The archipelago’s centre and tourist hub, SANTA CRUZ is a conical island of just under 1000 square kilometres, whose luxuriant southeastern slopes are cloaked each year in garúa drizzle. Reaching an altitude of 864m, the island supports all Galápagos vegetation zones, from cactus-strewn deserts around the coast, to tangled scalesia and miconia forests wreathed in cloud in the highlands, and sodden grassy pampas at the summit.
Santa Cruz’s central location and proximity to the airport on Baltra have helped make it the most heavily populated island in the Galápagos. The majority of the 27,000 or so islanders live in the archipelago’s largest town, Puerto Ayora, which is also the nerve centre of the conservation programme, headquarters of both the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Parque Nacional Galápagos. Home to more boats, tour brokers, hotels and restaurants than anywhere else in the islands, Puerto Ayora is also the best place for budget travellers to find last-minute places on cruises. There’s plenty to do in the meantime, such as visiting Bahía Tortuga, the Chato Tortoise Reserve or exploring the island’s several lava tunnels. Those itching to get to the wildlife can take day-trips by boat to the nearby islands in this central group, namely Santa Fé, Plaza Sur and Seymour Norte.
On the northwest side of Santa Cruz there are several worthwhile sites that can only be visited with guides by boat tours. Occasionally, day-trips sail there, but more commonly boats call at these spots having left the harbour at Baltra. A typical first stop is at Las Bachas, named for the barges the US abandoned on the beach here during World War II; their rusting skeletons still poke through the sand. It’s a popular place for swimming, but also makes a good introduction to wildlife, with marine iguanas, hermit crabs, black-necked stilts, great blue herons and turtle nests – you may see turtle tracks from November to February – and flamingos tiptoeing around the saltwater lagoon behind the smaller beach. To the west is Caleta Tortuga Negra, a cove where Pacific green turtles (despite the cove’s name) come to breed at the beginning of the warm-wet season. White-tipped reef sharks and rays can be spotted throughout the year, and the lagoon itself is fringed by mangroves, where herons and pelicans nest. On the northwestern tip of the island, the Cerro Dragón site consists of a gravel path winding up from flamingo lagoons to the top of the hill, passing land iguanas and their nests. Most have been repatriated since the extermination of feral dogs here in 1990. Heading further westwards, Bahía Conway (where in 1976 feral dogs attacked and killed a colony of five hundred land iguanas), and Bahía Ballena, a one-time whaling post, are seldom visited.