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land iguana, Cerro Dragon

Santa Cruz Island Travel Guide

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Santa Cruz, also called Indefatigable, is the most highly visited island in the Galapagos and home to the Charles Darwin Station, where visitors can observe tortoise research and breeding programs. A trip to the highlands offers the chance to see enormous volcanic pit craters, lava tunnels and giant tortoises roaming freely. Stay in the town of Puerto Ayora in a hotel by night, and explore the shoreline and highlands of Santa Cruz island. Santa Cruz is an excellent base for SCUBA diving, taking day trips to world-class dive spots surrounding Santa Cruz and nearby islands. 

Best Cruises & Tours Visiting Santa Cruz Island

Highlights of Santa Cruz Island

Charles Darwin Research Station / Fausto Llerena Breeding Center:
This is the scientific epicenter of the Galapagos and famously where Giant Tortoises are raised from egg to five years old, when they can be repatriated into their natural environment. Originally, the program started as a way to protect endangered tortoise populations that were threatened by invasive species that had been introduced to the Islands, especially the feral dogs. Now, the efforts of the breeding center have not only successfully maintained several populations of tortoises, but also saved a few which were on the edge of extinction, including most notably the Española tortoises. In addition to being a breeding center, the Station promotes research and scientific investigation for the conservation of the fragile ecosystems of the entire archipelago.

Tortuga Bay:
Just a short walk or bike ride from the main town of Puerto Ayora, this tranquil beach has soft white sand and is great for swimming. Its name refers to the black turtles that can often be seen here, but it’s also home to rolling dunes and endemic transition vegetation that help anchor the coastal sand.

Las Grietas:
This unique site features large fissures where turquoise salt water mixes with freshwater and makes for fun swimming and snorkeling.

These National Park Visitor Spots can only be visited as part of a scheduled cruise:

Bachas Beach:
This expansive, pristine white sand beach is home to a spectacular variety of wildlife. Bachas is really a misnomer for barches, as there is a half sunken barge visible from the beach. Also visible from the beach is a brackish lake with flamingoes and water birds, and an incredible menagerie of wildlife such as nesting green sea turtles, sally lightfoot crabs, and sea lions.  

Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill):
This site is aptly named for its healthy population of land iguanas and the ominous dragon-like shape of the mountain overlooking the bay. In the 1970s, the National Park began using the site as a place to breed the iguanas safe from the predatory dogs that were threatening many native species. Now the successful repopulation of the iguanas makes it a fascinating visitor site.

Black Turtle Cove: On the northern side of the island, you will find Black Turtle Cove, accessible only by dinghy. Surrounded by mangrove colonies, it hosts a wealth of marine life, including black- and white-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead babies, sea turtles, and rays.

Garrapatero Beach:
This arid beach is a bit off the beaten path, 19 km from Puerto Ayora. Here, a trail leads you from the white sand beach through a small palo santo and cactus forest. You’ll also see land birds enjoying the brackish lagoons, including flamingos, pintail ducks, oystercatchers, and various finches.

The Highlands of Santa Cruz Island

The higland forests of Santa Cruz hide some of the world's most bizarre secrets. The volcanic island is the accumulation of volcanic erruptions and lava flows for millions of years leaving behind a cavernous maze of lava tubes and craters, and on the surface thrive Giant Tortoises to this day. 


Twin Craters (Los Gemelos):
The Twin Craters, also known as “Los Gemelos,” are two giant sinkholes in the highlands that formed when the surface material caved into underground chambers. Currently, several trails have been blazed through the dense Scalesia forest. A short hike will take you to these craters, and along the way you will likely see notable land birds such as the Vermillion Flycatcher and a variety of native and endemic finches.

Lava Tunnels:
These unique geological formations were created when magma continued to flow underneath the drying surface lava. As the lava on the surface hardened, the molten stone beneath hollowed out long tubes that resemble caves, some of which extend for more than a kilometer. Several of them have been developed as visitor sites that can be explored.

El Chato Tortoise Reserve:
The tall grasses and shallow ponds of this expansive reserve make it the ideal habitat for the giant tortoises (for which the Islands are named) to live in peace. Along the path, you will come across various finch species & flycatchers and small turtles that bask in the still ponds. The highlight of this site, though, is the opportunity to see the giant tortoises roaming freely in their natural environment. Tortoises migrate annually from the coast to the highlands, and El Chato is one of the best places to see them plodding along. Although a guide is not imperative here, it is recommended.

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