The main township of Puerta Ayora is a relaxed mix of travel agents, overpriced cafes, and souvenir shops selling loud t-shirts and polished porcelain turtles. It’s the biggest settlement in the Galapagos, with the widest assortment of agencies and the best range of accommodation. The first stop of many visitors due to its proximity to Baltra airport, Santa Cruz will provide everything you need before venturing further into the archipelago. Those without bookings should take a walk around town and check out the sheer number of agencies available before beginning the grind of booking an itinerary. But what to do on Santa Cruz itself?
If you’re like me, you’ll want to head out on an adventure ASAP. While Santa Cruz offers a good base, a few days is enough to explore. Also, it was the only place in Galapagos that seemed weirdly cloudy most of the time. Not a sell point.
Township: Puerto Ayora
Price: hostel US$18 – $25 || meal US$5 – $15
Point of interest: biggest township in the Galapagos; kick-off point for cruises.
How long to spend : 2 – 3 days
1 | Make the walk to Tortuga Bay (half day). Top of most people’s Puerto Ayora list, this is a great way to spend a day relaxing in between more intense activities, and to give the poor wallet a break. The walk is 2.5km along a paved track that rises and falls with the land and is shaded by the usual tall scrubby trees and cacti. The signs at the beginning suggest it’ll take 50 minutes but with a little frustration to release I reached the ocean in half that time. I was set up at the calm swimming beach at the end of the bay by minute 50. It was a lovely walk for the early afternoon, but I imagine the morning would be equally perfect.
Tortuga bay itself is a picturesque mess of spinning currents and churning waves. Don’t risk a beautiful death — walk along the beach about a kilometre, past a clump of mangroves and a colony of lazy iguanas, and turn right under the trees to reach a protected beach perfect for floating away from life all afternoon. Even when it’s cloudy. There are kayaks for rent, and from the beach you can watch boobies spear-diving for their dinner. Remember that the park closes by 5, so you should be back on the path by 4:30 to avoid a disgruntled lecture from the park guard.
2 | Visit the Centre for Renewable Energy (30 mins). It’s a quick stop at the edge of town on the way to or from Tortuga Bay. It doesn’t seem to get a lot of visitors (I was the only one there, and the visitor log was only half full at 4pm) but that just means it’s an eerily silent, cool, clean paradise that stands in contrast to basically everything else in Ecuador. I spent a blissfully silent 30 minutes reading about renewable energy incentives in Galapagos on glossy wall displays and flicking through books about Charles Darwin in the small library on the second floor. There’s also a garden of solar-collecting model sunflowers that dance when you push the button, which is obviously all the incentive you need.
3 | Wander past the fish market in Puerto Ayora (30 mins). You’ll smell it before you see it. Sea lions and pelicans wait expectantly for the slippery guts of bright tropical fish that cover a concrete bench by the harbour. Vendors stand behind their catch, half-heartedly swinging at flies with coloured plastic swats. The whole scene is ringed with camera-ready tourists, snapping enthusiastically as men toss scraps to the hungry zoo below.
4 | Make friends with the tortoises at El Chato (3 hours). I didn’t make it to El Chato, a forested reserve where the huge old tortoises roam about in the cool highland. If you’re going, try to split the 30 minute, US$25 taxi ride with some buddies. But I visited the breeding center on Isabela and had a chat with several wild old tortoises on the bike ride to the Wall of Tears (isla Isabela again) so I can vouch for how astoundingly prehistoric they are, lumbering around munching on vegetation and looking like they don’t give a single ounce for our fleshy, un-shelled selves.
5 | Visit Las Grietas (half day). Another place I missed out on was Las Grietas (literally ‘the cracks’), a deep crevice in the rock that I regret having missed. The ocean comes into this rock in a turquoise ribbon, and I’ve been told that adventurous souls can swim through an underwater tunnel to reach even more beauty on the other side. Check out Las Grietas by taking a water taxi and a brief walk (wear trainers). Don’t make the same mistake I did!
Best ice-cream : Galapagos Deli. Artisan ice-cream in plenty of flavours, lots of dairy free and vegan options, in amazing homemade waffle cones and bowl. Skip the Magnum and Pinguino (aka Walls aka Streets aka that ever present red heart) and head a few blocks back from the harbour to splash out for your afternoon treat. The pizza smelled great, too.
Best cheap eats : los kioskos. If the promenade restaurant prices make you cringe, head back a few blocks to the kiosks. The old menu del dia gets its usual look-in here and in some local restaurants around town. Rather than the usual $2.50 mainland price it’ll cost you $5, but its still going to be the best value lunch you’ll find in Puerto Ayora. You’ll generally get a soup and juice, and a rice + protein + patacones (fried plantain) plate. Normally not great for vegetarians, but some places set me up with lentils or eggs. If you don’t feel like soup and rice, look on the snacks menu at restaurants or at los kioskos. For some reason, the burgers are usually listed as snacks, although they’re large and come with chips so they’re plenty for a meal. Often there’s a veggie burger or sandwich available. Burgers will be around $5-6.
Go diving, if you’re qualified (1 day). Galapagos isn’t the best place to learn. It’s cooler than many popular places to qualify, and especially during the rainy season the conditions can be challenging for beginners, with strong currents and a choppy surface. If you want to dive here, I suggest learning somewhere more pleasant to log a few dives before diving Galapagos. You’ll enjoy your dives more if you’re thinking less about the logistics.
For those already qualified, plan in advance and decide which site/s you’d like to dive. Different companies go to different sites every day, and the most popular dives can fill up. If you’re limited on time make sure you book in to your preferred Galapagos dive a few days in advance. Galapagos dives cost US$150+ for two; you want to make sure they’re at your top site.
I dived with Academy Bay at Santa Fé, and the instructors, boat, and equipment were at the quality you want when you’re preparing to breathe underwater. The food was great, and a five minute trip to the office at the end of the day provided me with my divemaster’s pictures of our dive on my SD card. Our first site was Punta de Miedo (Point of Fear), which was a very un-scary drift dive that deserves little attention. We missed out on the hammerheads that occasionally pass by.
La Cueva (The Cave) was an interesting dive under a narrow rock tunnel. It was less of a cave than the name suggests. Luckily, it was actually a better dive for the blue light coming in from either side. We moved down along a wall of rock, following the current alongside schools of tropical fish past rocks scattered with tiny blue nudibranchs. Highlights of Santa Fe included turtles, eels, a nice fat octopus, the biggest white tip shark I’ve seen, and a disappointingly disinterested sea lion.