SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, The Galapagos with Kids – Santa Cruz is one of four islands in the Galapagos that is inhabited by humans. Set bang in the middle of the archipelago, this volcanic island – shaped a little like Australia, yet only half the size of Sydney – is the tourist hub of Ecuador’s ‘Enchanted Islands’. It’s relatively easy to get to (through Baltra Airport in the north and the Port Ayora in the south) and with plenty of accommodation options and a multitude of wildlife-viewing opportunities, Santa Cruz makes an excellent land base for families prone to seasickness and looking to avoid a cruise.
The island emerged from the sea millions of years ago as a jet of hot molten rock. Today its cactus-studded coastline and densely vegetated interior showcase all the forces that transformed a pile of barren rocks into a biological wonderland, changing our understanding of life altogether.
But it’s the island’s oddly assorted cast of characters that makes a trip to this remote Pacific island so memorable for kids. From salt-spitting iguanas and wide-eyed sea lions to lumbering giant tortoises and dancing boobies, Santa Cruz is a haven for aspiring Attenboroughs.
To get the most out of your visit, here are four fun activities, one family-friendly place to stay and one great place to eat with kids.
Activity 1: Bask Alongside Marine Iguanas
On the southern coast of Santa Cruz you’ll find Tortuga Bay, easily one of the most spectacular beaches in the Galapagos. Recently positioned as TripAdvisor’s 10th Top Beach in the World, this remote strip of coastline can only be accessed by boat or on foot (a 50-minute walk on a paved trail from Puerto Ayora). Its powdery, pale white sands stretch for over a kilometer and are flecked with dozens of dark grey marine iguanas performing sun salutations.
Endemic to the Galapagos, the marine iguana is the only lizard in the world to have adapted to sea life and is an excellent example of how animals modified themselves to survive in these volcanic, infertile lands. Although it’s tempting to follow the iguanas into the translucent waves, the strong currents make Tortuga Bay a dangerous spot for swimming.
If you continue on foot past the rocky outcrop at the far end of the beach, however, you reach Playa Mansa, a hidden bay protected by dense mangroves. The sheltered, clear waters are a perfect snorkeling site and are home to sea turtles, rays and marine iguanas. You can rent a kayak at the far end of the beach. Find out more: See TripAdvisor reviews of this beach.
Tip: Bring plenty of water and snacks as there are no shops or restaurants here.
Activity 2: Discover the Land of the Giants
The highlands of Santa Cruz in the center of the island have become a sanctuary for one of the Galapagos’s most iconic inhabitants, the giant tortoise. These prehistoric-looking creatures not only gave their name to the islands (Galapago means tortoise in Spanish). They are the species that first alerted Darwin to differences between animals on different islands. (The British vice-governor of the islands told Darwin he could tell which island a tortoise came from just from the shape of its shell).
One of the best places to see giant tortoises in the wild is in El Chato Tortoise Reserve near the village of Santa Rosa. Here you can find dozens of them slowly navigating their way around mounds of tall grass or wallowing in muddy lagoons. In contrast to the arid lowlands, the vegetation here is thick, green and often shrouded in mist, providing an ideal habitat for these elephantine reptiles whose ancestors were carried to the Galapagos on rafts of vegetation from the rainforests of South America.
The tortoise reserve also has a number of underground lava tunnels that are fun to explore and at the end of the tour, kids can crawl inside an empty shell of a giant tortoise – cameras at the ready! Find out more: El Chato Tortoise Reserve
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Activity 3: Pay Homage to Lonesome George
Besides Darwin’s groundbreaking revelations, one of the most remarkable wildlife discoveries ever made took place in 1972 on Isla Pinta, the northernmost island in the archipelago. A male Pinta tortoise was found, a species that was presumed extinct in 1906. (Hunting and human introduction of invasive species such as goats, rats and pigs had destroyed the tortoises’ natural habitat).
Park rangers transported the surviving tortoise to a protected reserve in Santa Cruz where they named him Lonesome George. When he died in 2012 he had become a global conservation icon. His body was preserved by taxonomists in New York and is now on display at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora as what they call a symbol of hope for endangered species around the world.
That idea perplexed my daughter – how is being the last of one’s kind hopeful? – and she asked the guide about it. That prompted an interesting discussion about how the Galapagos Islands are a marvel of biodiversity and what happens when humans upset the delicate balance of our planet. Find out more: Official site of The Charles Darwin Research Station
Activity 4: Hang Out with the Local Hustlers at the Fish Market
The Galapagos Islands are one of the few places in the world where wild animals show no fear of humans and there can be no better demonstration of this than at the fish market in Puerto Ayora. Sitting at the water’s edge, this tiny, unassuming market is little more than a long concrete slab laden with hefty tuna, shiny snapper, and crates of scrambling lobsters.
What makes it special is the crowd it attracts. Locals from all over Santa Cruz gather here daily to pick up their dinner, including, much to the delight of tourists, the non-human kind. Sea lions sidle up to the counter and, when backs are turned, will snatch whatever they can reach before hot-flippering it down the street. Beady-eyed pelicans swoop in from the skies, scooping up whatever they can get away with before being swatted away by irate fishmongers. Children find all of this hilarious, and you don’t need to make any purchases to get immense entertainment out of a visit. Find out more: Read visitor reviews at TripAdvisor
1 Great Place to Stay: Galapagos Safari Camp
Tucked away in the central highlands, between Santa Cruz’s two main ports, the secluded Galapagos Safari Camp makes an ideal base for families looking to the escape the crowds and fully immerse themselves in the wilds of the Galapagos. The eco-luxe camp is set into a high ridge that overlooks the dense canopy of the National Park and the Pacific Ocean beyond. You’ll quickly see it was inspired by the romance of African safari lodge.
Families can opt to stay in the spacious three-bedroom family suite that sits above the kids’ club or in one of the nine teak-floored safari tents. Raised high above the ground on wooden platforms, the tents are light and airy. There’s ample room for a family of four (age limits apply). Large flaps in the canvas walls can be rolled up (fun for birdwatching-in-bed) and sliding glass doors open on to private balconies where you can soak up a misty sunrise with coffee in hand. In the highlands, temperatures are cooler at night meaning that mosquitoes are seldom a concern and air conditioning is, thankfully, not required. During the cooler season, staff light fires in the main lodge and slip hot water bottles under bedsheets while guests are at dinner.
Besides being the only hotel in the archipelago with a kids’ club, what makes Galapagos Safari Camp especially family-friendly is that the founders raised their two children here. Stephanie Bonham-Carter and Michael Mesdag know first-hand what it takes to create engaging, educational experiences. They created a special six-night ‘Family Safari’, designed to meet the needs and interests of every member of the family.
Foodies will also enjoy the meals here. Like every service the hotel offers, the menus can also be adapted to meet specific needs. Find out more: http://www.galapagossafaricamp.com/
1 Great Place to Eat: La Garrapata
Just a five-minute walk from Puerto Ayora’s main jetty is La Garrapata; it’s one of the oldest restaurants in the Galapagos and one of the most popular on Santa Cruz. Located on the water’s front, this rustic, open-aired restaurant ticks all the boxes bar one: it faces the street. But don’t let its view put you off! (Or its name, for that matter: garrapata is Spanish for ‘tick’, as in the blood-sucking parasite). Seafood is the star attraction here. It’s served in a variety of ways – grilled, steamed, fried or bathed in coconut or pepper sauces. And with pasta and meat options as well, there is something to please everyone. Find out more: La Garrapata