The Galápagos Islands 2021 – Part II – Santa Cruz

We left our home with the Ruiz family in San Cristóbal at 6.30am when a taxi they had kindly arranged for us came and took us to the ferry port. The fare of $1. 50 was excellent value and saved us from carrying our bags for too far. A 2-hour ferry trip to Santa Cruz followed. We had been advised that the early morning crossings were on much calmer waters than the late afternoon ones, and that may well be true, but it doesn’t mean Carol enjoyed the trip any. The seats were plastic and hard and the trip was bumpy and rocky. Gratefully on terra firma we attempted to find our Airbnb for the next 10 days.

Like many countries we have visited on our trip, addresses here are not in the same format as in the UK. A typical address in Costa Rica would be something like 300m North of the Post office, here we were given co-ordinates and a map, I think they like the 0° latitude element. This is all great as long as the taxi driver understands. Our driver did not. What should have been a 2 minute journey ended up taking 20, with stops on the way for our taxi driver to ask people if they understood where we needed to be. Our AirBnB hosts had provided a map along with the co-ordinates, so we didn’t really understand what the problem was. Eventually after they called our host who gave them directions we were on our way.

We were met by our host, Lea. After a lovely welcome and chat with her, we went into our front garden, and were welcomed by a snake! The first one we had seen on our entire trip, despite the fact we had gone on 2 or 3 treks specifically looking for them in Costa Rica. This was of the same family as the (in)famous Galapagos racer snakes, but in this case it was very slim, only around 2 foot long, and totally harmless to us.

We unpacked and settled in and in the evening we walked into town and orientated ourselves excited to discover what this island had in store for us.

Around Puerto Ayora

The Fish Market

Here in Puerto Ayora there are few sea lions, far fewer than in San Cristobal, but they are here. The ones who do live here are lazy boys who rely on handouts from the fish market for food. Or at least they would do if they were quick enough! They have strong competition here from Pelicans and other sea birds, and it was the Pelicans who were quickest and got by far the (sea) lion’s share of the fishy off-cuts. Please excuse the man with his stomach out in the video we aren’t sure what that was about!

The Fish Market Scrum!

The fish market is on Charles Darwin Avenue near the Banco Pacifico where they, and some local birds, pelicans and herons are regularly fed. We stopped to watch the feeding frenzy several times during our time here and it was really entertaining. Also you are likely to see lots of marine iguanas not far from the market; sometimes in the scrum with the pelicans and sea lions. Watch your step however because some of the exhausted sea lions will just pass out on the pavement watching the traffic.

The Pier at Night

The main Santa Cruz pier is where you arrive onto the island from either San Cristobal or Isabela. You also find water taxis here and many day trips depart from the various numbered pontoons. It’s a nice place to visit by day as there are sealions having a sleep on benches and you can get a great view around the harbour.

Our favourite time to visit however was at night. On our first evening we walked to the pier, not expecting to see too much but had heard it was a great place to see various marine life. Using a flash when photographing the wildlife is strictly prohibited. We already knew that, what we didn’t know is that this rule doesn’t stop the council garishly lighting the pier with red, green and blue lights pointing directly into the water, and sometimes creating an absolutely horrible strobe effect.

We had a look at the water below. Given the severely reduced number of sea lions here, we weren’t expecting to see much wildlife around the pier. We saw pelicans, one or two sea lions, on benches and on boats and then things got a little more interesting – we saw sharks! Probably 5 or 6 of them in total , small but perfectly formed black tips around 50-75 cm long . At least I avoided saying “baby shark” and putting that little earworm in your head. Whoops, sorry 😉 We also saw some turtles just happily swimming away.

This was a regular spot for us most evenings during our stay; watching the sea lions board boats ans pretending to be captains, the sharks and several turtles swimming around in the water off the pier. On one particularly night at low tide we saw 25+ sharks. Our pictures don’t do it justice due to the lighting but it is definitely worth a visit.

The Charles Darwin Research Station

The research centre is easily walkable from the main malecon of Santa Cruz. Continue following Charles Darwin Avenue straight down from the port and you will reach it. We were greeted by a lady in a gazebo who informed us it is not possible to visit here without a guide, and that will cost you $10 per person. We signed in and after a short wait our guide arrived.

Santa Cruz has slightly more than double the population of San Cristóbal, around 15,000 people. We made a mistake visiting a tourist attraction on a Sunday, many locals seemed to choose the same day to visit and for our comfort, there were far too many people there that day. This was the most people we had seen with groups of 20 in some places. We were in a small group of 5.

We visited the Giant Tortoise breeding centre, with 11 species from all over the Galápagos Islands. There are a huge number of tortoises here, of all ages, including some very old, absolutely huge ones. When they reach a certain age they are returned to the island they came from to live in the wild where it is hoped that they will reproduce and keep each species in existence. One tortoise recently made world news when she was discovered to be a species previously thought to have become extinct a century ago.

We also were able to spend a short time viewing Lonesome George who is taxidermed in a display cabinet in a cooled and welcoming air conditioned room. We learnt all about poor George from our guide including a quite in depth tortoise sex education class and learned how poor George wasn’t able to procreate. Due to our childishness we couldn’t help but snigger under our masks as he discussed in a very serious way the ‘in’s and out’s’ of how tortoises mate; with side eyes from the males in the group when he explained that the whole sex process is over incredibly quickly, only lasting 5-8 minutes! Surely he meant seconds 😉

Our guide’s English was not great, the tour was long and slow, and the guide imparted very little knowledge other than that available on various displays for everyone to read. The insistence on having a guide appears to be purely a money making or job creation / protection exercise, besides our lesson in tortoise sex education he really didn’t tell us much more other than what he read out from the displays. Armed with that that knowledge I would be tempted if I was ever to revisit to say “Here’s your 20 bucks, now please let us walk around by ourselves”. We may have been unlucky as others we have spoken to have had more positive experiences.

There are also a couple of beaches/rocky coves accessible through the research centre. The highlight of our rocky beach walk was the numbers of marine iguanas we spotted here, often huddled together for warmth in groups of half a dozen or more.

Due to guide rules however we have heard if you want to visit the beach on another day sometimes you have to do the tour again to access it; this is ridiculously silly and hopefully there will be a solution around this. For this reason however we didn’t return back there.

Las Grietas

Las Grietas is located near the main town of Puerto Ayora and is a long crevass surrounded by volcanic walls and filled with gorgeous emerald coloured water. It’s a mixture of salt and freshwater which means that it is not so great for marine life but a great place for a swim or a snorkel; just don’t expect to see too much!

In order to visit here you now need a guide; we visited with Lea and her family so did not need to hire a guide when we arrived. In order to get there we needed to get a water taxi from the smaller pier near Proinsular Supermarket across the water to Finch Bay. The trip only took a few minutes and cost us 80 cents each. From there we took a walk along Playa Los Alemanes, where we able to see a golden ray right in the shallow water – he wasn’t shy and came straight up to have his photo taken.

We continued to walk on from the beach, across salt flats and lava fields, taking in different wildlife on the way before we reached Las Grietas. It wasn’t a difficult walk but was uneven in places so good footwear is needed.

We had a great time with Lea and the children swimming, snorkelling and clambering over the rocks to the far end of the crevass. As expected, there wasn’t too much to see snorkel wise but there were some enourmous grunt fish. Time here is limited to just over an hour per visit.

Out and About on Santa Cruz

Tortuga Bay

There are two ways to access Tortuga Bay, walk – which is 1.5 miles each way, or water taxi which takes about 20 minutes and costs $10 each way. We opted for the water taxi. Tickets can be bought from the kiosk just next to the jetty near Proinsular Supermarket.

With ocean swell, as in life, sometimes you’re riding the crest of the wave and sometimes you’re at the bottom of the valley, the bottom of a trough and surrounded by wild water. On this trip, we managed to do both. The water taxi to Tortuga Bay heads deep out into the water to avoid the coastal rocks, and boy that sea can be wild. One minute you feel 10 feet tall, admiring the wonderful seascape around you, the next you’re at rock bottom, and the seas around you block your view. At one point today looking out of the boat to one side, the horizon was 12ft away.

On arrival, we clambered over the front of the boat to some rocks. At least the sea in this idyllic cove was calm, and although disembarkation wasn’t the easiest task, it wasn’t a Costa Rican style wet landing. Carol’s seasickness subsided enough for her to make it to the first beach in the bay. There are 2 beaches here, one for the surfers and another for the snorkellers. It was easy to tell which was which. We headed for the calmer of the two.

We donned our gear and headed off into the cool water. No wetsuit required though, just one of those places where you have to swim about a bit to warm up. Further out in the bay I had seen a solitary sea lion, and a turtle raised his head once or twice. So what would we see in the snorkelling zone closer to shore? Rays and sharks are common sightings here according to everything we read beforehand, and we managed to see… Precisely nothing!

The powder-like sand had been churned up and visibility was very poor. I could see my hand in front of my mask, but very little else. In other places we had been in 6 or 7 metres of water and been easily able to see the seabed. Here we were waist deep and could not see the bottom.

I gave up and got out of the water, and on my way out I saw a few tiny fish, minnows or similar, but to this point, it was the highlight of an expensive and disappointing day. Things did improve, we walked across to the surfer’s beach and met a great many marine iguanas on our way.

Finally, my highlight arrived just before we were about to leave and get on the boat back when I saw a marine iguana swimming in the mangrove right next to us. I had probably seen a hundred or more by now, but this was the first one I had seen doing what they are famous and unique for; swimming! Unfortunately, he was too quick for the camera.

The snorkelling was disappointing, but still Tortuga Bay is a lovely place to visit, beautiful scenery and plenty of marine iguanas, pelicans and finches to entertain you. If seasickness is something you suffer with however maybe consider the walk.

Pinzón

There are many day trips available from Santa Cruz, due to its central location. One such snorkelling trip takes you to the island of Pinzón, with a stop at La Fe on the way. Initial enquiries for this trip were met with quotes of $130 per person, but in the end our Airbnb host doubled up as our booking agent and was our guide and it cost us $80 each. Money well spent and a $100 saved, making us both very happy 😊. We also hired wetsuits and a go pro from Albatros diving centre found on Charles Darwin avenue. It cost $5 each for the wetsuit for the day and $20 for the go pro. We wanted to be prepared and visited the day before. When we arrived at 8am everything was all ready for us.

At the first stop in La Fe we swam with many turtles, with several of them amongst the biggest we had encountered on this trip. Our tour guide Lea said these are probably the biggest in the world, but my personal experience made me think this may not be strictly accurate, I had seen larger in the Yasawa Islands in Fiji, but still, these were hugely impressive up close and personal.

We also saw a solitary sea lion, and other snorkeller’s saw a baby shark, but sadly we missed that. We did however spot a ray, but that had buried itself in the sand and didn’t move, so we missed out on seeing how beautifully they move through the water when they swim.

The thing I will remember most about this spot though is the incredibly strong current. Snorkeling is great fun, but only if you are where you want to be. At one point the current grabbed me and took me 20 metres from where I wanted to be! When this happens there is little point in fighting it, you just go with it and find a different way back. My initial reaction though was to fight it, and I tried to grab onto rocks as I passed them. I had some success this way but eventually the current won and I was deposited where it wanted me to be. Our guide was familiar with this stretch of water, and expected someone to get literally carried away, and soon she had come and got me, and found a different route back to the rest of the group. She held my hand as I was led back to safety, which was a little embarrassing but hey, all’s well that ends well 😊

Back in the boat we headed on for another hour or so until we reached the island of Pinzón. This is a rocky outcrop that remains uninhabited, and at no point did we go ashore. I don’t think that is possible. We jumped into the water about 10 metres from the coast, and what a sight it was. At the point I got in, the water depth was around 8 metres, the water clarity could not have been better and we could easily see the bottom. We swam out further, into much deeper water, and still the clarity was superb. We were close to a huge drop off where only the deep blue sea was visible, but I think at up to 20 metres we had perfect visibility. We saw huge numbers of colorful fish, and again Carol got some great pictures.

We looked left towards the shore to see the colourful fish, and right into the deep, hoping to see sharks and rays, but on this day our luck was out on the shark front, we didn’t see any 😕 Again some other people in the group got luckier, and an adult white-tip reef shark was spotted.

On this trip we met and swam with John Gullo from Las Vegas, who had recently purchased a GoPro 9, and was keen to show everyone what he managed to capture from our trip. The quality is amazing! GoPro9, I want one! Thanks John for the footage!

Pinzon by John Gullo

It was a long, very long trip back to Puerto Ayora, 2 hours or more in slightly rough seas, but today Carol had taken an anti-seasick tablet, which although made her slightly drowsy, did its job and prevented her from feeling ill. Unfortunately the same couldnt be said for another member of our boat party who appeared to faint as we neared the dock. Luckily he seemed to recover quickly.

It was a great day; the only disappointment was that we didn’t see the white tip reef sharks; however such is nature that you can never predict where they will be. The video above from John shows in real clarity how clear the water was. This was the only boat tour we did on the island but we would definitely recommend it.

Rancho Primicias – Giant Tortoise Reserve

A fee of $35 was agreed by Lea for a taxi driver to take us up into the highlands to visit El Chato, the Santa Cruz giant tortoise sanctuary. The driver arrived on time for our 1pm trip and it was a pleasant journey, albeit through cloud and rain. It always rains in the highlands here, just rarely on the coast at this time of year, although rainy season is due to start here at the end of the month.

Finally we reached a T-junction where you turned right for El Chato, or left to Ranchos Primicias. The driver asked us which one to go to, and after consulting with him we headed left. I say consulted, he spoke less English than we do Spanish so we think we chose the one he thought was best, but to be honest we were never entirely sure 😊

Anyway we got to the place, and paid $5 each for entry. For this paltry fee, we were loaned a pair of wellies each, both to help with the muddy terrain and to protect against biting ants, and had umbrellas carried round for us, in the event of a downpour, by our very knowledgeable and as it turned out, humorous guide.

We had already seen 6 or 8 giant tortoises on the roads leading to Ranchos Primicias, and on their land we saw a dozen more. The guide made us laugh with his talk of the muddy pools being the ladies’ spa, where they would sit, sipping pina coladas waiting for a man to come and mate with her. He said the males often fought over the ladies, with only the winner, the biggest and strongest males offered the opportunity to mate. Apparently a tortoise fight consists of butting and pushing, with the winner being declared when the other has been pushed back 10 metres from his starting point. According to our guide, when mating has been completed, they say “hasta la vista baby” and move on 😊

After posing for a photo inside a giant tortoise shell, we got back in the waiting taxi, who took us onto part two of this trip….

The Lava Tunnels

Funnily enough, these are some tunnels, made out of lava. We kept our wellies on, which was a good idea because tunnels tend to be a bit damp and muddy, and this one was no exception. Actually it was exceptional for one thing , damp dark tunnels are often home to numerous rats, but rats, as an invasive species, have been eradicated throughout the Galápagos Islands.

The tunnels actually were reasonably light and airy. Artificially lit by the occasional light bulb, and the pathway was mostly wide and even. Not so long ago there would have been zero chance of either of us entering this tunnel; we have both had unpleasant experiences with MRI’s and subsequent issues with claustrophobia on other occasions which had led to missed opportunities such as the salt mine in Krakow. 😕

This tunnel however had a large entrance which was more encouraging for both of us. There was one small section we had been warned about, probably no more than 2 or 3 metres long where the ceiling is only about a metre high. This isn’t something you negotiate on all fours, here you have to lie down flat and crawl through commando style. Carol went first and made light work of it. I got through OK, and then we saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

Perhaps I was too eager to make my escape, because I banged my head on the rocky ceiling just before the exit, losing my balance and stumbling backwards over a couple of rocks I had already climbed once. I took my hat off to see I had spilt a little claret in the progress. Carol looked a little concerned at my injuries, but they looked a lot worse than they felt. I got a headache as the afternoon and evening went on but was fine the next day.

Playa El Garrapatero

We were having a bit of a lazy day towards the end of our stay and decided quite late in the day to go out and see some more recommended sights. We got a taxi for $40 with a wait and return and headed to Playa El Garrapatero. There was a short walk to the beach where we walked in between cacti and admired the finches and lizards We visited on a dull overcast day. We saw fewer than half-a-dozen people, and only slightly more finches.

The birds were the star of the show here, with not an iguana, sea lion, or even a horse fly in sight. It was a nice beach though and on a better day would be a great place to chill. They had kayak hire here also.

Columpio Mágico (Highland View)

We probably wouldn’t have ventured here if it wasn’t for a recommendation from Lea’s daughter Olivia; however she said it was her favourite place and there were some great views here. She was right! We had fun at Columpio Mágico. In English this place is known as Highland View, but a direct translation would actually be ‘Magic Swing’

We arrived there at 5pm and were the only people there; in fact the taxi driver had to honk his horn to get the attention of the owner who was very welcoming. Just by the entrance there are the big swings… a little scary as they go right out over the side of hill but such good fun! We both had a go, and took in the beautiful view of the valley and coastline below us as we soared high into the air.

This was a lovely site which took full advantage of the natural environment around it. A great view, a volcanic crater, a lush Caribbean style garden, and a few animals such as donkeys, goats and chickens, mainly aimed at a younger child audience.

I am sure there are geologically similar places in the UK, but sadly Columpio Mágico could not exist there as Health and Safety considerations would not allow it. An uneven path of lava rocks and mud, a swing from which there is potential to fall from a great height, with no safety nets or harnesses, an unguarded lake, unlit lava tunnels, rocky uneven steps with old wooden handrails … You get the picture, it simply would not be allowed in England, which I think is a great pity.

Here the attitude is ‘it’s nature, just breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy’ which I think, when coupled with a little common sense, is great advice.

Where we stayed

We found our accommodation on Airbnb at Casita Eden, we like quirky and different places to stay but also we wanted our own privacy and cooking facilities. Lea and her family were amazing hosts; really helpful with any queries we had and the property suited our needs. It is located on the grounds of the family home but is a standalone building with its own access. It has cooking facilities, private bathroom with shower, a fridge, microwave, kettle, oven and tv with blue ray and bluetooth speaker system. Wifi was a little sketchy but we found that everywhere in the islands. Laundry is also available for a very small fee.

The little house suited our needs and we returned for a second visit before we left for the mainland via Baltra. Thank you Lea and Family for a really lovely stay and great hospitality.

Food, Drink and Shopping

The one thing about Santa Cruz in comparison to San Cristobal is that there is plenty of choices of restaurants. We visited a few during our stay but our favourite was definitely El Muelle de Darwin. The food here was really fresh and we loved the breakfasts. It wasn’t the cheapest place but the quality more than made the cost worth it. They also didn’t mind when we sat for long periods using their wifi to catch up with our blogging – we would definitely recommend at least one visit here to see for yourself if you agree.

Other honourable mentions however go to Lemon and Coffee who also did nice breakfasts and coffee, Pizza Time who offered good pizza and pasta and La Regata who did great burgers.

In terms of drinks most restaurants offer the 2 for $10 cocktail deals and these can be variable in quality but its a case of personal choice. Beer was available in most shops

When it comes to Chemists this place has several on Avenida Baltra; Carol bought seasickness and stomach tablets here with no issue, there is also a big supermarket right by the main boat dock called Proinsular. We used this a lot as it had a lot of things we needed and a wider variety than smaller ones.

If you need souvenirs Puerto Ayora is your place; from tacky t-shirts to more classy designs, bags, tea towels, ornaments you name it you will find them here. We bought a postcard to send home but no one seemed to have any stamps all we got was ‘finito’ when we asked. We weren’t therefore able to send it from Galapagos but will try again from mainland Ecuador instead.

Final Thoughts on Santa Cruz

Puerto Ayora is the main hub for the islands and this is clear by the amount of tourists here, boats and shops and restaurants. Although we enjoyed our time here we didn’t enjoy the amount of people. In covid times its nice to be away from people and crowds and this was sometimes difficult; such as at the Charles Darwin Centre. As tourism is still at a low it is difficult to comprehend how busy it would be in the height of tourism.

Santa Cruz is clearly an example of the more people there are, the less wildlife there is. In terms of wildlife, this was our least favourite of the 3 islands we visited, but for anyone lucky enough to live in the Galápagos Islands, this is the place to be, because unlike the other islands this one has a bit of nightlife, better food, and well, civilisation. Despite this however it is still an amazing place and we feel like spoilt brats to complain about it, but our best experiences were ones where we were with less people and away from the main port such as Pinzon and Highland View.

Now it’s time to get on water ferry number 3 (much to Carol’s delight) to our final island – Isabela!

Carol & Nigel x

2 thoughts on “The Galápagos Islands 2021 – Part II – Santa Cruz”

    1. Thanks Dennis, Sadly we’re about 3/4 of the way through our trip now. Starting to think about our route home. We have the rest of June and all of July and August to go, and we’ll be home sometime in September, ready to be back to work in October 🤗

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