A stop on Santa Cruz Island is often the highlight of visits to the Galapagos because it is the place to see giant tortoises, both in the wild and in captivity. At the Charles Darwin Research Station, visitors can observe baby tortoises being bred for release on their native islands. The station's most famous resident, Lonesome George, died in June 2012 at around 100 years old. George was the last known member of the Isla Pinta subspecies.
In addition to the tortoises, the station has a land iguana repatriation project. There are also walkways where visitors can see native flora as well as land birds, including some of Darwin's famous finches. There's a park information center, a small museum where slideshows are presented in several languages and an excellent gift shop. Most research work happens on the various islands and not at the station itself.
At the Highlands, as the center of the island is known, visitors can view the giant tortoises in the wild. A small bus or hired taxi takes visitors to a farm in the Highlands, the closest thing to a rain forest on the islands, where dozens of these giant creatures live amid marshy bogs and dense undergrowth. How easy the lumbering creatures are to spot often depends on the weather and time of day.
As part of a visit to a tortoise farm, travelers usually get a chance to see other parts of the Highlands. Two large craters, called Los Gemelos, are visible from the main road; they were formed by the sinking of magma chambers. A long cave that is actually a lava tube can also be explored. (Most farms now provide flashlights.)
The largest town in the islands, Puerto Ayora, is the headquarters of the Galapagos National Park and the site of the Charles Darwin Research Station. Dozens of cruise ships and boats anchor in the town's harbor, which is one of the departure points for those who arrive by plane at the Baltra Island airport, just north of Santa Cruz.
Puerto Ayora has the feel of an island resort, with open-air restaurants, small hotels and a laid-back pace. Sitting at San Francisco Park, visitors can watch waves rolling in, blue-footed boobies plunging into the sea, colorful crabs squaring off on volcanic rocks and marine iguanas feeding on algae. Puerto Ayora has grown significantly as Ecuadorians have relocated there to take advantage of the tourism business. One of the most developed towns in the island chain, it now has about 12,000 residents and a host of domesticated and wild animals that are nonnative to the islands.
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