Supports one of the largest human populations of the five inhabited islands. Some 4,000 residents are distributed between the cattle-farming communities in the lush highlands and the coastal town of Puerto Ayora
. Santa Cruz, the most frequently-visited island in the archipelago, is often described as the point of embarkation for any Galapagos journey. Centrally located, it is only a short ferry ride away from the Baltra
airstrip, the most common entry point to the islands. In the town of Puerto Ayora
, travellers can charter smarter small boats to visit other Galapagos destinations.
Here too, you can visit the Charles Darwin Research Station
to see the huge land tortoises
, or galapagos, which once flourished in the islands. The populations were decimated in the early 1800s by the whaling ships that stopped in the islands to fill their holds with fresh meat. Tortoises
could be stored by them without food and water for up to one year and still could be used for a good soup. Learn at the research station about their protection and conservation nowadays. Santa Cruz has a very differing landscape, vegetation, and animal life. Find at its shores mangroves and green, salt-tolerant plants.
The area just inland is arid forest, dominated by palo santo trees and prickly pear cactus. If you carry on more inland the vegetation becomes denser and more varied, slowly transforming into a region of tall trees, covered with mosses and liverworts. These beautiful forests are home to the vermillion flycatcher
and many species of tree finches
. Look for the evergreen scalesia trees. Further interesting are the miconia bushes and the pampa or fern-sedge zone. The variety found on Santa Cruz is manly due to its geological old age. The younger areas of the island are marked by volcanic formations. You can take a bus ride to the highlands and see the “Twins” [Los Gemelos
], two deep pit craters situated in the Scalesia forest.
Here you can see interesting bird life or go for a trek through the giant lava tubes. The famous Cerro Cocker
is also an interesting example of volcanic formations. On the north shore of the island, accessible only by sea, is an extensive mangrove lagoon called Black Turtle Cove
. Here in the peacefulness of the mangroves you can see turtles
, fish, rays
, and small sharks.
Many residents and others who have known the island for decades are shocked by the development of Puerto Ayora in recent years. In 1980 the population was less than a quarter of what it was in 2000. A former Galapagos tour guide told me there was only one car on the island when he first came to Santa Cruz in the ’70s. Jimmy Perez, owner of Hotel Sol y Mar, arrived in the early ’60s as a beachcomber, when there were only 120 inhabitants on the whole island, most of them farmers.
The main concern of Senor Perez and others is that rising population, mostly from mainland Ecuador, is harming the archipelago’s ecosystem through illegal fishing and encroachment on national parks. Insufficient electricity, fresh water, garbage disposal services, education and medical facilities are also problems caused by population pressure and the increasing number of tourists. Proposals are now being considered on limiting the number of tourists and immigrants from the mainland who come to the archipelago hoping to make a living from tourists, but the issue remains extremely thorny, to say the least.
. Most visitors get to know Santa Cruz better than the other islands. Unless they are met by a cruise boat
, passengers arriving by plain
take a bus from the airport [no taxis are available
] before transferring to a small ferry to cross the Itabaca Channel
to Santa Cruz. Another bus then takes them on a 40 km [25-mile
], one-hour ride over the top of the island and down to the small town of Puerto Ayora
. This empty, straight, narrow road cuts through vegetation zones of the island, from arid north shore to wet, green highlands. Some tour buses stop in the highlands so passengers can stretch their legs and look at the twin craters, known as Los Gemelos
, one each side of the road, outside the village of Santa Rosa
. These 30 m [100 ft
]-deep holes in the earth look as if they were caused by volcanic explosion or blasted by meteorites, but in fact are thought to be caved-in magma chambers. Dense scalesia forest surrounding the craters abounds with wildlife. Birders should watch out for vermilion flycatchers and the diurnal short-eared owl.
Places to visit
Lying around the azure inlets of Academy Bay's rocky shore, Puerto Ayora
, on the southern coast of Santa Cruz, was home to fewer than a couple of hundred people until the early 1970s. Now, laden with souvenir shops, travel agents, restaurants and hotels, the town supports a population of around 11,000 people who enjoy a standard of living that's higher than any other province in the republic, giving the port a distinct aura of well-appreciated privilege. There's a relaxed atmosphere to the place, with tourists meandering down the waterfront in the daytime, browsing through the shops stuffed with blue-footed booby T-shirts and carvings of giant tortoises, while fishermen work across the street in little Pelican Bay , building boats and sorting through their catches, watched by hungry pelicans. In the evenings locals play five-a-side soccer and volleyball outside the Capitania and as it gets darker, the restaurant lights cast a modest glow over the bay and the bars fill with locals, tourists and research scientists, a genial mix that ensures Puerto Ayora
has the best nightlife of all Galapagos towns.
It's easy to find your way around the port. The main thoroughfare is named, predictably, Avenida Charles Darwin. Running along the waterfront, from the municipal dock at its southern end to the Charles Darwin Research Station
at its northern. Just about everything you'll need is on Darwin: hotels, restaurants, the bank, travel agents, bars, discos, information, plus a number of less indispensable souvenir shops. The town's other important road is Avenida Padre Julio Herrera, running inland from Darwin and the dock to become the main road to the highlands and the link to the airport on Baltra
. For a spot of peace and quiet, head for the Bahia Tortuga, a short walk southwest of town.
A visit to the Darwin Station can be a hot and exhausting experience, after which a swim might be very welcome. The best place for this is Tortuga [Turtle
] Bay, three kilometers [just under two miles
] southwest of Puerto Ayora
. The bay has a fine white beach, one of the best on the archipelago, beautiful blue sea and a lagoon protected by a spit of land. Sea turtles
come to lay their eggs here, but you’re more likely to spot pelicans, marine iguanas and flamingos. Although the wildlife is protected you don’t need to be accompanied by a guide
and you could well have the beach to yourself.
Most visitors don’t spend much time, if any, in Puerto Ayora
because they are on cruises from the beginning to the end of their island stay. And it’s true that the best way to see the wildlife is by boat. However some people make their reservations when they get to Puerto Ayora
, which means they usually get it for less, last minute price for a cruise [in the low season
], though they might have to spend a few days on Santa Cruz. This is no hardship. Aside from relaxing in the warm sunshine, there are plenty of places to explore and things to do on Santa Cruz.
From Santa Rosa
, you can visit the wild Tortoise Reserve — wild because of the dense, unruly vegetation, and because the tortoises aren’t tame like those at Darwin Station. The best way to see the reserve is with a guide
and atop a horse. Guides can be hired and horses arranged through travel agents in Puerto Ayora
. There are also a couple of private farms in the area, which supply refreshments and allow you to watch tortoises drinking at a watering hole for a small fee. Another place to watch the lumbering giants in the wild is on Volcan Alcedo
, it’s a short walk to the nearby Lava Tunnels, long tubes of rock formed by the solidification of a lava flow during a volcanic eruption. There are several such tubes on the island but these are the most impressive, one of which is about a kilometer [just over a half mile
] long and as high and wide as a subway tunnel. It is known as “The Tunnel of Endless Love,” because of a heart-shaped hole in its roof. Guides with torches can be hired at Bellavista
to explore these dark labyrinths.
Caleta Tortuga Negra
Several coves and beaches cut into the isolated and rarely visited northwestern shore of Santa Cruz. The most interesting of these is Caleta Tortuga Negra [Black Turtle Cove
] where green turtles
can sometimes be seen during the breeding season from September to February.
The sand at Las Bachas is made of decomposed coral, which makes it white and soft, and a favorite site for nesting see turtles.
The sally lightfoot crabs are abundant on the lava rocks along the water's edge. These crabs will eat anything they can get their claws on.
On this hike, we saw flamingoes, sally lightfoot crabs, hermit crabs, black necked stilts, and whimbrels.
||Article contributed by Dominic Hamilton|||