Santa Cruz Island (Infatigable) is the second biggest island of the archipelago with an area of 986 sq km. The highest point is Cerro Crocker at 864 meters. Santa Cruz has the largest population in Galápagos especially in the town of Puerto Ayora on the south coast. With its about 20,000 inhabitants it is the largest human settlement on the islands and offers some touristic facilities. The town’s harbor is named Academy Bay after the boat Academy, which arrived here in 1905 carrying an expedition sent by the California Academy of Sciences. Today the harbor is quite popular with sailors as well as with sea lions and pelicans! The public dock is a good place to observe frigate birds and blue footed boobies fishing in “Las Ninfas” the inner anchorage and in Pelican Bay especially when the fishermen are cleaning their catches.
Charles Darwin Interpretation Center:
In 1959, the centenary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species”, the Government of Ecuador and the International Charles Darwin Foundation established with the support of the UNESCO the Charles Darwin Station at Academy Bay near Puerto Ayora. Although the great majority of Galapagos visitors come here to observe and appreciate natural wonders, it is also interesting to learn how the protection and conservation of the islands are carried out. One of the principal attractions is the Van Staelen Exhibition Hall. It informs with exhibitions the interested traveler about climate and geography and provides an insight into the evolution of flora and fauna.
In the Tortoise Conservation Building tiny turtle babies are affectionately being cared for. As soon as they are strong enough they are prepared for their repatriation. From the hatchlings and juniors you proceed to the robust seniors. Joining them in their natural enclosure is possible and there you can get a close up view of those fascinating heavyweights. The most famous of them is “Lonesome George” whose fellows from Isla Punta are all extinct (there is a total of 11 subspecies on the islands). Numerous attempts of mating him with an allied female turtle have failed so far because George is not interested.
A great problem for the turtle population and several other species are the animals that were introduced by the human settlers like goats, pigs, cats and rats. They endanger the existence of the endemic species so much that the national park staff tries everything to get rid of them. Next to the visitor center you can explore the arid vegetation of Galápagos, consisting of cacti, mangroves and spiny bushes where many land birds have their home.
Highlands of Santa Cruz Island:
Especially impressive and a must for every Galápagos visitor are the highlands of Santa Cruz in the center of the island. The highland is marked by extinct volcanoes and very astonishing plants can be found there. With clear weather (unpredictable) this area affords beautiful scenes of rolling hills and extinct volcanic cones covered with grass and lush greenery all year round. In addition to ferns and meter high miconia shrubs you can also see scalesia forests. Scalesias belong to the family of sunflowers and grew tall because of the absence of trees. Popular visitor sites are the twin craters (Los Gemelos) that are actually sinkholes. In the highlands there are also several lava tubes up to a length of 2 kilometers. They were formed when the outside lava already solidified and on the inside the hot and still liquid lava continued to flow. Today you can explore those mystified and gloomy tunnels with torch and headlamp. Nearby the village of Santa Rosa the reserve El Chato is located, where giant tortoises can be observed in their natural surroundings. There is a lagoon, ample grassland and cloud forest where also short-eared owls, Darwin finches, vermilion flycatchers, yellow warblers, Galápagos rails and paint-billed crakes can be seen.
A clear path leads in about an hour’s walk from Puerto Ayora to Tortuga Bay. This hike is good for bird watching. It is easy to spot several species of finches as you walk along the path. The sunsets here are excellent. The west cove offers a nice snorkeling and swimming area and a nice spot for relaxing. The water is clear as crystal and very well suited for swimming as there is hardly and current. Beneath the water you can meet sharks or marine iguanas, while you are observed from water seabirds like pelicans and flamingos out of the surrounding mangroves.
The white sand beach is considered by many the nicest of the archipelago. Its name comes from the sea turtles that go there to lay their eggs. Other species can be found, including pelicans, flamingos and marine iguanas.
The Bachas Beaches:
These two small beaches are found to the West of Turtle Cove. Their sand is made of decomposed coral, which makes it white, soft, and a favourite nesting site for sea turtles. Behind one of the beaches there is a small brackish water lagoon, where occasionally it is possible to observe flamingos and other coastal birds, such as black-necked stilts and whimbrels. The other beach is longer, but it has two old barges that were abandoned there during the Second World War, when the USA used Baltra Island as a strategic point to protect the Panama Channel. (The metal is rusty and sharp, so it is not a good place for swimming).
If you have not seen enough turtles yet, you should take the boat to nearby Black Turtle Cove (Caleta Tortuga Negra). You pass several small bays where rays and white-tipped reef sharks occur and arrive at the cave that is home to black turtles.
Another visitor’s site, Dragon Hill (Cerro Dragon), located on the far western extreme of the island, makes and easy dry landing on a cement jetty. The path leads to a white sandy beach and then continues of the beaten track. Here the visitor will be rewarded by the presence of wading birds in a hyper-saline lagoon, and once inland, a nesting group of land iguanas. A path heads through cacti and palo santo trees for a hill from where you have a great view. Less than a mile apart, a breathtaking dinghy ride will give the visitor an opportunity to see turtles and typically large numbers of sea birds as well as sharks in a mangrove environment.