Next up on our trip was a return to Santa Cruz Island which we had briefly passed through on our first day in the Galapagos. Santa Cruz is centrally located in the middle of the archipelago and has the second-most land area after Isabela. It's the most populated island by a good margin with a bit less than 15,000 people making their homes on Santa Cruz. Most of them live in the main town on Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora, where we had eaten lunch and then boarded the ferry heading over to Isabela island. Santa Cruz has seen the most tourist development in the Galapagos and we could tell that it was a decade or two further along in terms of commercialism as compared to Puerto Villamil. However, Puerto Ayora was still a small town where we could easily walk along the entire waterfront in less than 15 minutes. It might be a metropolis by the standards of the Galapagos but only in comparison to the rest of the islands.
First we had to travel back across the waters from Isabela to Santa Cruz in the reverse trip that we had taken on arrival. We had to reach the Puerto Villamil docks by 6:00 AM which meant waking up even earlier in the pre-morning darkness. There was already a crowd gathering at the docks when we arrived, a mixture of other tourists and Galapagos residents who needed to travel over to Santa Cruz for their own business. At least we were able to watch the sun rise over the ocean to the east while we prepared to board our ferry boat. The bad news was that we had once again drawn the same ferry as before; we had been hoping that we wouldn't wind up with Gaby/Gabi since we had such a bad experience the first time around. This time we had foreknowledge of what to expect and knew enough to sit in the very back of the boat right above the motors where the lurching would be minimized.
We had a few last looks back at Puerto Villamil's harbor and then we were leaving Isabela island behind. It turned out that sitting in the back portion of the boat was a much better experience than being crammed into the stuffy front of the hold. The turbluence was significantly lower and the constant fresh air was a lifesaver. Both of us felt much better on this return trip and could even enjoy watching the scenery as it passed by. There wasn't a whole lot to see aside from the crescent-shaped Isla Tortuga which we passed shortly after leaving Isabela. There was just one downside to sitting in the back of the boat: it was soaking wet! This was much worse for Liz who was sitting on the right edge of the stern; she ended up completely drenched while I was only splashed a bit sitting one seat over. Annoying as this was, we still agreed that this had been a much better passage between the islands and resolved to sit in the same place for our final ferry trip.
It took about two hours to making the crossing back to Puerto Ayora and we arrived a little after 9:00 AM. We were guided to our hotel to drop off our luggage and then immediately set out on the morning's activity for the day. We were visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station which is located at the eastern edge of Puerto Ayora, and it was close enough to our hotel that we simply walked over there rather than taking a car. We had another local guide showing us around but this individual wasn't memorable enough that I can recall his name. The Charles Darwin Research Station was a biological research organization focused on the native species of the Galapagos, particularly the giant tortoises which were the featured attraction. We entered the research station through something called the "Path of the Tortoise" (Ruta de la Tortuga) which had a series of informational plaques explaining Charles Darwin's visit to the Galapagos and the indigenous species of the islands. We also ran into this mockingbird which I believe was officially a Hood Mockingbird. It was singing away as we walked past and allowed us to get close enough to take some good pictures.
Soon enough the boardwalk led us to the enclosed areas holding the giant tortoises themselves. The Charles Darwin Research Station was similar to the giant tortoise breeding center that we had encountered earlier on Isabela island, with hundreds of tortoises from different subspecies at all stages of life from babies up to huge centenarians. These pictures were some of the youngest animals which ranged from one to five years in age. We spotted this pair of tiny tortoises chomping away on some of the local plant life in an adorable display.
Here are some more pictures of the tortoises, with this enclosed area holding older and much larger animals. There were a bunch of different subspecies of the tortoises living here which could be distinguished by the shape of their shells, everything from saddleback tortoises to rectangular box-like tortoises to rounded shell tortoises. The Charles Darwin Research Station is the oldest of these conservation centers dedicated to preserving the giant tortoises and dates back to 1959. Isabela and San Cristobal both have their own versions but this was the oldest and largest of the bunch.
We were also able to see the most famous resident of the Charles Darwin Research Station, a giant tortoise named Lonesome George (Solitario George), or at least what was still left of him. Lonesome George was a male tortoise who was found on tiny Pinta island at the northern edge of the Galapagos. He was the last member of his species of tortoise and thus gained his nickname for lack of any other Pinta tortoises. Unfortunately there was nothing that the conservationists could do to save the Pinta tortoises and when Lonesome George died in 2012 that was the end of his species. I included a picture here showing how 11 of the 15 species of giant tortoises are still alive along with 4 of them that have gone extinct. As for Lonesome George, he was the big attraction for the research station and the conservationists decided to preserve his body by turning it into a taxidermy display. Lonesome George is kept in a climate-controlled room where visitors have to wait in an airlock of sorts for two minutes before entering and exiting to ensure that the hot climate doesn't affect the taxidermy. We both thought that this was kind of creepy and preferred seeing the live tortoises as they walked about.
Our tour of the research center concluded with the exhibition hall and gift center. This place made it clear why Lonesome George had been preserved as his image was plastered all over souvenirs that could be purchased in the gift store. The exhibition hall had more information about the animals living in the Galapagos and the conservation work carried out by the research center. The Charles Darwin Research Station apparently really likes taxidermy as there were more preserved animals on display here along with skeletal reconstructions of some of the endemic wildlife. I think the highlight was the fake tortoise shell that people could crawl into and picture themselves as one of the giant tortoises. That's me inside the tortoise shell above; the thing was intended for children though and it was a bit of a tight squeeze fitting inside!
We had lunch after finishing up at the research center and then met up with a new tour guide who would be taking us to the central highlands of Santa Cruz. The inner highlands reach a maximum altitude of about 850 meters / 2800 feet and the climate was noticeably wetter with much more vegetation as compared with the more arid coastline. Santa Cruz's highlands are used for growing all different kinds of tropical fruits and we passed by farms growing oranges, bananas, papayas, and so on as our car headed inland. The first attraction where we stopped was named Los Gemelos ("The Twins" in Spanish), two large craters formed by the collapse of an ancient magma chamber. I included pictures of both craters above, designated east and west to distinguish them apart, which were only a couple of minutes distance from one another by foot. It looked like the bottom of the craters was roughly 30 meters / 100 feet down to the floor though it was hard to see due to the dense vegetation. Santa Cruz no longer has any active volcanoes but these craters were a testament to the volcanic past of the island.
Next our driver took us to another destination in the highlands, a giant tortoise reserve named El Chato Ranch. This was an actual ranch with cows and other traditional livestock which also doubled as a protected area for the tortoises. They spend much of their time in the highlands eating the lush vegetation and slowly travel down to the coast to lay their eggs, then cycle back up to the higher regions once again. El Chato catered to tourists with a cafeteria and coffee shop along with the expected gift store selling tortoise-related souvenirs. There was a tortoise beer-holder that we considered purchasing but decided it would be a bit too frivolous. Amusingly there was another set of fake tortoise shells for people to climb inside, this group actually sized for adults to try out. I held off since one trip inside a tortoise shell was enough for this day.
El Chato was a great place to visit because it allowed us to see more of the giant tortoises in the wild, not held in protected enclosures as at the research center. We had already seen several of the tortoises when riding bikes along the beach back on Isabela island but there were significantly more of them here. These tortoises were also much less shy around people and seemed to be used to having them walking around taking photographs. We were able to get incredibly close to the tortoises with the only requirement being that visitors stay two meters distance away from them. (We noticed that many of the tourists didn't follow this and came closer still, not that the tortoises seemed to care.)
Here's a sense of perspective on how close we were able to get to the giant tortoises. They really didn't seem to mind at all and continued doing their usual tortoise things. We felt extremely lucky to be able to get this close to the animals.
We also discovered that the giant tortoises love to rest in the mud as a big group of them had gathered around this watering hole. This has to be something similar to how large animals like elephants will roll around in the mud to cool themselves off and keep insects away. Whatever the exact reason, the tortoises were having a great time relaxing in this muddy depression at the ranch. Their facial expressions were hilarious to see up close, frequently looking like little old men with wrinkled skin.
El Chato Ranch had another attraction that we were not expecting: an unground lava tunnel that ran underneath the grazing area above. We decended a short staircase which was almost impossible to see amidst the thick green vegetation. Our guide had explained that we were heading into a lava tunnel but we couldn't even see where we were going as he appeared to disappear into the rainforest. At the bottom of the steps was a straight passage that ran for approximately 100 meters / 300 feet before reaching another set of stairs at the other side. This had been carved out of the earth by flowing lava in the distant past and then hardened into the tunnel seen above. It was surprising how straight the lava tunnel proved to be, very much like water running through a pipe. El Chato probably had smoothed out the path a bit when they installed lights inside the tunnel but this still felt almost as if it had been created by human hands.
We were caught in a "traffic jam" when exiting El Chato thanks to a herd of cows passing along the only dirt road that led to the ranch. It took about 10 minutes for them to get out of the way and allow cars to start heading back to Puerto Ayora. I think that there were more cows than cars on the road up here in the highlands!
Our tour returned us back to Puerto Ayora where we were finally able to walk around and explore the town. Puerto Ayora is the largest settlement anywhere in the Galapagos with a population of around 12,000 people at time of writing. This is the most developed location in the archipelago and we came across significantly more restuarants, cafes, and stores as compared to elsewhere. The vendors were also notably more upscale here to cater to the tourist trade; people who lack money usually aren't able to make it to the Galapagos for vacation. But when we walked a few blocks away from the waterfront promenade, we could also see the more traditional part of Puerto Ayora which predated the arrival of the tourist trade. There was construction everywhere in Puerto Ayora and we could see the place being remade in real time as investment money continued to pour in. This place will likely look very different in a decade or two as development continues.
These are a few more pictures of the main thoroughfare, Avenue Charles Darwin, along its eastern edge away from the harbor. There was one place where the road was completely torn up for some kind of construction work or repaving with all traffic blocked off. Everywhere that we looked seemed to have places which were using the Darwin name for branding purposes, everything from the 1835 Cofee Lab (named after the date that Darwin arrived in the islands) to the El Muelle de Darwin (Darwin's Lounge) pictured above. That building was so new that the concrete didn't even look like it was finished drying yet. The eastern side of Puerto Ayora was also where our hotel was located about three blocks up from the waterfront:
We were staying here at the Ocean Dreams in a room on one of the upper floors. The room itself was the largest of the three hotels where we stayed in the Galapagos with a sitting area holding its own table in addition to the bathroom and bedding areas. It was also a pleasant surprise to find a balcony that looked out on Avenue Seymour (which unfortunately let in a bit too much of the noise from outside). We were only staying at Ocean Dreams for a single night and the facility itself was more than suitable. The problem here was the hotel staff where we ended up having a bad experience while checking out the next day. More on that in a little bit.
Our meals for the trip were still part of the overall tour package and that meant we didn't have a choice about where to eat. We were scheduled to have dinner again at La Regata, the same place where we had eaten lunch back during our initial arrival and then again earlier this day. Before heading off to the same place again, we stopped to get a non-prepaid drink at the Santa Cruz Brewery. The dining area for the brewery was situated on the third floor of the building and we were able to sit outside and watch night fall over the town. The views from up here were great and there was plenty of wildlife visible from up here, lots and lots of birds flying over the harbor. We relaxed for about an hour before heading over to get dinner.
These are a couple of views of the Puerto Ayora waterfront at night. We spotted some little sharks swimming in the waters underneath the public dock (which the town kept illuminated with underwater lights) and a pelican sitting on one of the dock posts. As far as dinner was concerned, the meal itself at La Regata was perfectly fine and the food was tasy enough after a long day of sightseeing. However, we found ourselves in the same situation as we had experienced with El Faro back on Isabela island, with our tour sending us to the identical restaurant for every meal. While this wasn't some kind of terrible hardship, we did want to have a chance to try out some different restaurants if at all possible. Liz was able to get in touch with our tour company by email and confirmed that we were supposed to be getting a choice of three different meal options each day, not simply find ourselves shuttled to the same place over and over again. This may have been due to the language barrier of the two of us not speaking Spanish or it may have been due to a bit of side hustling on the part of our tour operators. In any case, we would finally be able to visit a different restaurant for lunch the next day.
The next morning dawned with partly cloudy skies and we were up early once again to take part in a morning tour activity. After eating a hot breakfast at Ocean Dreams, we were driven a short distance across Puerto Ayora to the western side of the town. This was where a walking trail led to a beach named Tortuga Bay which we would be visiting as our last major activity on Santa Cruz. A steep stone bridge led up from the small parking lot to the entrance of the trail, followed by a walk of one kilometer to the beach itself. The brick walkway ran in a straight line through the vegetation that grew along the shoreline, mostly scrub brushes and various different types of catcuses. I've made the point before but it bears repeating that the coastlines of the islands in the Galapagos have an arid, almost desert climate that doesn't seem to get much rainfall. We followed our guide and saw few other people on the trail this early in the morning. Oddly, our guide quickly left us behind and walked far out in front of us for most of the path; I guess he wanted privacy?
Tortuga Bay proved to be a long expanse of sandy beach stretching off into the distance. Given the short distance to Puerto Ayora, this would look like a perfect place for tourists and the local residents to come enjoy the water. However, Tortuga Bay has extremely strong currents and most of the time it's not safe to swim here; there was a red flag flying which indicated that no one should enter the ocean. The view was still amazing though, particularly here in the morning with no one else present and the whole wide beach for us to take in. Our guide clearly didn't want to spend time talking with us and once again immediately raced off into the distance leaving us behind to catch up. It's not like we could get lost or anything, not with this much open space, but it was a little strange that he kept ditching us and leaving to go off by himself.
It took about 20 minutes to walk to the western end of Tortuga Bay and we spotted more wildlife as we went along. There were no giant tortoises to be found here although we did see a sign indicating that this a place where they often make their nests. It was the wrong time of year for the tortoises to lay their eggs but that was still neat to come across. The beach had quite a few tiny little crabs that poked their heads out from little holes in the sand. The crabs would hide whenever we came remotely close to them and we could only photograph them by zooming in from a distance. The rocks at the edge of the beach had a few more birds strutting around with this pelican standing out from the rest. There were some shallow pools here that looked like a good place to catch fish that had been trapped by the retreating tide.
There were more of the marine iguanas here as well. This was the first time that we'd seen them on Santa Cruz island after coming across tons of them on Isabela and they seemed to enjoy sunning themselves on the rocks along the water's edge. Their dark coloring once again caused them to blend in with the wet rocks exceeding well though it didn't work quite so well when viewed against the light colored sand. There was a small walking trail here that extended a short distance out along Playa Peninsula which we spent a few minutes investigating. There were some other visitors beginning to walk up Tortuga Bay behind us and we would no longer have this whole area entirely to ourselves.
The other visitors were walking to this little cove named Tortuga Laguna. This is a sheltered arm of water where people can actually swim in safety and it serves as the closest beach for Puerto Ayora. The place was nowhere near crowded but it was slowly filling up with more people as the morning progressed. We observed that most of them were residents of the Galapagos rather than tourists like ourselves, families who had brought their kids out to the beach to enjoy the nice weather outside. I'd guess that there were maybe two or three dozen people which was a crowd by Galapagos standards. We were given an hour to spend at Tortuga Laguna which was more time than we needed; we ended up sitting and relaxing for a while on the sand. The water was too chilly to make swimming a pleasant proposition but that wasn't stopping some of the kids from enjoying themselves in the waves.
But the real highlight of visiting Tortuga Laguna was our encounter with this animal, one of the blue-footed boobies! We had seen boobies a couple of times previously without having the good luck to get anywhere close to them. We spotted this bird while we were walking around the edge of the lagoon and carefully crept up to the booby while taking great care not to scare it away. That proved to be completely unnecessary because the bird made no attempt to fly away whatsoever. We walked around it repeatedly while taking photographs and it didn't seem bothered in the least by the two of us snapping pictures and recording short videos. Seen up close, the booby was roughly the same size as a duck and looked somewhat similar aside from those brilliant blue feet. I believe that this was a female bird based on the information that I read online although that could easily be incorrect. The blue-footed booby was the animal that Liz most wanted to see in the Galapagos and we were fortunate that we were able to get within arm's reach of this specimen without it flying away.
After finishing up at Tortuga Lagoon, we had to walk all the way back to the entrance again by the same path that we had taken before. There were no roads in this area at all and the beach at Tortuga Bay can only be accessed through this walking path. We ran into several dozen people heading in the opposite direction on our return trip back towards the town as they headed for the beaches. After about an hour of walking, we reached the trailhead only to find that we didn't have a car waiting for us. Our guide instead simply had us walk back into Puerto Ayora which was fortunately only another 10 to 15 minutes distance on foot. It was lunchtime by now and we were finally ready to eat somewhere other than La Regata:
One of the places that we could choose to have lunch was this Italian restaurant named Il Nuovo Giardino. We were seated on a patio up on the second floor where we had more great views looking out across the waterfront of Puerto Ayora. They were marred only by the ongoing construction that had much of Avenue Charles Darwin torn up. This was a noteworthy meal not only because it was somewhere different to catch lunch but also because this was Liz's favorite place to eat throughout our trip. I believe that she had a quinoa-based salad and then the entree pictured here which proved to be delicious. We were very glad that we hadn't been forced back to the same restaurant again for the fourth time!
At this point we headed back to the hotel to gather our luggage and catch an afternoon ferry across to the island of San Cristobal. That's when we ran into trouble with the hotel staff at Ocean Dreams: they kept asking us to pay them additional money for the towels which we had used because they said that the towels were too dirty. Or something along those lines, it wasn't entirely clear because we were struggling with the language barrier. We had already prepaid for our hotel room so this felt like an obvious attempt to shake down foreign tourists for additional money. We did not pay them anything extra and therefore had to walk all the way back to the harbor on the other side of town since the hotel staff didn't provide the car ride that they were supposed to. Fortunately we were able to link up with someone associated with our tour at La Regata who negotiated our ferry tickets over to San Crisobal. We enjoyed everything about our brief stay on Santa Cruz except for the check-out from our hotel.
Next up was the final island in our Galapagos itinerary as we braved another water crossing over to San Cristobal.