Make the volcanic island of Santa Cruz your base for up-close encounters with sea lions, land iguanas, giant tortoises and many more charismatic creatures
Beneath the rich glow of a tropical sunset, a group of taxi drivers face off in a game of volleyball. Little kids shriek with excitement and popcorn is eaten in immense quantities, as some unusual visitors join the cheering crowd. A Galápagos sea lion nudges its way onto a bench by the harbourside of Puerto Ayora, draping its flippers over the edge and pretending to sleep – one eye open in search of a snack. From a fast-rising tide pours a horde of Sally Lightfoot crabs, their scarlet claws probing the rocks for food. They are joined by marine iguanas, with snouts wrinkling as they sneeze out the salt absorbed during dives for seaweed.
The Galápagos were known as Las Islas Encantadas – The Enchanted Islands – by the first explorers to come here in the 16th century, and certain myths about them endure. Not everyone realises that this archipelago of 19 islands is part of Ecuador, the country’s mainland lying 600 miles across the Pacific. And although the often unique and strangely bold wildlife captures all attention, a human population of 30,000 lives alongside – half in the town of Puerto Ayora, on the central island of Santa Cruz.
Many of the Galápagos’s classic wildlife encounters can be had on Santa Cruz rather than by swiftly embarking on a cruise, as most visitors do. ‘Everybody is happy now, there is so much food’, says Ramiro Jácome Baño, a naturalist guide officially sanctioned by the Galápagos National Park – this is the hot and wet season, a time of plenty. He points to the thickets of herbs that have sprouted around Cerro Dragón, a fang-like volcanic peak that rises from ancient lava flows on the northwestern tip of Santa Cruz. ‘Stop! ’ Ramiro warns dramatically as a male land iguana swaggers on to the path ahead, with skin a resplendent yellow. The endemic land iguanas and marine iguanas of the Galápagos are believed to have shared ancestors that came here on a great sea journey. They have evolved from the green iguanas you will find on the Ecuadorian mainland,’ says Ramiro. ‘These will either have swum all the way across, or more likely drifted over on vegetation.’
At the Charles Darwin Research Station, a conservation success story is playing out. Over 3,000 giant tortoises have been raised from hatchlings to a size where they can resist attack from invasive species like cats, pigs or dogs introduced by passing mariners. The adolescent tortoises are released into the wild, and can live to an age of 200. Today, in the noon heat, they lounge like majestic boulders in the El Chato Tortoise Reserve’s mud pools. Creatures with faster-paced lives bustle about them: Darwin’s finches, displaying to one another, as short-eared owls keep watch from above.
The diverse birdlife of Santa Cruz can also be observed at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel, a brief taxi boat ride from Puerto Ayora. Guests share the open-air bar with Galápagos mockingbirds hunting tiny geckos, and the pool with a family of white-cheeked pintail ducks. Puerto Ayora’s beach lies just beyond, where locals cool down by splashing on lilos, or attach snorkels to search for creatures every bit as remarkable as the land-based wildlife. Within a short paddle, a Pacific green sea turtle can be seen grazing on algae, a trio of eagle rays glide in perfect formation, and bullseye puffer fish nibble at the toes of anyone stood still long enough to let them.
The sealife of the Galápagos still surprises Ramiro Jácome Baño, 20 years into his time as a guide here. ‘Recently I was approached by a manta ray,’ he says. ‘She had some fishing net caught around her horns. She allowed me to lift it off, before disappearing into the deep.’
Finch Bay Eco Hotel has views across Puerto Ayora’s beach and an excellent restaurant serving Ecuadorian dishes. Staff can arrange guided excursions on Santa Cruz, scuba diving and cruises to the surrounding islands (from US$454).
The Charles Darwin Research Station is near Puerto Ayora. Take a taxi to El Chato Tortoise Reserve in the highlands (entrance US$3).