You might not associate the word “cheap” with Galapagos, but it is possible to see many sights without spending any money and to enjoy activities on a budget. Here’s our list of the best free and budget-friendly things to do near Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. Any additional costs are noted in the description.
Santa Cruz Budget-Friendly Sights
Fish Market – This little outdoor market cross from Santa Cruz Brewpub is the best place to watch the fishing boats come in and sell their catch while pelicans, frigates, and sea lions battle for the scraps. Most active in the mornings, but the vendors will be here until they sell out.
Main Pier – This Y-shaped pier is where cruise and interisland ferry passengers disembark; you can also catch a water taxi across the bay for access to Las Grietas (see below). Take a walk down the pier at high tide or at night and look for blacktip sharks, golden rays, fish, birds, sea lions, etc.
Santa Cruz Sign – Similar to the one found on San Cristobal‘s malecon, this lighted sign on the waterfront across the street from the Proinsular Market (a two-story grocery and home goods store with three ATMs outside) makes a great photo op.
Charles Darwin Research Station – Only 1.5 km from the main pier in Puerto Ayora, this interpretation center and tortoise breeding area is full of interesting info about the Galapagos Islands. You can also visit the last Pinta Island tortoise, “Lonesome George,” whose body is kept in a temperature-controlled viewing room. There is no entry fee, but you may be required to hire a naturalist to accompany you around the site. If so, guides will be available at the checkpoint as you approach the research station from the main road (Ave. Charles Darwin).
Playa De La Estacion (Station Beach) – Near the Darwin Research Center, there’s a short trail that leads to a small beach frequented by locals, tourists, and sunbathing iguanas. If there are waves in Academy Bay, this is also a good spot to watch the surfers.
Bahia Tortuga (Turtle Bay) – This bay has the most impressive beach (Playa Brava) on Santa Cruz and one of the largest white sand beaches in the archipelago. It’s also a nesting area for marine turtles. After registering at the entrance, which is located at the end of Charles Binford Avenue, you follow an inlaid stone path through an Opuntia cactus forest. The trail ends at Playa Brava, which is great for surfing due to the large waves, but it is not advisable to swim here due to the strong current. Follow the beach to the right and you’ll reach an area with mangroves and another trail through Opuntia cactus. Look for marine iguanas, nesting pelicans, and lots of other bird species. Continue to the right through the trees to a smaller bay, which is an excellent place for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. Look for sharks, rays, sea turtles, crabs and more birds. Total walking distance from Puerto Ayora’s main pier is over 3 km one way. Bring a hat, sunscreen, a towel, plenty of water, snacks and cash if you want to have the option to take a water taxi (~$10 per person) back to town.
Las Grietas (The Cracks) – This site is an interesting lava fissure filled with brackish water that filters down from the highlands and mixes with seawater. It’s a nice place to swim and snorkel (to look at the rocks; you probably won’t see much else), and there’s a trail leading to several viewpoints. To get there you have to take a water taxi from Puerto Ayora across Academy Bay (5 minutes, $1 per person) and then follow the footpath along the coastline, crossing German Beach (see below), until you reach the checkpoint. Since 2022, due to accidents and overcrowding, all tourists must pay $10 and be accompanied by a naturalist guide. You will be placed with a group when you arrive at the checkpoint where there are a few restaurants that also rent snorkel gear. Bring good shoes with grip as the rocks can be slippery.
Playa Los Alemanes (German Beach) – A small beach on the way to Las Grietas (above, before you get to the checkpoint) that is perfect for wading and swimming where you can see rays, sharks, and a variety of shore birds.
Highlands Bike Ride – Rent a bike at one of the several shops in town (~$10 half day or $20 full day) and follow the dedicated bike path alongside the main road heading north (and uphill!) out of Puerto Ayora. After 6.5 km you’ll come to the “T” where you’ll be forced to turn. Left takes you to Santa Rosa and the giant tortoise reserves (see below); right puts you in the center of Bellavista, with the option to continue on to Cascajo and beyond.
Reserva El Chato and Rancho Primicias (Giant Tortoise Reserves) – These two privately-owned properties are the best place to observe giant land tortoises roaming free. Both are located in the highlands just beyond Santa Rosa about a 30 minute taxi ride from Puerto Ayora. Both include entrance to a lava tunnel; the one at El Chato is much shorter but generally more accessible, while the one at Primicias is 400 meters long and requires crawling or duck-walking through one small section. Both provide rubber boots and a guide, and have food, drinks, and souvenirs available for purchase. Cost: $7.50 per person + round-trip taxi ~$25. This stop is included on a Highlands Tour (see below).
Los Gemelos – “The Twins” are two collapsed craters/sinkholes that were formed by a series of eruptions when the volcanoes were still active. This is the only place on Santa Cruz where you can see a forest of the endemic Scalesia tree. From the parking lot, follow an easy trail along the rim of one crater, cross the main road, enjoy the scenic overlook of the other crater, then continue along the path to the right that will eventually take you back to the main road directly across from the parking lot. Most people visit Los Gemelos as part of a Highlands Tour (see below) or pay the taxi driver extra to stop here on the way to the Itabaca Canal / Baltra (normal cost of a taxi to the canal is $20).
Santa Cruz Highlands Tour – Many cruise itineraries include a visit to one of the giant tortoise reserves but if that’s not part of your plan, we highly recommend a trip to the highlands on your own. The standard self-guided tour includes a stop at Los Gemelos, one of the tortoise reserves, and a lava tunnel (there are other lava tunnels apart from the ones on the reserves; be sure to clarify where you want to go in advance). Cost: $40-$50 for round-trip transport for up to four people and waiting for you at each stop.
Playa Garrapatero – This secluded beach is a scenic 35-minute drive (22km) from Puerto Ayora. Accessed by walking about 10 minutes on an inlaid stone trail, the beach has beautiful white sand, black lava rock, and turquoise water where you can swim and snorkel. Look for blue-footed boobies, pelicans, crabs and marine iguanas. Behind the beach there’s a picnic area and a small lagoon with mangroves and poison apple trees where you can see flamingos, black-necked stilts and white-cheeked ducks. Expect to pay about $30 round-trip for a taxi for up to four people.