Puerto Ayora Overview
Puerto Ayora, located on the southern end of Isla Santa Cruz, is the largest town and most visited place in the Galapagos Islands. The hub of most activity in the Galapagos, Puerto Ayora is a charming, bustling port town where sea, sun, seabirds and sailboats coexist in happy equilibrium. On the town’s outskirts, you will also find the headquarters to the world-renown Charles Darwin Research Station.
The Galapagos’ Number One Port-of-Call
The vast majority of cruises pass through Puerto Ayora on their way to see at the Darwin Station. However, those that linger longer discover that Puerto Ayora has much more to offer visitors. In fact, Puerto Ayora is a lively seaside town offering international cuisine, oceanfront hotels, outdoor bars, scuba diving outfitters and an avenue of boutiques with everything from tie-dyed sarongs to Panama hats.
Stay a Few Extra Days in Galapagos
Most people in-the-know won’t hesitate to recommend a few post or pre-cruise days in Puerto Ayora. The pricey plane fare and park fee certainly warrant a few extra days in paradise: stay a moment longer and relish the Islands’ crescent slices of sand, spectacular diving, mountain top vistas and tropical climate.
Land Based Galapagos Tours
You may also want to consider a multi-day land-based Galapagos tour, (also called hotel-based tours or island hopping tours) out of Puerto Ayora as an excellent alternative to a Galapagos boat cruise. Being land-based allows you to tailor your schedule, visit select islands, and choose from an array of outdoor activities, such as kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, horseback riding and mountain biking. This option is particularly attractive to families with small children, scuba-enthusiasts with non-diving friends, landlubbers, independent travelers, and those traveling on a shoestring.
Flights and Transportation – Arriving at Puerto Ayora
Most visitors arrive by plane (about 3 hours from the Ecuador Mainland) and land in Baltra Airport, on Baltra Island, an island just off the northernmost tip of Santa Cruz and about a forty-five minute trip from town. The only places where flights arrive from are Quito and Guayaquil.
Upon arrival at Baltra Airport, travelers pass through immigration. Visitors must present a passport with an Ecuadorian visa, as well as $100 for the park entrance fee and the island tax. You must pay with traveler’s checks or cash; credit cards are not accepted. If you have an Ecuadorian cedula (a national ID card for Ecuadorian residents) the total fee is only $25.
Several flights depart daily from Quito with a short layover in Guayaquil and fare varies according to the high and low tourism season. Most flights sell out far in advance or are reserved for the companies that operate the cruises, so most travelers to the Galapagos reserve their flight through the agency that books their cruise or tour. Tickets can also be purchased through most travel agents in Quito or Guayaquil or through the websites of Aerogal, Tame, or LAN, the main airlines that fly to the Galapagos.
From Baltra passengers either head directly to their cruise boat, anchored a few minutes away from the airport (you will be met by your guide), or to Puerto Ayora, a short boat taxi across the Itabaca channel, and half hour journey in car to the opposite side of Santa Cruz Island.
If you are heading to Puerto Ayora hop on the bus waiting outside the airport — it is the only option to get to the channel and is free; five minutes later you will reach the ferry which takes passengers across the channel (costs about a dollar and takes about five minutes). On the other side, public buses, taxis, vans and private cars await passengers for the last leg of the journey to Puerto Ayora (the planes, ferry and buses are scheduled to coincide, so you won’t have long to wait). The trip is beautiful; you will pass through the core of Island’s lush highlands before descending down to the coast with its cactus forests and sea breezes.
The bus will drop you off in the center of Puerto Ayora upon which you may be bombarded with offers for boats and hotels. Most of these hawkers are trustworthy islanders despite being a bit aggressive.
It’s also possible to get to Puerto Ayora via water taxi from the other inhabited island towns of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island (where the other major airport is located), Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island, and Puerto Velasco Ibarra on Floreana Island. Small-craft charter flights are also available from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and Puerto Villamil.
Getting around in Puerto Ayora
Puerto Ayora itself is small and easily navigable, so it’s straightforward to find your own way around town. The main drag, Charles Darwin, runs east-west along the bay. At the westernmost end of town, you will find the Academy Bay port, the main grocery store, hardware store and post office. At the easternmost end of town is the Charles Darwin Research Station. In between you will find most of the town’s hotels, bars, shops and the only bank, El Banco del Pacifico.
For more information on flights to the Galapagos Islands, please check out our Domestic Flights page in our Transportation section.
Being an international port, Puerto Ayora has an excellent selection of hotels. Backpackers on a shoestring can find a basic room across the street from the sea for as little as $25 (single) in the low season and those without budgetary constraints can check into an oceanfront hotel from around USD 100 single/USD 150 double per night. For a complete listing of recommended hotels in Puerto Ayora, please refer to our Galapagos hotels page.
Things to do in and around Puerto Ayora
Charles Darwin Research Station
Puerto Ayora is an excellent base in which to explore the islands, by land or by sea. Most of the sports equipment necessary for the activities listed below can be rented. See individual sections for details.
Most organized boat tours and independent travelers stop by the world famous Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about the island’s flora and fauna, and local conservation issues. The highlight of the Station is its tortoise breeding program, with 150-year old Lonesome George as its poster tortoise. Poor George is the last of his species and to the chagrin of the Station’s biologists, he has no interest in the perky females (of a closely related sub-species) let loose in his pen. The younger tortoises seem to find the Station a perfectly adequate environment for romance, as the Station’s repopulation program is continuing strong after five years. Stroll through the Station and see tortoises of all ages starting at two weeks old.
The Educational Center provides a photo exhibit with information in Spanish and English about the Island’s unique flora and fauna. Open daily.
There is no entrance fee, yet the Station miraculously manages all that it does on a bare-bones budget. Donations are much needed and always appreciated. Contact the administrative office for more information or at: email@example.com
One of the Galapagos’ most spectacular beaches, Tortuga Bay, is only a half an hour walk from Puerto Ayora. Although the walk can be a bit grueling under midday sun its worth every drop of sweat. Upon arrival you’ll immediately see why; at low tide a wide swath of glistening white sand awaits your footprints. Drop your towel here and jump into the surf or follow this sandy crescent to its point to discover a mangrove-bordered lagoon with glassy emerald water and bobbing pelicans. One of the best things about Tortuga Bay is that you’ll invariably have most of it to yourself. The majority of locals find the walk too arduous and tourists generally do not stick around long enough to make the trek.
If you stay until dusk you can watch the sun set and the sky melt from hues of tropical warmth into the cool colors of the night. Don’t forget your repellent, since battalions of mosquitoes will definitely make their presence known. If its a clear night the walk down the beach under the velvety black sky, the Southern Cross, and Venus beaming brightly is nothing short of magnificent.
Warning, the first beach has a considerable current and no lifeguard, so swim with caution.
A closer beach to town is located in the Charles Darwin Research Station. Not nearly as dramatic as Tortuga Bay, this little pocket of beige sand is nevertheless popular with the locals and Station personnel. It does have great snorkeling, so bring your fins and mask.
A third medium-sized beach is located near Angermeyer Waterfront Inn which is only reachable by boat. You can hire an aqua-taxi at the main dock which can whisk you over to “el otro lado” in a few minutes. Once on this side of the bay, you can also walk fifteen minutes to Las Grietas, a magical little split in the earth which fills with refreshingly cool seawater during high tide. The crevice is so deep that intrepid locals climb up the rock wall and jack-knife the crystal-clear water. If you try this always check the water depth first; it varies greatly according to the tides.
Undoubtedly, kayaking is one of the most intimate ways to explore the hidden inlets and mangrove-lined bays of Isla Santa Cruz. Several shops rent kayaks in town and many cruise boats have kayaks that will let you paddle around Academy Bay. Sea lions, rays, cormorants, frigate birds and other wildlife are regularly seen close to town in the bay.
Declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Underwater World, the Galapagos Islands offers one of the highest levels of endemism in the world, as well as a sea swimming with contradictions: Only here can you swim with penguins, sea turtles, manta rays, tropical reef fish and “friendly” hammerhead sharks in the same water.
The islands feature over 30 dive sites, a large number of which can be accessed on day trips from Puerto Ayora. Divers are accompanied by professional bilingual naturalist guides and dive masters who specialize in Galapagos flora and fauna. Dives with a reputable company are inexpensive compared to the rest of the world and PADI dive courses are also available. For diving or dive courses contact Scuba Iguana or Sub-Aqua, two of the best dive companies in Puerto Ayora.
From Puerto Ayora, you can access a number of good snorkeling spots directly from town in Academy Bay or by land or by boat. The most accessible sites are:
- The Charles Darwin Research Station’s beach
- Loberia (the small island 15 minutes offshore from Puerto Ayora)
- Punta Estrada (one of the best local places to see white-tipped sharks, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and sea lions)
- The underwater barranco (shelf) just off shore from the beach at Hotel Delphin
- Snorkeling equipment is available at the dive shops Scuba Iguana and Sub-Aqua. Rates for rentals are very reasonable.
The farthest beach at the Charles Darwin Station, Ratonera, has become popular surf turf for the local wave junkies, as have Angermeyer Break and Tortuga Bay.
For information a list of surf tour providers in Ecuador, please check out our Surf Tours page.
Mountain bikes let you explore the back roads of the Santa Cruz Highlands: Pedal across undulating hills rich and green with moss-covered trees, enjoy a hilltop picnic with panoramic views of the surrounding islands, observe free-roaming tortoises, visit local farmers, sample their tropical fruit, and see the island in a way that few visitors do. Guided mountain bike tours are available as part of multi-sport land-based tours and bike rentals are available from shops along the main street in Puerto Ayora.
Galapagos horses are descendants of the purebreds brought to the islands by an American colonist before the Islands were declared a National Park. Over the generations, they have lost their purity but gained a toughness that allows them to scamper over the island’s rugged volcanic terrain and whisk you off to the island’s remotest corners.
Highland jeep tours usually include a walk through lava tunnels, around a sunken crater, and through Scalesia forests (related to sunflowers) and a wild tortoise sanctuary. On a clear day, you are assured spectacular views of the sea and neighboring islands. Most tours also include either a picnic, barbecue or lunch at one of the highland restaurants.
One-Day Island Tours
Puerto Ayora provides the most convenient land-base in the Galapagos for island hopping. There are three boats, the Delphin, Esmeraldas III and Santa Fe, that offer day trips to Florena, Bartolome, North Seymore and Plazas. Prices range from USD 50 to USD 100 per person per tour. The higher the price tag the more comfortable the boat.
Volunteering in the Galapagos
Puerto Ayora has a limited number of volunteer opportunities. Landing a position on-the-spot is possible, but best to try to arrange it ahead of time. Below is a typical list of possibilities:
- Charles Darwin Station
- English Teachers
- Computer Technicians
- Restaurants, Bars, and Cafes
- Dive Masters and dive instructors
There are some tours that include volunteer opportunities as part of your trip. These have become increasingly popular as an easy way to give back to the Galapagos.
Note that immigration to the Galapagos is very tightly controlled, and overstaying the time you were allotted when entering the islands is a serious offense.
Where to Eat – Restaurants in Puerto Ayora
Stroll along the main drag, Avenida Charles Darwin and the nearby cross streets, and choose from a variety of open-air cafes, restaurants and bars. Seafood and Italian cuisine (especially pizza!) seem to dominate the food scene, however in between you can find sandwiches, empanadas, fruit salads and good locally grown Galapagos coffee.
Some of the most popular dining options in Puerto Ayora are:
- Galapagos Deli – favorite for affordable sandwiches, coffee, and locally made ice cream.
- Natsumi – Excellent sushi!
- Il Giardino – best Italian food on the island.
The best little secret in Galapagos restaurants is the “Kioskos”, a cluster of open-air budget priced restaurants with authentic cuisine located at Ave Baltra and Charles Binford. According to locals, K.F. William serves up the most savory dishes.
Banking & Money
El Banco del Pacífico is open Monday to Friday 8:00 – 3:30; Saturday 9:30 -12:30 and is located in the middle of town on the main street.
The bank’s ATM (cajero automatico in Spanish) is available to withdraw cash from international accounts. Unfortunately, the ATM is down more often than the bank would like to admit. If this is the case you can request a cash withdrawal with your credit card (but not debit card) from a bank teller.
For more information on money and banking in Ecuador and the Galapagos, please visit the Money Matters in Ecuador page.
Internet Access and Mobile Phones
Electronic communication is still a bit unreliable in Puerto Ayora, though this is always getting better. There are several Internet Cafes in town (called cibercafes) at reasonable rates. Both major wireless carriers in Ecuador: Porta and Movistar, have service in Puerto Ayora. You should also have wireless coverage while your boat is docked in Academy Bay and at some points while sailing close to town.
Ecuador uses GSM chips, so if you have an international quad-band phone, it’s possible to purchase a chip for a few dollars and wireless minutes and mobile data buying a “tarjeta prepago”, a prepaid card.
The only post office in town is located across from the supermarket at the port end of town.
Remember to set your watch back an hour — the Galapagos is one time zone behind the mainland at -6 GMT.
For more information on communications in Ecuador, feel free to visit our Communications page.
Good quality medical care is limited on the island. For common health problems such as cuts, infections and parasites visit English-speaking Dr. Darquea. He reportedly offers the best treatment in town in a clean private environment. His office is a bit inland from the Charles Darwin Station, ask a local for specific directions; tel: 526496. For more complicated injuries go to the Red Cross hospital; for major health problems it’s best to go immediately to the mainland. If you need to be medi-evacuted the fastest service available is Ecuavia, an air ambulance from Guayaquil. The cost is a couple thousand US dollars.
For dental problems contact Dr. Pino or Dr. Carrion at the hospital.
The pharmacy, Cruz Rojo, just up from the bus stop is the best-stocked pharmacy in town.
The main grocery store in town is small by mainland standards, but does offer a good array of dried, canned, and boxed goods, as well as basic toiletries, cheeses, bottled water, and a liqueur section. For fresh produce your best bet is the open-air market located on the road to the airport (a ten-minute walk from town). Some of the produce is grown locally while much of it is actually brought in by boat from the mainland. For this reason. prices are a bit high and the town can run out of the simplest items such as tomatoes, lettuce or watermelon, for over a week. On one recent occasion, the Island actually ran out of beer! Tragedy.
If you are in the market to buy souvenirs there is no shortage of boutiques offering Galapagos and Ecuadorian gifts. T-shirt shops are ubiquitous, as are shops selling beach paraphernalia. Just outside the Charles Darwin Station is a unique ceramic studio, Galapagos Ceramics, producing whimsical mugs with iguana handles and other imaginative items. There are also a number of jewelry stores selling hand-crafted items from silver, tagua nut and black coral. Tagua nut, also known as vegetable ivory, is a great thing to buy. It is a sustainably harvested nut from a mainland palm that provides income to small communities. Black coral, on the other hand, is an endangered animal and illegal to sell in any form. The same goes for turtle shells or any natural item collected from the national park. Please support the conservation of Galapagos wildlife and do not buy these items, as beautiful as they may be.
Updated and improved by Jason Halberstadt, October 20, 2015.