoise, and Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos.

At 986 square kilometers (381 square miles), Santa Cruz is the second-largest island in the Galápagos National Park. This sprawling volcanic land teeming with exotic endemic the island is a long-dormant volcano with its last eruption approximately 1.5 million years ago. There are remnants of volcanic activity scattered across Santa Cruz—gaping craters, beautiful calderas, and winding lava tunnels lending the island its distinct character.

Santa Cruz is one of the few places in the Galapagos where travelers can freely explore without a guide due to large swaths of privately owned reserves, farms and residences, as inside the Galapagos National Park borders, a guide is always required.

Gateway to Galapagos via Baltra Island Airport

The  majority of travelers arrive to the Galapagos via Seymour Airport (GPS), also known as Galápagos Ecological Airport, which is located the neighboring Baltra Island. After disembarking from your flight, you’ll take a short but picturesque bus ride to Itabaca Canal where you and your luggage will board a ferry for the crossing of the canal which only takes a few minutes.

Visitors drive along a 42-kilometer (26-mile) road connecting the south of the island to the airport

Santa Cruz’s central location and transportation available to other populated islands like Isabela, Floreana, and San Cristobal makes it a convenient base for adventurers who want to experience as much of the archipelago as possible. But even without venturing off the island, Santa Cruz has enough visitor sites for an unforgettable Galapagos vacation.

Key Visitor Points

Puerto Ayora

Set in Academy Bay on the southern coast of Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora is famous for being the largest town in the Galapagos and home to most of the people who live on the island. The charming port town is the main tourist center of the archipelago, with hotels, seafood restaurants, cafés, bars, and shops lining the streets. There are also services like banks and a hospital. Close to sites like Tortuga Bay and El Chato Tortoise Reserve, Puerto Ayora is the best place for travelers who prefer a land-based trip rather than a liveaboard cruise. Many island hopping, kayaking, diving, snorkeling, and inland tours are available here.

Charles Darwin Research Station

Established to help preserve the Galapagos Islands ecosystem, the Charles Darwin Research Station is the center of operations of the Charles Darwin Foundation. It features a variety of educational exhibits on the history and wildlife of the islands. The station is also home to the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, an active breeding center for endangered giant tortoises.

Las Grietas

A deep crevasse filled with crystal-clear waters, Las Grietas is one of the most stunning swimming holes in Santa Cruz. Towering volcanic rocks rise on either side of the natural pool, shielding the channel from currents and waves. It’s a relaxing place for swimming, snorkeling, and cliff jumping. Best of all, the crevasse is close to town. Travelers can get to Las Grietas by riding a water taxi from Puerto Ayora.

Playa de Los Perros

A small beach just a rocky trail or water boat ride from Puerto Ayora, Playa de los Perros is a fantastic spot for wildlife viewing. The highlight of visiting this spot is a lookout point affording a view of a pond of whitetip reef sharks. At the beach, travelers will spot marine iguanas and sea lions while blue-footed boobies, great frigatebirds, and pelicans flit around.

Tortuga Bay

Kick back and relax at Tortuga Bay, an idyllic white-sand beach ideal for swimming and bird watching. The bay is known for the black sea turtles who lay their nests here in the first few months of the year. Hatchlings emerge in April and May. Other wildlife around the bay includes marine iguanas, sea lions, whitetip sharks, pelicans, and finches. Go past the mangroves for a saltwater lagoon home to flamingos.

Follow a trail from Puerto Ayora to Tortuga Bay; the trip should take around an hour, with many sightings of resident land birds along the way. Travelers who would rather skip the long walk may take a water taxi instead.

Santa Cruz Highlands

The highest points on the island are known as the Santa Cruz Highlands, found in the central region with a maximum altitude of 854 meters (2,834 feet). This part of the island is a refreshing contrast to the sunny coast and arid regions. Here, lush Scalesia forests cover the expanse. Hiking and bird watching are popular activities. A tour of the Highlands will typically include visits to El Chato Tortoise Reserve and the Twin Craters.


Go deeper inland to visit Bellavista, a village about 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) from Puerto Ayora. Parts are residential areas, but the village is also a kickoff point for hiking and horse-riding tours to Cerro Crocker, the highest point on the island. Nearby farms like Steve Devine’s Butterfly Farm serve food and coffee for a quick bite in between activities.

Santa Rosa

Another community in the highlands is Santa Rosa. A small village, it’s best known as a base for trips to El Chato Tortoise Reserve, a natural reserve where giant tortoises roam freely. Travelers may also explore the underground lava tunnels nearby.

Twin Craters (Los Gemelos)

When the roofs of hollow magma chambers collapsed, it left two massive sinkholes in its wake. Over time, the surrounding forests of the highlands spilled onto these pit craters, creating a breathtaking sunken landscape unique to Los Gemelos. Take a stroll around the rim for the best scenery under a canopy of Scalesia trees, known as giant daisy trees that grow up to 20 meters (65 feet) tall. A hike on the walking trail will yield generous sightings of endemic birds, like the short-eared owl, Galapagos dove, and Darwin’s finches. The two craters sit on either side of the road from Puerto Ayora.

Lava Tunnels

One of the unique features of Santa Cruz is its incredible network of lava tunnels, the impressive fossils of the island’s volcanic past. These geological formations were forged when the outer layer of molten lava cooled and solidified. As the liquid magma inside continued to flow, the solidified shell eventually emptied. Now, travelers can walk through the tunnels left in its wake. It’s an incredible sight, and because the underground lava tubes are on private property, travelers can explore them with or without a guide. Many lava tunnels are close to Santa Rosa, but tours are also available from nearby Puerto Ayora.

Whale Bay (Ballena Bay)

Not a lot of people visit Whale Bay, so the green-sand beach makes for a quiet escape. The unusual green tint of the shores is eye-catching, an effect of the high concentration of olivine crystals in the area. Besides being a fine snorkeling spot, Whale Bay has a hill that travelers can climb for brilliant views. It used to be a popular stop for whalers, with crews often dropping by to get fresh water and tortoise meat for their journey. Keep an eye out for the Galapagos hawk. Just off the coast of the bay is Eden Islet, another excellent snorkeling site.

Dragon Hill (Cerro Dragon)

Found on the northwestern coast of Santa Cruz, Dragon Hill is named after the startlingly dragon-like land iguanas that call this rocky terrain their home. These spiky creatures roam the arid landscape, munching on the fruits from the cacti forest. The walking trail leads travelers through forests of cacti and Palo Santo, then to a saltwater lagoon frequented by flamingos. Other animals in the area include pintail ducks, yellow warblers, and Darwin’s finches.

Bachas Beach (Las Bachas)

Swim, sunbathe and soak in the pristine views at Bachas Beach on the northern tip of the island. Fine white sand and crystal-clear turquoise waters make this one of the most popular swimming spots in Santa Cruz. Las Bachas is a key turtle nesting site, where travelers share the waters with sea turtles. Expect other marine life as well, including marine iguanas, reef sharks, and Sally Lightfoot crabs. Keep your eyes peeled for the remains of two abandoned barges from World War II peeking out from beneath the sand.

Black Turtle Cove

Sail to the northern shores of the island to visit Black Turtle Cove. The tranquil cove is rich in mangroves, with four mangrove species packed in the shallow waters. Wildlife thrives in these calm waters, especially turtles who are often seen swimming beneath the boat. Reef sharks, rays, pelicans, herons, and egrets are also frequently seen in Black Turtle Cove.

Carrion Point (Punta Carrion)

A snorkeling and diving site on the northern edge of Santa Cruz, Carrion Point is home to an amazing variety of marine creatures, including whitetip sharks, stingrays, eagle rays, sea turtles, sea lions, and other brightly colored reef fish. Dolphins even occasionally show up during “guara” season. This site is suitable for beginner and intermediate divers.

North Plaza & South Plaza (Plazas Islands)

The Plazas Islands consist of two crescent-shaped isles sitting side by side off the eastern coast of Santa Cruz. While North Plaza isn’t open to travelers, South Plaza is an incredible destination to marvel at exotic flora and fauna. Large numbers of land and marine iguanas live here; this is the only place in the world where the two species have bred to produce hybrid iguanas who can survive on both land and sea. Sea lion colonies also occupy South Plaza, along with endless flocks of birds flying overhead. Snorkeling and scuba diving are top-notch in South Plaza.

Gordon’s Rock

Beyond the Plazas, there is Gordon’s Rock. Beginners aren’t permitted to dive here, with extra-strong currents earning the dive spot its nickname “The Washing Machine.” For more experienced divers, this is one of the best dive sites in the Galapagos, renowned for its healthy population of hammerhead sharks. Marine life is flourishing here, with a dazzling array of sea creatures swimming past, including sea turtles, whitetip reef sharks, eagle rays, Galapagos eels, barracudas, Mobula rays, and more reef fish than one can imagine. Other notable dive sites in Santa Cruz are Guy Fawkes Rocks, Caamaño Islet, and Punta Estrada.

Cerro Mesa

Looming 490 meters (1,608 feet) above sea level, the Cerro Mesa viewpoint is a good place to enjoy exceptional panoramic views of the entire island. Endemic plants abound in the hilly landscape, while birders will delight in several species of finches and the bright vermillion flycatcher. Cerro Mesa is also home to the largest crater in Santa Cruz.

Garrapatero Beach (Playa El Garrapatero)

A pristine beach surrounded by mangroves, the Garrapatero Beach is a picturesque place for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking. After a refreshing dip in crystalline waters, head to the freshwater lagoon for close encounters with flamingos, pintail ducks, herons, stilts, and other shorebirds. This secluded stretch is the only beach camping site on Santa Cruz Island. But if you’d rather stay in town, Garrapatero is only 30 minutes from Puerto Ayora by car. Travelers can also take a boat to the beach.

Wildlife on Santa Cruz Island

The star of the animal kingdom on the island is definitely the giant tortoises that live in the hilly central region of the island. Take a tour of the Highlands; chances are, you’ll get a glimpse of these massive creatures plodding along farmlands and pools. These gentle giants can live up to a century, but you can see baby tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Galapagos marine iguanas and Galapagos land iguanas are also iconic residents of Santa Cruz, both endemic to the archipelago. Amazingly, a hybrid of these two species is even occasionally spotted on the island South Plaza.

Birdwatching is world-class in Santa Cruz, with more than 140 land bird species found here. Eight different species of finch live on the island, as well as Galapagos hawks, blue-footed boobies, Galapagos owls, vermillion flycatchers, and many more. The extra-pink Galapagos flamingos flock to the freshwater lagoons around Santa Cruz.

Additionally, a thriving marine life means Santa Cruz is a paradise for divers and snorkelers. In the waters surrounding the island, travelers can swim with whitetip reef sharks, rays, and colorful reef fish. Sea lions and Sally Lightfoot crabs are commonplace, while dolphins, whales, and hammerhead sharks make the occasional appearance.

Visiting Santa Cruz

Sail to the lively Santa Cruz Island aboard a cruise ship for an all-inclusive experience that will take you to the best visitor sites in the Galapagos Islands. However, travelers who are interested in a land-based trip may also stay on the island. As the tourism center of the archipelago, Puerto Ayora has a good selection of accommodations for Santa Cruz explorers.