Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos

Half the population of the Galápagos Islands lives in Puerto Ayora. See and read why this charming town on Santa Cruz Island is the archipelago’s geographic and activity center, a hub for exploring neighboring islands plus home to thousands of giant Galápagos tortoises.

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1 Municipal Pier in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

With 12,000 residents, the town of Puerto Ayora has about half of the population of the Galápagos Islands. This quaint seaport is located at the south end of Santa Cruz Island, the second largest in the UNESCO World Heritage Site archipelago. The town’s namesake is Isidro Ayora, an Ecuadorian president from 1926 until 1931. All cruise ships and island tour passengers arrive for a dry landing at this municipal pier.

Gus Angermeyer Pier, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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2 Transportation around Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

Santa Cruz’s position in the center of the Galápagos Islands makes it an active hub to the other islands. There are plenty of options for coming and going. International tourists arriving at Baltra airport can take a short ferry across the Itabaca Channel and then a bus to Puerto Ayora. Speed boats here provide transportation to the inhabited islands of Isabela and San Cristóbal. These water taxis along the pier offer rides to boats anchored in the harbor. But for getting around Puerto Ayora, all you need is your two feet. The town is easy and delightful to explore.

Gus Angermeyer Pier, Avenue Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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3 Activities in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

Despite its small size, Puerto Ayora is packed with activities to fill your vacation in the Galápagos Islands. Tourists enjoy kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing and mountain biking plus walking through the 6,500 foot lava tunnel named El Mirador. Several operators offer day trips to nearby uninhabited islands. And if you want to see Galápagos tortoises, you have two choices. These endemic creatures live in the wild at the El Chato nature reserve. Or visit the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center at Charles Darwin Research Station. Local hotels range from budget rooms for backpackers to luxury accommodations along the ocean.

Parque San Francisco, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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4 Shopping in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

People fulfill their bucket list journey to the Galápagos to explore the incredible scenery and nature on the uninhabited islands. A great way to remember your trip is by shopping for souvenirs. Several boutique stores in Puerto Ayora offer everything from handbags, towels, T-shirts, artwork and handicrafts. They typically display images of frigatebirds, blue and red-footed boobies, sea lions, tortoises or other Galápagos critters you have encountered.

Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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5 Avenue Charles Darwin in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

Puerto Ayora does have a network of streets. But as a tourist, you will not need GPS to get around. The main drag is Avenue Charles Darwin. It runs about 1.5 miles west to east – from town center to the Charles Darwin Research Center. Most of the shops and restaurants are clustered in the first half of your walk.

Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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6 Fish Market Customer in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

Every morning and afternoon, commercial fishermen arrive onshore and drag their packed coolers to a modest yet active fish market. The fresh catches displayed on the cutting table might include red snapper, grouper, tuna and scorpion fish. If you visit the island during the last three months of the year, you will see the locals snap up red and green spiny lobsters. The market’s best customers are brown pelicans. These gangly seabirds wait patiently for scraps then burst into competition when one falls.

Fishing Piers, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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7 Great Blue Heron in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

The great blue heron is a common resident along North American coastlines. Yet the Ardea herodias cognata bangs species is endemic to the Galápagos. This elegant shore bird has a 5.5 to 6.5 foot wingspan and stands 4.5 feet. It is fun watching this master hunter glide stealthily along the water’s edge on its tall legs. Then its S-shaped neck lunges toward its target. This heron rarely misses spearing a meal with its sharp beak.

Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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8 Academy Bay in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

The coastline of Puerto Ayora is defined by Academy Bay. The busy west side contains the Malecón boardwalk plus a pier for excursion ships and ferries. There is also a small boat harbor for fishermen and pleasure sailors. This serene northeast end is shaped by rocky inlets. Offshore are a few anchored yachts and island-hopping catamarans. It is common to glimpse seabirds such as brown pelicans patrolling the edges of mangroves and salt bushes. Equally exciting is watching one fold its seven foot wingspan and plunge into the water as its open beak scoops up a meal.

Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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9 Charles Darwin Carving in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

Charles Darwin is synonymous with the Galápagos Islands. His journey began in 1831 when, at the age of 22, he boarded the HMS Beagle in England as the survey ship’s naturalist. During the five-year circumnavigation expedition, Darwin only visited four Galápagos islands in a five week period in 1835. Yet this was sufficient time for him to notice unique differences among mockingbirds and tortoises. When his finch specimens were later analyzed back in London, it confirmed they were unique species. This experience gave birth to his theory of evolution. His 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species” was considered revolutionary among scientists and heresy by the Church of England.

Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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10 Jardín Cerámica in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

On your trek to or from the Charles Darwin Research Station, you will encounter a vibrant giant dragon. This is the archway entrance to Jardín Cerámica. Stop in and look around. The Ceramic Garden is the fascinating, playful and colorful passion of longtime local artist Cristina Nelson Gallardo. Her fertile imagination and talent will amuse and delight you with dazzling mosaic artwork.

Jardín Cerámica, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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11 Short-eared Owl Mural in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in Galápagos, EC

Along a wall of the Municipal Cemetery is this vibrant mural of a Galápagos short-eared owl. The street art was painted in 2017 by Clovis Patiño. The artist has additional work displayed at the Charles Darwin Exhibition Hall. This predator lives across the archipelago but is most often seen at Genovesa Island. If you are lucky, you might also spot a Galápagos barn owl on three islands including Santa Cruz. This wall is a frequent canvas for owl paintings. Some locals believe the birds carry souls to heaven.

General Cemetery of Puerto Ayora, Avenue Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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12 Tortoise Path at Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

A highlight of Puerto Ayora is the Charles Darwin Research Station. At the east end of Avenue Charles Darwin is the start of your adventure: Tortoise Path. This .6 mile elevated boardwalk weaves among educational exhibits plus enclosures containing tortoises and land iguanas. These abundant reptiles range in age from hatchlings to animals nearing the end of their life expectancy.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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13 Forest Encircling Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

As you walk along Tortoise Path, admire the forest encircling the Charles Darwin Research Station. The flora consists primarily of thick mangroves, white barren palo santo trees and tall prickly pear cactus. This vegetation is the perfect mix to support land and marine life while protecting the ecosystem and coastline.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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14 Fausto Llerena Breeding Center at Darwin Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

These young tortoises are feeding at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center. Your guide will explain how eggs laid in the wild are brought here, incubated for 120 days using hair dryers and then raised by age in protective pens for up to five years. Most are then returned to their home island. When the program started in 1970, there were only 3,000 wild tortoises in the Galápagos. Since then, the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center has repatriated over 5,500. The tortoise population on the islands is now almost 20,000. In short, these efforts have been vital to repopulating this vulnerable giant.

Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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15 Galápagos Tortoise Species at Darwin Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

It is thrilling to see a Galápagos tortoise for the first time, let alone a group of adults clustered together at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Yet similar to most fauna in the Galápagos, there are several species of the Chelonoidis nigra. Historically, there were as many as 15 unique types in the archipelago. Several became extinct on three islands. Today, there are ten recognized species of Galápagos tortoises. The research center isolates them by island of origin. These tortoises in pen A are from Isla Floreana.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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16 Galápagos Tortoise Evolution at Darwin Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

Giant tortoises are found only near Tanzania and in the Galápagos. It is estimated a single pregnant tortoise floated from Africa to South America about 23 to 33 million years ago during the Oligocene period. Then, a Chelonoidis nigra ancestor followed the currents from South America to the Galápagos shortly after the first of the islands were formed about five million years ago. As the surrounding islands emerged, some tortoises migrated, began adapting to their new environments and evolved into different species.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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17 Galápagos Tortoise Description at Darwin Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

The Galápagos tortoise richly deserves the common adjective of “giant.” An average adult of this endemic species – the largest in the world – weighs 400 pounds. Yet size varies by island. The biggest are native to Santa Cruz Island. Males here can measure up to five feet and be nearly 500 pounds. The largest was 6.1 feet and 880 pounds. Their scale-covered legs have to be enormous to carry that much weight. There are five claws on the front legs and four on the back pair. Their carapace (shell) is either saddleback, domed or a variation of the two. Most impressive is their life expectancy. In the wild, they typically live over 100 years. Harriet was the oldest in captivity when she died at 170 years old in Australia Zoo. With that much time, who needs to hurry?

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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18 Galápagos Tortoise Naming at Darwin Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

The Galápagos tortoise is the most famous inhabitant of the islands. Most people think its name is derived from being endemic to the archipelago. Actually, they are the islands’ namesake. The islands were discovered in 1525 during a Pacific voyage by Fray Tomás de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama. In 1570, they were listed as Insulae de los Galopegos. This means “Islands of the Tortoises.” Galápago is the Spanish word for turtle and galápagos is the plural.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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19 Lonesome George at Darwin Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

A single male tortoise of the Chelonoidis abingdonii species was found on Pinta Island in 1971. For 41 years, he was cared for by Galápagos National Park ranger Fausto Llerena. He is the namesake for the breeding center at the Charles Darwin Research Station. This famous tortoise was named Lonesome George. Repeated attempts to breed him with genetically-close tortoises failed. When he died in 2012, he became the last of his species. After being taxidermied in New York City, he was flown back to Puerto Ayora in 2017. Lonesome George is now proudly displayed in an exhibit chamber called the Symbol of Hope. This temperature, humidity and light controlled room is very elaborate. But Lonesome George is deserving of the expense. He is both an icon and the symbol for conservation in the Galápagos.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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20 Exhibition Hall at Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

By the time you finish touring the Charles Darwin Research Station’s property, you are impressed. Now step inside the Exhibition Hall. The fascinating photo displays further explain in English and Spanish what makes the Galápagos Islands so unique. You will also learn how the Charles Darwin Foundation, along with the Galápagos National Park, have worked in tandem since 1959 to conserve the fauna, flora and natural beauty of this Ecuadorian archipelago they love.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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21 Beaches near Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

Adjacent to the Exhibition Hall is an observation tower. The easy climb is rewarded with an elevated view of the Charles Darwin Research Station plus a panorama of Academy Bay. If you have gotten hot during your tour, there are two small yet pleasant beaches nearby. To the left of the tower is a path to La Ratonera Beach. On the right is Playa de La Estación. In English, these are respectively The Mousetrap Beach and the Station’s Beach. You can simply call them a refreshing respite. The best pristine white sand is at Tortuga Bay located about 1.5 miles from town. Two options there are Playa Mansa and Playa Brava.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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22 Van Straelen Interpretation Center at Darwin Station in Puerto Ayora, Galápagos, EC

As you leave the Charles Darwin Research Station, you will encounter the Van Straelen Interpretation Center. This CDRS facility opened in 2000 to host educational programs for schools and the community. After an extensive renovation, it reopened in 2018 with a Marine World theme. The emphasis is on sharks. The murals and displays inside are vivid, informative and engaging. Equally exciting is many of the exhibits were created by students using plastic debris they collected during beach clean-up programs.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Ave Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora, Ecuador
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