San Cristóbal is the fifth largest and easternmost island of the Galapagos. It is comprised of three or four fused volcanoes, all extinct.
Santa Cruz Galapagos | Getting the best for your buck
Santa Cruz Island, in the Galapagos, is home to the largest town in the archipelago Puerto Ayora which is the main Galapagos tourist hub. There are a few things on this island that you can do for free but a new ruling had just been brought in before we arrived that any visit to the national park must be accompanied by a guide at a cost of $10.00 per person. So whereas you were free to roam some of the sites as a tourist previously, access is now prohibited unless with a certified guide. There were still a few things to enjoy that didn’t involve a cost or a guide and we’ve jotted them down here for you.
How to Get to Santa Cruz Galapagos?
We visited Santa Cruz after spending a few days on Isabela Island and took the ferry from Isabela island at 7.00am to Santa Cruz. More information on the ferry trips between the islands can be found on our Galapagos on a budget blog post. On this trip we got seats at the back of the boat and had a great view of the ocean. My eyes were peeled for whales as this stretch of water near Isabela island is a good place to spot them and I was so keen to see one, my eyes never left the ocean. Sadly on this trip I didn’t see any whales but I did see a large Eagle Ray launch itself out of the ocean and we saw loads of Waved Albatross, which is the largest bird in the Galapagos and unique to these islands. We also saw shearwaters and other fantastic seabirds so keep your eyes peeled.
When we arrived at Santa Cruz there was a $1 landing tax for which they gave you a voucher to use in selected restaurants and cafes to redeem your $1 back. There also was the obligatory search of luggage for any contraband being brought to the island.
Where to stay on Santa Cruz Island?
There is a wide variety of accomodation available on this island similar to the other Galápagos Islands ranging from the pricier hotels to smaller B & B’s and hostels. We decided on La Peregrina B & B which got fairly good ratings and was smack bang in the centre of town so close to the restaurants and shops. The room was adequate if not a little small however the grounds were lovely. We had plenty hot water and the staff were really pleasant. The only downside was the breakfast. It was a bit hit and miss but not too bad.
What did we do on Santa Cruz Island?
Beach day at Los Alemanes beach
Los Alemanes beach is situated round the coast from the main town Puerto Ayora and only accessible by water taxi. So off we went with our towels, beach mats, swimsuits and a $1 for the water taxi. The taxi only takes about 5 mins and drops you off at the start of a path which leads to the beach. Its about a 10 mins walk. The beach itself is a small stretch of sand in a cove which is dotted with Marine Iguanas. Its a lovely place to swim and snorkel or just sit and watch the world go by.
Snorkelling at La Grietas
If you’re visiting the Los Alemanes beach then just further along the path is the entrance to the La Grietas visitor attraction. This is one of those places that used to be accessible independently and now has to be accessed by a guide at a cost of $10.00 per person. The guide then takes you on a 20 min walk through the park showing you the salt plains, the cactus, the shoreline and tells you a bit about the history of the area. La Greitas is long channel which comes in from the coast and has filled with water and fish. It’s a perfect place for snorkelling. It was quite busy when we went and our time in the channel was limited but it was a great experience and we’re glad we went.
Visit the fish market
This was one of the first things we did when we arrived as we generally like a good market. What a spectacle this was. The fishermen offloading their catch onto the quay and the local ladies chopping up and preparing the fish. There were about 10 pelicans and 5 sea lions all waiting patiently for some scraps and occasionally the fish ladies would shoo them away but they always returned. Such fun to watch.
Visit the Charles Darwen Centre
The Charles Darwin centre is at the North end of the town and about a 10 – 15 min walk from the edge of town to the centre itself. Along the route there are a couple of cut off paths which lead you to the shoreline where you can see the Marine Iguanas and Sally Lightfoot Crabs and some iconic seabirds. Once you reach the information booth the chap there explains that you can go on the Giant Tortoise path to the breeding centre but this is controlled by the National Park and another attraction which falls under the $10.00 per person charge to be accompanied by a guide. Alternatively ou can just head straight up to the centre which is a fantastic exhibit showing the flora and fauna of Santa Cruz Island and a bit about the conservation efforts of the Galapagos. There is another beach area you can visit from here and there is a cafe and gift shop.
One thing to note. If you want a Galapagos stamp in your passport then here is the place to do it. You can get it stamped at the information booth or at the Charles Darwin centre itself. Such a unique stamp to have in your passport.
Hike to Tortuga Bay
There are two ways to get to Tortuga Bay which is a few miles up and round the coast from the main town of Puerta Ayora. You can go by boat at a cost of $10.00 per person each way or you can hike from the town. The hike is around 2.5 km from the town and is on a fairly well maintained paved path. We opted to hike and it was a great walk through the cactus fields right to the coast. When we arrived we were met with a vast stretch of white sand as far as the eye could see. This wasn’t the beach for swimming as there was strong currents but as we walked along the shoreline a little baby shark followed us, so cute! At the end of the sand there is a patch of trees and a large colony of marine iguanas. Once you pass this area you’re led into a calm cove which was perfect for swimming or snorkelling. Chris even hired a canoe. The beach here was lovely and we spent most of the day just chilling and watching the turtles bob up and down in the water with the occasional dip to cool ourselves down. You have the option to take the boat back but we decided to walk back the way we came and it was perfect. Great beach, great wildlife and if you walk then you’ve spent nothing!
Chris went diving to Floreana and Gordon Rocks
If you dive you can’t really come away from the Galapagos without having dived one or more of the iconic dive sites. Being land based and on a tight budget does limit your options somewhat. I had done a lot of research beforehand, and decided that I wasn’t going to dive due to the cost, the websites quote $265 for a two dive day boat. I also struggled to find a traditional dive operator they all seemed to be more tour operator.
Santa Cruz was my last chance, I decided I couldn’t not do it so, after another session of research I went into Scuba Iguana for a chat. Straight away I got a good feeling, no tour desk just a traditional dive centre and after a brief chat we got down to the nitty gritty of the cost. $185 was their last minute price, their next available dive day was two easy dives of around 18m off Floreana Island and then the day after two dives at the iconic Gordon Rocks. So there we have it I booked the two days didn’t think to bargain.
It had been three years since my last days diving so I was a little nervous, but no need to worry the first days diving went really well and I was really looking forward to Gordon Rocks despite a slight worry about the strong currents. Again no need to worry we got a quiet day and the dives didn’t disappoint. Multiple Hammerheads on both dives coming so close you could almost touch them. as well as sightings of most of the iconic spices.
Scuba Iguana were amazing, reassuring, patient and attentive. I would definitely recommend them if you are diving from Santa Cruz. Gordon Rocks are for advanced divers only and they will want to see proof of your diving level and number of dives. The two dives off Floreana are suitable for any qualified diver.
Lynne went on a snorkel tour to Pinzon island
On the days that Chris went diving I decided to take a snorkel tour to Pinzon Island as this was reputed to be one of the best snorkelling sites close to Santa Cruz. I met the boat at about 8.30am in the morning at the port and before long we were off. There were 10 of us on the trip and after the 2 hr boat ride we were all friends. The boat provided snorkel, mask, fins, wetsuits and lunch. Our first site was just off Pinzon Island and was an inlet where white tipped reef sharks were known to sleep on the rocky shelves and I wasn’t disappointed as quite quickly after we got into the water at our first stop there they were, snoozing on the floor of the sea. Fantastic creatures. Here there was also large turtles, sea lions, rays and a variety of wonderfully coloured tropical fish some quite large and some in large schools. We had lunch which was basic then sat up in front of the boat whilst Galapagos dolphins led the way. The second snorkel site was just as good with us seeing more fantastic fish, turtles and sting rays. The tour cost $120 after some negotiation and it was a fabulous day out. There are many other snorkelling tours and if you have room in your budget then I would strongly advise you book one.
What else is there to do on Santa Cruz Island?
El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve
Santa Cruz is a fair sized island and has a bus service that can take you in to the centre of the island which is called the Highland region. There you have the opportunity to visit the Giant Tortoises at the El Chato Reserve which is one of the few places you can see the tortoises in the wild. The reserve has 12 hectares of meandering trails so you can easily spend the whole day here. If you don’t want to use the bus service then you can always get a taxi for around $20.00 or you can hire bikes for around $10.00 per day but the highlands are named this for a reason, it would be an uphill pedal. You can always mix and match and take a taxi up and cycle back. Most taxi’s have room for bikes.
The lava tunnel attraction is right next to the El Chato reserve so worth visiting if you are there. It costs $10.00 per person to enter the tunnels and this is another attraction that comes under the National Park new regulations and you have to be accompanied by a guide. The tunnels are impressive and nearly 1km long. Formed years ago by ancient volcanoes this is one attraction that I would have wanted to visit had we had more time.
There are other beaches on the island to visit but need to be reached by taxi at a cost. One of these is Garrapatero Beach on the north side of the island which has a fresh water lake behind it which is home to a large population of wading birds such as flamingos and herons.
Food and Drink on Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz has the most amount of restaurants than all of the other islands so we were looking forward to some good food. Like the other islands we tended to seek out the Ecuadorian restaurants and opt for the Menu del Dia to keep within our budget. We found a street on Santa Cruz that is about 3 streets back from the front which has a line of these restaurants all touting for your business. The meals tend to be $5 – $6 and offer a soup, meat, rice and salad and a juice. Apart from that you can find a wide range of other restaurants ranging from Chinese to Mexican and everything in between. There are sea front restaurants who are doing combo deals, such as burger + beer for $9.99 and that’s a pretty good deal. You won’t go hungry on Santa Cruz and eating out won’t break the bank.
Booking resources for your trip to Santa Cruz
Tours & Tickets
You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site. Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.
For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.
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Isabela Island is the largest of the Galápagos Islands and is distinctly shaped like a horseshoe. It is made up of no less than 5 young volcanoes fused together with some of them still being active with the most recent eruption on Sierra Negro being only in 2018.