I moved to the island of Santa Cruz in the middle of May to take up a position as an English teacher with the University of San Francisco Quito. USFQ has a significant footprint on the islands, with a well-established campus on San Cristobal and a newly formed Institute of Foreign Languages on Santa Cruz. On Santa Cruz we mainly teach local people and children, although there are plans afoot for significant expansion. Our courses are already over-subscribed and taking bookings for 3 months down the line! It’s good to be popular. Read more about my experiences as a new EFL teacher in my other blog updates.
Work is pretty full-on during the times we’re there however there’s also plenty of time to see the island. Let me take you around some of the main sights.
Playa de l’Estacion
This is one of the closest beaches to Puerto Ayora itself, and as such it tends to get pretty crowded at the weekends. Outside of those times though it’s just you and the iguanas. Like the rest of the beaches in Santa Cruz, it’s made up of volcanic sand with plenty of lava rock on the periphery. Tides here vary quite widely, and often there’s not a lot of beach left once it’s come in!
Playa de l’Estacion is my go-to morning spot for a bit of a relax and a swim. It’s a good 15 minute run from my house which blows the cobwebs away. You can easily get there by heading to the Charles Darwin centre and then following the signed path to the right- An easy 10min walk from town. Or $1 taxi.
It’s not one of the most spectacular beaches around, but there’s still plenty of stuff to see. Depending on the tide you find huge black iguanas basking on the rocks, often in very close proximity, and a wide variety of colourful crabs scuttling around the place. Pop on your snorkel and swim out to the post 20m or so off shore… There’s a shallower area there which attracts some big fish. Often you can get lucky with sea turtles coming in for a feed but it’s all very tide-dependent. I’ve been within feet of them whilst snorkelling and it’s an incredible sight.
This can be a really good spot for snorkelling close to town, or it can be a bit of a trial to actually get out to deeper water if the seas are a bit feisty that day. Definitely worth a try… Just don’t get inadvertently dashed onto the rocks as I’ve managed a few times because lava seriously hurts skin! (Obviously in a slightly less existential way than it would do whilst molten…)
It’s completely child friendly, the beach is compact and has only one entrance in/out, as well as some areas of shade.
There’s another wider beach further along from Estacion, which you reach through the grounds of the Charles Darwin centre. With the tides in the right position there’s a really good surf break here, slightly offshore. This is probably a bit better for swimming and relaxing since the entrance to the water is somewhat wider. Surfing really depends on local conditions. I’ve been there a few times with my board and have been faced with a daunting scramble across the rocks to even reach the water, with the waves breaking right onto them, but I’ve also seen local guys out at different times enjoying 4-5ft clean waves so it’s somewhere you need to know well to surf safely.
Tortuga Bay is one of the stand-out sights of Santa Cruz, and extremely popular with trippers and Galapagans alike. There are two ways to get there- Water taxi or walk. Since the taxis have to go a long way out to sea to avoid the surf before coming back into the bay, they are pretty pricey at $10pp each way. Walking’s the favoured option…
This is a common morning workout spot for Puerto Ayorans who use the long, paved path as a power walking track! The entrance is pretty obvious on the West side of town… Once registered at the National Park counter it’s a further 25-35 minute brisk walk to the beach itself. Along the way there’s not a massive amount of flora to see however, if you’re lucky, an extremely diverse range of small lizards and geckos scuttling around on the rock path. One day I was extremely lucky and saw about 5 different species in 20metres of path!
Once you reach the sea, Tortuga Bay spreads out in front of you, in an expanse of pristine white sand. During the weekend this is a really popular local surf spot, this side of the bay however has some huge waves and a big rip current so it’s not a recommended spot for swimming. This part is also extremely exposed so, in the words of Baz Luhrmann…. Wearrrrrrr sunscreen! Again I tend to rely on the local surfers to see what conditions look like on the day before taking the plunge.
Walk right along the bay and you soon get to a prime hangout for the local iguanas. There’s a local guy there who rents out snorkels and who draws demarcation lines around them… The standard rule with wildlife here is to stay 2m away and definitely don’t cuddle anything. To be fair the iguanas are the coolest customers around and really don’t pay much attention to las turistas in any case.
Past the end of the bay you reach the lagoon on the other side, a fantastically peaceful place during the week, with mangroves bordering the water and another long, pristine beach. I haven’t explored this side to any great extent…yet, but am aware that you can rent kayaks on the far end of the beach for a reported $10.
This is my favourite spot for a read and a nap. There’s plenty of shade under the trees there and, provided you don’t strike unlucky with a large group of ball-playing shrieking tourists, it’s an extremely tranquil place. I’ve tried snorkelling there and the visibility is fairly limited, but nonetheless it’s a great calm spot for a swim.
The lava tunnels/Bellavista
I went for a spin out on my bike with a Galapagan friend… Having reached the village of Bellavista (On the main island highway towards the airport, reachable by taxi ($3) or local bus ($0.70) we decided to have a look at the lava tunnels on the outskirts of the village since we had time to kill and Dany hadn’t ever seen them.
It’s $3.50 per person entrance which includes a dodgy torch. They are, ostensibly, lit, however there are big patches ranging between gloom and complete darkness so it’s just as well to bring your own illumination.
I wasn’t particularly taken with them. The premise is quite impressive- A cavernous tunnel through which lava once flowed. Maybe having a guide there to offer detailed commentary might improve them? I don’t know, but in my book it was just a clamber through a fairly boring and lengthy cave. I wouldn’t go out of my way to pay them a visit, to be honest. The coast is where it’s at.
Maybe I’m just grumpy. Hey, if you want to combine trips then Bellavista has great food at the many open-air restaurants which open over the weekend. Hop on a local bus from the Mercado Central in Puerto Ayora. Most of them have a bike rack on the back too, so it’s sometimes nice to chuck the bike on and then enjoy the roll downhill back into town afterwards.
Bellavista is a great place to just go and wander, particularly on Sundays when you’ll be joined by a reasonable percentage of Puerto Ayora’s family population. A nice atmosphere, peaceful park and loads of great street food up for grabs, both from the grills on the street and the large open air restaurants. Cheese empanadas ($0.50) from the ladies on the left of the T-junction and chicken on sticks from the retardants on the right of the junction both come highly recommended.
Formed by seismic happenings in the past, this is another big attraction that’s well within walking distance of Puerto Ayora. The vast rocks have been riven in half to produce deep blue pools. I mean, seriously deep. Even with a snorkel and mask you can’t see to the bottom… It’s a strange feeling when you jump in and see exactly how far down they stretch.
Las Grietas is generally a bit of a nightmare at the weekends. Ecuador shares the very family-oriented attitude as the rest of South America so that means that popular swimming spots get rammed at the weekend with big families and, dare I say it, hordes of extremely annoying children!
So, go during the week. Prepare for the water to be pretty cold, it’s very deep and spends most of the day in shade. There are several pools within the group, I didn’t see much whilst snorkelling in the first one, however when you reach the second and third pools there are shoals of ENORMOUS blue fish, and no doubt lots of other aquatic life if timed correctly.
If you’ve got one, I’d really recommend bringing at least a shorty wetsuit, and definitely neoprene boots. The second and third pools require clambering over pointy, slippery rocks and doing so in just board shorts feels a bit vulnerable at times.
You reach Las Grietas by taking a public water taxi from the main dock towards the Angermeyer Waterfront (Ask for Las Grietas or Playa de los Alemanes). It costs $0.80 each way and takes less than 5 minutes. From the Angermeyer follow the sandy path, you’ll pass 2 beautiful beaches which are currently partly fenced off for the Iguana nesting time. Register at the National Park kiosk then keep walking. It’s no more than 20mins from the Angermeyer and definitely worth it. Don’t bring too much of value since, whilst theft is extremely unlikely here, you have to leave your things in the busy area prior to entering the water.
En route to Las Grietas you can see other fascinating natural phenomena such as the nesting crabs in the nearby swamp, who hilariously scarper underground as soon as they hear people coming, and also the salinas which are currently being harvested.
The Angermeyer is also a top tip for sundowner cocktails, they have a happy hour and you couldn’t ask for a better spot to gaze out across the bay. In addition, I love Playa de Los Alemanes, an accessible white sandy beach with calm, warm water to splash around in.
El Chato/Los Gemelos
These two attractions tend to be seen together since they’re pretty close. It is a fair trek from town, which takes you almost to the airport along Santa Cruz’s one highway! Prices are by negotiation with the local taxi drivers, although $35-$40 is the going rate for the car, however many people you are.
I was far more interested in the former than the latter. El Chato and El Chato II are tortoise ranches in the highlands of Santa Cruz where you can see giant tortoises doing general tortoise-y stuff in a near-natural environment. They have plenty of room to roam around freely, with guavas aplenty for them to to eat as well as less exotic vegetation. You can wander around the ranch at will, enjoying the tortoises and environment, and fantastic local coffee is free. The entrance is $3.50 per person. Here you can also see the lava tunnels, arguably more accessible and interesting than the aforementioned “Tunnel of Love” near Bellavista.
El Chato II is anecdotally the ‘better’ experience, although either ranch makes a good day out.
From there you head to the Gemelos, the “twins” on the airport road. Formed by volcanic activity these are two incredible craters where you can see great vegetation and birds swooping in. Both are several hundred feet deep and it’s not recommended to fall in. Worth seeing since it’s on the road anyway, but not somewhere you need long to visit.
In total this takes about 3 hours from Puerto Ayora, a fun morning or afternoon activity with minimal layout. Additionally, if you take one of the overpriced cruises around the islands they will include this as one of your ‘days’, along with a visit to the Charles Darwin Station. Definitely not worth $200-$300!
The furthest-flung beach from Puerto Ayora, but reputedly one of the most beautiful. There are, as far as I know, no buses which go there, so you’re back to negotiating for a taxi driver to take you and come back. Prices run in a similar vein to the El Chato trip, and indeed you can combine the two for a higher overall cost.
Garrapatero is one of the few places you can camp on Santa Cruz (Registration necessary at the Parque Nacional offices in town) which is something I definitely intend to do in the coming months. When I’ve visited I will update this section.
So, there you have a packed few days on Santa Cruz. Not to mention the Parte Alta (Highlands), Saturday Feria (huge market) or indeed any of the other routine stuff which makes living here great fun. Enjoy the holiday planning and stay tuned…