The Galápagos Islands – Santa Cruz; giant tortoises, iguanas and getting older

The Galápagos Islands Part 2: San Cristóbal; snorkelling, secret surfing and attempted murder by sea lionThink of every positive adjective you can. Got them? Times them by 1000 and that explains the Galapágos. Blog over. Alternatively get yourselves a glass of wine or if it is pre 9.30am better make it a coffee, there are a lot of wows to be covered. These islands are something else! So where to start… 

The facts

As you probably know, the Galápagos are an archipelago of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador and home to more wildlife than you would think could fit in one space. Darwin was certainly impressed and spending time here helped him formulate his theory of evolution. It is still a major hub for scientific research with the Charles Darwin Research Station based on Santa Cruz and a whole load of big brained people traversing the islands and discovering super clever things.

There are circa 13 major islands, 4 of which are inhabited; Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana. The first three you can reach through independent travel, Floreana and the non-inhabited islands can only be reached on a tour. This led to the first big question, to cruise or not to cruise? To be honest, the decision wasn’t that hard. Cruises can be expensive starting at around $1,500 a person and going up to anything from $7,000 per person plus, with hotels on top. They also result in large groups of people going from place to place en-masse and because of the enormity of what there is to see being moved on pretty quickly. There are no doubt lots of positives to cruising and a lot of things to learn from the guides, however we opted to do it ourselves and stick to the three islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Isabela and see everything they had to offer at our own pace.

The Boring Bit

If you’re heading this way there are some hidden costs that need to be taken into consideration.

  1. $20 per person to be paid at the airport on mainland Ecuador for the Galapagos Transit Control Card set by the government agency INGALA.
  2. $100 per person is required on arriving in the Galapagos for entry.
  3. $30 per person on speedboat taxi to take you between the main islands (each journey is circa 2 hours)
  4. $10 per person to be paid on arriving on Isabela
  5. 50c/$1 per person for the water taxi to take you out to the speed boats.

There are a large number of flights that arrive several times a day on the Galápagos from either Guayaquil or Quito. They land either on Baltra island (which takes you to Santa Cruz) or San Cristóbal. Whichever airport you leave from you need to get there earlier than normal check in as they go through your bag to check for food, muddy shoes or anything that can impact the environment. From Baltra island we got directly on a transit bus to the crossing point where we jumped on a 5 minute ferry that took us to Santa Cruz. From there you can either get a taxi at $25 or a local bus for $1 each. The bus did just fine!

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is the most populated of all the islands and its infrastructure is the most advanced. Puerto Ayora  is the main town where the majority of hotels, booking offices and restaurants are. It’s also the harbour where all the water taxi and boats leave from. It was a real treat getting here and I did do a little dance of excitement realising that I was really here! As soon as you start walking through the town the wildlife pretty much comes to you and the stream of photos began immediately with pelicans and iguanas and sea lions making an appearance. 

In Santa Cruz there are a few key spots not to be missed. We borrowed brake-less bikes from our hotel and catapulted down to Bahia Tortuga where we then walked the 1.5 mile boardwalk to the largest white sand beach on the island. It is the place to go for locals and tourists alike for surfing, wildlife spotting or general chilling. Despite not seeing any turtles we saw a whole host of marine iguanas and pelicans doing their thing, not to mention the variety of other birds that I cannot name! Having walked along Tortuga we found another beach called Playa Mansa with still clear water, a really beautiful beach despite the pretty overcast weather.

Keen to see some big shelled creatures we took a taxi to the highlands and to Reserva El Chato, a nature reserve where large tortoises come and go as they please. There are also volcanic tunnels to have a look through which are pretty interesting in themselves. The good thing about the weather curse on this occasion was that tortoises like rain and are more inclined to be out and about so we got to see lots of them. They are quite amazing, it is like stepping back into the pre-historic age to see some of these guys lumbering around eating their grass and fruit and minding their own business. You have to stay 2-3m back from them so as not to disturb them and their natural surroundings and it was somewhere we spent a good few hours as round every corner is a different tortoise that is as equally fascinating as the last. It was definitely nice not to be on a tour for this experience as it gave us a chance to stay longer whereas we saw one tour group that was whisked around pretty sharpish. Our taxi driver told us that the reserve was owned by John Madesjski, the owner of Reading football club, but I can’t verify that!

You’re never lost for places to eat in Santa Cruz, there are a melee of restaurants along the harbour front. However, if you are looking for something cheaper (which we obviously were) then two blocks back from the harbour is a road called Charles Binford or Calle del kiosks which is full of street restaurants and great value breakfasts, menu del dia’s at lunch and sea food from lobster to tuna. It is a lively atmosphere, particularly on a Saturday night with packed tables lining the middle of the street. We met Vinicio who had been a chef in a restaurant on San Cristóbal but had come back to Santa Cruz to support his family and recently opened his own business. He cooked tuna to perfection!

Santa Cruz is the place to leave from to get to both San Cristóbal and Isabela and is mostly used as a transit island. However, it happened to be my birthday whilst on the Galapagos and as a treat we headed to the highlands to stay in a hotel called Semilla Verde with not only hot water but also a hairdryer! Luxury! The hotel was set in a few acres of land and also had giant tortoises going at break neck speed around the grounds. We enjoyed a night of home cooked food, hammock hanging, walking the grounds and tortoise watching and I would highly recommend it!

The time came to head off to experience San Cristóbal and Isabela where the wildlife wonder really began. I’ll be right back to tell you more!

Continued… The Galápagos Islands Part 2: San Cristóbal; snorkelling, secret surfing and attempted murder by sea lion


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