“The tortoise is very fond of water, drinking large quantities, and wallowing in the mud…When the tortoise arrives at the spring, quite regardless of any spectator, he buries his head in the water above his eyes, and greedily swallows great mouthfuls, at a rate of about ten a minute.”
Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

It felt like I was back in school getting ready for a much-anticipated class field trip. For the first time since we had arrived in the Galápagos, all 90 passengers were leaving the Flora for the same place at the same time. An air of excitement swirled about the crowded Discovery Lounge as we waited for our zodiac number to be called. We were heading to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island to see the Galápagos’ most famous residents: the giant tortoises.

The zodiacs dropped us off at a landing on Santa Cruz where we boarded buses for the 45-minute journey. A naturalist provided commentary as we rode past banana and papaya trees, coffee farms and thick green forests. The landscape was filled with canopies of daisy trees – also known as Scalesia plants – a vegetation that is endemic to the Galápagos.

Santa Cruz Island boat landing…
…and bus stop.
Daisy trees and other foliage along our route in the Santa Cruz highlands.
A Santa Cruz highlands farmhouse.

But First – A Tree Planting

Before we reached the tortoise destination, our bus pulled over near the edge of a forest, where rows of chairs and tall rubber boots were laid out. Celebrity donates trees to the Galápagos as a way of giving back to the islands, and guests on this excursion are invited to lend a hand. We changed into our boots, picked up our plants and spades and followed a path into the forest. Holes had been dug earlier, assuring proper placement and ease of planting, a welcome gesture given our tight timeframe.

Our group heads into the forest.
Herb plants one of our trees.
Each plant is tagged with a number, which we were encouraged to photograph in case we returned for a visit.

Rancho El Manzanillo

Back on the bus, we continued a few more miles before reaching Rancho El Manzanillo, a family-run farm and tortoise reserve that would be our host for the tour. Colorful displays about Galápagos wildlife greeted us as we were directed to a covered outdoor boot room, where once again, we exchanged our shoes for tall rubber boots before heading into the forest.

We had barely stepped onto the reserve when our naturalist pointed out a tortoise a few yards away. This was a male, she told us, and looked to be almost one hundred years old. He seemed to have his eye on a nearby female, who was completely covered by her shell.

The tranquil reserve at Rancho El Manzanillo.
Our first giant tortoise sighting!
A close-up of his 100-year-old face.
The male is typically more than twice the size of the female.
Giant tortoises feed on grasses, flowers, leaves and fruits. Passion fruit is a dietary favorite.

We walked deeper into the reserve, past a manmade pond and a natural lake. Tortoises seemed to appear at every turn, sometimes looking like characters right out of Jurassic Park. Our naturalist explained that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 tortoises on Santa Cruz Island and that the females migrate to the lowlands to prepare nests and lay their eggs.

Heading deeper into the forest.
A few of my favorite new friends…
Wallowing in the mud.
Munching on passion fruit.
Drying off after a dip.
Snacking on grasses.
Amazing creatures from head…
…to toes.
We swapped photo duties with others in our group…
It was a surreal feeling, as if we were standing in front of a Hollywood backdrop!

After the tour, we returned to the ranch for lunch and a cultural dance performance by local students. Manzanillo also runs a small gift shop, which was the first chance we’d had in the Galápagos to pick up souvenirs. It was a wonderful way to end our trip to the highlands and a great finish to our last day in the Galápagos.

Rancho El Manzanillo’s lovely dining room.
Lunch was served buffet-style and included Ecuadorian selections of chicken, fish and vegetables and an especially tasty vegetable soup.

And as we were heading to the bus, this fellow wandered out of the reserve to say goodbye.


  • Mary!
    This was just wonderful!!
    You are such a great writer!
    Lovely to relive my trip through your eyes!
    I hope you and Here are ending the summer!
    When is the baby due?

    • Thanks so much, Judy! I appreciate your kind comment and I’m delighted that you’re reliving your trip here! The Galápagos is one of those places that stays with you long after you’ve left, isn’t it? We are doing well…baby is due in August…all the best to you and Bruce 🙂

  • Mary, we leave in 22 days for our long-awaited Flora trip (we booked it over four years ago and one baby + one pandemic later…we’re just now getting around to going).

    We’ve been following along with these blog posts – your writing and photos are beautiful. It’s helped us get even more excited.

    One question – our entire group is coming from very hot weather (Fresno and South Florida) and I’m perplexed as to what to pack. Did you feel long pants/shirts were necessary each day or did it get hot for the afternoon excursions? Our perception of “cold” is a bit different than our northern friends. 🙂 Thank you!

    • Hi Brittany, I’m so happy to know that the blog posts have helped to fuel your excitement! Thank you for following along! The Galápagos weather was quite moderate, mostly in the high and low 70s when we were there in mid-to-late May. I would suggest packing hiking or exercise-type clothing that keeps you cool and ideally has an SPF rating. Keep in mind you are on the equator! My husband and I wore long pants for most of the hikes and shorts on the beach walks, where there was no brush, and always long-sleeved tops. Make sure you have a really good hat – safari hats with chins straps were a great investment – as well as sturdy hiking shoes or trail runners and closed-toed water shoes, which come in handy for wet landings and can do double-duty on beach hikes. Please feel free to contact me if other questions arise. You are in for a fantastic adventure!

  • Mary, last day? Oh no! I love travelling with you and Herb and was just getting acclimatised 😉 The giant tortoises are strange creatures aren’t they? A tortoise was a popular pet to own when I was a child (not that I had one myself), but now they are rarely seen here. I’m glad you introduced me to the Galapagos tortoises who appear darker and more distinctly marked than their Seychellois cousins (who just might have been dusty and in need of a shower when we were there!)
    But Mary, last day? Oh no! I love travelling with you and Herb and was just getting acclimatised 😉 What a marvellous trip you had!

    • Interesting comparisons between giant tortoise species, Gill. We’ve not been to the Seychelles – “yet,” as I always like to optimistically add! The thing that struck me the most about the giant tortoises was how solitary they were compared with the other Galápagos birds and animals. The other creatures were very sociable, living together in colonies and interacting with each other. Our naturalist said the giant tortoises are quite independent and tend to keep to themselves.
      Sadly, yes, this was our last day of Galápagos adventuring. It was certainly a highlight of a trip, and I’ve loved having you traveling along with us 🙂

  • Enjoyed reading about your day but now I realize we are probably not on the same “loop”. We’re on the NOrthern Loop but Santa Cruz is not a listed stop on our cruise. The giant tortoises look amazing – I hope we can see them elsewhere. Also, was have just 48 on the Xpedition so I hope we have as many choices as you do in your daily activities.

    • Hi Eileen, I believe the loop names are different on each ship. The Flora has inner and outer – we were on the inner – and the Xpedition goes by Northern and Southern. I’m thinking that there must be some overlap with itineraries making similar stops. The Galápagos National Park Service coordinates visits for all ships, and we didn’t see anyone except our fellow passengers when we visited the various islands. I’m quite certain you will have an excursion to see the giant tortoises on San Cristóbal or another island. Our cruise director remarked that this was the day many people had been waiting for and in some cases their reason for traveling to the Galápagos!

  • Thanks for your input. I started looking up the island names instead of looking at the “stops” on our cruise. We Do stop at Santa Cruz, the stops are Puerto Ayora, Las Bachas, Black Turtle cove then to Baltra and Daphne Island. I’m sure you’re correct they keep groups apart and coordinate visit times. I’m sure we won’t be disappointed and will continue to follow your postings. And where to now that you’ve been to the Galpagos?

    • Oh, that’s great Eileen! Puerto Ayora was our landing for the trip to the giant tortoise reserve. You will have a fabulous time no matter where you stop 🙂 I still have far too many destinations on my travel dream list, but for now we’ll be traveling closer to home, getting ready to welcome our second grandchild!

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