Santa Cruz - Gateway to the Galapagos - The Maritime Explorer

Galapagos Islands

Santa Cruz – Gateway to the Galapagos

You might wonder at the title of this post as our Adventures Abroad group is only heading to the island of Santa Cruz at the end of our stay in this wondrous archipelago. However, for the vast majority of visitors to the Galapagos the airport on nearby Baltra Island is the most likely landing spot and after a short ferry ride to Santa Cruz their adventure begins. So it is the gateway island, just not for us. We will be making our way there by boat after spending three terrific days on Isabela. So hop aboard and we’ll find out why Santa Cruz is quite different from the other islands on the Galapagos.

Getting up early Alfredo, our AA guide, leads us once again down to the sheltered cove back of Puerto Villamil and we are shunted out to this boat for our private transfer to Santa Cruz. With three huge outboards it is much faster than the regularly scheduled ferry service between the two islands.

Out Boat to Santa Cruz

Here we are on the way.

Santa Cruz Here We Come
On the Way to Santa Cruz

The waters are fairly calm and we make the trip in about an hour and a half passing by a number of smaller uninhabited islands collectively named the Four Brothers of which this is one.

One of the Four Brothers - On the Way from Isabela to Santa Cruz
One of the Four Brothers

The largest settlement on the Galapagos is Puerto Isidro Ayora, named after a former Ecuadorian president. With over 12,000 inhabitants it is really a small city and completely different from both San Cristobal and Puerto Villamil. Not only is it much more touristy than those other places with a lot of tacky souvenir shops and pirate themed bars, but somewhat paradoxically, more diversified, with a large inshore fishing fleet and numerous government offices and health facilities.

Santa Cruz Fishing Boats

In spite of the high degree of urbanization found in Puerto Ayora (most people leave out the Isisdro), there is still plenty of evidence of the Galapagos wildlife to be found even right in the centre of town. Even before setting foot on dry land I spot a number of sea turtles and black-tipped sharks just looking down from the landing wharf.

Sea Turtle and Black Tip Sharks Just Off the Wharf of Santa Cruz
Sea Turtle and Black Tip Sharks Just Off the Wharf

Sally lightfoot crabs are everywhere just above the waterline.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs on the Waterfront

And further up, young iguanas sun themselves on the sea wall.

Young Iguanas on the Seawall, Santa Cruz
Young Iguanas on the Seawall

By now it is apparent that the ecosystems of the Galapagos are remarkably different than that in most other places in the world. Here there is a harmony between man and nature that is rarely seen elsewhere. I commented upon it when we first arrived in San Cristobal a few days ago and continue to be struck by it with each new island we visit.

There will be time to explore Puerto Ayora in more depth later in the day, but for now we are headed for an inland adventure that once again will involve the famous Galapagos giant tortoises.

Rancho Primicias

Group Shot with Tortoise, Santa Cruz
Group Shot with Tortoise

Rancho Primicias is a privately owned nature reserve especially created to protect wild tortoises. Unlike the tortoise centre we visited on Isabela which has as its mission the breeding of tortoises from all of the islands and where the tortoises are kept in captivity, at Rancho Primicias the tortoises are all wild and free to come and go as they please. And do they ever.

From the moment we step off the bus after a pleasant 21 km. (13 mile) drive from Puerto Ayora, there are tortoises literally everywhere.

Tortoises Everywhere

We are able to get close enough for the group shot above and even closer for shots like this, although you are not allowed to touch or feed the creatures.

Giant Tortoise on Santa Cruz
Giant Tortoise

Or you can have your own personalized shot.

Alison & Tortoise

While seeing tortoises mating was nothing new and I won’t include any sex shots in this post (you can check out the Isabela post for those), seeing them being aggressive with each other was new. These two males had just had a confrontation and the one was chasing the other in the world’s slowest race.

End of a Tortoise Fight

Up until our visit to Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz we had actually seen only one wild tortoise, but our visit here satisfied even the most ardent herpetologist.

If that wasn’t enough, you could always get up close and personal with a tortoise by climbing into one of these shells which several of our entourage did. However in the name of human decency I’m not going humiliate them by showing photos of this temporary lapse of sanity. I’m still laughing now at the sight they made.

Tortoise Shells for Climbing In

After visiting the tortoises we had a nice lunch spread of grilled fish and vegetables washed down with a locally made craft beer – Reptilia Irish Red Ale with a really cool label.

Grilled Fish & Reptilia Irish Red Ale

Exploring Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

Alison in Santa Cruz

After returning to Puerto Ayora we had the rest of the afternoon free before a farewell dinner where we would say goodbye to our trusty guide Alfredo and several others.

As I noted Puerto Ayora has some pretty touristy shops and bars, but it also has a lot else to offer as Alison and I discovered just rambling about with no particular agenda in mind.

We started at the waterfront where you’ll find this statue of a fisherman and his son along with what I assume is either a marlin or a sailfish. With little arable land, fishing has always been the backbone of the economy not related to tourism and things have not always been as harmonious as they are today. You’ll note from the photo of the fishing boats that they are all quite small and suited only for an inshore fishery. The Ecudorean government has deliberately banned industrialized fishing in the waters off the Galapagos and this has not sat well with some of the local fishermen who think they could make a lot more money using more modern techniques and larger boats. As recently as 2020 they attempted to disrupt the tourism business in the hope of changing the government’s mind, but it didn’t work. Ecudaor has wisely realized that there is a lot more money to be made in maintaining a pristine environment that attracts tourist dollars than in a short sighted plundering of its offshore resources,

Fisherman Statue

So the fishermen have to content themselves with what they can catch from their small boats, but by the looks of this catch of tuna, they are doing OK.

Cleaning the Catch

Puerto Ayora has some pretty nice public art as we discovered on our rambles. This one depicts four different subspecies of the Galapagos mockingbird as found on different islands.

Darwin Mural, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
Galapagos Mockingbird Mural

This one on the side of the Pelican Bay Plaza depicts the four pillars of the Santa Cruz economy – fishing, agriculture, tourism and scientific research.

Pelican Bay Mural – Fisherman, Farmer, Tourism & Scientific Research

And this one’s just plain whimsical with the red patch of the male frigatebird shaped like a heart.

Yo Galapagos, Santa Cruz
Yo Galapagos

Paint is not the only medium you’ll find in Puerto Ayora. Some nice mosaics are to be found in the Garden of Mosaic Tile which you enter through this archway.

Mosaic Arch, Santa Cruz
Mosaic Arch

I should have taken more photos inside here to create a gallery as there a ton of really intriguing mosaics. The more you stare at them the more you see. Can you spot Don Quixote or Adam & Eve?

Mosaic Faces

This one depicting the flora and fauna of Santa Cruz is a feast for the eyes.

Sea Life Mosaic, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
Flora and Fauna of Santa Cruz

Almost right across the street from the mosaics is the entrance to the Santa Cruz Catholic cemetery. Never ones to miss a chance to explore places like this, Alison and I poked around here for quite some time as there are always stories to be told in death as well as in life. Having a bougainvillea vine growing on your tomb is a colourful way to portend the resurrection.

Cemetery – Tomb with Bougainvillea

To be sure there are sad stories, such as this tomb of a small child, but overall I have always found cemeteries to be places of reflection more than grief.

Child’s Tomb

We knew we would be headed for a nice dinner that evening so we resisted the temptation to try a Krusty Burger, not that this was a hard thing to do. God knows what Krusty would think was fun putting in his burgers.

Krusty Burger

We ended our walk circling back to the docks where the Red Tuna Restaurant had a number of expectant customers.

Expectant Customers

We joined the rest of the group for a final evening meal together at Almar Seafood Restaurant which was probably the best of all the good restaurants we ate at while in the Galapagos. The Tortuga Bay salad was both original and delicious.

Tortuga Bay Salad

However, if there was one dish I would recommend while on Santa Cruz it would be the grilled octopus with risotto. Man it is good!

Grilled Octopus & Risotto, Almar Restaurant
Grilled Octopus & Risotto

Adi, our single traveller from New York City would be leaving us here as would our guide Alfredo. Adi indulged himself with an entree of Galapagos lobster and as you can see he was delighted with his choice.

Adi with His Lobster

So farewell from Santa Cruz and the Galapagos. Tomorrow most of us will board a plane back to Quito and then fly on to Coca where the Amazon portion of this fantastic trip will commence. I hope to see you there.