9 amazing free things to do in Santa Cruz Galapagos and other tips

Santa Cruz is the busiest among the Galapagos Islands. Here is where the WIFI is faster, there are more infrastructures, such as banks, supermarkets, hotels, and commercial services. But there are also many amazing things to do in Santa Cruz and places to explore and in this post, I will tell you all about it.

It’s also the island from where the majority of the Galapagos cruises leave, and also many day tours.

Puerto Ayora is the biggest town in Santa Cruz Island, where the port is and where the majority of the activities are based.

Flights from Quito and Guayaquil get to Santa Cruz, via Baltra Island, where the airport is situated (read this post) to know how to get from the airport to Puerto Ayora.

There is a wealth of things you can do in Puerto Ayora as the majority of the one-day tours leave from there, but there are also a variety of things that you can do and enjoy on your own.

Read my Galapagos islands vacations travel guide if you want to have a general overview of everything you need to know before booking your trip to the Galapagos Islands, while a good Galapagos packing list might turn out useful.

Ecuador entry requirements and Covid procedures

Mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, have officially reopened! So If the Galapagos were on your bucket list you should take advantage of these weird and difficult times and take a break from stress and uncertainty, while enjoying this wildlife sanctuary.  

The local authorities and operators are going beyond their ways to create a safe environment for locals and visitors alike, and protocols are in place and strictly followed.

Now, the Mainland and the Galapagos islands have slightly different entry requirements, which am explaining here below. 

Mainland Ecuador Entry Requirements

As of mid-July Ecuador’s international airports reopened, and flights have resumed with the following requirements:

  •  Proof of a negative COVID PCR (PCR test only) test within 3 days of arriving in Ecuador,
  • Not presenting any symptoms of COVID on arrival
  • If the above conditions are met there is no need for self-quarantine, on the contrary, passengers must self-quarantine in a designated hotel at their expense for 14 days and then take the test again. 

Galapagos Entry Requirement

  • For the Galapagos islands, policies are a little stricter, as follow:
  • A negative COVID PCR test within 96 hours of arrival in the islands (please note only PCR tests are accepted)
  • Proof of Travel Insurance, including medical coverage for COVID-19,
  • Proof of confirmed itinerary in the islands.
  • Entrance requirements for Ecuador and Galapagos are subject to change.

Test timing and Logistic

Please note the timing difference. That means that if you don’t want to take the test twice you need to make sure to enter the Galapagos Islands within 96 hours from when you took the test before coming to Ecuador. So make sure you do the maths. 

Timing can be stressful. I had a similar situation when I crossed the border from San Cristobal Mexico Guatemala. If you want to avoid stress, you can just take your time and arrange another test in Quito before getting to Galapagos. There are around 20 clinics in Quito where you can take it, and the cost is around 85 to 105 USD. You will have your results in 12 hours.

Security protocols in Ecuador

Both on the mainland, and in the islands, in all public spaces, including hotels, airports, yachts, and transportation, there are social distancing measures in place and new sanitation procedures.

Free things to do in Santa Cruz Island – Galapagos

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WIldlife of the Galapagos Islands

Walk to Tortuga Bay beach: surf or hang out with the marine iguanas

It was our first activity in the Galapagos Islands. While we were deciding what paid tours were worth doing, we had an amazing walk to this stunning beach, one of the best beaches in South America, actually.

From Av. Baltra, the main road, walking towards the ocean, take the Binford Charles, on your right (you will see a sign to Tortuga Bay) keep walking and climb up some stairs until you reach a little office where you will see signs about Tortuga Bay and how to respect the environment (read them, it’s important).

There you will need to write your name down as they keep track of the visits.

Here a beautiful man-made path among local vegetation and friendly birds will take you to the beach after 2.5km (about 1,5 mile). It’s a mild pleasant walk, not a hike, so no worries.

If you don’t feel like walking, there are boats leaving from the main pier on the Malecon, at 2 pm every day, returning at 5. The cost is 10USD each way per person.

Tortuga bay beach is both a surfers’ paradise and a place for nature lovers.

In the first bay, you cannot swim unless you are with a surfboard and know how to use it.

Tortuga bay beach – Santa Cruz

However, you will be fascinated by the hundreds of iguanas walking freely along the shore and the red and blue crabs playing hide and seek on the volcanic rocks scattered along the bay. You might be able to see a great blue heron, with her beautiful fancy grey feather around its neck.

If you continue to walk on your right, you will get to another beautiful bay where you can lay down at the shades of the mangroves and other plants and take a swim in the calm waters. In the water, watch your feet as stingrays tend to hang out right by the shore.

You can also spot baby sharks and blue-footed boobies patrolling the skies or just posing on the rocks along the bay.

At the end of that beach, you can rent a kayak for 10 USD per hour and snorkeling gear for 5 USD and explore the bay.

This is a beautiful place to spend one day but if you don’t have a lot of time and you are on a rush to visit as much as you can you can just go for one morning and use the afternoon for another trip.

Unfortunately, the beach closes at 5, and you are taken away from amazing sunset views! Bummer! But if you stay until the very end, you might see the sky starting to dress up with pinkish and yellow colors preparing for the end of the day.

Opening hours: 6 am to 5 pm

Snorkel at Las Grietas and then relax in  Playa Alemanes

This is a place for snorkeling lovers. As you can see in the picture below, it’s like a canyon filled with crystal clear water where you can snorkel. There is not much to see, but I enjoyed it anyway as the water was so blue and freezing cold.

I was also lucky to be completely alone, surrounded by silence while swimming along with massive rock formations and seeing some parrotfishes and other small species minding their own business.

Sometimes it felt a little scary to be there on my own, embraced by these huge rock walls, but I even enjoyed the thrill and the peace. It’s not common to be alone, though.

I believe because it was not a sunny day, so the cold was kind of discouraging. If you don’t jump in the water and stay outside, you’ll be food for mosquitoes. Just so you know.

When you finish your snorkeling you might walk back and get to Playa Alemanes in front of the stunning hotel Finches bay. Here you can also snorkel in the bay or hang out on the beach.

I suggest you should bring water with you and some snacks if you plan to stay there all day.

How to get to Las Grietas from Puerto Ayora – you can take a taxi boat at the marina, in Puerto Ayora, and for 0,80 USD they take you at a pier right on the other side of the bay. It’s just a 2 minutes ride. You will follow a path and get to the beach (German Beach or Playa los Alemanes) and will keep walking following a path to Las Grietas.

It’s about 10 minutes nice walk. At the time we went there were works in progress at the pier so we had to circle around the bay and we paid 2 USD instead. You will arrive right in between las Prieta and Playa Alemanes but you will see both signs.

What to bring to las Grietas – Snorkeling gear if you snorkel, swimsuit, flip flops, beach towel, food, and water. You don’t need gym shoes to walk to Las Grietas as the terrain is flat. Some prefer to enter with rubber shoes, but I liked to go barefoot, and I was just fine.

Explore Santa Cruz highlands and visit the Giant Tortoise walking around freely

If you are tired of the beach life, you can explore Santa Cruz highlands, the central region of Santa Cruz, whose main town is Santa Rosa.

You can walk to Los Gemelos, which are not craters as many would think but the area where the surface rocks have collapsed, forming 2 huge holes. It’s interesting to watch, and there is a small hike to do if you love nature and want to look for birds.

You can visit El Chato, a private estate where for 5 dollars, you can walk around and see the local tortoises hanging out in the highlands.

There are hundreds, and they are free. They are not the property of the hacienda and are free to come and go. So why do they stay? You would wonder. 

The environment is favorable for their lifestyle, and they love to stay there. You might see them walking at their own peace on the mow or in ponds. It’s not unusual to see a beautiful yellow bird flying around as well. You will see them a lot, actually. It’s one of the Darwin finches, and it’s called Galapagos Yellow Warbler.

Yello Warbler The animals of the Galapagos Islands
Yellow Warbler

You can also enter into a natural cave made of lava. There are quite a few that you can visit in Santa Cruz, but since you are there you can try the experience.

In the hacienda, they will offer you a tea or coffee at the end of your tour. Or you can choose to go for lunch and try their local cuisine. I just did a quick visit.

How to get to the highlands in Santa Cruz

If you like the challenge you can rent a bike and ride up the hilly road. It’s 21 km only but all ascending. Just saying!

Or some suggested you can rent a bike in Puerto Ayora, hop on a local bus (3 USD) and hang out the bike at the back. They are equipped for that.

Once in Santa Rosa, you can get to the Hacienda, which is only 3 km from the town. It’s a pleasant road, a little hilly but doable, and you can meet tortoises along the way. Then you can ride (or fly) back to Puerto Ayora.

The most comfortable way to go is by taxi, and that’s what I did. Normally I am more sporty but not this time, with the rain threatening. I hired a taxi for 30 USD, and the driver took me to Los Gemelos, and El Chato waited for me 1 hour and back to Puerto Ayora.

Get to know the Conservancy project in the Charles Darwin Research foundation and relax in one of its 2 beaches.

From the Malecon in Puerto Ayora, you can walk all along the main street (Darwin street) with all the shops, hotels, and restaurants are located, and you will end up at the Charles Darwin Research Foundation.

It’s an interesting circuit where you can learn about their conservancy projects. A team of local and foreign researchers, educators, scientists, and volunteers works together for the conservation, restoration, and sustainable development projects to ensure that the archipelago is well-managed and flora and fauna keep perpetuating their species in a safe and healthy environment. 

There is also a great library with lots of interesting books about biology and history.

Galapagos islands Vacations - Boundless Roads
The view from Playa la Estacion – in the Darwin Foundation Center

Bask in the sun at El Garrapatero Beach

The beach there is lovely, and you can rent a kayak, paddle around the bay, and snorkel along the coast.

Unfortunately, the day we went turned quite cloudy and even chilly, so we didn’t dare touch the freezing water. But it was still nice to hang out there and admire the beautiful landscapes. I even take some good shot of a Pelican posing for me – well, he wasn’t even bothering, actually.

It is located about 30 minutes drive from Puerto Ayora. Some suggest that you can bike there, but the road is winding with no cycling path on the side, so I don’t think it’s very safe.

The taxi costs 40 USD return. You will need to tell the taxi driver what time to pick you up, which is not very convenient because you never know how long you want to stay in advance.

You can take the chance and tell your driver that you want one way, and on the way back, you can ask for a ride. For sure you will find somebody to help you. Bear in mind that there is no signal on the beach and outside in the parking lot. Only Movistar has a phone signal.

Relax in the Laguna de Las Ninfeas

This is a tranquil, peaceful lagoon in town, on the way to Tortuga Bay, where you can admire different types of mangroves and some fishes, but you cannot swim. Locals and tourists alike like to go there and hang out on the boardwalk, read a book, or just enjoy the silence.

Watch the baby sharks from the pier

If you walk on the pier at night you will see a lot of baby sharks swimming underneath, probably attracted by the light.

It’s fun to see them. On the pier, be careful where you step because it’s not rare to find a couple of sea lions sleeping on the dock, totally careless of the curious tourists taking awkward selfies or just observing them.

They just keep snoring, regardless. That will become my favorite animal during this trip.

Familiarize with the funny sea lions

Not only on the jetty at night but all day you can see them hang out on by the marina, especially I suggest you should check out the fish market, where you will see a couple of them ridiculously staying by the fish guy waiting for some food tasting.

Sometimes they fight between each other for their own spot. It’s a show to watch. If you are in an apartment and you wish to cook your own fish or lobster (only in season) this is also the right place to go.

As for the sea lions you will see more of them on other islands.

Day trips from Puerto Ayora

The majority of day tours are from Santa Cruz as there is such a variety of places to see, especially for those who love snorkeling, here below I list all the available tours, even those that I haven’t done…

Read also: How to decide whether to book a cruise in the Galapagos

How to book Galapagos tours

You need to know a couple of things before booking your tours:

1) you will see tons of travel agents selling their tours, however except for the diving tours, all the other day trips are organized by the boat owners who also make the price. The travel agent who sells the trip makes a commission out of that, which is normal.

You can probably see a 5 dollars difference from one agent to the other, so when you ask for information always ask the name of the boat used for the tour. In this way, you can compare prices correctly.

Therefore, in general, the prices should be more or less the same unless some agency wants to do a last-minute offer. You can always check if you are in the low season. Otherwise… see the second note here below.

2) IMPORTANT, because of what I was saying above, that the number of authorized boats for each tour is fixed, they won’t add more boats in high season. Therefore you should book in advance for your day trips otherwise you would risk being left out of your favorite tour either because there is no more space if you book last minute or they don’t do the tour you chose on that specific day.

We were there for a week for each island which gave us a lot of flexibility and it was low season. But if you have a limited time and/or you travel in high season you need to keep this in mind.

Full-Day trip to Bartolome’ Island (190 USD)

Among the things to do in Galapagos National Park, the full trip to Bartolomè Island is is one of the best tours we have had or one of the best. If you need to choose one tour for each island (and you are not a diver) you should choose this one for Santa Cruz.

The tour was done on a catamaran called Adriana. A bus collected us at the marina in Puerto Ayora and took us to the other side of the island where a dingy took us to our boat. The maximum on this boat is 16 people. There was a lot of space on the catamaran and we were very comfortable.

I was sitting in front of the boat and halfway to the first spot a pod of dolphins, at least 10 of themsuddenly appeared jumping from all sides and racing with us.

I was in tears for the emotion. It was one of those moments when you feel in full connection with the universe and you can’t help but be grateful for being alive. I have goosebumps just writing about it a few weeks later.

But the surprises are not finished.

The first stop was the short hike to the viewpoint from where they shoot the famous Galapagos iconic picture (see featured picture on top of this article). The hike is steep but on a comfortable boardwalk and very simple unless you have knees issues. While we were admiring the breathtaking views the knowledgeable guide would give us his speech about the history and geology of the islands. Really interesting.

The second part of the tour was the snorkeling. It was a little chilly but once you are in the water you get used to it. For the park rules, there are different snorkeling spots that the marine park assigned to the tour companies according to the day of the week and schedules.

We were hoping to snorkel by the pinnacle rock but they took us by the beach in front of it, on Santiago Island, which was still amazing.

And here it comes the other surprise, at least for me.

When I go out snorkeling I love to stay behind because I don’t like crowds, if you read me, you know already. So I was the last to get to the beach, our final destination and suddenly two penguin-shaped bullets flew right before my bewildered eyes.

I could not believe myself. I love penguins so much and it was one of my dreams to see one, but my hope went down to zero when they told me that it was not the season for penguins!

The sight lasted about 2 seconds as they passed in front of me and in a blink of an eye they were gone.

Silly me to even try to follow them. Penguins are known to be very fast underwater reaching up to 7 miles per hour.

But it was one of the best sights of my entire trip at the Galapagos, just like seeing the dolphins.

After the snorkeling, we hang out on the beach for a little while and then off to the boat where we had a 5-star lunch while anchoring in the bay, before heading back to Santa Cruz. The return trip was kind of choppy and most of us felt sick. I was about to, as well. but I sat at the back of the boat where it was more stable and looked at the sea while feeling the breeze and felt much better.

This was really a trip to remember. Probably the highlight of my Galapagos Vacation but I still haven’t decided yet. There were too many highlights. 🙂

Take a diving trip (250 USD – 190 USD for the discover dive)

My friend and I went to Nauti Diving shop, right by the marina in Santa Cruz to ask for information as I am a diver and I wanted to see what were my options.

When we started to talk and they were explaining the tours they convinced me to go for a dive and my friend to take a discovery dive. I was a little reluctant because I get a little anxious underwater but I wanted to do it at the Galapagos and the staff at the shop was really convincing, transmitting trust and calm.

They didn’t try to sell the tour, they just explained what it was like and we both liked that and ended up buying all the tours and transfers with them.

Needless to say, the dive was amazing. My friend felt super comfortable with her first time diving and I got rid of my fears. Jesus, the dive instructors, and Marco, the divemaster were just great.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see hammer sharks, as we hoped for, but we had an amazing time under and above the water.

The discovery dive consists of one dive and one snorkeling. During the snorkeling, my friend saw a lot of sea lions trying to pick her fins she had the time of her life.

Diving trips from Santa Cruz are:

  • Seymour
  • Mosquera
  • Gordon Rocks
  • Daphne

Prices are normally from 250  USD per day, but if you book last minute and they have space you might get the chance to a discount. We paid 160 USD booking last minute. I don’t recommend it in high season (December through March)

These below are other trips available in Santa Cruz that I haven’t done (prices are approximate)

Half-day to Seymour Island 150 USD

Half-day trip to Pinzon Island 150 to 160 USD

There are 2 tours that take you to Pinzon Island, both from 8 am to 3.30 pm approx

  • One will leave from Puerto Ayora pier in a Lancha (a small boat). The first stop is at Playa La Fe, where you would snorkel for 45 minutes, and then you will reach Pinzon Island after another hour of navigation. Here you will have 2 snorkeling trips in two different spots around the island. You can see a huge amount of marine life, among which White tip sharks, Tintoreras sharks, sea lions, sea turtles. It includes snorkeling gear, lunch, non-alcoholic drinks, snacks. (150 USD)
  • The other option is to get to the Itabaca canal by transportation (included) at an hour drive from Puerto Ayora, where you board on a “Lancha” that will take you to Playa Bahia Borrero to do the first snorkeling. You will reach Daphne Island to spot some bird species and then back to Pinzon, in another spot to do another snorkel.  Just like the other one, it includes snorkeling gear, lunch, non-alcoholic drinks, snacks. (160 USD)

Half-day trip to Santa Fe’ 130 USD

It’s a half-day tour at about 45 minutes boat ride from Santa Cruz. It includes 3 activities, a fishing one and two snorkeling trips. Then you’ll be taken to a stunning beach where you can either bask in the sun or snorkel again. It includes snorkeling gear, lunch, non-alcoholic drinks, snacks.

Half-day trip to Plazas 130 USD

Full-Day trip to Floreana Island 180 USD ( Last minute 130 USD)

It’s two hours to reach the island. You are going to visit The Pirate’s Cave, the first inhabitants of the Island, then you will visit the “Asilo de la Paz”, a source of natural water, then after lunch, you will be taken to Playa Negra, a volcanic beach where you can see marine iguanas, turtles, sea lions and, sometimes, Penguins.

These prices are from Nauti Diving. As I mentioned before we booked all our tours with them and we had an amazing experience, both with service and organization. I couldn’t recommend them more. You can check their contact details here or their TripAdvisor reviews here, in case my opinion is not enough 😉

Where to stay in the Galapagos: Santa Cruz Island Hotels

We opted for a self-catering solution and booked an apartment not only for budget reason, but because we didn’t want to eat out every day and we loved to cook our meals and stay healthy, well, relatively healthy.

So we stayed at Coral Galapagos Suites, which I realized are not available to book online anymore it was a very simple accommodation, anything particularly charming or fancy, but very comfortable, spacious and clean. A similar solution could be The Finch house (Casa del Pinzon), spacious but modest and affordable.

Here below some other options.

High-end Hotels in Santa Cruz Island Galapagos

Finch Bay Hotel – Located right on Playa Alemanes the hotel boasts a modern architecture that merges natural elements with functional features. Very elegant and stylish, away from the busy downtown, but only at 5 minutes boat ride.

Finch bay hotel overview
Photo © Finch Bay Hotel

Ikala Galapagos Hotel This is another beautiful property, featuring an ultra-modern and minimal style, with an internal pool, wifi, and an elegant deck where your breakfast is served and you can relax on the sunbeds. The rooms are also spacious and finely decorated.

Mid-range price hotels in Santa Cruz Island

Hotel Galapagos Suites B&B

A great option for a mid-range boutique hotel in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. At walking distance to all the restaurants and the harbor and yet in a quiet location.

This lovely property offers basic but nicely decorated and ample rooms equipped with balconies and WIFI.

View availability and rates: Booking.com | Agoda

Low budget hotels in Santa Cruz Island

Hotel Las Ninfas

Hotel las Ninfas offers the best value for money. If you traveling on a budget but you love to travel in style this hotel is for you. Cozy artsy and ample rooms and great courtyard to relax by the pool. Close to everything in Puerto Ayora.

View availability and rates: Booking.com | Agoda

Where to eat in Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz

As I was mentioning we didn’t really eat out that much, but we did check out some places and here below you can find my reviews.

Low budget places

Eating out at the Galapagos islands can be expensive, but there is also a way to stay on the cheap and still try delicious local food, and that’s by going to non-touristic places. Out of many restaurants, you will see a board sign saying ALMUERZOS ( lunch) or MERIENDAS (dinner). Those are the local menu prices.

They would serve you a fixed menu that includes a soup a choice between two kinds of the main course, usually, fish or meat a drink and sometimes a “desert” which is a fruit and a drink, which is a fruit flavored water.  For the Vegetarian/vegan friends I am afraid this option is not for you as the meals cost so little that it doesn’t leave room for flexibility.

Costs: 4 to 8 USD per person

Regular restaurants and coffee places

There is a food street that lights up at night and lots of restaurants one close to the others, set tables out and serve their best meal, normally lobster, fish, ceviche and other local specialties. I have to be honest, we went there only once and I didn’t really like it. I found outrageous prices and low quality.

We have tried other restaurants instead such as:

El Giardino, we only had ice cream there but some friends we met along the trip had a lot of praise about this place. The menu looked really inviting, in fact, besides the bucolic setting, hence the name (the garden)

The Rock Galapagos Cool ambiance, although we didn’t make it there to try their food. It has been recommended to us quite often, though.

La Regata Here I had the best lemonade with lemongrass ever and delicious vegetarian quesadillas. They also have great espresso coffee and decent WIFI.

Hernan Cafe’  This place was always full and when we tried it we understood the reason. It’s a little overpriced but not for being in the Galapagos, we realized. On our last night on the island, we decided to take a splurge and try their specialties. The ceviche mixto is to die for, but mind that the portion is enough as an appetizer so we shared it and had also a seafood pizza which made our day as well.

Definitely, a place that I highly recommend.

To check out reviews for other restaurants, you can click here.

Coffee shops

Coffee Lab As coffee’ addicts we found this cute little place on Darwin street and it became our expresso appointment, almost daily. They claim to be coffee’ specialist and they offer different types of coffees, not to mention the good looking deserts they display. Definitely worth a try.

Galapagos National Park Rules

There are common sense rules that we should follow all the time, not only in the Galapagos National Park. I was happy to see that these rules are strictly implemented with a lot of controls, with the help of the local nature guides and people involved in conservation.

Among others:

  1. Don’t touch the animals
  2. Don’t litter
  3. Stay at about 6 feet from the animals
  4. Don’t feed the animals
  5. Don’t use flash when photographing

To know about all the rules you can check out this official website on Galapagos conservation.

It would be great if we get the habit and will continue to follow these instructions on how to respect the environment and live in peace with nature.

For further reading about Ecuador