Charles Darwin Research Station is situated in the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, at the east end of Avenida Charles Darwin. It was established in 1964 and it is the headquarters of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Here more than 100 scientists, students and volunteers are working with research and conservation projects to protect the Galapagos ecosystem and endangered species.
At Charles Darwin Research Station there is a museum and information centre where you can learn much about the wildlife and ecology of the Galapagos Islands. There is a breeding centre and a house where baby-tortoises are incubated. The young tortoises are taken care of until they are old enough to be taken to their home islands and natural habitat. In the Galapagos Islands there are 11 different subspecies of the Giant Tortoise, and at Charles Darwin Research Station you can see several of them. The most famous tortoise here is Lonesome George. He is the only surviving Tortoise of the subspecies from Isla Pinta. Many attempts have been made to mate him with closely related females, but without success.
There are several enclosures with adult Giant Tortoises and in one of them you can go down to come close to the tortoises. There are also enclosures with Land Iguanas.
I visited Charles Darwin Research Station on the first day of the Cruise with M/S Cachalote, so we got a very good guided walk around the area. However, it is easy to visit on your own. It is only a 15 minutes walk from central Puerto Ayora and around the Research Station there are several trails and information boards. It is free to visit.
Update June 2012: Lonesome George died on the 24th of June 2012. He was found dead in the morning by his caretaker and it is believed that he died because his heart stopped and because of old age. Lonesome George was between 90 -107 years.
Las Grietas is a long fissure in the lava rock. Here freshwater filtered down from the highlands meet salty water entering from the sea, making the water in the ravine brackish. It is a very nice place for swimming and snorkelling. The water is very clear, but can be a bit cold. Some people dive or make somersaults from the high cliffs. When you swim you can continue longer than you think, but you will have to walk over a few rooks and then you can continue the swim around the corner. I think it is a very beautiful place!
In the afternoon, I have heard, tour groups come here, so if you want tranquillity you should come early. It is easy to go here on your own from Puerto Ayora. Just take a water taxi ($0.60) from the pier over to Angemeyer Point and than follow the trail. After passing Finch Bay Hotel the trail becomes more rocky, so good shoes can be good to wear. Along the path there are several small lagoons were you might see migratory and coastal birds (for example I saw a Great Blue Heron here).
The first time I visited Las Grietas I hadn’t brought swimwear or snorkel equipment with me, so I came back the next day. I rented the snorkel equipment at Cabo Mar, near the harbour. It was $5 (July 2011) for the whole day and the equipment was good.
At Tortuga Bay there is a beautiful long white sandy beach (Playa Brava). There are strong currents in the sea so this beach is not for swimming, but some people are surfing, kayaking and sunbathing. If you want to swim there is a smaller protected beach (Playa Mansa) in the end of Tortuga Bay. At Tortuga Bay you will probably see Marine Iguanas and different birds like the Brown Pelican, The Great Blue Heron and Sanderlings. You are not allowed to walk on the dunes above the beach as that is a nesting area for the marine green turtle. In the end of Tortuga Bay there is an area with lots of Opuntia cactus, a cactus that on Galapagos Islands grows like a tree.
From Puerto Ayora there is a 2.5km long paved trail leading to Tortuga Bay. It is a beautiful walk past green vegetation, among other plants many Opuntia cactuses. You might see Ground Finches and Cactus Finches along the walk.
At the starting point of the trail you must register at an office, and you must do so when you return too. The office is open between 6-18.
There is a small beach in front of Finch Bay Hotel. This beach is called Punta Estrada Beach and as it is protected in a bay the water is calm and good for swimming. When I passed this beach the first time on my way to Las Grietas I didn’t have any swimwear with me, but I thought I could make a stop the next day to snorkel along the edge of the mangrove and sit in the sun on the beach for a while, but now it didn’t turn out that way.
At Tortuga Bay there is a long white sandy beach, but because the currents can be very strong here this beach is not good for swimming. However, if you walk to the end of the beach at Tortuga Bay you will come to the small protected beach Playa Mansa (photo 2,3 and 4).
You can also swim from the small beach, Station Beach, near Charles Darwin Research Station.
Puerto Ayora’s fish market is really little more than a few stone counters set by the side of the road in the middle of town, backed by the harbour. The fish can come directly from boat to counter to shopping bag. As a tourist you’re maybe unlikely to be shopping for fish, but just the same, this is a spot worth visiting. The activity here (gutting and preparing fish) is a magnet for local wildlife, such as pelicans and sea lions, and they are as comfortable around humans in this populated area as they are on the more remote islands. So this is a great place to get some rather different photos of the animals and to record their interactions with the locals.
After spending some time here we were ready for a coffee break.
Following Fabian’s tour we were free for the rest of the morning. Chris and I walked back through the grounds, stopping to look at the various plants – the centre also maintains a native plant garden of species endemic to the Santa Cruz arid and coastal zones. We watched a Cactus Finch at close quarters in one of the Opuntias and then had a brief look inside the Van Straelen Exhibition Centre which has displays about the Galápagos Islands and the work of the Research Station. The centre also runs slide shows that describe the history of the islands and the current conservation efforts. We only spent a short time here as we were getting so much information from Fabian on all our island visits that we didn’t feel the need to read everything here in detail, and to be honest I felt that the presentation was a little dull and static compared with modern interpretation techniques employed elsewhere. Besides, we were more interested in spending time outside exploring for ourselves. But if you’ve just arrived in the Galápagos and would like an introduction to the ecology, geology and other aspects of this special part of the world, you could do worse than study these displays.
One inhabitant we did not meet at the Research Centre was Lonesome George, who had sadly died a few months before our visit. His spirit is still felt though, as my next tip describes.
The Charles Darwin Research Centre is run by the Charles Darwin Foundation, an international not-for-profit organization set up under the auspices of UNESCO in 1960, following the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” (published in 1859). The aim was to contribute to the conservation of the Galápagos Islands. A visit here is included in just about every cruise, I understand, and is also easy to do if staying in Puerto Ayora, as the centre is only about a mile outside town. For us, it was the first place we visited on Santa Cruz, and we transferred directly to the centre’s own jetty in the pangas straight after breakfast.
The centre was set up in 1960 in order to promote research, conservation, and education in the archipelago. Fabian gave us a tour of the different pens used for the successful Giant tortoise breeding programme for which the centre is best known. We saw a group of male tortoises in one, females in another, and elsewhere met “Super Diego”, considered to be the centre’s most sexually active male (and therefore very useful to the breeding programme!) The latter is a Saddleback Tortoise, and Fabian pointed out how his shell shape differs from that of his cousins – a feature that demonstrates admirably Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the larger islands, such as here on Santa Cruz, the Giant Tortoises thrive in the highlands where there is plentiful ground vegetation. Here the domed shell is the norm. But on some of the smaller islands, where most vegetation is above ground and harder to reach, the tortoises have evolved to have this cut-away area of their shell, behind their heads, which enables them to stretch upwards to reach food. Fabian also told us that Stephen Spielberg had been inspired by seeing the tortoises on a visit to the centre to come up with the image of ET – look, you can see him, can’t you?
As with all such places, the centre offers you a chance to get close to wildlife. However, after five days visiting the islands it was clear to us that, given how comfortable the animals and birds are around their human visitors, “getting close” is much less of a bonus here than elsewhere! But we did learn a lot about the Giant Tortoises, and I was also able to get a nice little video of one on the move.
After seeing the adult tortoises, and a few Land iguanas (although the breeding programme for these had now ceased, having achieved its aims), we went on to visit the rearing house, where hatchlings are cared for, and the adaptation centre, where young tortoises are gradually accustomed to the conditions they will find on release to their home islands, which happens at about four years of age. Nearly 2,000 young tortoises have been released so far!
Here our tour with Fabian ended and we all went our separate ways, free to explore more of the centre on our own, as my next tip describes.
The fish market in Puerto Ayora is situated at Pelican Bay and it is interesting to stop here for a while and watch the fishermen take care of today’s catch while the pelicans surrounds them waiting for left-overs from the fish. I have seen pelicans around fishermen before, but once I was here there was also a sea lion standing next to the young man filleting the fish. To see a sea lion like that is probably something you see just in Galapagos Islands.
Turtle bay is a huge swathe of sand some five km off Puerto Ayora. It can be reached only on foot and there is controlled entrance which closes at 18:00h. During the heat of day going there can be an exhausting trek despite the evenly paved pathway. At the entrance to the path water and other fluids are available, so necessary to keep you up and running. At the same spot there is a beautiful view of Puerto Ayora, because it is on a high ground just off a geological crack locally known as grieta. Down the path one can see abundance of cactuses sticking out of the porous lava rocks to the bewilderment of the viewers as to what they have been growing on up to 5 meter in height since there is no soil at all.
The beach itself is a white fantasy sandwiched between the ocean and fields of crawling succulent plants favoured by turtles for their nourishment and cover. The waters are surveyed closely by huge pelicans; the lava rocks are populated by scarlet crabs, and crawled upon by myriad of iguanas. Certainly this spot has lots to offer in terms of wildlife but at the same time it seems to be a favourite outing place for the local people so it has a peculiar “non-touristy” ambience. Considering that the vast majority of guests to the islands are stacked like sardines on the cruise ships and their part of Puerto Ayora includes no more than the Darwin center, one feels privileged to be able to enjoy the frivolous beauty of this beach and bless the moment when the decision to explore Galapagos independently was made.
Darwin Center is one of the obvious places to visit on the island of Santa Cruz. It offers a glimpse into the preservation process concerning mainly the Galapagos hallmark species – the turtles. Here one can meet up and close these strange dinosaurs and despite the zoo-like set up it feels distinctly different. Doors are open to visitors to follow the clumsy movements of the beasts from close range. Naturally, touching and feeding is not allowed. Nurseries with hundreds of newborns and youngster turtles are buzzing up and down in closed off areas ready to prop up the population on the respective islands when needed. The movie star of the establishment is Lonely George, the only and last representative of the turtles from Pinta Island. The lucky devil has been paired with two females whom he relentlessly chases when the weather is cool enough but with no tangible success so far. There is an information booth where one can learn about turtle history and present day conditions especially with the help of a guide. The living quarters of the animals are set amongst local vegetation and most probably this is going to be the first spot where a Galapagos newcomer will encounter the special tree-looking cactus of the Galapagos. Hovering between the prickly branches are numerous “Darwin” finches that come with different beaks depending on their specialization – perfect illustration of the Darwin research – the birds’ name is no coincidence at all.