Travel Guide to Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands
Santa Cruz is located in the center of the Galapagos Islands and has the largest and most developed city, Puerto Ayora. It is on the south coast of Santa Cruz. In the city you will find many travel agencies, souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels and even some fashion stores as well as a well-stocked supermarket. Santa Cruz is the most touristy island, mostly because it has one of the two bigger airports and most cruises start on the island. Therefore, most tourists visit Santa Cruz during their trip to the Galapagos Islands.
I have to admit that Santa Cruz is the island of the archipelago that I underestimated the most. There are many good reasons to stay a little longer, such as gorgeous beaches, foggy highlands, incredible natural pools and great wildlife. Many attractions on this island are within walking distance of Puerto Ayora, such as Las Grietas, Tortuga Beach and the Charles Darwin Research Center. You can easily reach them without a guide, which offers more flexibility and saves you some money.
Be aware of one thing, though. Many things have to be paid in cash and the ATMs sometimes run out of money. Even if credit card payments are possible, they are very expensive as you have to pay a fee of up to 20%. Therefore, bring all the cash you need with you.
Why should you go there?
Our favorite things to do on Santa Cruz
Swimming at Las Grietas (no guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Relaxing at Tortuga Beach (no guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Exploring the Charles Darwin Research Center (no guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Visiting the Fisher's Market (no guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Exploring Dragon Hill (guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Hiking Los Gemelos (no guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Exploring El Chato (guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Some places that you might want to visit but we didn't have the time to
Rancho Primicias (no guide necessary)
Lava Tunnels (no guide necessary)
El Garrapatero Beach (no guide necessary)
Cerro Crocker (no guide necessary)
Centro Comunitaria de Educación Ambiental Miguel Cifuentes Arias (no guide necessary)
Laguna de las Ninfas (no guide necessary)
A few practical tips for booking a tour
There are many things you can do without a guide. However, if you want to go somewhere where a guide is required, we recommend booking your tours as soon as you arrive on Santa Cruz. We do not recommend booking tours online, though, as they are much more expensive. You can ask your hotel staff in advance if they can organize the tour for you.
Most tour operators only accept cash. Some operators accept credit cards as well, but only with a huge additional fee of up to 20%. Therefore, make sure you bring enough cash.
Let the tour operators know in advance if you have any special requests. We asked for vegan/vegetarian food that we got on all tours.
How long should you stay?
We recommend that you stay 3 to 5 days to explore Santa Cruz.
How to get there?
When you visit the Galapagos Islands, you are most likely to arrive at the airport on Baltra, a small island north of Santa Cruz.
Once you have arrived, you walk into a the airport building and need to queue up, have your luggage checked and pay the entrance fee of 100 USD. This fee is used to conserve the Galapagos Islands. You also have to buy the bus tickets there.
After you have left the airport building, you have to queue up once again to catch a bus. They are in front of the airport and will take you to a nearby ferry in 10 minutes. Once you have reached the pier, you have to queue up once more. The ferry takes you to the other side of the canal. You are leaving Baltra now and reaching Santa Cruz. This ride takes about 10 minutes and costs 1 USD.
Now, you have two options.
You can catch a bus for 2 USD that takes about 45 minutes to Puerto Ayora. The bus takes you to a parking lot in Puerto Ayora, from where you need to take a taxi to your hotel, which will cost around 2 USD.
You can also take a taxi from the ferry to Puerto Ayora, which takes around 30 minutes and costs 20 USD. Taxi drivers also offer a small tour to El Chapo and Los Gemelos for 60 USD which is a great option if you have the time.
Keep in mind that everything from entrance fee to bus and ferry tickets to taxi has to be paid in cash.
If you want to get to Isabela or San Cristobal, you can reach them by speedboat from Santa Cruz or by plane from Baltra.
The speedboats run twice a day (in the morning and in the afternoon) from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to Puerto Villamil, Isabela and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal and cost 30 USD each way. There are also water taxis in Puerto Ayora and the other cities, which take you from the pier to the speedboat and back on land and cost 1 USD.
Santa Cruz to Isabela at 7am and 2pm
Isabela to Santa Cruz at 6am and 3pm
Santa Cruz to San Cristobal at 6.30am and 1.30pm
San Cristobal to Santa Cruz at 7am and 3pm
It is recommended to buy the tickets one day in advance. Also, note the name of your boat, as all boats leave around the same time and you have to find yours. Tickets can be bought at the main pier or your hotel staff might be able to organize the tickets for you.
You start at the main pier in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, where your luggage will be checked (again) and you will arrive at the pier in Puerto Villamil, Isabela or Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal. The journey takes two to three hours. Keep in mind that the sea can be rough. If you are sensitive, take some Dramamine with you and make sure you have a seat in the shade.
Two operators, Emetebe and Fly Galapagos, connect Santa Cruz/Baltra with Isabela and San Cristobal and offer daily flights. You will arrive at a very small airport on Isabela or on the bigger airport on San Cristobal. Booking is a bit complicated and it is more expensive. However, the view is incredible and it is so much more comfortable.
Where to eat?
I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurants in Puerto Ayora. I expected it to be much more difficult to find vegan food but you can definitely find good vegan food in a variety of restaurants on the island. Restaurants might offer vegan options or can customize their meals.
Here are some recommendations, although many other restaurants had vegan options on their menu as well
La Garrapata Galapagos: They offer local (vegan) food in a relaxing atmosphere.
Calle Charles Darwin/Los Kioskos: It's a street that turns into an outdoor restaurant in the evening. All small restaurants put their tables on the street and you can eat there. Since this sounded really good, we wanted to give it a try, but couldn't find any vegan options. So we skipped it and went somewhere else. However, people told us you can get vegan options if you ask for it.
If you want to cook or just grab a snack, there is the largest supermarket we found on the Galapagos Islands, right next to the main pier. They offer a variety of vegan foods, including plant-based milk and nut butter, and granola.
Where to stay?
Our Hotel La Isla was in the city center, which we can highly recommend. It's great because you can walk anywhere and many attractions actually are within walking distance. Breakfast with fruit, toast and cereal as vegan options was included. This is the standard breakfast in all hotels on the Galapagos Islands.