Santa Cruz Highlands
See every habitat the Galápagos has to offer
Information about Santa Cruz Highlands
Santa Cruz is the only island on the Galápagos that allows you to travel through every habitat type that exists in the archipelago. This makes the journey north from the coast up into the highlands a fantastic opportunity to experience the breadth of life that exists on these islands.
Your bus journey starts from Puerto Ayora on the coast and you slowly start to climb through the agricultural zone where open fields begin to give way to lush, green, mist-covered forests. This is a marked contrast to many of the islands which are at much lower elevation and much more arid. This rich verdant landscape is predominantly made up of dense Scalesia forest.
Your expert Galapatours guide will stop several times along the route to allow you to explore various different sites. Among the stops will be a Giant Tortoise reserve, and also a visit to the famous lava tubes. Over half a mile long, a walk through these natural volcanic features is eerie and unforgettable.
Also along the way you will stop for refreshments, and you'll be able to try locally-grown Galápagos coffee - we think it's among the best we've ever tasted!
Interesting facts about Santa Cruz Highlands
Walk through lava tubes
Travel through dense Scalesia forest
See giant tortoises
Pictures of Santa Cruz Highlands
Highlights Close to Santa Cruz Highlands
The name "Bachas Beach" (or "Las Bachas" in Spanish) actually comes from a mispronunciation! After the second world war, American forces stationed on Santa Cruz abandoned some of their barges there - "bachas" was the nearest some of the locals could get to pronouncing the English word, and the name has stuck. You can still see the remains of one of the floating docks the soldiers set up on one of the two beaches that make up Las Bachas Beach.
This beach is covered in white coral sand, and it's a major nesting site for Galápagos green turtles. There's also a lagoon just behind the sand which often hosts flamingos, ducks and migratory birds. You can also often find marine iguanas feeding on the rocky outcrops near the tide line.
The main beach is perfect for swimming, being very sheltered from the ocean swells, and is a very pleasant spot to cool off and to indulge in some snorkeling.
Ballena, or Whale Bay
This is one of the quieter and least visited sites in the Galápagos. Ballena, or Whale, Bay has a beach with green sand, caused by the high percentage of olivine crystals present here. This is also one of the few visitor sites in the Galápagos which is more open, allowing visitors to wander somewhat freely and explore for themselves.
Behind the beach is a hill, and the climb from the inland side is easiest to enjoy fine views from the top. It is thought that Whale Bay is so-named because it was a popular point for the whaling vessels to weigh anchor while their crews headed inland from here in search of fresh water. It's thought that in the 1800s this beach was the head of the only trail into the highlands of Santa Cruz. The crews would return to the semi-circular beach with water and with their prize of giant tortoise, which were easy to catch and were a good source of meat to stock up with for their journey back to their home ports. In fact, the small group of tortoises that live near the beach have been found to be Pinzon tortoises, and their presence may be the result of escapees from the whalers' clutches scurrying away from the beach.
The beach is good for snorkeling, and if you keep your eyes skywards you may also spot Galápagos Hawks circling overhead.
Black Turtle Cove
The only way into Black Turtle cove is by panga (motorised dinghy). This "secret" corner of the Galápagos feels like your own personal hideout, and once the panga motor is shut off you're surrounded only with the gentle sounds of nature as you drift through the mangroves.
This is a very different visitor site, showing another side to the Galápagos away from the noise of surf on the beaches and barking sea lions.
Carrion Point on the eastern coast of Santa Cruz protrudes into the ocean, creating a sheltered cove which is a superb place to snorkel.
There's no landing here, you can simply dive into the water from your boat. The sheltered waters are crystal clear and you will see a wide range of marine wildlife, including Galápagos rays, sharks, and innumerable tropical fish.
A panga ride along the coast here will also allow your Galapatours guide to tell you more about the bird species and about the ecology of this part of Santa Cruz in general.
Carrion Point Dive Site
Carrion Point is often used as a dive site before the long trip north to Wolf and Darwin Islands, so you may have your first "proper" Galápagos dive here.
The site is typical of the Galápagos, with rocky slopes and a boulder-strewn reef with only ocasional patches of sand. The habitat is very rich here, and you are likely to encounter a wide range of tropical fish, as well as hammerhead sharks, reef sharks, manta rays, as well as the ever-curious Galápagos Sea Lions.
Charles Darwin Research Station
The world famous Charles Darwin Research Center is just a 10 minute walk from downtown Puerto Ayora, and is the home of the non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation.
Inside, you'll find exhibits about the geography, geology and climate of the Galápagos, and the evolution of her unique species. There is also lots of information on the Foundation's current conservation and education programs.
As well as conducting it's own key research, the Charles Darwin Center also hosts international scientists, and supports the work of government agencies like the Galápagos National Park.
Next door is the site of the Galápagos' first giant tortoise breeding center, where pioneering work has been done since 1965 for the preservation of these species. Here you can see newly hatched babies, up to juveniles and full-grown adults ready to be released back into the wild.
Dragon Hill is the site of a success story in the history of Galápagos conservation. In 1975 almost the entire population of land iguanas in this part of northeast Santa Cruz was wiped out by packs of feral dogs. The Charles Darwin Research Center swung into action with an emergency breeding and rearing program for land iguanas. The program was extremely successful, and the last captive-bred land iguana was released from the breeding center onto Dragon Hill in 1991. Iguanas continue to be released here every 3 or 4 years from other breeding centers in the Galápagos to ensure the continued success of the Dragon Hill Iguanas.
As well as being the landing site to visit the Hill, the rocky shoreline here is a great snorkeling site where you can swim with green turtles, sharks and rays. A trail leads inland past two saltwater lagoons which often play host to flamingos. As you continue to circle Dragon Hill on the trail you'll be able to see land iguanas in the wild, and you can find their burrows all along the path.
As well as the land iguanas, the area around Dragon Hill is full of other species including Darwin's Finches, Galápagos Mockingbirds, and the native Opuntia cactus. This is one of the longer walking trails, and your Galapatours guide will recommend you use good footwear, especially as the trail can be uneven in places and gets slippery and muddy after wet weather.
The islet of Eden is the remains of a volcanic "tuff cone" - a type of volcanic feature formed when molten lava comes into contact with cold sea water with explosive results. Eden is just off the northwestern coast of Santa Cruz and is usually circumnavigated by panga.
There is an abundance of wildlife here, on land, in the air and in the water. Among other seabirds, you'll see Blue-Footed Boobies diving to catch their prey. Snorkeling from your boat, you're likely to see Galápagos green turtles, rays, and sharks in the clear, shallow waters, particularly if you are close to the mangroves on the shoreline.
There's no landing site here, but your Galapatours guide will sail you around the island, pointing out sites of interest, and letting you know the very best places to go into the water.
El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve
The inland areas of Santa Cruz provide fantastic opportunities to get close to wild Galápagos giant tortoises. These wonderful creatures can be seen roaming around in the agricultural fields, and also in the famous El Chato Tortoise Reserve, where the native vegetation is preserved.
The trail to the Reserve begins at Santa Rosa, about an hour's drive from Puerto Ayora, and during the dry season this is a haven for Giant Tortoises as they migrate from coastal to highland areas, and you can observe the natural behaviours of these truly wild animals.
There is a pond at El Chato that is often surrounded by tortoises, and sometimes even filled with them as they enjoy wallowing in the cool water. Surrounding the ponds are hundreds of acres of natural highland pasture and native Scalesia forest where you may encounter owls, Darwin’s finches, Vermilion Flycatchers, and Galápagos Rails.
For many Galapatours guests the highlight of their trip is following our expert guide into the ancient forest and then hearing heavy footsteps and crunching noises ahead, finally rounding a corner to see a truly wild Galápagos Giant tortoise doing what they have done for millennia before humans came to Galápagos.
First Dive Check
Once you arrive at your dive vessel it's time to confirm your weights and try on and check all your gear. The sheltered harbour is perfect for this requirement as well as the ideal place to discuss safety protocols.
Once back on board the ship and dried off, you'll be served a welcome drink before we get on our way!
Hacienda Primicias Tortoise Reserve
After lunch, you continue your hike to another nearby reserve at Rancho Primicias. There is a visitor centre at Hacienda Primicias, and from here you can walk through the reserve and see Galápagos giant tortoises in a natural habitat showing their natural behaviours.
The tortoises often congregate in this area on their permanent migrations between coast and highlands, and they seem to particularly enjoy wallowing in the shallow ponds in the area - one of the reasons they come here again and again.
During your hike through the reserve you will also encounter many other species, include those found nowhere else but Galápagos. It's common to spot Darwin's Finches and Galápagos Mockingbirds as well as the stunning Vermilion Flycatcher.
The bustling town in Puerto Ayora is central to almost everything in Galápagos. Although it is the biggest town on the Galápagos Islands it not its capital (Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in San Crístobal is). Here, you will find local merchants loading and unloading their ship, you can catch a water-taxi ride to Playa Alemanes / Las Grietas and the beautiful hotels Angermeyer Waterfront Inn and Finch Bay! Also, it is the meeting point for a few cruises that start from here.
You be almost certain that you find a few sea lions relaxing on the benches of the pier, which are actually though for tourists to sit on. But, as you will learn in Galápagos, sea lions don't give much about these rules.
Tortuga Bay Beach
Tortuga Bay Beach is a delightful 1 mile walk from Puerto Ayora and is one of the prettiest beaches on the Galápagos.
As you walk the trail to the beach you cross through an area of arid vegetation which is filled with bird life, and your Galapatours expert naturalist guide will help you to identify many species here, which include the famous Darwin's Finches.
Once you reach the beach you will see a glorious tropical scene - white coral sands and breaking turquoise waves. You can often see surfers here, and they are a clue that those waves hide strong currents and tides, and you need to be careful if you choose to swim. A better option might be to continue along to the second part of Tortuga Bay Beach which is the other side of the headland. This beach opens onto a small bay that's almost completely sheltered from the swell and makes a wonderfully calm place for swimming or snorkeling.
Tortuga Beach and Tortuga Bay make a wonderful place that's not only great for relaxing and soaking up the sun, but also for exploring more of the Galápagos' unique wildlife and habitats.
Los Gemelos (or the Twin Craters) are not, in fact, craters - although no less impressive for it! These two large pits were actually caused by the collapse of empty magma chambers after a volcanic uprising. They are easy to access from the Puerto Ayora to Baltra road.
There is a lovely walking trail here that leads up to and then around the rim of both craters. The hike takes you through the wonderful Scalesia Forest, which is full of bird life. It's likely you will see Galápagos Doves, Darwin's Finches, the stunning Vermilion Flycatcher, as well as short-eared owls and many other species.
As you climb up to the rim of the craters you are rewarded with a breathtaking view over the Scalesia canopy, it's lush green a real contrast to the arid vegetation on much of the other Galápagos Islands you can visit.
Animals in Santa Cruz Highlands
Our trips to Santa Cruz Highlands