Flying into Baltra, our home base for the week was Santa Cruz. The big port city of Puerto Ayora (the most populated city in the islands) offered fairly cheap accommodations and a variety of excursions available at our whim.
One of the most magnificent beaches in the world, and certainly my favorite, was Tortuga Bay (Turtle Bay). Some of the most beautiful places are a little bit off the beaten path, and this was certainly the case with Tortuga Bay. From Puerto Ayora, we walked to the entrance to the national park, which introduced us to a boardwalk under the shade of palm trees and the interesting tree-cactus. The only place in the world where cacti actually grow into a tree is in the Galapagos. Along the 30-40 minute walk we spotted so many small lizards we nearly stumbled over them, along with a variety of birds. Sweating in the Galapagos heat, the first glimpse of the sandy white beaches was welcome.
The walk was well worth the view.
The beach was absolutely pristine, and the water was every single color of blue imaginable. Darwin finches poked around the sand dunes and brilliantly red crabs crawled across the sand. Following the waterline, we walked to a group of mangrove trees where around 40 marine iguanas were basking in the sun or hiding in the shade. Marine iguanas are very prehistoric-looking creatures. Despite their harsh appearance, they are evidentially non-aggressive as we were able to observe them very closely. Within five minutes of stepping into the water up to my knees I was able to look back on the marine iguanas, watch a sea turtle swim right in front of me and pop his head up, and see a Galapagos shark dart feet in front of me. Talk about the most remarkable five minutes of my life!
We continued our journey to a more secluded bay, sheltered from the wind and thus lacking waves. This made a tranquil (although hot) area lined by mangrove trees. To explore the wildlife in the mangroves we rented a kayak and paddled through the calm water. We were told to explore the edges, and then there was a BIG turtle in the middle. Okay, what does that mean? How can they know that there is one big turtle right in the middle? After an uneventful kayak ride, we were just heading in when I spotted it. Yes, it. THE big turtle that they had told us about. It was enormous. This was by and far the largest turtle that I have ever seen, and it poked its thick head up and looked right at me and I freaked out. We obviously had to follow it. Kirsten and I transformed in that moment into turtle hunters, vowing to find and observe every turtle from there on out.
The other big tourist attraction on Santa Cruz was the Charles Darwin Research Station. While slightly under-whelming, seeing the giant land tortoises’ was an amazing experience. The center is actually a breeding center for the giant animals since their population has dwindled over the years for many reasons, one of which being the whaling ships. Because these animals can live for months without food or water, they were a source of fresh meat for long voyages. Because of their precarious condition, the center breeds the animals and then releases them into the wild. At the station we were able to see various ages from merely one year old to the ancient, giant tortoise. Unfortunately the prized tortoise Lonesome George, who was the last of his subspecies in the world, passed away in 2012. It was an interesting first encounter with these gentle giants.
From Santa Cruz we took a snorkel trip to the nearby island of Pinzon. Stopping by Daphne on the way, we observed some red-footed boobies, blue-footed boobies, nazsca boobies, and frigate birds. Pinzon offered interesting snorkeling in a channel dominated by rays, reef sharks, and sea turtles. It was really remarkable to swim one foot on top of a sea turtle, and to lift my mask a few degrees to see a three reef sharks swimming by. Unfortunately, the water was absolutely frigid and we were not allocated wetsuits. From Pinzon we returned to Santa Cruz to snorkel in the more mild waters of an unpopulated bay. As turtle hunters, we were able to spot and follow another marine turtle before enjoying the beach. This snorkel trip was one of our big splurges for the week, but it was well worth it. The marine life that we saw was worth the money of the trip and the weather was magnificent so being on the boat was nice.
Situated right in the middle of the islands, Santa Cruz was also a good launching point. We were able to then venture to the two other big islands of Isabella and San Cristobol on a two hour $30 boat ride, for infinite more explorations and adventures.