Top 10 Things To Do in Santa Cruz, Galapagos

As the first destination on many Galapagos excursions, Santa Cruz is an outstanding destination that boasts an abundance of sights and activities to experience…

16 February 2023

best things to do santa cruz

How To Get to Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Santa Cruz is widely considered the gateway to the Galapagos and is where many people start their visit to the islands. This is partly due to it being the most populous of the Galapagos islands but also because of its proximity to one of the area’s major airports on the nearby Baltra island. While you can’t fly directly to Baltra island from outside Ecuador, there are daily flights from Quito to Baltra, giving you easy access to Santa Cruz and the Galapagos.

After arriving at the airport, you can reach Santa Cruz and other Galapagos islands by taking a short boat ride, where you will be able to see the clear waters and lush foliage for the first time. For those staying on the island, transportation to the main town, Puerto Ayora, is available by taxi or bus.

Things To Do in Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Whether you want to immerse yourself in nature or are looking for family-friendly activities, there’s an endless list of things to do in Santa Cruz. Spot brightly-colored fish and corals on a snorkeling expedition, learn about the island’s extensive conservation programs, or simply relax on one of its stunning beaches - the choice is yours.  

Most visitors also make Santa Cruz their base for exploring more of the Galapagos, choosing to take one of the many Galapagos tours leaving Santa Cruz’s harbors. That being said, there’s still plenty to see and do on the island itself, from seeing some of the region’s best wildlife to exploring the shops, galleries, and restaurants in Puerto Ayora.

Scott Dunn Regional Travel Expert Renata Da Silva says:

“I particularly love walking along the beach and kayaking in Tortuga Bay. There are heaps of wildlife to be seen – marine iguanas, sea lions, sea turtles and even reef sharks if you’re lucky! If you want to be more active, it can also be a great spot for surfing. A must is also a visit to the highlands to witness a giant tortoise reserve, where these fascinating creatures are completely free-roaming and wild. Here, you can also take a walk through a lava tunnel – but the real attraction is getting as close to ‘walking with dinosaurs’ as is possible!”

1. Snorkeling and Scuba Diving

A woman snorkelling over a reef

Santa Cruz and the Galapagos offer popular activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving due to the rich biodiversity of the waters. Underwater, visitors can observe a vibrant array of marine life, including colorful reef fish, peaceful sea turtles, and even majestic sharks.

Our favorite diving spots in Santa Cruz, Galapagos include:  

Carrion Point - this sheltered cove is ideal for beginner/intermediate divers with its clear water and ample marine life. Stay on the lookout for rays, sea lions, sharks, and a whole host of vibrant reef fish swimming in and out of the corals.  

Guy Fawkes Rocks - this intermediate diving site is made up of four islets on the northwest coast of the island. If you’re hoping to see a shark during your dive, this is the place to go, with several species, such as white-tipped reef sharks, making these coral slopes their feeding grounds. 

Gordon Rocks - located just off the eastern coast of the island, Gordon Rock is renowned as one of the best diving sites in the Galapagos. The strong currents here make this a spot for more experienced divers who can expect to see sharks, rays, eels, and king angelfish.  

There are also several dive centers near the main town of Puerto Ayora, perfect for an afternoon in the water. 

2. Boat Trips

Someone looking over the boat at a sea turtle

Santa Cruz is a popular base for all kinds of boat trips and cruises around the Galapagos. A route we love is a cruise through Black Turtle Cove, a national park accessible only by boat. During the cruise, you’ll move through the mangroves and as you watch the turtles, rays, and sharks that call these waters home. 

Many people also use Santa Cruz as a base for day trips around the Galapagos, with Seymour Island being one of the most popular day trip spots. Here, you can hike the island’s easy trails and spot sea lions, iguanas and all kinds of marine birds. You can also take a cruise past Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill) to see land iguanas and other wildlife as you sail along the shoreline. 

3. Beaches

A beach and ocean with mountains in the background

A vacation to Santa Cruz wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the island’s idyllic beaches.  

There are plenty of beaches to choose from, but one of our top recommendations is the peaceful Garrapatero Beach. A forty-minute drive from Puerto Ayora, this secluded destination is a hotspot for snorkeling, swimming, and sunbathing so you can spend your day how you choose. This quiet beach is also home to an abundance of wildlife, including birds, crabs, and sea lions, which you can spot keeping sunbathers company on the beach. There are also several tidal pools here filled with marine life, ideal for snorkeling or exploring with the kids.  

If you’re wondering when the best time to visit is to enjoy some warm weather, temperatures in the Galapagos stay close to 86°F throughout the year so you can travel whenever is convenient for you. 

4. Tortuga Bay

An iguana sitting on black rocks

Tortuga Bay, a truly breathtaking beach in Santa Cruz and the Galapagos, is a destination not to be missed. This picturesque location boasts idyllic white sands and vibrant blue waters, making it an ideal spot for sunbathing. Although the main beach has currents that are too strong for swimming, an adjacent cove offers superb conditions for swimming and snorkeling. 

Tortuga Bay is also a great destination for nature-loving travelers since it’s home to many fascinating animals. From marine iguanas to brightly-colored crabs, there’s a whole host of creatures to observe. If you’re interested in seeing sea turtles, Tortuga Bay is the place to go, with many turtles choosing to lay their eggs here.

5. Lava Tunnels

A tour group exploring the lava tunnels

The Galapagos is made up of a series of volcanic islands and Santa Cruz island itself is a dormant volcano. Today, its volcanic past can be seen in its fascinating lava tunnels, found in the highlands.

The lava tunnels in Santa Cruz formed over 1 million years ago when the island’s volcano erupted. These tunnels are created when slow-moving lava solidifies while faster-moving lava continues to flow underneath, resulting in hollow tube-like structures that you can walk through and explore.

Another remnant of the island’s volcanic history is Los Gemelos, or The Twin Craters. These two giant craters were created when a pair of magma chambers collapsed thousands of years ago. Nowadays, visitors can hike trails around the rims of both craters, explore the dense forest, and witness this geological wonder up close.

6. Las Grietas 

A woman swimming between two cliffs

Another must-see geological feature in Santa Cruz is the formation known as Las Grietas, also referred to as The Cracks. This unique sight, formed by volcanic rock, is a crevasse between two towering cliffs through which the ocean flows, forming a tranquil pool with minimal currents.

This area is known for its crystal clear waters and excellent swimming conditions. Here you can swim, snorkel or cliff dive and enjoy the pristine waters and spectacular views. This is a popular spot with locals and tourists so we’d recommend visiting early in the day to avoid the crowds. 

7. Las Bachas 

A sally-lightfoot crab sitting on a rock in the shade

Bachas Beach is a popular spot, boasting blissful white sands and turquoise waters, but it is also renowned for its wildlife-spotting opportunities. Head here to view typical Santa Cruz and Galapagos animals like marine iguanas, sea lions and reef sharks. Explore the volcanic rocks to spot red and blue Sally-lightfoot crabs or visit the saltwater lagoon behind the beach to see elegant pink flamingos. Or, simply stay on the sand and watch finches, gulls and blue-footed boobies fly overhead.   

This beach is also a key sea turtle nesting site, and you may even catch a glimpse of turtle tracks in the sand during nesting season (January to June).  

8. Charles Darwin Research Station

A picture of the Charles Darwin Research Station welcome sign

For those interested in learning more about the unique and vibrant animal life in Santa Cruz and throughout the Galapagos, the Charles Darwin Research Station is an excellent destination to explore, offering a wide variety of animals to discover.

Just a short walk from Puerto Ayora town, the research center forms part of the Charles Darwin Foundation and is a fascinating place to learn about all the different kinds of wildlife that inhabit the Galapagos. The station’s main attraction is the giant tortoises breeding center, where you can learn about the conservation efforts on the island and see how these wonderful animals are raised and then released into the wild - for nature lovers, this should be top of your list.

9. El Chato

Our designer Dorian visiting the giant tortoises

If you're interested in having an intimate encounter with Galapagos tortoises, we suggest visiting El Chato. This nature reserve, located in Santa Cruz's verdant highlands, is home to multiple species, including majestic Galapagos Giant tortoises.

This unique reserve gives you the chance to observe these majestic animals in their natural habitat as you wander along the trails. El Chato is also home to dozens of species of tropical birds, making this a great bird-watching spot as well. Thanks to its highland location, this is also the perfect place to explore some of the island’s lava tunnels. 

10. Kayaking  

A kayak laying on the beach

For those who enjoy water sports, Playa De Los Alemanes is an ideal destination to add to your itinerary. This small beach, which can be reached by taking a short water taxi ride from Puerto Ayora, is perfect for spending a day on the sand, but it also offers great opportunities for water activities.

Here you can rent kayaks from the nearby Finch Bay Hotel and explore the local waters or grab your goggles for some snorkeling near the shore. Remember to keep your eyes peeled for marine life - you never know what you might see.  

Meet our Galapagos Specialists

Renata Da Silva

South & Central America Specialist

I am passionate about travel and the endless opportunities it brings to bridge history, cultures and cuisine. I was born in Brazil and my passion for travel began when I studied Travel Administration and learned different languages at a young age. Although I’ve lived mostly in the US, I have had the opportunity to explore over 28 countries, a significant amount being in Latin America.

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