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Located in the center of the Galapagos archipelago, Santa Cruz Island, or Isla Santa Cruz as known by the locals, is the second largest island in the chain, after Isabela. The capital of the island is Puerto Ayora, which is the most populated urban center in the Galapagos Islands as well as the largest port town. The island itself is the most populated in the Galapagos, with 12,000 residents scattered throughout small villages. The island is a large, dormant volcano which it is estimated hasn’t been active in over a million years. As a testament to the volcano’s previous activity, there is a giant lava tunnel over 6,500 feet long that tourists can walk through.The highlands of Puerto Ayora offer are filled with a variety of trees and plants such as scalesia trees, cat’s claws, and Galapagos miconia. The highlands are also home to land tortoises that roam free in search of food and shallow ponds.
There are also two large holes on the island named Los Gemelos or “The Twins,” which were caused as the result of the collapse of a magma chamber. Tortuga Bay can be found on the island, a pristine spot to observe marine iguanas, birds, Galapagos crabs, and a natural mangrove in which white-tipped reef sharks and the Galapagos tortoise can be found. Speaking of the giant tortoise, the Charles Darwin Research Station is located here, where they have implemented a breeding program for these endangered giants. This research station is the operational hub for the international non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation, and crucial research as well as environmental education are performed here. Santa Cruz is the main tourism hub for all of the Galapagos Islands and contains the longest paved road in the Galapagos, which runs across the island north-south. Indulge in the pristine white sand beaches of Las Bachas on the northern coast. Explore Black Turtle Cove by zodiac, and wonder at the impressive iguana population on Dragon Hill. It is on Isla Santa Cruz that tourists can really experience the interior and higher elevations of a Galapagos Island, as the elevation rises to a breathtaking height of 2,835 feet.
Las Bachas is a pristine white sand beach on the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island. The name Las Bachas comes from the mispronunciation of the of the word “barges” by the local population in the 1950’s, when two abandoned American WWII barges broke their moorings and ran aground on the beach. Las Bachas is teeming with characteristic Galapagos wildlife such as flamingos, Sally Lightfoot crabs, land and marine iguanas, and several species of migratory and aquatic birds, including Blue-footed boobies. This natural beach is also one of the main nesting sites for Pacific green sea turtles on Santa Cruz Island. This beach is perfect for taking a lazy stroll along the white sand or snorkeling in the gentle surf. A short walk from the beach reveals a natural salt lagoon in which flamingos can often be found.
Black Turtle Cove is a mangrove estuary on the northern shores of Santa Cruz Island. It is protected by strict environmental regulations and appears to be untouched by time. The only way to access the cove is by dinghy or Zodiac, and engines must be turned off once in the cove. Inside the cove, pacific green sea turtles feed and mate among the mangroves and three different species of shark can be found here: the black-tipped reef shark, the white-tipped reef shark and the Galapagos shark. Spotted rays can be found here as well, in addition to native birds such as egrets and lava herons.
Dragon Hill, or “Cerro Dragon,” is named after its impressive population of land iguanas. It is a rocky hill on the northwestern side of Santa Cruz island, and one of the few visitor sites directly related to a conservation program of the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos park services. This conservation effort is due to the local iguana population being decimated by feral dogs in 1975. Besides the iguanas, there is a trail to the top of the hill from which one can have a great vantage point of the surrounding area. A nearby salt lagoon is visible where one might be fortunate enough to see an elusive flamingo or two. Other birds one might see on Dragon Hill include Darwin’s finches, yellow warblers, flycatchers and mockingbirds. In addition to the animal life, fragrant Palo Santo (incense) trees and Galapagos cotton plants line the trail up the hill. Although beautiful and serene, Dragon Hill is one of the sites where the destruction of invasive species can be observed. Feral donkeys have caused the loss of many native tall cactus trees, which the donkeys strip of their bark.
Located in Academy Bay on the southern coast of Santa Cruz Island, Puerto Ayora is the largest port town in the Galapagos and the main population center of the islands, with more than 12,000 residents. As Puerto Ayora has the best developed infrastructure in the Galapagos, tourists can also enjoy many restaurants as well as lodging and shopping options. It is here that the Charles Darwin Research Station can be found, as well as the Galapagos National Park’s tortoise breeding center, both of which are open to visitors. The main avenue in the town, Avenida Charles Darwin, begins at the main dock and ends at the research station, where exhibits present information about the climate and geography of the Galapagos Islands, as well as conservation efforts. Just a short walk from the center of town lies Tortuga Bay, which is filled with many types of native flora and fauna, including marine iguanas and Galapagos crabs.
South Plaza is a small uplifted island just off the northeast coast of Santa Cruz. It is one of a pair of twin islands named the Plazas Islands. While North Plaza is closed to visitors, South Plaza is one of the more popular destinations for tourists. Both islands were formed by a geological uplift, and both tilt to the north, with cliffs on their southern coasts. Despite its small size, South Plaza is home to a diverse variety of plant and animal life, including land and marine iguanas, sea lions and cliffs full of nesting seabirds. Much of the island is covered in a succulent plant called Sesuvium, which is green to yellowish in the wet season and bright red in the dry season.
There are also many prickly pear cacti on the island, which provide a food source for the iguanas. A circular trail winds up the cliff on the southside of the island, where seabirds such as Audubon’s shearwaters and Nazca boobies nest. A bachelor colony of sea lions can be found here as well. In the waters below, schools of surgeonfish swim by, as birds dive in and out of the holes in the cliff. Occasionally, hybrid iguanas have been observed on the island. These are a result of a cross between a male marine iguana and a female land iguana, and share characteristics from both.