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The iconic giant tortoise is on every visitor’s mental checklist when visiting the Galapagos islands. Tours always take visitors to the Charles Darwin Research Center in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, where you can learn about the conservation efforts through the National Park Service. 

The Charles Darwin Research Center

The Charles Darwin Research Center serves as an active conservation program and a visitor education center. Here, volunteers collect giant tortoise eggs from the wild for incubation in the center. This is to protect the tortoise eggs from introduced species – dogs, pigs, and rats – which would otherwise eat the eggs and young tortoises. Baby giant tortoises are raised and protected within the confines of the center until they are old enough to survive in the wild.

  • Baby tortoises. Baby giant tortoises (is that an oxymoron?) are adorable – many are smaller than your palm!
  • Different species of giant tortoises. You can see the variations between the species – the saddleback tortoises from other islands. Even if you plan to visit the other islands,  it is nice to see all the species and their differences side by side.
  • Conservation information - Did you know that temperature during incubation strongly influences the gender of a giant tortoise? Or that pirates used to capture giant tortoise and store the live animals on their ships as a fresh meat source?
Baby giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Conservation Center

Baby giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Conservation Center

El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve

There is no substitute for the thrill of seeing the animals in the wild at El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve. The El Chato reserve is privately owned land where many giant tortoises live, but come and go as they please. There are no fences and no enclosures. The owners of the land plant guava and poison apple trees which the giant tortoises like to eat.  Most guided tours take visitors on a walk to observe the tortoises, but it is also possible to take a hike through the reserve. In the wild you can observe the following:

  • Tortoises making new “friends.” Finches and giant tortoises are an excellent example of symbiosis – a mutually beneficial relationship between species. The finches eat bugs and insects off the back and skin of giant tortoises, ridding the tortoises of parasites and getting a free meal to boot.
  • Tortoises eating guava. The way a tortoise chews is slow and methodical and would be extremely dignified if there wasn’t messy pink guava pulp all over their chin.
  • Tortoises taking a bath.  On a hot day in the Galapagos, the tortoises love to chill out in the muddy ponds in the reserve
  • Tortoises mating! Tortoise mating season in the Galapagos  is January to May. If you are very lucky you might be able to see giant tortoises mating.  The female has a somewhat flatter shell on top, which helps the male stay on top.
  • Giant tortoise shells. Empty giant tortoise shells are surprisingly interesting – you can feel the texture, pick it up, and even climb inside.
  • Poison apple trees. This is an endemic species, only found in the Galapagos. It is poisonous to eat for humans, although giant tortoises have several for a snack. More about the poison apple tree here.

    Tortoises bathing in the pond at El Chato

    Tortoises bathing in the pond at El Chato

Galapagos Giant Tortoises Video – What to see in Santa Cruz

These are highlights of the tour to see giant tortoises on the Darwin’s Footprints tour with Red Mangrove Lodges.


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2 Responses to Giant tortoise spotting on Santa Cruz

  1. Faye says:


    Lovely to read about it seems like a great reserve! I am going to the Islands in March and will spend a night on Santa Cruz on the 16th. My dream is to see the giant tortoises roaming around in the wild but I am worried that I won’t in March as I have read that the tortoises head to the Lowlands? Where would be best to see the tortoises in the wild in March? Any help is greatly appreciated.

    Thank you :)

    • Lisa Cho says:

      Hi Faye, I went to the Galapagos in march, and I saw tons of giant tortoises in the highlands of Santa Cruz at El Chato and Primicias ranch. Nothing is ever guaranteed in the Galapagos, but you’re very likely to see them. Have a great trip!


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