We had one “free day” worked into the schedule while we were on Santa Cruz, and like before, that didn’t mean “do nothing day”. My aunt had a whole list of things that we could see on the island without a tour, so we plotted a route and headed out for another very long day.

Here’s the location of Santa Cruz in relation to the other Galapagos Islands! It’s the second largest island, about 20mi/32km wide x 25mi/40km long.

Santa Cruz is the second largest island in the Galapagos archipelago and is a “shield volcano”, like many of the other Galapagos islands. This means that there wasn’t an explosive eruption that formed it (exactly what it sounds like/what you likely imagine when you think “volcanic eruption”). Instead, there was an “effusive eruption” which means that low-viscosity lava flowed steadily for a period of time. Since the lava is extra “flowy”, it spreads out farther and results in a land mass with a much more gradual slope than would result from an explosive eruption. So lava steadily accumulates in layers, building a short and flat-ish island, called a “shield volcano” because it has a similar shape to a round shield lying on the ground.

It’s a very ecologically diverse island, the only one in the Galapagos with six different vegetation zones. I was amazed once again by the difference between the coastal areas and the highlands, but we’ll get to that later. Anyway…

On the way to our first official stop of the day… Puerto Ayora had some very thematic Christmas decorations. I guess the reindeer get a little help from the locals when delivering presents to the islands!
Also, I know that I wasn’t at the birth of baby Jesus, but I don’t know about this rendition… Sea lions, frigatebirds, tortoises, and blue-footed boobies? (Also, the green and brown stuff on the ground is broken glass. There’s a lot of interesting recycling happening on the islands.)

Our first stop was the local fish market. This is where the fishermen bring in their catches, and there are big, concrete tables where they’re sorted and prepared for sale. If you like fresh fish or lobster, this is the place to be. I personally don’t like fish, fresh or otherwise, but I do always enjoy watching people at work (in a totally non-creepy way), skillfully going about their business. The major tourist draw is the photo op, of course. The fish attract all kinds of critters hoping for scraps… sea lions and an assortment of birds that hang around and, if they’re feeling especially cheeky, try to snatch fish right off the tables. The fish attract the birds, the birds attract the people, and you’ve got yourself a crowd!

Lobsters! Lobster fishing is strictly regulated in the Galapagos. The season lasts from September 1 – December 31 each year. These are red spiny lobsters and are the variety most commonly found in the Galapagos.
Taking pictures of tourists taking pictures of this lady doing her job.
Sea lion trying to get some pity scraps. This lady isn’t buying it.
Breaking the two-meter rule (only once, I promise!)
Blue heron near the fish market
So pretty!
I liked his reflection
This pelican was loitering as well

We weren’t there at prime time, so things were pretty quiet. That was fine with me! When everyone was ready to move on to the next adventure, we headed for the dock. Our destination was “Las Grietas”, or “the cracks”, which is a deep crevice that was created when the lava forming the island cooled and contracted. This particular crack falls at the junction of an underground river and the sea, so it’s filled with brackish water (mix between fresh and saltwater). There isn’t a large, clear passage to the ocean, but there is enough space for water and fish to trickle in. No sharks, though!

We passed this funky house on the way to the dock!
No clue what this kid was doing, but apparently we were all entertained by it (pic by my uncle)

The only way for a human to get to Las Grietas is through a boat ride/walking combination. You can’t drive there. You can’t walk the entire way. You can’t boat the entire way. You take a water taxi from the main dock in Puerto Ayora, cross the harbor, and walk about 30 minutes from there. You can also take a boat a liiittle farther and save yourself maybe 15 minutes of walking, but then you still have to walk the final stretch.

We passed these salt mines along the way! Saltwater comes in with the tide and fills the area, and after the water evaporates, people harvest the salt that gets left behind (you can see the white rings of salt around the pools in the picture).
With my aunt and cousins and some pretty flowers we passed on the walk (pic by my uncle)
Las Grietas! (The first pool)

Las Grietas is about 330ft/100m long and consists of three “pools”. As I researched, it seemed like everyone (everyone who seemed even mildly adventurous, that is) agreed that you should absolutely go all the way to the third pool. My uncle, cousin, and I geared up in our fins and snorkels and headed down a set of wooden stairs to the first pool. This is the biggest one (at least in my estimation), and it’s crowded because that’s as far as most people go. Not us! There’s not much to see in the first pool, so we swam to the end pretty quickly. From there, we climbed over a section of slippery rocks (only falling once… eh, maybe twice… but always very gracefully, of course) into the small, rocky, shallow second puddle (it’s way too small and shallow to be called a pool, so I’m amending the name). If I didn’t know better, I would have thought we’d reached the end. But no.

To reach the third pool, you can either climb over some large boulders or swim about 5 feet through an underwater “tunnel” beneath them. The tunnel route is way easier, but at the time, we didn’t know that was an option. (I think it’s semi-common knowledge, so I’ll take the blame for that intelligence failure.) We only found it by chance. At the rocky transition from the first pool into the second, I tossed my fins ahead so that I could use my hands as I crossed over the rocks… and when I reached the puddle, one of them had vanished. Uh oh. They’re bright orange floating fins, so I knew it had to be on the surface, but then why couldn’t I see it?? After some minor panicking and intense searching, I found it wedged between two rocks. There was clearly a current that carried it there, and a quick peek underwater revealed the tunnel! So, it was two exciting discoveries in one. I got my fin back, and we found an easier route into the third pool! My uncle had already scaled the boulders to get there… whoops! But at least the return trip was easier.

Well, it was quite the journey, but we finally made it to the third pool. It’s slightly smaller than the first, but we had it all to ourselves. It was awesome. The water was incredibly clear and calm, all the way to the bottom, maybe 10-15ft (3-5m) down. As soon as we passed that last boulder wall, it was like the world around us ceased to exist. Underwater, the silence was the ear equivalent of being in a pitch-black room. And then the fish! Everyone said that there’s not much to see underwater, but I disagree. Sure, there were no sharks or turtles, but there were a few schools of BIG fish cruising around… like at least a foot long (30cm), and many of them were probably bigger than that. The best part was that they were almost completely unfazed by us. I dove down and swam along next to them. They looked surreal… like they were mechanical fish or were too three-dimensional to be real. And just the general ambiance… I don’t know exactly how to explain the feeling, but from now on, if I need to imagine a place where I feel completely at peace, I’m going to be there, suspended on the surface of the clearest, quietest water with hyper-realistic fish gliding by.

We had the pool to ourselves for a while, and it was glorious. By the time another group showed up (and completely shattered the serenity), we were about ready to go anyway. We made our way back under the boulder, through the puddle, over the slippery rocks, across the first pool, and up the stairs (which were now about a million degrees after baking in the sun… and I had no shoes at the bottom so that was really great planning on my part).

Me with my bright, floating fins
Loving life. I didn’t bother taking my waterproof case-equipped phone, so all of these pictures were taken by my uncle or cousin
GIANT fish hiding in the rocks along the edges of the third pool. I glimpsed something light as I swam by and got in closer to investigate. I’m a terrible estimator, but he MUST have been more than 2 feet long (60cm). I think. And I know I said that I didn’t take any pictures, but for this one, I borrowed my cousin’s camera and got right up in this fish’s face because it was too dark to see it very well at the time, and I really wanted to know what he looked like.
Just looking at this picture is making me all sorts of calm
Okay just one more picture (also because I have practically no pictures of me from this entire trip, so here are 90% of them in one go, all with me looking especially cool in my snorkel)

From there, we walked to the water taxi stop and then boated back to town. The water taxis, by the way, are hilarious. The ride back to town went something like: get on water taxi, stop by a boat anchored in the harbor, pick up empty water jugs, drive to another boat, pick up person, drive to another boat, drop off empty water jugs and pick up bag, drive to another boat, drop off person, drive to dock, give bag to person waiting on dock, let off passengers. I never understood what was going on, but I was always entertained.

After a quick stop at our hotel, we headed back out in search of a (regular) taxi to take us to the highlands. On Santa Cruz, people generally go to see two things in the highlands: a tortoise sanctuary (of course) and a pair of craters called Los Gemelos. Fredy, our taxi driver, suggested that we visit Los Gemelos first, and I figured he knew better than any of us since he’s probably taken people to both places a million times.

Los Gemelos, or “the twins”, are two craters formed by collapsed magma chambers. What are those? When lava is flowing, it flows fastest at the middle. The lava at the top and edges cools and hardens more quickly while the lava beneath continues to flow. Eventually, the eruption stops, halting the supply of lava and leaving behind empty space beneath the hardened lava. This can take the form of a tube-like cavity (lava tubes) or, in the case of the craters, large, open chambers. At Los Gemelos, through a combination of erosion and seismic activity, the unsupported lava above the chambers became unstable and collapsed, forming the twin “craters” that you can visit today.

This sign by the craters roughly shows their shapes/relative sizes. I read somewhere that the larger one (I assume?) is about 1 mile in diameter (1.6km) and 920 feet deep (280m).
In the surrounding forest (pic by my uncle)

None of us really knew what to expect from Los Gemelos, but they were really cool! It’s like being in another universe because they’re in the middle of the largest Scalesia forest in the Galapagos. This is an important habitat for tropical flowers like bromeliads and orchids as well as mosses, lichens (a fungus/algae mashup), and birds. It feels like you’re in the middle of the rainforest! Since the craters collapsed a long time ago, they’ve filled in with plants as well.

Impossible to fit the entire crater into one picture without a wide-angle lens or a panoramic photo
It’s super cool looking!
And then this forest… can you believe this is the same island where those barren salt mines were??
The tree to the right of the path in this picture reminded me of a giant spider. Eek! But the moss hanging off of those branches is the craziest thing!!
Pretty flowers in the forest
Framed fog
The density of the fog changed pretty quickly, but there were times when it was hard to even see the opposite side of the craters

After our hike around the craters, we loaded back into the taxi and headed to El Chato, one of the private tortoise reserves on Santa Cruz. It used to be a ranch, but for the last 20 years or so, they’ve been working to restore native vegetation and create a natural habitat for the tortoises (more about that in the next post!). Tortoises aside, they also have some lava tubes that you can walk through! It’s kind of creepy to think that you’re walking through a giant pipe where hot-enough-to-vaporize-you lava used to flow! But also… how cool!?

Lava tube entrance
Walking down…
This is weird. There’s a lower tunnel area where you can see my cousin walking ahead, and then there’s a layer of cooled lava and ANOTHER cavity above that. Very confusing looking.
The light at the end of the lava tube
I loved looking at the shapes of the walls!

Next time, we’ll talk about the tortoises at El Chato and some final Santa Cruz adventures!

Related Posts

San Cristobal Highlands – compare the Scalesia forest and lava craters of Santa Cruz to the highlands and crater lake of San Cristobal!

Kicker Rock – snorkel in the open ocean surrounded by some very NOT clear water (and probably over a bunch of sharks… eek!)

North Seymour Island – check out the weird bird life and barren landscape of North Seymour Island, just north of Santa Cruz

Leave a Reply