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Adventure Cruises in Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island cruises feature an intoxicating mix of adventure activities and wildlife encounters, along with the results of important conservation efforts. Almost all small ship cruises of the Galapagos include Santa Cruz Island on their cruise itineraries. In fact, many Galapagos cruises begin in Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island, given the port city’s proximity to the airport on Isla Baltra.
Much more than a gateway to the Galapagos, Santa Cruz Island, the archipelago’s second largest island, can feel like a trip back in time, populated as it is by prehistoric-looking animals and offering entry to the depths of the earth.
Top things to do and see on Santa Cruz Island
Whether you’re looking to share space with giant tortoises and dragon-like land iguanas, or hike around massive craters and into subterranean lava tubes, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for on Santa Cruz Island.
Santa Cruz Island cruises will typically include two or three of the following stops on their cruise itineraries:
Black Turtle Cove, situated on the northern shore of Santa Cruz Island, is a mangrove-shaded inlet that can only be reached by dinghy or kayak, making it a staple of adventure cruises to Santa Cruz. The lagoon stretches almost a mile inland and is home to black tip reef sharks, rays, sea lions and hammerhead sharks, while its popularity with sea turtles has made the area an official turtle sanctuary.
The Charles Darwin Research Station, just northeast of Puerto Ayora, runs the Giant Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Program, managed by the station’s 200 scientists and volunteers. In addition to serving a worthwhile purpose, the Charles Darwin Research Station is also the site of a must-experience Santa Cruz wildlife encounter. Here, visitors will meet the Galapagos Islands’ famous giant tortoises, from four-inch hatchlings to four-foot-long centenarians, including Lonesome George, the station’s most famous inhabitant and the last of his subspecies. The program’s efforts are a true success story, having restored the giant tortoise population from fourteen to over a thousand.
Puerto Ayora is the largest and most populous urban center in the Galapagos. It is a more developed enclave within the nature and wildlife of the archipelago, with the islands’ main airport just an hour away and modern hotels, restaurants and shops lining Avenida Charles Darwin. Wander a few blocks inland, away from the port, and you’ll find more modest shops and restaurants selling locally made handcrafts. For some excellent seafood, stop in at Rincón de Alma or, to eat with the locals, try El Atardecer del Nene. Note that many Galapagos cruises leave from Puerto Ayora.
Dragon Hill, located in the northwestern region of the island, offers visitors a short hike up a rocky path to another unique Santa Cruz wildlife encounter. In addition to sea turtles, sea lions and flamingos, Dragon Hill is home to the massive land iguana, from which the area gets its name. Their numbers decimated by cats, dogs and rats introduced to the island by humans, the land iguana population has been making a slow but steady recovery, the results of the Charles Darwin Research Center’s iguana breeding program. These spiny-backed beasts can grow to an impressive five feet in length and it is estimated that over 10,000 iguanas call the Galapagos home.
The Santa Cruz Highlands is an excellent base for adventure activities and a key site for adventure cruises. From hiking through forests of moss-etched Scalesia trees to exploring mile-long lava tubes, the Santa Cruz Highlands are a highlight of any Galapagos cruise itinerary. In addition to the impressive lava tubes, the island’s volcanic geology also birthed “The Twins”, or Los Gemelos, a pair of collapsed magma chambers forming rocky craters lined with lush greenery and offering awe-inspiring views. The Highlands are also the location of the El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
The El Chato Reserve will prove a highlight of any Galapagos cruise itinerary, especially for those visitors seeking a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounter. The El Chato Reserve on Santa Cruz will allow you to come face to face with giant tortoises in their natural habitat. Located in the Santa Cruz Highlands, the El Chato Reserve is explored via a path that begins in Santa Rosa, 22km from Puerto Ayora. This path can be hiked or, for those seeking adventure activities, traveled on horseback. The El Chato Reserve is also an excellent spot for birdwatching as it is home to Darwin’s finches, paint-billed crakes, short-eared owls, Galapagos rails and yellow warblers.
Top Tips for Santa Cruz Island
- Given that Santa Cruz Island cruises include an excellent blend of adventure activities and wildlife encounters, both a good pair of hiking shoes and a digital camera are a must. The Santa Cruz Highlands, in particular, offer a myriad photo opportunities, including the awe-inspiring Los Gemelos craters and the famous giant tortoises.
- When visiting the lava tubes, be sure to bring your own flashlight or headlamp as these geological marvels take you far from sunlight and your guide may not be able to provide you with portable lighting.
- Though a guide is not required to explore the El Chato Tortoise Reserve, it is recommended as visitors have become lost in the past.
Best time to cruise Santa Cruz Island
There is no best time to visit Santa Cruz Island, but plan ahead as some times are better for specific Santa Cruz Island wildlife encounters.
Santa Cruz in January to March is land iguana mating season and offers the best underwater visibility.
Santa Cruz in May sees the beginning of egg laying for the giant tortoises.
Santa Cruz in June to December is the best time to interact with the giant tortoises.
Where do Santa Cruz Island cruises depart from?
Santa Cruz Island cruises typically depart from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island or San Cristobal, the easternmost of the Galapagos Islands. Either location can be reached via flights from Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador.
If your Galapagos Islands cruise departs from Puerto Ayora, you will fly from mainland Ecuador to the airport on Isla Baltra, approximately one hour from Puerto Ayora using public transit. Santa Cruz Island cruises departing from San Cristobal Island are serviced by the San Cristobal airport, near the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
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