You just landed in the Galapagos Islands. Weather is balmy: about 85 degrees, with 70% humidity. You’re taxiing on the runway of Baltra Airport, which is a short hop away from the Galapagos’ most populated island: Isla Santa Cruz.
After crossing the tiny channel that separates Baltra from Santa Cruz, you pile your luggage into one of the many white pickup trucks that are waiting to take you into town. Then, it’s a pleasant, 45-minute drive through lush, island scenery, before you arrive in Puerto Ayora, where all the action is happening in Santa Cruz. And so, our tour begins…
But first, we’ve got to introduce you to our trusty tour guide: Adicho! A native Ecuadorian, fisherman, tour guide, and expert on all things Galapagos – Adicho makes the perfect guide for a tour of his hometown, Puerto Ayora.
Bonus: he’s pretty easy on the eyes. I get it, ladies. I’m here for you.
So let’s get this tour started, shall we?
Today, we’re going to take a stroll all around the town of Puerto Ayora. There are eighteen islands total in the Galapagos archipelago, and we’ll cover some of those later – but today is all about Isla Santa Cruz. All you need is a bathing suit and comfortable shoes – because we’re doing it all on foot today!
Why start with Santa Cruz? Not only is it the most populated island in the archipelago, but it’s next door to the primary airport in the Galapagos, on Baltra. In fact, the only other airport in the Galapagos is on San Cristobal. Thus, Puerto Ayora is significant because most tourists will pass through it – either on their way to other tours, or to take in destinations such as the Charles Darwin Research Station,Tortuga Bay, the famous swimming grotto Las Grietas, or the El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
Don’t worry – we’ll cover all of these destinations in this guide.
First, let’s start our tour right in the heart of Puerto Ayora at the fish market. From virtually any hotel or hostel in town, the fish market is an easy stroll. Ave. Charles Darwin is the main street in town, where you’ll find tons of restaurants, shops, bars, and tour operators. The fish market can be found directly on Ave. Charles Darwin, across from the two-story restaurant Il Giardino. Every morning, I started my day by strolling down to the fish market and checking out the local action.
After the fish market, you’re ready for some coffee, right? Well, you’re in luck – the best coffee I found anywhere in South America is just around the corner. Keep walking down Ave. Charles Darwin, towards Charles Darwin Research Station. On your left, you’ll come across a cute coffee shop with outdoor seating – it’s called OMG Coffee. You’ll recognize it by the statue of Charles Darwin out front. Coffee. Is. Incredible. Iced or hot – it’s perfect.
Enjoy your coffee, then continue walking down towards Charles Darwin Research Station. You’ll pass the Red Mangrove Lodge on your right – keep going. Before you get to the Research Station, look for a small sign on your right called Playa de Estancia. This leads down to a small beach where you can swim, snorkel, read a book, or enjoy the view. Take a quick peek here and if you like what you see, come back in the afternoon for a swim.
Next up: Charles Darwin Research Station. From Playa de Estancia, you’ve got no more than a quarter-mile to reach the Station. Take a right when you leave the beach, and follow Ave. Charles Darwin until it dead-ends at the Research Station. You’re going to find massive tortoises and some iguanas here, plus a history of the archipelago’s most famous tortoise: Lonesome George, as well as beautiful views of the island itself. If you budget one to two hours, you’ll easily be able to take in most of the Station’s sights.
And now: lunchtime. Head back to town the same way you came, along Ave. Charles Darwin. Try some fresh ceviche at any of the restaurants along the main drag, like Il Giardino or Isla Grill. Or venture off onto a side street for food that’s just as good, but not as pricey ~ like the Cevicheria. Enjoy the people watching, of both locals and tourists alike.
After lunch, it’s time for a good walk and an afternoon swim. Make sure you bring your suit and comfortable walking shoes – because we’ve got a bit of a hike to get to Tortuga Bay. I could write a whole post on Tortuga Bay alone. It is STUNNING. I took more photos here than any other place in the Islands. You’ll find marine iguanas galore, a huge, white sand beach, and so many photo opportunities it will blow your mind. Most of all, you’ll find a tranquility that seems to slow time down. Enjoy it. Dive in.
How to Get to Tortuga Bay!
But let’s back up: how do you get to Tortuga Bay from Puerto Ayora? Start at Il Giardino, at the corner of Charles Darwin and Charles Binford. Walk up Charles Binford, into town and away from the beach. Stay on Binford the whole time. It will eventually turn into a smaller walking path that leads to Tortuga Bay. You’ll pass the Museo Jica on your left, shortly after which you’ll reach the entrance for Tortuga Bay, also on your left. From here, it’s still a long walk to the bay (at least a mile). Walk along the wooden boardwalk until it drops you off on the sands of the bay.
Once you’re on the beach, make sure to wander all the way down towards your right – there’s another beach past the first one. This is important – don’t swim in the first bay! It is very dangerous to swim there due to strong currents. Swim or snorkel in the second bay instead. Playa Peninsula separates the two beaches, and you’ll find all kinds of marine iguanas there. Budget at least three to four hours to enjoy your time at Tortuga. Bring sunscreen, a hat, and your camera – and any other desired beach gear (i.e. a snorkel). And don’t forget – you’re at the equator! The sun is ridiculously strong – lather on that sunscreen. Particularly since there is not much shade at Tortuga and you’ll likely be outside for several hours.
If you have the energy after Tortuga Bay, stop by Laguna de las Ninfas on your way back into town – it’s on the way. While walking back to town on Charles Binford, turn right on either Las Ninfas or Juan Montalvo. Juan Montalvo dead-ends at the Laguna, and it’s well-worth making a quick stop here for a leisurely stroll, or to simply rest and enjoy the view.
You can walk around the entire lagoon on a wooden boardwalk, which makes for a lovely afternoon stroll. This is one of the most peaceful, quiet places on the entire island – a great spot for contemplation and quiet conversation.
After a full day out in the sun, you’re probably ready for a brief siesta right about now. Mosey back to your hotel from the Laguna, and take some time to relax, shower, and get ready for a low-key dinner at one of the many restaurants in Puerto Ayora. On the menu: fresh fish, of course! And obviously, a refreshing cocktail after a long day of adventures. But first, enjoy the view from your patio…
Stay tuned: in Part 2 of your “Guide to the Galapagos,” we’re going to get wet at Las Grietas, Isla Santa Cruz’s world-famous watering hole, see some sharks, and enjoy Puerto Ayora’s nightlife on a Saturday night!
Have you been to the Galapagos? Did you stay in Puerto Ayora? What were your favorite sights? Did you fall in love with Tortuga Bay like I did? Tell me about it in the comments below, and I’ll see you in Part 2 of your “Guide to the Galapagos!“