The conical volcanic island of Santa Cruz is the central anchorage point of most Galapagos expeditions. Its main port town, Puerto Ayora, is the biggest on the archipelago and you’ll find an astounding range of geological and ecological marvels in the interior and along the coast.
Black Turtle Cove – An isolated mangrove inlet on the north shore of Santa Cruz, Black Turtle Cove’s waters host schools of golden rays, white-tipped sharks, and Galapagos sharks. The endemic lava heron flies overhead, as does the yellow warbler.
Dragon Hill – Named for its prominent land iguana population and its sloping topography on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz, Dragon Hill provides views all the way out to neighboring Rabida and Santiago islands. In addition to the many iguanas, Dragon Hill hosts yellow warblers, Galapagos doves, and several different Darwin finches.
Cerro Mesa – This inland ecological reserve to the northeast of Puerto Ayora affords some of the most stunning views on Isla Santa Cruz. Its peak at 490 meters above sea level is surrounded by lush vegetation in the Green Zone, and you’ll find endemic plant species like scalesia, guayabillo, and cat’s claw. Keep an eye out for Darwin finches including ground finches, cactus finches, and woodpecker finches.
Charles Darwin Research Station – Located on the coast just outside of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz, the Charles Darwin center provides incredible access to the legendary giant Galapagos tortoises from which the Galapagos get their name. With a hatchery and nursery, as well as ample roaming grounds for adults, you’ll find tortoises ranging from three inches to four feet in size. A tour of the grounds provides insight into the important work conducted by scientists and volunteers, as well as historical insight into Charles Darwin and the development of his theories.
The Highlands – While much of the Galapagos Islands feature volcanic rock and sandy lowland coast, the Santa Cruz Highlands are an immersive and lush green located in the islands interior. The prominence of endemic scalesia trees make for verdant forests, and the twin volcanic craters called Los Gemelos make for a truly surreal contrast in natural features. Keep a look out for the fire-red vermillion flycatcher, which stands out from its perch on the branches of the scalesia trees.
Lava Tunnels – These underground tubes formed from prehistoric magma extend for longer than a half mile, making for a once-in-a-lifetime walk. When exploring this cave-like passage, gaze up the sheer rock walls to the ceiling overhead and keep an eye out for large-beaked ground finches and barn owls.
Tortuga Bay – Named for the black sea turtles that emerge from the waters to lay their eggs on the white-sands, Tortuga Bay is home to ruddy turnstones and Galapagos seagulls as well. Located just down the coast from Puerto Ayora out the southernmost tip of Santa Cruz, Tortuga Bay features flamingos patrolling the nearby salt mangroves and Darwin finches dipping and diving overhead.
Garrapatero Beach – A gorgeous and remote beach on the eastern coast of Santa Cruz, El Garrapatero hosts blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, and marine iguanas. The trail leading to the beach winds through mangroves and black volcanic rock formations.
El Chato Tortoise Reserve – Walk or horseback ride through this wildlife sanctuary and catch a glimpse of wild tortoises, paint-billed crates, and short-eared owls in their natural habitat.