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A unforgettable highlight of any Galapagos Islands trip to to see those famous Galapagos tortoises, and one of the best places to see them is in the Santa Cruz Highlands. Not only is it a fantastic place to see the huge, lumbering creatures in their element, but the island also boasts great landscapes and a beautiful town.
Charles Darwin Foundation Headquarters
After docking in Puerto Ayora (more on that later), it’s a quick walk over to the famous Charles Darwin research station which is home to a captive breeding program. Arriving first thing in the morning, we had the whole place to ourselves and were able to peacefully wander throughout the compound, checking out the adorable baby tortoises.
It turns out breeders are able to control the baby’s gender according to the temperature, and the slogan “hot chicks, cool dudes” pretty much sums it up! The tortoises stay at the centre while their shells form to protect them from rats, then they’re released into the wild at about age five with a microchip so rangers can track their development. Seeing as how the average Galapagos tortoise lives to be over 100 years old, it’s really not that long in the big scheme of things!
The Charles Darwin headquarters were also home to arguably the world’s most famous tortoise: Lonesome George. While he’s since passed on to reptile heaven, there is a little monument dedicated to his legacy. There are also several full grown tortoises still living at the centre, and lucky visitors can catch them feeding, or maybe even standing on their hind legs.
The Santa Cruz Highlands
Those who haven’t got enough of the 400 pound creatures can hop on a bus and head toward the highlands, which is a wonderfully scenic drive. We pulled over at the twin craters of Los Gemelos, and the lush, green backdrop was a major contrast to the typically arid landscapes we encountered on other islands.
The vibrant landscape is home to hibiscus, bamboo, elephant grass, balsa trees, Cuban cedars, mango trees and banana plantations—and in true Galapagos fashion, plenty of birds.
Our group then continued down the road to Las Primicias, a tortoise reserve where you can see the giant creatures roaming in their natural habitat and see their long necks peeks out from under their massive shells. Being sure to stick to the trails and speak in hushed tones so as not to disturb the tortoises, we were able to get up right behind them for incredible photo ops.
Visitors are also welcome to stroll through the farm on their own, and can see the tortoises eating or cooling off in the shallow pools. But don’t get too excited: these dudes are not very active and live up to their slow-moving reputation. Regardless, it’s an incredible experience to see them so close.
Las Primicias also has a restaurant and gift shop on site, and before heading out we made a quick venture through the site’s cavernous, dark Lava Tunnel.
After all that excitement, our group heading back into beautiful Puerto Ayora, a colourful town with a resort-like feel. The main strip has shops selling beautiful art and souvenirs, and there are also guest houses, dive shops, travel agencies and restaurants.
It also has something you won’t find in many spots in the Galapagos: internet access! We all congregated at the nearest café advertising Wi-fi, but were quick to realize the signal was shoddy at best. To be honest, it felt rather nice to stay unplugged!
After sipping our cocktails, we headed back onto the main street—Charles Darwin Avenue, naturally—and continued to poke our heads into the little shops lining the strip. The boardwalk looks out onto the water, and we followed it back to the pier as the sun began to set, bringing an end to our adventure on Santa Cruz.
Book a tour of Santa Cruz Galapagos:
This article was originally published in December 2014 and updated in November 2020
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Globe Guide travelled to the Galapagos as a guest of Ecoventura. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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