The Galapagos Islands: What to do (For Free!) on Santa Cruz

It’s now been nearly two months since we left the Galapagos Islands. I find myself struggling to explain, to express, to tell, to show, all that there was to see and do there.

Crabs in the Galapagos
Even the crabs fascinated me. Nature knows her colors.

I started planning this post on Santa Cruz Island by putting together all of the photos I wanted to include. When I reached 24 photos I realized that I was taking the wrong approach, but I’m at a loss. I don’t know how to tell you about Santa Cruz without sounding dry, generic, and bland. Because it’s not any of those things.

It’s a place where you can live in a swimsuit and a sarong, and all you need to carry is a camera. Nothing is entirely predictable, and once you pay the $100 park entrance fee, the majority of the sights are free.

Although it’s known as a transitional town (most people come here to start or finish a cruise), there’s no shortage of things to do on Santa Cruz.

Tortuga Bay (Free)

Marine Iguana Pile
Imagine this blocking your path while you’re running. Not cool.

No lie, it’s a small hike (approx. 3 km) to get out here, but it is worth it. There are two main beaches, both beautiful, though the rangers recommend swimming at the second beach. It’s much more placid, but sometimes people spot sharks out there. Harmless, but still. You take your pick.

If you choose to stay out of the water, you can still see about a bazillion marine iguanas, all of whom will not hesitate to hiss should you get too close. From the rocky outcrop between the two beaches you can spot sea turtles bobbing in and out of the waves. A word of warning – I would not go running on the path through the rocks. The rangers don’t like it and neither do the marine iguanas. Just a little tip for you.

Charles Darwin Research Center (Free)

Baby tortoise, Galapagos
Baby Galapagos tortoise – just fits in the palm of your hand.

The research center is about 1 kilometer from the center of town, and you can explore it at will. This is where they breed the giant tortoises, and you can see them at all stages of growth, from itty-bitty babies to giant behemoths. There are also a few iguanas to check out, along with another beach. The beach is smaller than Tortuga Bay, but closer and still attractive. Although I did see an eel, which touched me on the ankle. Ever been touched by an eel? Totally freaked me out. All part of the experience.

Lava Tubes ($3.50 entry fee)

Baby Donkey, Galapagos
He’s so cute, I’ll even forgive that haircut.

We hired bikes from a convenience store on Av. Baltra and rode the 7 km or so inland to the lava tubes. The ride was not fun. I did not enjoy it. Most of it was uphill and we weren’t even sure where we were headed. When we finally found the place, we weren’t sure it was it – there was a big sign out the front that said “Lava Tubes – Tunnel of Love” or something equally off-putting.

But what drew me in was this baby donkey. Incredibly cute, incredibly soft, and tried to follow us down to the lava tubes, only giving up when we forced ourselves to ignore it. The tubes, made from cooled lava, were like being in a cave. Totally dark, as the lights weren’t working, but we were given flashlights from the very nice woman who was sleeping in a hammock when we arrived. Takes about 20 minutes to walk through the whole thing.

SCUBA Diving (Varies. I paid $120 with Sope Dive)

Hammerhead in the Galapagos
The hammerhead that everyone saw but me.

I’m not really a diver, though I do have an advanced open water license. It had been over 3 years since my last dive, in Egypt, but I didn’t want to skip diving in the Galapagos. So I inquired at a few dive shops and joined a boat out to Gordon Rocks, where the main attraction is hammerhead sharks. There were plenty of other things to see – a young sea lion, a large sea turtle, fish, coral; but everyone on that boat was there for the hammerheads.

After the first dive – no hammerheads. After the second, when I surfaced too quickly due to an overinflated BCD (my bad), everyone clambered back on the boat, wired with excitement. “Did you see the hammerhead?”

No. No, I did not see the hammerhead. Dammit.

Las Grietas (Free)

Las Grietas, Galapagos
Mine, all mine.

According to Google Translate, ‘Las Grietas’ means ‘cracks.’ It’s an isolated gorge, rock walls rising up from a still, clear, stream of water. In the morning, there is no one there. We had it all to ourselves, free to practice the ‘rapid shutter’ feature on my camera while jumping off the rocks again and again.

Jared Las Grietas
Got about a million of these. It’s like a flip book.

To get there, take a water taxi from the marina, which costs less than a dollar and takes about four minutes. You’ll walk past an eco-resort with a small bay, where we spotted a school of rays. Past that is a miniature salt flat, a swampy lake, and volcanic rock, all of which let you know you’re on the right track.

Fisherman’s Wharf (Free)

Fishermen in the Galapagos
Note the small child on the table voraciously smashing away bugs with her flyswatter.

On the way to the research station, you’ll pass the spot where the fishermen bring in the catches of the day. You’ll know it because there are a bunch of men swarmed by pelicans, sea lions, and the occasional tourist, all trying to get a glimpse of the huge tuna, lobsters, and otherwise unidentifiable sea creatures awaiting the dinner plate.

All of these sights are part of what makes Santa Cruz, and the Galapagos, incredible. But it’s more than singular destinations. It’s the things you see just walking around, the wildlife that you share your space with, the awe of isolation that comes from knowing you’re on this tiny speck of an island way off the coast of South America, that really make it something special.

Jared in Tortuga Bay, Galapagos
But watch out for sharks. Seriously.

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  1. I’ll be using this if I decide to spank all my korea savings and go to the galapagos this summer 🙂
    I’ll not miss the hammerheads, though 😉

    1. It would be worth it. Not that I’m encouraging you to burn through your savings, but still. Worth it! And Jared and I did eventually see hammerheads during a snorkel, though not as clearly as the one people allegedly saw on my dive!

    1. It is so feasible! I doubted for a long time and stressed over what would happen when we actually got to the islands, but the whole thing was really a breeze.

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