We spent a week exploring The Galapagos Islands – and it was by far the best part of our 4 month backpacking trip in South America! From the relaxed island vibes and cozy coastal towns, to the plethora of sea turtles, marine iguanas, and frigate birds at every turn, the Galapagos felt like the perfect place to take a break from our grungy backpacker lifestyle and have a real vacation. The whole week felt like a proper honeymoon – and at $800 each, it would have been a cheap trip by most honeymoon standards! For us, it felt like a fortune – one week in the Galapagos cost us nearly as much as a whole month in Colombia! But it was oh so worth it. We’ve already written a complete guide to the Galapagos by land, but we wanted to break down our incredible trip into two more detailed posts about each specific island: Santa Cruz and Isabela Island. We spent the majority of our week in the Galapagos Islands on Santa Cruz Island, staying in Puerto Ayora, and we highly recommend any land-based Galapagos Trip to do the same!
For a little bit of context: Santa Cruz is one of the 3 inhabited islands in the Galapagos. Puerto Ayora is the main town, and it’s got plenty of hotels, restaurants, and all of the comforts you’d expect from a small island town (don’t get too fancy, though. The internet can be spotty. Some nights, we couldn’t even watch Netflix! I know, shocking). Santa Cruz is also home to one of the 2 airports in the Galapagos Islands. And that brings us to…
Arriving in Puerto Ayora
On our first day, we arrived on Baltra island hoping for palm trees crawling with animals the second we stepped off the plane. But Baltra is a wasteland: they chose the least occupied island to stick the airport on, which makes a lot of sense but isn’t terribly exciting for your first Galapagos experience. Outside the airport, it was easy to locate the free shuttle to the ferry dock, which wound for a few miles through desert, cactus trees, and spindly dry grass, without a critter to be seen. Disembarking at the ferry dock, we paid $1 each for the incredibly quick ride over to Santa Cruz island – the two islands are literally a stone’s throw away from one another! On our 5 minute journey, we finally glimpsed our first Galapagos critters: bright red crabs lounging in the sun on the black lava rocks, a flock of birds diving one by one into the water for fish, and some giant pelicans. Arriving at the Santa Cruz dock, our next task was to get across the island to Puerto Ayora. It’s $2 per person to take a bus, or you can opt for a pick-up truck taxi for $20. After 20 minutes idly waiting for the bus to fill up and leave, a family asked us if we wanted to split a taxi with them. We ended up paying $8 for our portion of the taxi, and as a bonus received some great Galapagos travel tips from our driver! As we chatted and drove, a cool mist swirled around the truck and rain drops spattered the windshield: peering out the windows through the fog, we were ecstatic to realize that the road and its surrounding countryside was crawling with giant land tortoises. The magic of the Galapagos had begun.
Finding a Hotel in Puerto Ayora
The driver dropped us off at his favorite restaurant, next to the island’s main port: Descanso del Guia. We ordered ceviche and fish soup, balking at the expensive prices – so much higher than everywhere we’ve been yet. Lunch was good, but there are cheaper options elsewhere on the island. After lunch, we embarked on our very first hotel search. We’d heard that hotels listed online could be bargained down to cheaper prices in person, and many hotels weren’t listed online at all. The Galapagos was the first place on our trip that we didn’t book anything in advance, so we were a little nervous. Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find hotels: there are loads of them on the main road, and people stop you as you’re walking with your bags to offer you rooms. We quickly found a spot that offered us a private room for $50 a night. It looked decent, so we settled into our room – only to discover within minutes that the only outlet didn’t work, there was no hot water, the phone and blow dryer were just for show, the WiFi didn’t connect, and there were no toilet paper or towels. The only thing that actually worked was A/C, which we didn’t even need. Thankfully we hadn’t paid yet. After 10 minutes of searching for literally any hotel employee to help us, we left a polite note explaining our issues in broken Spanish, and returned to the main road to continue our search, wiser about what to look for in a hotel.
We didn’t have to look for long. We were soon stopped at the fish market by Carlos, who said he had a hostel just up the road and promised us all of the amenities for $50 a night. Carlos was friendly and chatty, asking us the usual questions about where we were from and offering suggestions and advice as we walked the few blocks to his hotel. Sure enough, Suenos Silvestres delivered on its promises: there was hot water, towels, working WiFi, A/C, two comfortable beds, several outlets, drinkable water, and even a small kitchen that we were free to use. Our room was spacious and clean, and Carlos was happy to answer all of our questions and assist us with anything we needed. The hotel is on the outer edge of Puerto Ayora and close to the Charles Darwin Station, so after settling in and getting some good advice from Carlos, we headed to the center to spend the last few hours of sunlight on this misty Sunday afternoon.
The Charles Darwin Research Station
The Charles Darwin Research Station is less of a station and more of a complex: the main building is filled with information and a few small exhibits, but the main attractions are all outside. Turtles are bred in a section of the center – each big island has a land turtle breeding center, we learned. Watching giant old tortoises munch on turtle snacks and slowly chase each other around, we eavesdropped on a nearby tour group. For years, the tortoise breeding center tried its best to produce offspring that would continue the survival of a tortoise species with only one existing member: Lonesome George. Unfortunately, lack of understanding of tortoise lineage lead to a fatal flaw: the females being mated with Lonesome George were hybrid species, meaning that they could not successfully mate with the old tortoise. He died a few years ago, taking his entire species with him. Happily, advances in tortoise breeding have made it possible to resurrect this species from extinction: by breeding tortoises containing a high percentage of the genes of Lonesome George’s species, after a few generations a fully genetically identical tortoise will be born! That’s some Jurassic Park shit, right there. Science is so cool.
Along with tortoises, we saw our first land and marine iguanas basking in the waning sunlight near the center. Discovering a gate that lead to a small beach, we climbed through some rocky outcroppings to find a picturesque coast dotted with a few families and beach goers. As the sun set behind us, we watched surfers trying to avoid running into sea turtles in the water – we’d never seen turtles in the ocean before! Later we would find out that the beach, Playa de la Estacion, is a fantastic place to snorkel without needing a guide – next time! Dusk fell as we climbed back over the rocks and made our way into town, stopping to explore a few hidden alleys and tucked-away docks – all of which, to our delight, revealed napping sea lions, spitting marine iguanas, and giant pelicans. In lieu of dinner, we treated ourselves to a couple of happy hour drinks and a slice of tiramisu. It felt like the start of a honeymoon, a beacon of luxury in a year of grungy budget backpacking.
Exploring Tortuga Bay
Our second day in the Galapagos was begun like any other good day, with coffee: OMG Espresso was right by our hotel and serves 100% Galapagos grown coffee that it roasts in-house. Once we were functioning humans, we figured out a game plan for the day. Tortuga Bay is always rated as one of the best places on the island, so we opted to spend the day relaxing on the beach and snorkeling. We rented a mask and fins for $7 each from a small travel agency in town, Galapagos Dreams – just about all of the many travel agencies rent snorkel gear, and wetsuits if you want them – and embarked on the 45 minute hike to Tortuga Bay. The hike isn’t terribly difficult – it’s mildly hilly, but paved with flat cobblestones. There isn’t much to see as you hike: mostly much of the same brush and cactus, with finches dotting the trees. The end of the path gives way to a stunning white sand beach, lapped with azure turquoise waves: the kind of beach you see in calendars featuring pristine white sand beaches; the whole thing looks like a living postcard. The first part of the beach – and the most inviting – isn’t safe for swimmers: there are giant waves and a strong undertow. But it’s wonderful just walking through the soft white sand as 5-foot waves crash on the shore. An interesting tip about Galapagos beaches: the sand near the water isn’t actually easier to walk on: it’s not firm like it is on most beaches. The closer you get to the water, the softer and more quicksand-esque the sand is!
Just past the gorgeous first beach is Tortuga Bay, a little inlet sheltered from the crashing waves pushing at its borders. On one side of the lagoon is a volcanic lava rock field which is home to many nesting marine iguanas; on the other, mangrove trees where reef tip sharks lay their eggs. In between, there is nothing but sandy beach. Bring everything you need with you to Tortuga Bay: there are no restrooms, no vendors other than one company renting kayaks, and no drinkable water. We found a shady spot to store our stuff and headed straight for the water. Tortuga Bay is warm and no wetsuit is necessary: it makes a great lagoon for swimming, and we saw a lot of families with children doing just that. Having lugged out our snorkeling gear, we were determined to experience our first Galapagos snorkeling. Sadly, the water in Tortuga Bay, while perfect for swimming, is abysmal for snorkeling. There are clouds of sand which make visibility absolutely impossible. It was Jeremy’s first ever time snorkeling, so he didn’t yet know what he was missing out on – he was overjoyed by the occasional small fish and busy getting used to the masks and fins – but it really wasn’t worth the expense and the lugging to snorkel in Tortuga Bay.
After an hour or so of attempting to see through the clouds of sand, we rented a kayak. The kayak rental kiosk has a hand drawn map with X’s and tiny animal drawings, like a Galapagos Islands treasure map, promising the existence of turtles, rays, and sharks at various obscure locations in the lagoon. We paid $20 for an hour and set out on the route the map laid out – by memory, as there’s only one map – hoping we would have more luck snorkeling from the anchored kayak. And although we enjoyed kayaking around the bay – and ran into other kayakers who swore they’d seen the shadow of a ray or shark – we didn’t see anything more than cloudy sand. Tortuga Bay, it turns out, is fantastic for a day of swimming or relaxing at the beach, but terrible for snorkeling. Still, we had fun, and hiked the 45 minutes back feeling tired and relaxed.
Eating at the Avenue of Kiosks
Our taxi driver from the day prior told us about Binford Street, a street filled with food kiosks that was supposed to be the best food in Puerto Ayora. One of our favorite blogs, Two Wandering Soles, also wrote about the kiosk street and recommended ordering the seafood casserole, called cazuela. So after a hot shower, we layered up – Puerto Ayora is chilly at night – and headed out to the kiosks. The bustling street can be seen and heard a block away: there were tables of happy tourists filling the streets and mingling among the various kiosks, all of whom are advertising a variation of the same items, loudly proffered by servers thrusting menus and whole raw fish under your nose, all accompanied by the sizzle and tantalizing smell of charcoal grilled fish. This is Puerto Ayora’s specialty: a huge smokey charcoal grill, the Picallada, built like a chimney and stoked with blow dryers to stay hot all night long. Everything from fresh whole fish rubbed with spices and nestled in tin foil, to octopus laid directly on the grill for a perfect char and sear, to the bubbling seafood casserole in clay bowls, to hot buttered ears of corn, are all smoked and roasted on that same grill. We instantly fell in love with the alley of kiosks and knew we would be eating here every night.
Walking through the alley is a little like wearing a bulls-eye on your forehead: every step you take, someone hands you a menu or a fish or lists several items and their prices at you, all in rapid fire Spanish. We took a lap and perused the many nearly identical menus, finally deciding on Restaurante Sol y Mar. Going on the recommendation of our fellow bloggers – always trust bloggers! – we ordered pescado cazuela and a whole fish grilled on the Picallada: each was $10. Cheese soup was $2 a bowl, and we’d heard good things, so we each ordered one. Sure enough, cheese soup is delicious. It tastes like pasta and cheese and potatoes, which are all wonderful things, and combine together to make the most comforting soup imaginable. To top off our fancy meal we ordered a fresh glass of watermelon juice and a strawberry batida, which is basically a milkshake made with fresh fruit and milk. Everything was absolutely delicious, and the whole meal was under $30. Fed and happy, we strolled back to our hotel in the misty darkness and slept deeply.
Snorkeling in Las Grietas
The next day, we planned to go to Las Grietas, another Santa Cruz local treasure. But first, coffee: we stopped at OMG espresso again to get an island special, a shot of espresso mixed with Ecuadorian cacao. We rented snorkeling gear and a wetsuit at the same place as the day before, for $12 each. On our way to the docks, we stopped at the fish market to catch another local sight: Lupe the sea lion spends her days behind the counter at the fish market, nuzzling the women working the market as they de-bone and filet fresh caught local fish. For her efforts she’s rewarded with skin and scraps, and a lot of paparazzi. She’s a very famous sea lion! In addition to the adorable Lupe, there was also a baby sea lion nursing her mother on the stops of the market, several extremely chill pelicans, and an aggressive heron that had a lot to prove to the much larger pelicans. The menagerie was extremely entertaining to watch, the perfect microcosm of everything that is amazing about the Galapagos: human and animal coexisting in harmony, all brought together by fresh fish. Definitely stop by if you’re in Puerto Ayora: the market is open from 8-5 on weekdays, and the prices for fresh-caught tuna steaks or bruja fillets are incredibly good.
Before continuing to Las Grietas, we stopped on the dock to buy tickets for the rest of the week: there are few ferries to and from the other islands, so booking early is a must. We booked a trip through Victor at L/P Andy – the only kiosk that is actually on the dock itself – to Isla Isabela early the next morning, and San Cristobal later in the week. Tickets acquired, we hopped on a water taxi right off the dock for $0.80 each, and asked for Punta Estrada, a beach next to a fancy hotel that we wish we could afford to stay in. To get to the beach you walk past a couple of pretty happy hour spots and down a short pathway. The beach itself isn’t much in high tide – the water comes all the way up to the walkway – but in low tide it’s a quiet shallow lagoon perfect for swimming, especially with kids. We stopped here for a quick packed lunch and soon found ourselves befriended by several adorable and hungry finches, who weren’t at all shy about hopping on our hands or feet to get closer to our food. We didn’t intentionally feed them – never feed wildlife! – but they did manage to snatch a couple of crumbs and bits of peanut butter. It was the cutest thing. Our new bird friends all abandoned us after we were done eating – so fickle!
Past the beach it’s a short walk to Las Grietas. Las Grietas is a channel between two cliff faces, filled with less salty than usual water which is naturally filtered from the sea through mangrove forests. We arrived around lunchtime, which is the perfect time of day: cruises generally make a stop here around 10am and 5pm, so at noon there were only a few people to share the water with. At midday, the sun is bright and shines through the clear water all the way to the bottom, casting beautiful beams of light which bounce off the sand, sparkling and illuminating the rocks and fish swimming below. Most people jump into the channel from the dock which has been created for just that purpose; even braver people climb up the rocks on the side of the canyon and dive in! The water is a little cold but with wetsuits we were comfortable and would have been happy swimming all day long. But even better than swimming was the snorkeling: in the crystal clear water, you can see fish 20 feet below you perfectly illuminated in the sparkling sun. After an hour or so of snorkeling, we discovered that at the end of the channel was a little pool past some formidable rocks. We scrambled over the rocks, although not easily: Jeremy wasn’t wearing his glasses – snorkel mask problems – and slipped and fell, slicing open his leg and foot.
Luckily, the cuts were clean and the water was salty enough to keep them disinfected. While he rested and waited for the fresh cuts to heal enough to keep swimming, I explored the second pool for a little while, pleased to see still more fish in this shallow area. Some of the fish seemed to disappear underneath a large pile of rocks in one section of the pool. Curious, I climbed up over the rocks and was shocked to find yet another channel, just as big as the first one! There wasn’t a soul swimming in this pool, so to my delight there were hundreds of giant fish swimming happily through the channel and passing through what I later discovered was an underwater cavern that passed through the rocks we’d climbed over. There were so many fish that I climbed back over the rocks and informed Jeremy that he really did have to continue carefully scrambling over the rocks, because this was way too cool to miss out on. Sliced leg and all, he followed my lead and was thrilled at the discovery of the third, best pool.
After an hour or so, more people showed up and the fish quietly went into hiding. I swam back through the deep underwater cave, which was so much easier than climbing over sharp, slippery rocks. When we returned to the first channel, we were dismayed to see a huge crowd of people: the cruise groups had arrived. With so many people, the fish had all vanished, not to mention the sparkling light beams from earlier in the day. We had to carefully navigate our way up the steps – there were so many people, many of them not swimming at all, that it was difficult just to get in and out of the water. My advice: get to Las Grietas either early in the morning, or midday – and don’t do Las Grietas with a tour group! After hopping on another $1.60 water taxi back to Puerto Ayora and another delicious fresh fish dinner at the street of the kiosks, we packed up and went to bed, ready to get an early start on our 7am ferry to Isabela in the morning.
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