In all likelihood, the island of Santa Cruz will provide your introduction to the Galápagos. The islands’ main airport is on the nearby tiny island of Baltra, from which a series of buses, boats and taxis will get you to the town of Puerto Ayora (I’ve included a section at the end of this post that gives a quick overview of the logistics). Puerto Ayora is the largest town on the archipelago, and the epicentre of tourist activities. It’s the starting point of most cruises (if you’re planning on trying to get a last minute deal) and, as one of the central islands, the point of departure for the majority of day trips (including those to Santa Fe, Seymour, and Sombrero Chino). Our time in the Galápagos was so brief that we only had two days to spend here, and the stuff around us kept us so busy that we didn’t have any time to do a paid day trip. You obviously expect to see some cool wildlife when you travel to the Galápagos- but what you might not realise is that it’s not just confined to the more remote islands- it’s absolutely everywhere, even in the towns.
Here are our highlights – everything (apart form the first one) is totally free, and totally magnificent.
Because our time on the island was so short, we decided to kill two birds with one stone and hire a taxi to take us to our hotel on Santa Cruz via Rancho Primicias, a good place to see wild giant tortoises. I’ve devoted to a full post to singing the praises of these creatures here, but, even though it’s in a quasi-agricultural setting, I’d recommend it as a sure fire way of seeing one of the most famous species on the archipelago.
THE FISH MARKET
The fish market in Puerto Ayora has recently become well known for Lupe, a Galápagos sea lion who hangs out with the fishermen and occasionally nuzzles them to remind them to give her scraps. The market itself is a short stroll down Avenida Charles Darwin – you can’t miss it. We wandered over on our first evening, not really expecting to see much.
Within 10 minutes, we’d seen more more than I’d thought possible. Marine iguanas, which I’d expected to have to put some effort in to find, used the nooks and crannies of the stone walls of the port as shelter. What’s more, they were babies- those plucky guys from Planet Earth II, which feature what is pretty widely accepted to be the greatest natural history television sequence of all time. Tiny little black tip sharks – juveniles- could be seen in the turquoise waters of the harbour, and pelicans flew in to roost in a small stretch of mangroves. When we eventually reached the place where they bring the fish in, the last of the catch was being gutted and prepped for sale by the fishermen, who expertly filleted a range of different species watched by a chorus of brown pelicans. Sure enough, Lupe was also there, interrupting the fishermen’s chatter whenever she felt she’d been ignored for a little too long. After a while we wandered back over to the water, and watched the lava herons picking their way across the rocks in search of sally lightfoot crabs. I won’t lie – as the moon rose and the sunset turned the sky orange and violet on one of the most iconic places for wildlife in the world – it may have been enough to solicit one or two tears of happiness.
A combination of the time difference and the sheer excitement of our first full day in the Galápagos got us up and early out of bed and on the trail to Tortuga Bay, which is one of the free sites on Santa Cruz that you don’t need to hire a guide to visit. It’s situated at the end of a trail that winds through Opuntia forest, one of the quintessential habitats of the Galápagos. At the end, it opens up into an idyllic stretch of white sand where green turtles come to nest. And, if you carry on past the rocky outcrop, you get to a lagoon fringed by mangroves that has good snorkelling.
It’s a great place to find marine iguanas swimming in from the sea and to paddle amongst scores of purple damselfish- plus, if you get there early like we did, the birdlife is immense. Our walk thorough the Opuntia forest was punctuated by singing mockingbirds and cactus finches digging in to Opuntia buds, while the occasional banana yellow warbler would flit through the spiky undergrowth. We watched great blue herons unsuccessfully hunting in the shallows, and little flocks of stilts sifting delicately through water on the shores of the lagoon. Within an hour or so of us arriving, however, the scene was far less tranquil as the place began to fill with tourists – so I’d recommend heading down first thing to catch the mockingbird chorus and have the place all to yourself.
Las Grietas is a great little snorkelling spot, a large fissure in the lava flanked by steep cliffs. If you head down to the main dock you can hop on a water taxi ($1) to take you across the port to the Angermeyer Restaurant, from which you can follow a clearly marked trail. There are three deep canyons of briny water – the first one is nice, but the trick is to keep going and spend your time snorkelling in the second, much rockier pool, and into the third deeper one – few people make the effort to reach it, and it’s where all the cool fish are. If you get lucky, you’ll get the water on a good visibility day, and it’ll feel like you’re suspended above the canyon, peering into the depths below. I spent most of my time alternating between with swimming with a shoal that were each the size of my arm, and combing the rocks for all the tiny, immaculately camouflaged gobies.
Note that there’s no facilities to leave your bag in a safe place- you just leave your stuff by the first pool, and hope for the best. We were fine, but for peace of mind you might want to make sure you don’t venture out with a bag full of valuables.
Not a wildlife recommendation per se, but our favourite place to have dinner. In the evening, Calle Charles Binford is transformed into los kioskos, as the restaurants flanking each side of the street cram as many tables as they can into the road and start cooking delicious, freshly caught seafood on outdoor grills. Every place sets out their wares on a table, and you can wander up and down deciding which of the incredible looking lobsters, langoustines or fish you want cooked up for you. Both times we ate here the food was superb, and the atmosphere fantastic.
Getting to/from Santa Cruz:
Airport: The airport serving Puerto Ayora is actually on the tiny neighbouring island of Baltra. Once you get through customs, you can hop of a free bus that takes you to the ferries on the Canal de Itabaca, which will charge a couple of dollars for the crossing to Santa Cruz. Once on the main island, there are buses and taxis waiting to take you to Puerto Ayora (the former obviously being considerably cheaper). It’s all pretty intuitive but it’s quite the journey, so make sure you allow plenty of time.
Boats: You can get ferries to Isabela and San Cristóbal for $30 each way (though you may be able to get a discount for a return). Some friends on the islands were sold counterfeit tickets on Isabela, so be careful where you get them from (we bought ours from the tour company offices lining the main street and were absolutely fine).
There’s a wide choice of places to stay, from AirBnBs to eye-waveringly expensive hotels. We stayed at Capitan Max, a small guesthouse close to Calle Charles Binford. It was clean, comfortable, and really close to the start of the trail to Tortuga Bay, but the highlight was the breakfast of either pancakes or french toast, and the free tea that hit the spot when we got in after a long day’s exploring. Recommended.