Santa Cruz is the first island that we called home in the Galapagos. From the moment that I arrived there, the island astounded me. The drive from Baltra to Puerto Ayora itself was a tour of the various ecosystems of the island. From the ferry dock to the city, we drove up in elevation from the shore, and then back down as we reached the beachside city. In doing this, the road took us through the green coastal zone, through the arid zone of the lowlands. We would get to know this particular assemblage of plants and animals fairly well, as these are the plants that line the beaches and cities. The arid zone is characterized by tall, bush shrubs, and cactus trees, which to my Arizona-born sensibilities look like prickly pear cacti trying to be trees. After the arid zone we pass up through the transition zone, where the shrubs of the arid areas give way to denser growths of thin trees which are often draped with vines. In the middle of the island, the drive takes you up into the scalesia forests and then back down. The scalesia forests get the vast majority of the rain that the mountains of the islands attract, and as such, they are vibrant, green places. The trees here are massive, and the climate in the forest is quite cool compared to the warmer low lands. As we drew closer to Puerto Ayora, the forest began to give way to patches of agricultural activity, and small settlements. Again, as a resident of Arizona, I thought that the architecture of these towns, as well as the larger cities on the islands was very similar to the architecture of Northern Mexico. Open air restaurants are common, many houses and stores have bright colored, personal touches added to them, and many buildings seem to be in a near constant state of construction.
On Santa Cruz, much of what we saw was around Pueto Ayora, and for the traveller on a budget, this is a great place to explore. A walk down the village’s main street, Charles Darwin Avenue, is not only great for shopping and food, but the road runs along the coast, provides some wonderful views. Decorative buildings line the street which is characterized by wavy red and yellow brickwork. This road also passes by the fish market of Puerto Ayora, where sea lions and pelicans gather along with people for the chance at some fresh fish. At the western end of the road, where the docks are, taxis are easy to come by, and tourists mingle with natives. There is a big volleyball court, and park amenities, which fill up towards sunset. Once night sets in, the pier is lit up from the water, and sea life can easily be seen. There is also a big supermarket at the western end of the road, which we took advantage of more than once to help cut our food costs.
Many of the streets fanning off from Avenue de Charles Darwin (the main street in Puerto Ayora) lack clear signage, and navigating through the city can get somewhat confusing. However, the town is safe, and we spent much of our time seeing the city on foot. When all else failed (or the heat got to us) we would flag down a taxi and catch a lift downtown or back to our lodging.
In terms of attractions around the city, Centro de Crianza de Tortugas Gigantes, Las Grietas, and Tortuga bay were the big ones. All are free to visit (although getting to the trailhead for Las Grietas requires you to take a watertaxi which is about $0.80 one way), they require you to sign in, and you may visit only during the day, as each trail closes around 5pm.
El Centro de Crianza de Tortugas is the first thing that we visited while on Santa Cruz. As its name suggests, this area is one of the breeding centers for giant tortoises (and the former home of Lonesome George). We went in the morning, during the park’s feeding time, and due to this fact we were able to see many of the animals in the park active. There are tortoises of all different ages available for observation along the trail, and land iguanas as well (which we saw no where else). The trails here also provided great views of the arid environment that is home to the awesome cactus trees, which are integral to the survival of several different tortoise breeds. Taking a few quiet moments along the trail, we also had the chance to see several different species of birds.
The Las Grietas trailhead is across the bay from most of Puerto Ayora, but a short watertaxi ride over to the other side reveals several isolated and beautiful residences and hotels. The trail to Las Grietas begins on some narrow pathways that run between the outer walls of these buildings, and while not exactly a nature lover’s idea of an appealing trailhead, I found the little offshoot of the city to be rather nice. After passing through most of the buildings, the trail became rocky and passed along several lagunas. It also snaked by a small, white sand beach called Playa de Punta Estrada, and through the Salinas. The landscape here is characterized by volcanic rock, and brackish water that is almost otherworldly in its earthy colors and silty texture. The rocky trail passed through the water here at several points, but it was easy to stay dry, as the volcanic rock that made the trail rises out of the water.
Las Grietas itself is something like a giant crack in the rock of the island. This crack connects the cool, calm pool of Las Grietas to the ocean, and makes for a great place to swim. The pool is also deep enough in places for people to jump from the rocks into the water, but I would check with the park employee posted at the pool before jumping. It does tend to get busy at the bottom of the tail, as people stake out places for their belongings among the massive boulders that form the access point to the water. Several blogs that I read suggested coming here in the morning to find some solitude here, and as we found ourselves amid a crowd once we reached the end of the trail, I think that this is very good advice.
Finally, there is Tortuga Bay. This is one of the longer hikes on the island, and I would suggest planning ahead for the journey. My friend and I did the hike later in the day, and we didn’t really end up having time to enjoy the beach at the end of the trail. We started from downtown, and following the maps posted there, took a few backstreets to find the trailhead which is nestled back in the neighborhood away from the main street. The trail itself is smooth brick, and thus, fairly easy to travel. It also passes through the shrub forest, so there is some shade along the way. At the end, a beautiful white sand beach awaits, complete (at the time we were there) with a small gathering of sun tanned surfers.