Galápagos on a budget: Santa Cruz Island & Puerto Ayora travel guide
The Galápagos are widely regarded as one of the best places in the entire world to spot animals in their natural habitat, as well as being home to amazingly dramatic landscapes, pristine beaches, and scuba diving to rival all other scuba diving— and Santa Cruz is absolutely no exception to this.
As the most populous and developed of the Galápagos Islands, Santa Cruz is the centrepiece of just about any travel itinerary to Ecuador’s legendary volcanic archipelago, with the main town of Puerto Ayora providing often the only connection between other islands and acting as the primary departure point for some of the most popular day tours.
Even if you only set foot on Santa Cruz out of necessity, though, you’ll certainly stay for the secret swimming holes, abundant marine life, and fresh-as-it-comes seafood. Use this guide to discover everything you need to know about visiting Isla Santa Cruz, including flying to the Galápagos, getting to and around Puerto Ayora, where to stay, what to do on the island, and heaps of other handy travel tips.
Getting to the Galápagos
From mainland Ecuador
Every visitor to the Galápagos will travel through mainland Ecuador, either flying from Quito or Guayaquil out to the islands on a ~2hr flight. LATAM, TAME, and Avianca all operate daily flights from the mainland to Baltra (GPS), which is just off the coast of Santa Cruz and the more convenient of the two airports in the archipelago.
Top tip: Ecuadorian residents are eligible for cheaper airfare to the Galápagos, but I’ve heard of a few instances of third-party booking sites mistakenly selling these cheaper fares to foreigners, who then have to pay the difference (usually $150USD) upon arrival at the airport. To avoid surprises like this, it’s best to buy your airfare directly through the airline or find a third-party booking site that specifically asks about your residency. You can find more tips on buying flights to the Galápagos in this post: ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A LAND-BASED TRIP TO THE GALÁPAGOS (WITHOUT A CRUISE)
Flying from Quito or Guayaquil, you will need to arrive at the airport with enough time to perform a few extra security measures before your journey to the islands (2hrs before your flight should be enough).
In the Departures hall, you’ll see a signed area near the check-in counters for those travelling to the Galápagos— you need to purchase a Transit Control Card for $20 (which you should keep with your passport for the return journey) and put your bags through an additional biosecurity screening (they are mostly concerned about foreign dirt, like on hiking boots, or fruits and nuts). The process is incredibly quick and easy, and when you’re done you’ll be able to check in for your flight and go through all the normal bag drop and airport security procedures.
From Baltra Airport
When you arrive in the Galápagos, the first thing you’ll do is queue up to pay the $100 National Park fee. It’s expensive, but it’s absolutely unavoidable and actually an excellent way to contribute to the continued protection of the islands.
Immediately after paying the park fee, you also need to buy a ticket for the shuttle running between the airport and the Itabaca Canal ($5 each way, and I’d recommend buying a return ticket so you can skip the queue on your way back). Because the Galápagos airport is on Baltra, a tiny island just north of Santa Cruz, you’ll need to take a shuttle to the canal, cross over to Santa Cruz on a quick boat, and then either take a bus or taxi across the island to Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz.
After arriving at the Itabaca Canal by shuttle, your bags will be transferred onto a boat that will carry you across to Santa Cruz. The boat ride is less than 10min and costs $1, payable on board. On the other side, you can collect your bags and continue onwards to Puerto Ayora via bus or taxi. The bus costs $5 per person and a taxi costs $20 total, so if there’s a couple people sharing, the taxi isn’t a whole lot more expensive and is quicker (because you won’t need to wait for everyone’s luggage to be loaded up on the bus, but also because the taxi can deliver you directly to your hotel).
Expected travel times
As a rough guide, here’s how much time you need to conservatively allow for each section of the journey between Baltra Airport and Puerto Ayora:
- Biosecurity screening at the airport and collection of customs cards ~15min
- Shuttle ($5) from airport to Itabaca Canal (including all the bags being loaded) ~30min
- Ferry ($1) across the Itabaca Canal (including all the bags being transferred) ~30min
- Taxi ($20) from the Itabaca Canal to Puerto Ayora ~40min OR bus ($5) from the Itabaca Canal to Puerto Ayora ~60min
From other islands
If your itinerary involves considerable time on San Cristóbal (and really that’s the only reason I’d suggest flying into SCY over GPS), it’s possible you will have flown into San Cristóbal Airport and then need to take a boat to Santa Cruz, and likewise if you have been on Isabela or Floreana for the first half of your trip. Small ferries (usually running twice daily) connect Santa Cruz with all 3 of the other Galápagos islands where you’re allowed to stay overnight (Isla Isabela, Floreana, and San Cristóbal).
Each journey is $30 (one way) and will take roughly 2hrs, but the morning ferries tend to be faster and less choppy, so I’d definitely recommend this if you have a choice. Book your ferry either online in advance or last-minute at any tour agency in the Galápagos.
For heaps more information about island hopping in the Galápagos, read this post: ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A LAND-BASED TRIP TO THE GALÁPAGOS (WITHOUT A CRUISE)
Getting around Santa Cruz
Getting around Puerto Ayora
Although the largest town in the Galápagos, Puerto Ayora is incredibly small by other standards, easily walkable from end to end. From just about any accommodation in Puerto Ayora, you’ll be able to stroll down to the docks, walk along the main street (Avenida Charles Darwin) to restaurants or tour agencies, and even visit a number of beautiful beaches or the popular Charles Darwin Research Station, all on foot.
Getting around the island
It should come as no surprise that Uber has not yet made its way out to the Galápagos, but there are taxis operating all over Puerto Ayora that can deliver you to the Itabaca Canal to meet a boat, drive you into the highlands to explore, or even just run you out to a more distant beach.
The 40min ride out to the canal is $20USD, and you can usually hire a taxi to take you out to Los Gemelos and other spots in the highlands, wait while you explore, and then deliver you back a couple hours later for around $30USD. If you have heavy bags or don’t feel like walking, a taxi from your hotel to the ferry won’t be more than a couple dollars.
In addition to transporting passengers between the docks and inter-island ferries moored just offshore, water taxis are also available to deliver you to a variety of locations around Santa Cruz. You do not need to book anything, just walk out onto the ferry pier and jump in whatever water taxi is currently loitering about. Depending on the driver, you might wait for a few minutes to see if other passengers arrive or you might zip off immediately.
Most water taxis have a written price list on board that sets fares to popular destinations like the swimming hole at Las Grietas, which is 5-min ride around the south end of Puerto Ayora for 0.60c, payable directly to the driver on board.
Tours around the island are also available, but they tend to be pricier and come with the obvious inclusion of other tourists. For some situations and activities, however, they can be the best option, especially if you want to learn more about the wildlife or landscape from a qualified naturalist guide. A quick stroll down Avenida Charles Darwin will reveal a plethora of options, usually with some wiggle room in price.
Where to stay on Santa Cruz: Puerto Ayora
Puerto Ayora, the largest town on Santa Cruz (and in the Galápagos), as well as the arrival/departure point for inter-island ferries, is also where the bulk of the island’s accommodation, restaurants, and tourism agencies are clustered. The town is a lot more developed than what you’ll see on other islands, but even still, it’s not much more than a couple streets.
Hostal Sueños Silvestres has basic but very comfortable rooms ($80USD for a double with private bathroom) just 2 blocks back from Avenida Charles Darwin, the main street running through Puerto Ayora. It’s an easy walk to a few small shops, all the restaurants and dive shops in town, and even the ferry.
The staff are incredibly friendly, but they don’t speak any English, so be sure to brush up on your Spanish before staying. They also offer a delicious breakfast for an extra $6USD/person, which is a good way to save money for tours and activities.
*What to do on Santa Cruz
There are so many amazing things to explore while on Santa Cruz, from snorkelling beaches and lush highlands on the island to day tours and diving trips out to surrounding islands. This is only a small sampling of what to do on Santa Cruz, but these are my favourite and top recommended 8 things to do!
1 | Charles Darwin Research Station
Named for the English biologist whose theories of evolution were largely inspired by his time on the Galápagos, specifically that all life has descended from a common ancestor and evolved over time according to natural selection, the Charles Darwin Research Station continues to conduct valuable naturalist research in his name today. For the perfect introduction to the Galápagos, and to gain a better insight into the important conservation work being done, this research centre in Puerto Ayora is a real highlight.
Within easy walking distance of town, you only need 1-2hrs to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. Entry is free, but I’d recommend paying to join one of the tour groups departing from the entrance of the centre, led by a qualified English-speaking guide who will explain the research and offer a lot more information than you’d get just by reading plaques and signs. Guides leave regularly throughout the day and charge $10/person, which is well worth it, in my opinion.
2 | Las Grietas
Las Grietas, literally meaning “The Cracks” in Spanish, is a narrow, rocky crevasse where the earth seems to have split in two, creating a crystal clear swimming hole running more than 100m through the stone. This is undoubtably one of the most unique places to swim or snorkel in the Galápagos, and it is easily accessible from Puerto Ayora entirely on your own, no group or guide needed!
To get to Las Grietas, grab a water taxi from the docks in town and pay just 60c per person for the 5-minute ride out to Angermeyer Point (the captain will know where to take you if you just say Las Grietas). From here, there’s an obvious path leading towards the Finch Bay Hotel, Playa Alemania, and onwards to Las Grietas, which won’t take more than 15-20min in total and is fine to do in sandals as long as you are careful on the lava. Besides the water taxi, there is no cost to visit Las Grietas and, if timed right, you can even get this popular spot all to yourself, which is absolute magic.
3 | Explore Puerto Ayora
Puerto Ayora is a lively little town and I’d definitely recommend walking along its colourful streets, through its little shops, and hanging out along the pier to watch sea lions play in the water at some point during your trip. You can also stroll to popular beaches, like Tortuga Bay, all without needing to join a tour or venture outside of Puerto Ayora.
You can also get a great view over Puerto Ayora from Cafeteria Proinsular, a cafe with a range of tasty sandwiches, Mexican food, and baked goods on top of Proinsular Market, at the far end of the docks in town.
4 | Eat at Los Kioskos
For the absolute best food in Puerto Ayora, and possibly even in the Galápagos, turn off the main street and head a few blocks down Calle Charles Binford to find a bustling row of restaurants and stalls with tables spilling into the road. The eateries here may not have the polish of the restaurants along Avenida Charles Darwin, but the food is exponentially cheaper and always fresh, and the lively atmosphere is what makes Los Kioskos more than just a place to eat.
I can specifically recommend TJ’s, but dozens of waiters will call you over to their restaurant and encourage you to look at their menu, so just stop wherever tickles your fancy. To give you an idea of price, mum and I shared a fantastic whole Red Snapper with sides of rice, banana, and salad, a chicken quesadilla, and had 2 drinks each, all for under $20USD.
*Best day trips from Santa Cruz
5 | Diving at Gordon Rocks
Widely regarded as one of the best dive sites in the entire Galápagos archipelago, Gordon Rocks on the northeast side of Santa Cruz sits in an eroded volcanic crater, punctuated by large pinnacles of rock that make for very interesting diving. Thanks to the strong currents that flow through here, Gordon Rocks, also nicknamed “the washing machine”, acts as a cleaning station for large marine life, its intense flow attracting rays, turtles, sea lions, and, most notably, enormous schools of hammerhead sharks.
Given the current, this site is best suited to intermediate or experienced divers, but as long as you are not a true beginner and are able to follow directions from your instructor, most divers will be able to have a great day at Gordon Rocks (I only had 30 logged dives when I went, and I was fine). All dive shops in Puerto Ayora offer day tours out to Gordon Rocks, with 2 dives for a certified diver usually costing around $150USD including all transport, dive gear, and an experienced dive instructor familiar with the site. Booking on arrival is fine.
6 | Diving at Mosquera
For another spectacular dive site within easy reach of Santa Cruz, little Mosquera Island near Baltra is home to plentiful reef sharks, sea turtles, flocks of Spotted Eagle Rays and beautiful Golden Rays, as well as large schools of hammerhead sharks. Diving at Mosquera is often combined with North Seymour, which features similar marine life, and I actually had better luck spotting hammerheads here than at Gordon Rocks!
Most dive shops in Puerto Ayora offer day tours out to Mosquera and North Seymour, with 2 dives (one at each site) for a certified diver usually costing around $150USD including all transport, dive gear, and an experienced instructor. Companies tend to operate on a rotating schedule, so it might be that a few dive shops visit these sites on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, while other shops visit Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, or something similar. I had a great experience diving with Galápagos Travellers, but your schedule will often dictate which company you choose, and there are plenty of other high-rated, full-service companies in town, including Academy Bay Diving and Eagleray Tours.
7 | Day trip to North Seymour
Thanks to its central location within the archipelago, Santa Cruz is the departure point for a wide variety of day tours to neighbouring islands that you can’t actually stay on, but can visit for a few hours with a naturalist guide. One of the most popular of these day tours is North Seymour, home to large colonies of Blue-Footed Boobies, frigate birds, and Galápagos Sea Lions.
North Seymour is widely considered to be the best day trip from Santa Cruz for seeing native wildlife, so just about every tour agency in Puerto Ayora will offer full-day trips out to the island. Prices can be as low as $150USD when booked only a few days in advance, but easily $220-250USD if you want to reserve online before arriving in the Galápagos.
8 | Day trip to Isla Bartolomé
Isla Bartolomé is a barren and small but intensely striking island located just north of Santa Cruz, said to be both the most photographed island in the entire archipelago. It’s not possible to stay on Bartolomé overnight and all visitors must be accompanied by a guide, so the best way to see its dramatic landscapes and experience phenomenal snorkelling at Pinnacle Rock is to join a tour from Puerto Ayora.
A full day tour to Isla Bartolomé is a whopping $255USD when booked with Yacht Santa Fe, including all transport from Puerto Ayora to the yacht and then the journey to Bartolomé, as well as breakfast and lunch, a walking tour on the island, and snorkelling at Pinnacle Rock. If you’re travelling during shoulder/off-peak season (not June-Aug or Dec-Jan) or if you have some flexibility in your schedule, though, you can find day trips much cheaper by waiting to book until you arrive in Puerto Ayora. Walk into any of the tour agencies lining the the Avenida Charles Darwin and ask what day they have boats going to Bartolomé. It’s often possible to negotiate price, particularly if you book a couple tours through the same agency.
More about Santa Cruz
Where to eat in Puerto Ayora
Aside from Los Kioskos, which I described above and wholeheartedly recommend as the best spot in Puerto Ayora to eat, dozens of other restaurants line Avenida Charles Darwin and offer a range of options. Prices are higher in an actual restaurant and I wouldn’t say the food is any better than at Los Kioskos (probably even the other way around), but if you are craving specific Western fare or you want to go out for a classy bite, there are plenty of options.
Some specific recommendations:
- Los Kioskos: still my top choice and first recommendation, this long row of restaurants and outdoor tables set up on Calle Charles Binford offers the cheapest, most authentic, and freshest seafood in Puerto Ayora
- il Giardino: nice 2-level restaurant set in beautiful gardens with a good variety of Ecuadorian food and Western favourites like pasta, plus 2-for-1 cocktail specials
- The Rock: lots of seafood and traditional Ecuadorian food, plus delicious waffles with ice cream for brekky
- Lemon&Coffee: rooftop restaurant with good steak and burgers at a reasonable price
- El Muelle de Darwin: classy restaurant with high-end seafood and cocktails, pricey but great for a special occasion
Shops and facilities in Puerto Ayora
- There are a few ATMs on Avenida Charles Darwin (the main street in Puerto Ayora) where you can get cash out. The main one is Banco del Pacifico in front of the fishing pier, but there are also ATMs farther down the road in front of the Santa Cruz sign (pictured below). Some restaurants and tour agencies do accept credit card, but the fees can be absolutely wild, so I’d recommend cash as a rule.
- As mentioned above, there are plenty of restaurants in Puerto Ayora, plus shops selling food, clothes, camera gear, and other basic items. You should be able to find most things you need here, like a jumper if you didn’t pack enough warm clothing, an extra battery for your GoPro, or aloe for a sunburn.
- If you want to pick up some groceries or snacks, Proinsular Market just to the right of the ferry docks on Avenida Charles Darwin has a large selection of food and drinks at a good price. The cafeteria above the shop also has great takeaway sandwiches!
- There are heaps of tour agencies in Puerto Ayora that offer day tours out to neighbouring islands like South Plaza, Santa Fe, North Seymour, and Bartolomé. Booking on arrival typically affords cheaper prices, but during high season, you’ll need to be flexible on dates. If there is one tour you have your heart set on doing, it might be worth booking in advance and then arranging all other activities on arrival.
- There are also a number of dive shops in Puerto Ayora, and it’s easy enough to walk into these on the afternoon before you want to go diving and book things in that way. Most dive tours are around $150USD for 2x dives (as a certified diver), including all transport from Puerto Ayora and all dive gear.
- I got a SIM card while I was travelling around Ecuador, and the mobile reception in Puerto Ayora is pretty decent, but you really don’t need it if you’re only travelling in the Galápagos. Take the opportunity to disconnect, and if you have to ask for directions, the locals are always happy to help! And most hotels do have passable Wifi reception, so you won’t be completely cut off.
General tips for the Galápagos
- The Galápagos are a year-round destination, with different months offering better opportunities for spotting certain animals, but every month boasting varied wildlife! High season is from November to March and June to August, so visiting outside these times, especially around September and October, will ensure fewer crowds, better tour availability, and even lower prices on accommodation.
- Ecuador uses the US Dollar as their official currency, although you will sometimes get change in a mix of Ecuadorian coins and US coins. In the Galápagos, always plan to pay with cash rather than a credit card, as 99% of the time there will be a comical fee tacked on (like 12%).
- Despite being much more English-friendly than mainland Ecuador, there are definitely still some situations in the Galapagos where you will need a basic knowledge of Spanish to communicate effectively with the locals. Tour guides all speak reasonably good English, but I found that waiters, shop owners, and hotel staff often spoke little to none.
- It’s a good idea to drink filtered water to prevent getting sick, so I strongly recommend bringing a filtered water bottle like this one to avoid buying heaps of plastic bottles.
- After travelling around the Galápagos, be sure to check out the equally amazing mainland of Ecuador!