Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Charles Darwin Ave is the main street in Puerto Ayaro which begins at the docks and runs along the waterfront to end at the Charles Darwin Research Station. The road begins to get quiet on the far side, but as long as you pass this tribute to Charles you know you’re headed in the right direction.

This is a free exhibit, just check in with the guard, where there are restrooms. Along with a very well maintained hiking trial and museum exhibits, this is actually an active breeding center for Galapagos tortoises.

Follow the Path of the Tortoise to reach all of the sights.

Learn about Charles Darwin and the many species of interesting animals on the archipelago. Did you know that marine iguanas can shrink their body size if food is scarce? Also – finches remove ticks from their bodies! There is a rose colored iguana on the island of Isabela in Volcan Wolf – unfortunately only scientists are allowed to go there so seeing pictures is the only way to view this variation of iguana. There is so much to learn. Moving from the exhibit to the breeding center, you can view the tortoises in their various stages of life.

Most people see the tortoise as the symbol of the Galapagos and have heard the sad story of Lonesome George. As Darwin noticed, on the different islands of the archipelago animals of the same species had different variations. George was a tortoise from the island of Pinta, one of the last remaining of his kind. He was brought to the research center for production, and in hopes of reproducing. A staff member ushered me into a museum space and explained the story of George, and to my surprise – showed me his taxidermed body.

There are many breeding centers throughout the islands, but I would say this is very worth your time to see an icon of the Galapagos.

Hiking Cerro Crocker, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

There was a language barrier with the host at our hostel, but it turned into something organically awesome when we asked for directions. The plan was to hike Cerro Crocker – one of the great things about this particular trek was the independence factor. On many hikes in the Galapagos you are required to go with a national park guide and group, or they’re super easy paved ones. Totally opposite here, this is a real hike that you can do completely solo. It isn’t located in Puerto Ayaro, but in the highlands of Bellavista. To make things simple you could get there no problem by taking a taxi. Or you could try the local, adventurist, and super affordable way which is likely to create a lasting memory. How to get there

So back to our language barrier. I was asking the host in my broken Spanish mixed with GoogleTranslates how to get to Bellavista using the bus. We had taken the bus from the airport and while it seemed fairly straightforward, we were in for a different voyage. Our host had directed us to walk up Baltra Ave and before the petrol station we would see a blue topped vehicle, open air, called the Chiva. The time was approximately 8:30 AM. It was filled with locals and had wooden rows where you sit beside one another, not quite the generic bus we took from the airport. I loved it. Pull the string where you want to hop off, in the town of Bellavista, and pay your dollar.

The hike

If you hike from the base this out and back journey has a round trip of 8 ½ miles. I highly recommend using the app Maps.Me for this trek, the route is spot on and it is very reassuring. From town the trailhead is located past the playground next to the church. The sign is subtle and slightly eaten by the flora.

Getting to the actual trailhead from here is a bit of a pain. If you are in for a lighter hike – hailing a taxi from Bellavista to take you up the dirt road might even be your best option. It will kill a lot of the elevation and mileage. From the trailhead at the top of the dirt road elevation gain to the summit at 864 meters is only 1000 feet. From the base at the dirt road it is 2000’.

The dirt road is not terribly interesting, but It is easy to walk on. It is very quiet, watch out for the occasional car. Pass local farms with cows and moss covered trees.

When you do gain some elevation turn around and notice the ocean and Puerto Ayaro in the distance.

Eventually we reached the end of the dirt road, where the taxi could have dropped us off if we had chosen that route. From there the trail narrows and becomes infinitely muddy. It is essential to have proper hiking boots, or even better – rain boots! It was a wonder after getting completely bogged that the goretex on my boots held up. Jeff on the other hand had to ring out his socks post-hike, they got soaked. Just a few minutes of hiking up the real trail there is a proper trailhead.

Don’t forget to look behind you, this is starting to feel like a real nature hike now.

The flora began to change. Next sign you see will explain it to you, this gorgeous pink hued shrub is endemic and called miconia.

Up in the highlands it was a veritable wonderland of the plant!

Be on the look out for the third sign you’ll encounter – this one is about the endemic Petrel bird which you may see during the hike.

This sign indicates where the trail splits heading up to the summit of Cerro Crocker, or over to Puntudo. You want to turn right to head to the summit, as the map suggests at the trailhead. Though not marked, it is very straightforward. At this lower elevation we were under the cloud line, really enjoying the views behind us.

Ascending the trail became even muddier and quite slippery. Don’t loose attention even for a moment, stop if you want to take in the view – this is not a place to twist an ankle.

Eventually in an eerie aura we walked into the clouds, taking from us those gorgeous views.

A rain jacket is a good idea, to keep you warm from the mist. Nearing the end of the trail there is a sharp bend up to the summit, adorned with a radio tower.

The wind blows hard at this exposed area, but that was to our benefit. It pushed the clouds clear off the cliff momentarily exposing a magnificent view to a very rural and different side of Santa Cruz.

Incredible. We didn’t see another soul hiking this trail, making it all the more special.

Afterwards in Bellavista

When you make it back to town if you still have some energy, consider visiting the Tuneles del Amor.

There are many lava tubes on the island that you can walk around this one has a garden path leading towards the tunnel.

Invasive pink flowers lead you to the mouth of the cave.

Lights are strung throughout the cave, which certainly can be turned on if you pay the fee to visit the tunnels – but no one was there to collect. Unfortunately, my headlamp was out of battery (silly me, should have checked that before I packed it!) so we just did a short exploration of this dark place with a cell phone flashlight.

Other tunnels on the island are free to visit, this is not your only opportunity to see one. You can grab lunch, or almuerzos as it is better known, in town at one of the local restaurants. Bellavista is also a better place to buy your coffee because it is more affordable. When you’re ready to head back down to Puerto Ayora, find the bus stop in town and hail down a bus for $2. For reasons unknown, the chiva wouldn’t pick us up on the way down – but the bus worked just fine.

Laguna de las Ninfas, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

The name translates to Lagoon of Nymphs, before you even enter you know this place is going to be magical.

Set back from the road there is a beautifully maintained garden that feeds you into the preserve.

Laguna de las Ninfas is just a short walk around the lake, but it adds so much to your day in the Galapagos on Santa Cruz.

Just a quarter of a mile to the end point showcasing a crystal clear emerald lake – you never know what wildlife you’re going to see in or around its shores.

Boardwalks bring you around the stunning green water, take it slow because the details are what is important here.

This is an estuary where fresh water from the highlands meets seawater from the tides. You can learn a lot about the four different mangroves in the Galapagos and how to identify them with the informational signage. Spy delicately swimming puffer fish, none of their flippers seem to be moving in the same direction.

The lava heron is an endemic species to the Galapagos, we caught this one hunting here on each of our visits to the lagoon.

Observe ever enchanting pool of this special place.

The restless yellow warbler actually sat still for a moment to let me snap a picture as it waited for food on the banks of a creek.

This is the perfect place for a morning or afternoon walk, other people have spotted sting rays and sea turtles here, so you never know what you might spot.

Las Grietas, Santa Cruz, Galapagos

From the main docks in Puerto Ayora take a water taxi for less than a dollar to Las Grietas, also known as The Cracks. If you have any questions, ask the guards at the beginning of the docks they can guide you in the right direction.

Once you cross the bay it is a ½ mile to get to the cracks to swim and snorkel, but the walk is half the fun. Signs in every direction are pointing you the right way.

It is a very well maintained back with boardwalks,

beach, and some rough lava rock areas with excellent flora.

Admire the giant opuntias.

There are so many birds to see. Black necked stilts,

white cheeked pintails,

and whimbrels.

One peculiar spot passes by the active pink salt mines.

When you finally get to the crack the color is a stunning deep blue.

Take the steps down and there is a dock to get in, leave your things on the rocks. There are three pools to explore. Try to get here as early as possible to avoid crowds, it was very peaceful in the morning. Without even going in you can see colorful fish, we spotted a large eel as well.

The water is chilly, a wetsuit would be appreciated on a cooler day. After swimming take the spur trail up to get a different perspective on the cracks,

and the bay.

You can’t beat this free hiking and swimming adventure in a unique setting in the Galapagos.

Experience Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

So much more than a day at the beach, a trip to Tortuga Bay was one of the highlights during my stay on Santa Cruz.

To get there requires hiking 1.5 miles (one way) on a well maintained path. At the top of the hill you are required to register with the guard, requesting some information including your passport number. This is your last chance to use the restroom, there are no amenities on the beach bring whatever you may need (water, snacks, sunscreen, towel). Visitation hours are from 6AM-5PM the beach is free. The path is a great introduction to wildlife in the Galapagos. You’ll see mockingbirds, finches, anis, and lizards along the way – along with the interesting flora. Get to know the interesting endemic variety of prickly pair called opuntias.

Along the path there are some hills, after the steepest one there is a resting area. When you hit the shore you will be at Playa Brave, a beach where mostly local surfers go in because the current is said to be rough. If you’re not planning on swimming this is a great spot to stay because there is a larger stretch of sand for peace and quiet. You can watch the marine iguanas take their afternoon walk to go seek algae

If you take out your snacks, an silent alert beams out to all finches within a mile radius and they will visit your site. Walk all the way to the right of Playa Brave and you will pass a little tide pool where some people were snorkeling.

Rent equipment in town and bring it to the beach. Keep walking and you may encounter the grand daddy group of marine iguanas hanging out by the mangroves.

There is a cool little view point to hike over in this area. Then continue on the well worn path which leads to Tortuga Bay. The lagoon is safe to swim and snorkel in, protected from the waves by a natural barrier. I was excited to rent a kayak here for two people it is $20 with no time constraints. There is so much to see. The reef sharks were sleeping in the mangroves.

Puffers, and all sorts of interesting fish swam around.

A blue footed booby sat up on a cliff.

Pelicans sat up in the trees. I thought to my dismay that I found a dead heron,

but really it was just, playing dead?

I’m not sure what this behavior meant, never seen it before. Sea turtles bopped their heads,

and continued to swim right up to our kayak!

Marine iguanas and sting rays swam beside us, while sally lightfoot crabs scurried on lava rock.

It was an amazing paddle. After relaxing on the beach a bit, we took a walk to the cliff area topped with opuntias.

The view of the bay is excellent and yellow warblers were abundant.

A day at the beach in Santa Cruz is a must, and as always with the Galapagos, it is a full on wildlife experience.