Discover Galapagos - A travel guide to Galapagos cruises, tours, boats and yacht charters

Galapagos Islands tours - fun for the whole family!

A travel guide to Galapagos tours, boats, cruises & yacht charters

Galapagos Islands Guided Tour

Isla Santa Cruz

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos


Charles darwin c 1840 "The tortoise is very fond of water, drinking large quantities, and wallowing in the mud. The larger islands alone possess springs, and these are always situated towards the central parts, and at a considerable height. The tortoises, therefore, which frequent the lower districts, when thirsty, are obliged to travel from a long distance. Hence broad and well-beaten paths branch off in every direction from the wells down to the sea-coast; and the Spaniards by following them up, first discovered the watering-places." - Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle Galapagos Tortoises by Richard Lydekker c. 1893


Map of Academy Bay, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos We arrive in Puerto early in the morning. At sunrise we are surprised by the hustle and bustle in Academy Bay. Compared to what we have been experiencing on our trip so far, this is a very busy place. There must be over 50 boats anchored in the bay. And yet, it is also a very beautiful setting.

We see sailboats tied up alongside the cliff below a lava rock house with bougainvillea growing up the side of the cliff and house. 

Some houses blend in so well with the lava that you have to look very closely to see them. The buildings in "town" catch the orange early morning rays and shine golden.

Cinder block house in Academy Bay, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Jeff Waugh
Cinder block house in Academy Bay

After an early breakfast we are off to the dock in the panga to catch our charter bus to the highlands. Today we will be traveling on a road through all the different vegetation zones on the islands to near the very top of Santa Cruz. The road was built to link the Baltra Airport with the town. It goes directly across the top of Santa Cruz to a ferry landing on the "canal" between Santa Cruz and Baltra. The dock in Puerto Ayora, Santa Crus Island, Galapagos
Jeff Waugh
The dock in Puerto Ayora

The coastal zone is only a few meters wide and the vegetation here is influenced greatly by the presence of salt. We find red, white, black and button mangrove, Sesuvium and the saltbush Cryptocarpus.


Burro on the old dirt road, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Jeff Waugh
The dry zone...

The dry zone can be exceptionally dry from May to December during the garua season when only the southeast sides of the volcanoes receive any precipitation - and then only in the form of a fine mist or garua. This is where we find those species most adapted to desert-like conditions. We find Opuntia or Prickly Pear, and two other endemic cactus - Jasminocereus and Brachycereus.


We also see Acacia, Palo Santo (Bursura), Parkinsonia, Waltheria, Cordia, Scutia, Hippomane and Croton. After a not too long bus ride the vegetation begins to green and we see cattle grazing in the fields. You must remember that we are now outside of the national park and won't enter it again until we arrive at the Tortoise Reserve.

Once there, we immediately begin our descent on a narrow trail through verdant upland vegetation (the humid zone) passing between banana and papaya trees and fields of cattle and cattle egrets. It is a very different landscape than the ones we have experienced so far.


Vermilion Flycatcher, Santa Cruz, Galapagos
Jeff Waugh
Pajaro Brujo
This is a great place for the brilliant pajaro brujo or Vermilion Flycatcher. We keep our eyes open and are not disappointed. We find a pair of them perched on the branches of some endemic Scalesia trees. The trees are covered in lichens and mosses and a few epiphytic plants grow from the branches. We even find an orchid growing amongst the mosses! There are only 11 species of lichen in Galapagos compared to over 3,000 on the mainland. We also find the endemic guava trees which bear little fruit, and another endemic plant - Pisonia


Although the walk to the Tortoise Reserve can take up to an hour, it is possible to see the Galapagos Tortoise at any point along the trail, especially the closer you get to the reserve. 

This trip we have to walk all the way to the reserve and it is an enjoyable walk. There, we are rewarded for our efforts by a 170 year old (or so) Galapagos Tortoise poking his way along the trail and nibbling at the grass. He is huge! My guess is he weighs close to 100 kilos or more.

Jeff Waugh
Galapagos Tortoise

The tortoises on Santa Cruz (as on Santiago, San Cristobal, Floreana, and southern Isabela) all have dome-shaped shells. The tortoises on other islands have a saddle-shaped shell and longer necks and legs. 

The most extreme subspecies of the saddle back type live in dry areas where they must be able to lift their neck and heads up high enough to reach the green vegetation. The saddle shape evolved as a selective advantage for feeding.

Saddleback Tortoise, Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Jeff Waugh

We keep a fair distance from the tortoise as we sit and observe while our guide tells us about the The Endangered Galapagos Giant Tortoise

Our driver takes us up the road to reenter the national park near Los Gemelos or "the twins" for the two volcanic craters near the top of Santa Cruz. On the right hand side of the road we get a glimpse of the Miconia zone. This area is characterized by Miconia covered in ferns, mosses, lichens and epiphytes. The endemic Darwiniothamnus is also found amongst the Miconia.

Bird watching at Los Gemelos, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Jeff Waugh
Los Gemelos

At Los Gemelos we are surprised at the size of the Scalesia trees and endemic giant ferns (Cyathea ). In a meadow we find a Short-eared Owl just finishing a meal of another bird. We sit, observe and photograph. There are only two types of owls in Galapagos - the Short-eared and the Barn Owl. I have yet to see a Barn Owl as they are nocturnal and difficult to find unless you are lucky or know where to look.

Short-eared Owl at Los Gemelos, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Jeff Waugh
Short-eared Owl

Next stop is lunch! We are on our way back down the road a short ways to a small ranch or finca where we enjoy a hearty lunch of beefsteaks the size of which we don't believe! The barbecued chicken is also fantastic! It is a beautiful location where we can enjoy our afternoon siesta in peace and quiet (while that steak digests). We stay and rest, swim and sit in the sun before climbing back aboard the bus

La Finca in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
  Jeff Waugh
La Finca

In the afternoon we visit a nearby lava tube and get a chance to walk down the trail and inside of it. It is about 20 meters from floor to ceiling and goes in for a number of kilometers. We keep walking and I wonder how far are we going to go!? Some of these lave tubes have not been fully explored. We take our time and imagine that maybe this is where the buccaneers would have buried that stolen Incan gold!

Lave Tube on Santa Criz Island, Galapagos
  Jeff Waugh 
Lave Tube

Soon, we are on the road, down through the dry zone and back into the town of Puerto Ayora. We pass through town, along Academy Bay and Pelican Bay to the Charles Darwin Research Station. We walk from the entrance towards the Interpretive Center. Our guide walks slowly and tells us about many of the plants and birds we see along the way. 

Charles Darwin Reserach Station, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Jeff Waugh
Interpretive Center, C.D.R.S.

We visit the Interpretive Center, the tortoise hatchery and the tortoise corrals. Here, we are able to see the difference between the dome and saddle shape and see first hand how long those necks and legs are. We also learn that the Darwin Station is involved in a land iguana restoration program. Feral dogs have destroyed many land iguana colonies on Santa Cruz and other islands.

The Darwin Station has been doing a wonderful job of protecting the Galapagos through scientific research and conservation. I encourage everyone to support their efforts by making a contribution to them for conservation in Galapagos.


Darwin Station Land Iguana Restoration Program... for future generations!
Jeff Waugh
The Darwin Station Land Iguana Restoration Program

 Lava Lizard at the Darwin Station, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos
Lava Lizard at the Darwin Station Jeff Waugh

This evening is free to do as you wish. We stroll back along the road from the C.D.R.S., through Pelican Bay, into town. Our pangero will be checking in at the dock on an hourly basis until midnight to ferry us back to the boat. Don't be late! We set sail at 1:00 AM.

Everyone is back on the boat (we counted heads) by midnight. We pull anchor and head south... To Floreana



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