My Galapagos Getaway – Discovering the Western Islands aboard the Santa Cruz II

By Lara Dalrymple

I was recently lucky enough to get the opportunity to spend some days visiting Quito and the Western Islands of the Galapagos aboard the stunning Santa Cruz II.

The 90-guest Santa Cruz II is a fantastic option for Galapagos exploration

My Itinerary began with a short two-night stay in Quito in the most beautiful hotel I have ever stayed in called Casa Gangotena. This hotel is an absolutely stunning colonial style luxury hotel located in the centre of the Old Town in Quito. What I loved about this hotel is that as well as being absolutely beautiful, it is also quite small so even after only a few days I felt right at home! I really enjoyed the fine dining options that the hotel offers and spending the evenings out on the terrace, drink in hand, watching the sun go down and the Old Town coming alive!

On my free day in Quito I enjoyed visiting some of the highlights such as the Old Town market, the equator and San Francisco Church which is conveniently located right next to Casa Gangotena and a visit can be included if you stay there! San Francisco Church is one of the oldest in Quito and offered the best views for taking pictures of the city.

Now it was time for us to get to the Galapagos! From Quito it is only a short flight with a quick stop in Guayaquil on the way to let some passengers off and others on before continuing to Baltra. On arrival in Baltra Airport no time was wasted, after clearing customs (which is very quick if you pre-pay your national park fee and tourist card) we were taken to the Santa Cruz II for a quick safety briefing and lunch.

The Santa Cruz II is one of the bigger boats in the Galapagos and it is a really nice and comfortable way to travel. Its size means that you don’t feel as much movement when you are travelling from island to island which is great if you are worried about sea sickness. It also means they have a lot of extra room for more facilities and social areas. After a delicious buffet style lunch with many different options of local and international food, we were all ready to visit Dragon Hill.

As soon as I left the zodiac I was immediately able to see some of the animals that I had heard so much about and until then, had only seen in pictures which was thrilling! There were Sally Lightfoot Crabs, marine iguanas, land iguanas and many different birds! It really was a fantastic taste of what was to come! After we arrive back at the Santa Cruz II we had some time to relax before going to the restaurant for a delicious à la carte dinner.

Day two of this five-day Western Islands itinerary was definitely one of my favourites! After a delicious buffet breakfast, we get to explore the coast line on the zodiacs and saw many different animals including orcas, hundreds of green sea turtles and sea lions, a Galapagos penguin, marine iguanas and many different birds including our first blue-footed booby!!

Marine Iguanas camouflage among the volcanic rock

We also got the chance to snorkel – those who did not want to brave the sea did not miss out as they were able to go for a ride in the glass bottom boat.  After our buffet lunch and a short rest, we were back out again to visit Isabella Island which was my favourite island for photography. The landscape was really unique with its layers of lava, lakes and beaches. It was also fantastic for wildlife viewing with lots of Sally Lightfoot Crabs, sea lions, flightless cormorant and piles of marine iguanas (literally piles)!!
The next day we got to visit one of the most iconic animals of the Galapagos – the giant tortoise! After breakfast we boarded the zodiacs for a short trip to the town of Puerto Ayora. First, we began with a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station to visit our first giant tortoise and all their baby tortoise! After a relatively short (although really interesting and informative visit we boarded some buses for a scenic trip to the Santa Cruz Highlands to view the tortoise in their natural environment. It was really nice to see the tortoise in both the research station and in their natural habitat and there were many fantastic photo opportunities. 

For lunch we stayed in the beautiful green Santa Cruz Highlands in a local restaurant which also offered a fantastic buffet style lunch. After eating far too much in an attempt to try all the delicious food (as usual), I was glad that we had the afternoon free to choose from a range of activities. While I should have chosen something active to work off lunch, I opted to relax and enjoy my surroundings with some new friends!

The last full day of this itinerary was my absolute favourite! We started the morning with a fantastic breakfast as usual then boarded the zodiacs for Post Office Bay which is a famous point where, for decades, visitors and locals have left letters so that other travellers can pick them up and hand-deliver them to their destinations. After the dropping off our letters and picking up some to pass on, those who wanted to snorkel got the opportunity to do so from the beach. The water was very clear, and we all had some great encounters with sea lions and green turtles along with lots of fish. There were even some Galapagos penguins in the area!

After snorkelling (or relaxing on the beach) we had the opportunity to kayak or stand up paddle board in a beautiful turquoise beach close by. Since I have never tried stand up paddle boarding before I decided to give it a go and I LOVED it. The water was so calm and clear, and it was a beautiful experience to silently glide over green turtles and sea lions! After all this activity we were ready for lunch which was waiting for us by the time we arrived back at the ship.

In the afternoon we the opportunity to snorkel again around a place called Champion Islet which is one of the best snorkelling locations of all the islands. While the water was a little cold it was worth it! The water here was the clearest of all and a little deeper, so we could dive and play with the sea lions which was definitely a highlight for us all! There were also a lot of coloured fish and sea stars (starfish) in every direction. Those who did not wish to snorkel were able to enjoy the view from the glass bottom boat. After braving the colder water, we returned to the boat where I immediately went to warm up in one of the two spa baths on board!

After warming up and relaxing we were off to visit our last destination, Cormorant Point. As we were about to board the zodiacs we started to notice dolphins, not just one or two dolphins but a pod of about 200 of them!! Of course, this was an opportunity not to be missed so before we went to our destination we took a detour to the middle of the pod where the dolphins enjoyed diving alongside the zodiacs so close you could almost touch them! Some of them even impressed us with their acrobatics leaping out of the water and seeing how many flips they could do before landing!  This was a really amazing and unexpected experience that we all thoroughly enjoyed.

After the detour we arrived at Cormorant Point where we took a walk around the lagoon which was full of flamingos! This scene was perfect for photos as the sun set. At the end of our walk we arrived at a beautiful white sandy beach and we noticed that each time a wave broke the water was full of small sting rays! These were a little hard to capture in pictures, but it was really nice after such a long day to sit down and relax and watch the sting rays play in the waves. It was about this time I realised that I was at the end of my holiday and started wishing that I had just a few more days! I was certainly not ready to come back from this magical place! I could not believe how many fantastic experiences I had and how many great new friends I was able to make in only a few days. 

On the last day we had our last wakeup call relatively early in morning to give us time for our last breakfast and goodbyes. Everything was arranged like clockwork as usual to get us all to the airport on time for our departure flights back to Guayaquil or Quito. To be honest, I wasn’t so fussed about missing the flight – I would have been more than happy to stay in the Galapagos for a few more days!!

You can see the cruises we offer on board the Santa Cruz II and her sister ships here.

If you want to find out more about the destinations in this article, or have any questions in general please contact us.