The Highlands of Santa Cruz are very different from Puerto Ayaro at sea level. Lush all year long and potentially rainy in the dry season, be prepared for anything! We caught a sunny day. There is a standard route to go on the highlands from Los Gemelos to El Chato and Playa el Garrapatero. You can go with an organized tour or hail your on taxi for the day , no public transportation runs to these destinations. Just negotiate the price first, $80 is standard. It may seem like a lot but you have the service for the entire day, it is much cheaper than many of the day tours. Our driver hooked us up with fresh fruit, water bottles, and pastries from a bakery.
The journey to the highlands of Santa Cruz was how we spent the last day of our trip. On the three islands visited, we had made it to every breeding center (spoiler alert: and saw tortoises in the wild) – so we had our fair share of Galapagos tortoise viewing. While on Santa Cruz a traveler who had been to the archipelago many times highly recommended El Chato Tortoise Reserve, so I was curious to see what set it apart from the others. First of all, you have to pay $5 a person to enter. That turned me off, since all the others were free. However, I think that it was worth the cost – it turned out to be my favorite of all the facilities. Tortoises are free roaming in a natural like habitat.
They were the largest I saw of any breeding center – natural or semi-natural.
You are allowed to walk with them, no barriers, as long as you are respectful of their space.
In this manner you can see their details extremely well. Their smiles.
Each tortoise was larger than the last.
I was continuously in awe.
They are mainly solitary creatures, but it isn’t uncommon to spot a few of them feeding in a choice area. Other than simply tortoises, the environment is beautiful and hiking around the center can take from 30 minute to an hour – depending on how many pictures you want to snap.
It is supposed to be a special birding spot with the chance to see vermillion flycatchers the endemic short-eared owl. Although I didn’t see either of those, I did notice cattle egret, morhens, and white cheeked pintails.
Don’t forget to wiggle your way into the shell, harder than it looks to do so!
Drinks and snacks are available, as well as a gift shop. Be sure to visit the lava tunnel.
It is over a ½ long and there are entrances on either side.
Lights are strung up inside the tunnel, so no need to worry about bringing a flashlight.
Certain parts require duck walking.
Where others require actually slithering along a well placed plank of wood.
Other than that, the tunnel is surprisingly spacious and almost industrial looking.
The ground is made up of rough lava, so protective footwear is recommended. Our thoughtful driver was waiting for us on the other end, so we didn’t need to walk all the way back.
A smaller crevice is located at the end with no lights, if you want a more authentic spelunking experience – at your own risk!
Good to know:
Transportation wise, there are other alternatives to reaching the reserve if it is your sole destination in the highlands. Taxis from Puerto Ayaro are $25 one way (a bit cheaper if you make your way up to Bellavista by local bus) and the office will call you one when you are ready to leave. Alternatively, you could take the bus to the nearest stop of the reserve and walk the rest of the way, but it is a bit of a hike over one mile.