Carlito’s Guide to Isla Santa Cruz, The Galapagos Islands

Samsara Guide to Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos

A budget travelers dream for amazing Galapagos Adventures

Isla Santa Cruz offers plenty of day trips and guided tours, an airport, and plenty of creature comforts making this a perfect “One Island Galapagos Trip” for those on a budget


Why go to Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Island

Why Go: Santa Cruz island is perfect for a one stop, budget tour of Galapgos. Decent accommodations, ample food and grocery options, robust tours, and easy access from the mainland make most quintessential Galapagos experiences possible without leaving the island (aside from the occasional snorkel tour)

Downside: Not much at all actually.  Santa Cruz island offers the perfect balance between cushiness, cost, and accessibility.

Highlights of Isla Santa Cruz


Pinzon Snorkeling Tour:

Highly recommended! A snorkeling tour putting you in the water with sharks, sea lions, sea turtles, and various other marine wildlife.

Highlands Tour: Tortoise Ranch, Lava Tunnels, and Lava Crater Hikes

A great half day trip by taxi between the best land based sites on Isla Santa Cruz

Cocktails by the Waterfront @ night

Best enjoyed at the bars for the Angermeyer waterfront inn or the Finch Bay hotel (both accessible by taxi) after dark

Amazing (and cheap) Seafood on Kiosk

Full lobster dinners for $15 with a rustic with a raw, South American Island feel

The Creation Center/Darwin Research Center

A very educational tour of a tortoise nursery with various species of tortoises from 8 months old to 80+ years old

Isla Santa Cruz Itineraries


3 Day Isla Isabella Itinerary

Day 1: Fly into Baltra and taxi to Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Darwin Research Center, la Ratonera, Cocktails

Day 2: Pinzon Snorkel Tour

Day 3: Highland Tour (El Chato, Lava Crater, Lava Tunnels), Las Grietas, Fly out/Boat to next Island

5 Day Isla Isabella Itinerary

Day 1: Flight in, Darwin Research Center and Tortoise re-population project, La Ratonera

Day 2: Daphne Snorkel Tour

Day 3: Highlands Tour (El Chato Tortoise Ranch, Lava Crater, Lava Tunnels), Las Grietas

Day 4: Pinzon Snorkel Tour

Day 5: Relaxing beach day, Fly Out/Boat out to next island

Best Organized Tours on Isla Santa Cruz


Galapagos’ middle child has great tours, reasonable prices, it perfect for backpackers. These are your best bets for tours

(Note: All prices quoted are the average prices for booking on island, in Spanish)

Pinzon Tour: $140, 8:00AM – 5:00PM. A MUST!!! A highly recommended and amazing snorkel tour to Pinzon Island. The tour starts with a warm-up of ~45 minutes of snorkeling at the Daphne Islet, followed by ~30 minutes of snorkeling at Bahia Borrero, and a ~45 minute grand finale at Pinzon Island.  Pinzon island has a wonderful, shallow canal protected from the ocean and hosting meter long reef sharks and sea lions that you will be in arms reach of and makes a great finale!  Along the way home, your captain may troll to catch some sea fish and prepare fresh sushi if you’re lucky.  Beware!!  This open water snorkel tour goes to some cool places, so bring your wetsuit! Highly likely animals: Penguins, Reef Sharks (the nice ones), Sea Turtles, Rays. Possible animals: Dolphins, penguins

Daphne Snorkeling Tour: $90, 9AM-2PM (~5 hours). Another highly recommend snorkeling tour that takes you to islands Daphne Major and Daphne Minor on an all day trip seeing sea lions, turtles, sharks, and various types of fish.  This Tour is a great addition to the Pinzon snorkeling tour for travelers spending their entire trip on Santa Cruz Island

La Loberia Tour: $40, 2-3 hours. A short, cheap snorkeling adventure that is a good introductory ssnorkel adventure on Galapagos.  The tour consists of three parts 1) viewing the Loberia island from a boat while the guide shares information about the sea lions, the Loberia island, and the Galapagos Archipelago 2) A brief snorkeling adventure off the coast Santa Cruz and 3) a hike through the volcanic, rocky, desert-ish landscapes with guide commentary and 4) a hike to the “Las Grietas” (the Grotos).  We recommend this snorkel tour only as a starter, but recommend against if you have been on a tour on another island or on the Daphne and Pinzon tours on Santa Cruz.  Marine life and excitement can be sparse in comparison to other tours

North Seymore Island Tour: $150, 9AM - 3PM. A combination hiking and snorkeling tour that is known more for bird watching opportunities than snorkeling opportunities.  The tour hikes and floats past nests of Blue-footed Boobies, Frigate birds, sea lions, iguanas (land and marine), and various other bits of Galapagos wildlife.  If you are more interested in birdlife, go with this tour.  If marine life interests you more, choose the Pinzon or Daphne snorkeling tours

Other Awesome Tours on Isla Santa Cruz


Isla Santa Fe: $150, 7AM – 3PM. Hiking through cacti forests and spending time on isolated beaches with sea lions on one of the oldest volcanoes in the Galapagos Archipelago

Punta Carrion: 7AM - 4PM. A full day trip off northern Santa Cruz Island with the first part hiking through desert, volcanic landscapes and observing iguanas and plants unique to the island, followed by snorkeling around the coast near Punta Carrion with rays and schools of fish

Islote Caamano: $150, 7AM – 3PM. A dive opportunity on Santa Cruz ranging to depths of 18 meters in a site with a colony of sea lions, sea turtles, and schooling fish

Islas Plaza: An uplifted island that is home to land iguanas, sea lions, and sea birds.  No snorkeling or swimming is allowed on this island and the tour consists of hiking on trails.

Self-guided activities on Isla Isabella


Isla Santa Cruz’s self guided activities provide great fun for free between “excursion days”

The Highlands Tour (all on Santa Cruz, via Taxi): A “semi-guided” tour of the Tortoise ranches, the lava tunnels, and the lava craters as a taxi driver is hired to take you to all three places for $45.  The opportunities to walk unguided for 100’s of meters of lava tunnels completely underground and the opportunity to walk among gigantic tortoises (with a beer in hand) are both highlights of this tour and Santa Cruz overall.  This activity is perfect for an “off-day” between snorkeling adventures.  Just tell your hotel management staff your plans the day before and have them arrange a taxi for you.

Los Grietas (The Grottos): A mixture of seawater from the ocean during high tides and freshwater from the highlands fill a fissure created by lava during volcanic eruptions create this cool and refreshing grotto.  The water is always clear, crystal blue, and makes a fun place to splash around and follow fish into the many underwater tunnels and hiding spots. The fissure is 12 meters deep at its deepest and 300 meters deep at its widest. Getting there: Take a water taxi from the port to “the other side” or “otro lado” and walk along the beach Playa de la Punta Estrada.  A the far end of the beach you’ll find a trail that starts a 15 minute hike (the trail is visible on Google Maps and Maps.me) past some salt lakes and into the grottos.  Some boat tours will include this in their itinerary.  Be sure to wear shoes if hiking as the trail can be rocky.

Centro de Crianza de Tortugas Fausto Llerena (Tortoise Breeding Center): A great, self-guided tour through the various parts of the tortoise breeding center gives you a look at tortoises of various sizes and very informational billboards along the way. The tour ends with a great viewing of “Solitary George”, a testament to why conservation is so important Getting there: From the port, take the main road (Avenida Charles Darwin) east to the Herbariode la Estacion Cientifica Charles Darwin and the Centro de Crianza will be located in the same spot. 

Playa de la Estacion: A small, rocky beach located next to the Tortoise breeding center where many marine iguanas hangout. Visiting this beach is an excellent way to start your Galapagos adventure. Getting There: Follow Avenida Charles Darwin toward the tortoise breeding center and continue on the path. The sign for the beach will be on the right.

The Tiny Fish Market (on Avenida Charles Darwin): Everyday, the local fishermen bring in their early catch to sell to the kiosks cooking it up for tourists later in the day.  Why is this market interesting? The Pelicans.  And the seal lions.  As the fishermen chop up their catch and vend it to local restaurants, birds and sea lions patiently wait underfoot for any leftovers that will be tossed to them.  The sight of such animal-human harmony in such an odd place is magical. Seeing fresh yellowfin tuna, brujo (fish) and lobster being toted in is interesting too, especially when you’ll be eating it later in that evening Getting There: From the port, walk east on Avenida Charles Darwin toward Herbariode la Estacion Cientifica Charles Darwin (search it in Google Maps or Maps.Me), and the tiny market will be on the right, a 10 minute walk away.

Bahia Tortuga (Tortoise Bay): A bay divided into two areas: Playa Brava, a beautiful white sand beach where you will arrive, and Playa Mansa (calm beach). As beautiful as Playa Brava is, don’t swim.  There is a dangerous undercurrent here.  The next beach, Playa Mansa, is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking, and is flanked by mangroves perfect for exploring.

Laguna de Las Ninfas (Lagoon of the Nymphs): A calm lagoon surrounded by mangroves with a wooden walkway built above to bird watch while walking and enjoying the scenery. Getting there: Situated past the old cargo dock, walk down the street behind the old Catholic church three blocks and you’ll see the entryway

Tuneles El Mirador: Tunnels formed due to lava flows cooling on the surface and can easily be explore. Getting There: Take a taxi on the main road five minutes out of Puerto Ayora (or walk) and then walk along the short 20 meter path to get to the tunnels

Galapaguera - Puerto Chino: A ranch full of GIANT tortoises roaming around, and you can freely walk among them (as long as you respect the 2 meter rule).  The ranch also has a restaurant (mediocre) and bar that serve beer that you can buy on the way in and sip as you walk among the gentle giants (not so mediocre). Getting There: Hop a taxi and let them know where you want to go.  This site is commonly done on the Highlands tour (Tortuga ranch, lava tunnels, and lava craters) and saves a bit of money doing all three at once.

Reserva El Chato: An alternate tortoise ranch

El Gerrapatero: A beautiful beach with a lagoon opposite of it filled with flamingos most of the year. Getting There: Hop a taxi to the beach entrance where you will register with a park ranger and then walk 500 meters to the beach.

Los Gemelos (Lava Craters): Two enormous craters formed by volcanic eruptions and the following collapsing of the ground when the island was volcanically active.  A trail meanders between the craters giving great views (and insta-opportunties). Getting There: Hop a taxi and tell them where you want to go (“Los Gemelos”).  This site is commonly done on the Highlands tour (Tortuga ranch, lava tunnels, and lava craters) and saves a bit of money doing all three at once.

Punta Estrada: A small beach, sheltered from the ocean and bordered by mangroves making it great for swimming and snorkeling.  Best explored during hight tide, but avoid going near the reef as the current can be strong Getting There: Take a water taxi to “the other side” or “El Otro Lado” and continue a short walk to the beach.

La Ratonera: A nice starter to your Galapagos adventures and done this first day on Santa Cruz in conjunction with the Darwin Research Center.  This tiny sliver of rocky beach is covered with marine iguanas stacked one on top of the other, crabs, and meandering sea birds lazily fishing.

Getting to (and from) Isla Isabella


By Air if You’re Ballin’…By Sea if You’re Ballin’ on a Budget

Flights direct to San Cristobal: Depart at 1:30p daily, duration is 45 minutes, cost is $120-$150

Boats to  Santa Cruz depart at 5:30am and 2:30pm. Cost is $30 to Santa Cruz or San Cristobal

Note on boats to Isabell: Boats do not travel directly to San Cristobal from Isabella.  To get from Isabella to San Cristobal you must take the early ferry (5:30A) to San Cruz and then take the afternoon ferry from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal

Tips for Thriving on Isla Santa Cruz


A few tips that will make your experience on Santa Cruz as smooth as possible

Eat on “Kiosk Street” for some great seafood: With $15 full lobster dinners and fish caught the same day you eat it, the seafood here is hard to beat for the price.  Just head for the intersection of Charles Binford Street and Avenida Baltra (in Maps.me), three blocks away (north) of Avenida Charles Darwin in Puerto Ayora

When snorkeling, keep your head down and avoid talking to maximize your interaction with the animals.  Avoid chasing them and be calm and sea lions, sharks, and fish will curiously (and harmlessly) come to you.  Bringing your head out of the water or talking creates unnecessary noise that scares them off…so does chasing them

Get a thick wetsuit!!: For any open water activities, insist on a long wetsuit at least 3mm thick, optimally 4mm or 5mm if you get cold easily.  Note that with a 4mm or 5mm suit you will be so buoyant that diving below the surface when snorkeling will be very difficult

Alternate between self-guided tours and boat tours: With a wetsuit and snorkel, there are many great sites to swim and snorkel with sea lions, sea turtles, and sharks on your own.  For birdwatchers, there are several nesting locations that can be hiked to with little difficulty to see boobies, frigates, and pelicans

Keep an eye on the bull sea lion (aka the biggest ones) when snorkeling: Most wildlife on Galapagos is so used to having people around that they will not react.  On the other hand, sea lions will play and invite you in.  Allow them to approach you (not the other way around) and avoid touching and they will stay playful.  As for the bull sea lions, if you area snorkeling and notice a bull sea lion continually swimming a line and barking, he’s marking his territory.  Stay on the far side of that line (away from the colony) and you are very safe…but still stay aware of where the bull is

If you’re torn between diving and snorkeling, go snorkel: The divers I observed (at Leon Dormido) went through 10x the hassle we went through, as snorkelers, and saw less sea life than we did…they didn’t get to see the hammerhead shark we saw.  Oddly enough, this happened to most of the divers I met.  Unless you get the chance to dive at Darwin, Wolf, or Genovesa, save yourself a lot of hassle and snorkel instead.

Keep in mind that animals follow food sources and breeding patterns which means you may not see a certain animal in a specific place all of the time.  Prioritize the list of animals that uyou would like to see, then double check your tour locations with the time of year to plan which tour (and animal chase) is best for your preferences

Tips for Your Galapagos Triip


A few Galapagos wide tips that will keep your Santa Cruz experience going smoothly

Book your tours at dive shops: These shops provide higher quality gear and cheaper prices. 

When snorkeling, keep your head down and avoid talking to maximize your interaction with the animals.  Avoid chasing them and be calm and sea lions, sharks, and fish will curiously (and harmlessly) come to you.  Bringing your head out of the water or talking creates unnecessary noise that scares them off…so does chasing them

Get a thick wetsuit!!: For any open water activities, insist on a long wetsuit at least 3mm thick, optimally 4mm or 5mm if you get cold easily.  Note that with a 4mm or 5mm suit you will be so buoyant that diving below the surface when snorkeling will be very difficult

Alternate between self-guided tours and boat tours: With a wetsuit and snorkel, there are many great sites to swim and snorkel with sea lions, sea turtles, and sharks on your own.  For birdwatchers, there are several nesting locations that can be hiked to with little difficulty to see boobies, frigates, and pelicans

Keep an eye on the bull sea lion (aka the biggest ones) when snorkeling: Most wildlife on Galapagos is so used to having people around that they will not react.  On the other hand, sea lions will play and invite you in.  Allow them to approach you (not the other way around) and avoid touching and they will stay playful.  As for the bull sea lions, if you area snorkeling and notice a bull sea lion continually swimming a line and barking, he’s marking his territory.  Stay on the far side of that line (away from the colony) and you are very safe…but still stay aware of where the bull is

If you’re torn between diving and snorkeling, go snorkel: The divers I observed (at Leon Dormido) went through 10x the hassle we went through, as snorkelers, and saw less sea life than we did…they didn’t get to see the hammerhead shark we saw.  Oddly enough, this happened to most of the divers I met.  Unless you get the chance to dive at Darwin, Wolf, or Genovesa, save yourself a lot of hassle and snorkel instead.

Keep in mind that animals follow food sources and breeding patterns which means you may not see a certain animal in a specific place all of the time.  Prioritize the list of animals that uyou would like to see, then double check your tour locations with the time of year to plan which tour (and animal chase) is

Money on Isla Isabella


Everything you need to know about Dinero on Isla Isabella

Basics:

  • Currency: Ecuador (and the Galapagos Islands) use the US dollar which makes conversions easy
  • Banks: There are a few banks on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal
  • Credit Cards: Credit cards are accepted at hotels and swankier restaurants but charge a 4% additional fee.  Budget accommodations may charge credit card but charge an additional 4% and prefer cash.  Most on island tourist agencies and tour service providers (the cheaper ones you want to be with) only accept cash.

Fees

  • Foreign tourist, non-resident entry fee: $100 (Paid on entry at Santa Cruz Island or San Cristobal Island airports)

Prices:

  • Boat from or Santa Cruz or San Cristobal: $30
  • Flight to San Cristobal: $120 (great price), $150 (normal price)

Comparing Islands in the Galapagos Archipelago


Each of Galapagos’ Island has a unique personality suited to different travelers…

The Galapagos Archipelago has 4 inhabited islands, 3 of which are suitable for as launch pads for self-guided adventures in Galapagos: San Cristobal, Isabella, and Santa Cruz.  Each of these three islands is best suited to a particular goal ad traveler type.  Note that most animal life can be seen on day trips launching from each of the islands, so the main differences between islands are creature comforts, “poshness”, and population size…

Isla San Cristobal: Flashpackers, travelers willing to spend a little more cash, and travelers that require the creature comforts (i.e., craft cocktails, top notch ceviche, great western style dishes) for a satisfying adventure

Isla Santa Cruz: Backpackers and budget travelers that want to be perfectly positioned to keep costs low by eating more local and living a little more “rustically” while being perfectly positioned to explore most everything in the archipelago

Isla Isabella: Travelers that like rural, peace, quiet, and small populations.  The population is 1/10th of that on San Cristobal, the main roads on the island are dirt, and all of the locals are super chill…most moved to this island because of its deserted feel

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