Located in the highlands of Santa Cruz, El Chato Ranch is a privately owned farm that provides a protective sanctuary for giant Galapagos tortoises.
A visit to El Chato Ranch is an absolute must during your visit to the Galapagos archipelago. Here, you’ll come face-to-face with these iconic, endangered creatures while witnessing them in their natural habitat.
In addition to encountering wild tortoises, you can also experience the volcanic legacy of Santa Cruz island by venturing into underground lava tunnels.
A visit to El Chato Ranch is an easy half-day trip from Puerto Ayora (the main town on Santa Cruz) and can be combined with an airport pick-up/drop-off to maximize your precious time on the island.
*All prices and information are accurate as of September 2023.*
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ℹ️ About El Chato Ranch: Overview
|Location||Santa Cruz Island, 45 minutes from Puerto Ayora|
|Website||Rancho El Chato|
|Main Highlights||Galapagos giant tortoises and lava tunnels.|
|How to Get There||Tour, taxi, bicycle, or bus from Puerto Ayora.|
|Services||Bathrooms, exhibits, and cafe.|
|Other Names||– Rancho El Chato|
– La Reserva Ecológica El Chato
El Chato Ranch is a private, family-owned ecologic reserve that provides a sanctuary for the Galapagos giant tortoises of Santa Cruz Island. It is located approximately 45 minutes from the major tourist town of Puerto Ayora.
The ranch includes 30 acres dedicated to preserving the natural highland habitat of the island.
It resides within a greater area known as “El Chato Tortoise Reserve”, which is yet further encompassed by the boundaries of Galapagos National Park that surround the ranch.
Owned and operated by the Arias family, El Chato has been open to tourists for over 20 years. Here you can come face-to-face with giant Galapagos tortoises roaming freely in their natural environment.
While you used to be able to do self-guided tours of the ranch, it is now only possible to visit with a tour guide. However, one will be provided upon your arrival if you don’t visit with a pre-booked tour.
In addition to the reserve, there is also a small cafe, souvenir shop, and bathrooms available. Coffee and herbal tea are provided on a donation basis (both of which are delicious!) and water bottle refills are available for a small fee.
⭐️ Pro Tip: Combine your visit to El Chato Ranch with an airport pick up/drop off to maximize your time most efficiently.
About La Caseta and Cerro Chato
While researching for our visit, we saw a lot of mention about the two zones of El Chato Ranch; La Caseta and Cerro Chato (aka Chato Hill). However, we couldn’t figure out what these two zones were even after visiting!
We asked a staff member to explain it to us so that we could provide better information for our readers. Here is what we learned:
Cerro Chato is part of the El Chato Tortoise Reserve within the Galapagos National Park nearby. It is not within the private property of the El Chato Ranch. This area does, however, lend its name to El Chato Ranch and has the largest population of tortoises on the island.
It is possible to visit Cerro Chato with a naturalist guide from the ranch or on a guided tour from Puerto Ayora. A visit to Cerro Chato is an additional $50 per group if you opt to do this from the ranch.
La Caseta is also part of the National Park and not part of the private ranch. It is not possible to visit La Caseta. This area is only accessible to National Park Rangers that use it for tortoise research.
🏝️ DISCOVER MORE:
COMPLETE GUIDE TO SANTA CRUZ GALAPAGOS
🚙 How to Get to El Chato Ranch
El Chato Ranch is located approximately 13.5 miles (22km) from Puerto Ayora and takes around 45 minutes to reach by car.
A visit to El Chato Ranch is often included in Galapagos cruises or land tour itineraries. It is also possible to book a half-day tour here in town or make your own way there via taxi, bus, or bicycle.
We highly recommend combining your visit to El Chato with an airport pick-up or drop-off as it is located between Puerto Ayora and the airport.
This is the most efficient way to visit and maximize your time in Santa Cruz. However, we will cover all the options for getting to El Chato below.
While you used to be able to do self-guided tours of the reserve, it is now only possible to visit with a tour guide. However, one will be provided upon your arrival to the reserve if you don’t visit with a pre-booked tour.
Getting to El Chato via Highlands Half-Day Tour
While a guided highlands tour is not necessary, it is the easiest way to visit El Chato for most people.
Guided tours typically include a naturalist guide to one of the highland farms to see the tortoises as well as Los Gemelos (translating to Twin Craters), which are large, impressive sinkholes formed following volcanic activity.
It is worth noting that El Chato is not the only farm with tortoises in the highlands. Many tours will instead take you to Rancho Primicias.
Personally, we visited El Chato as part of our tour with Inspiring Ecuador and absolutely loved our experience. We highly recommend it to everyone visiting Santa Cruz, while acknowledging that both have fantastic reputations and offer similar experiences.
You can pre-book your tour in advance to have a driver meet you at the airport and take you to El Chato on the way to Puerto Ayora. If you choose to do this, make sure you read the details of what is included in the price as these can greatly differ.
Booking a Tour to El Chato
It is easy to book a highlands tour upon arrival in Puerto Ayora. They rarely fill up, so you should have no trouble doing so with minimal notice.
You can book a tour online in advance as well. Doing so is great for organizing your Galapagos itinerary, but they can be substantially more expensive than if you book in Puerto Ayora directly.
Below are some top-rated highlands tours for those that prefer to book online in advance:
- Giant Tortoise Experience, Lava Tubes & Los Gemelos: 5/5⭐️
- Transfer Airport-Hotel with Visit to Giant Tortoises: 4.5/5⭐️
- Santa Cruz Highlands Private Tour with a Licensed Guide: 5/5⭐️
⭐️ Pro tip: Ensure you check the details of any tour you book as many are advertised as tours but in reality only provide transport. In this case, you will typically be better off just arranging a taxi.
Getting to El Chato by Taxi
If you prefer the self-guided option, an easy way to get to El Chato Ranch is by booking a taxi.
In fact, many “tours” really provide nothing more than transport. Booking a local taxi once you’re on the island can be a much better and cheaper option.
Additionally, you will be provided a naturalist guide at El Chato as it is no longer possible to take self-guided tours. Having this available further decreases the value of a tour.
If you’d like to book a taxi from the airport upon arrival, it is worth getting in touch with your host or accommodation as this is something they can usually arrange for you.
You can decide whether you want to just visit El Chato or pair it with a visit to Los Gemelos. A taxi to the highlands will cost you around $40-50 and includes waiting time at the ranch and Los Gemelos.
This is a far more budget-friendly option, particularly if you have a few people in your group. However, most taxi drivers only speak Spanish so communication can be a little difficult if you don’t speak some Spanish.
Getting to El Chato by Bicycle
For the more adventurous travelers, it is possible to rent a bike in Puerto Ayora for about $15/ day and cycle to El Chato Ranch. Electing this method of travel will present you with a few options for getting there.
If you are very fit and comfortable cycling longer distances, you can cycle all the way from Puerto Ayora. This ride is around 13.5 miles (22km) each way and is mostly uphill on the way there with an elevation gain of 1600 ft (495m). Additionally, you will be cycling along unpaved, rural roads or paved two-lane highways anywhere beyond Bellavista.
Another option is to take your bike to Santa Rosa on either a bus ($1) or in a taxi ($20). From Santa Rosa, you can cycle the short distance to El Chato Ranch, then enjoy a downhill ride back to Puerto Ayora when you’re done.
Finally, it is also possible to book a cycle tour to El Chato. This is a great option for those who want an active adventure but want to have the details taken care of for them.
It is also worth noting that there is a charging station for e-bikes at El Chato if you opt for a slightly easier bike ride!
⭐️ Pro tip: Rain is common in the highlands so be prepared to get wet, even if it’s sunny as you start your ride.
Getting to El Chato by Bus
The final option for reaching El Chato is by public bus. While this is by far the most budget-friendly option, it requires a long walk.
The bus costs only $1 from Puerto Ayora and will drop you at Santa Rosa. From there, you will have to walk approximately 2.5 miles (4km) to the El Chato Ranch. The walk is fairly easy, but keep in mind you will also need to walk back to Santa Rosa after exploring the reserve.
The bus service is also limited! It leaves from the bus station four to five times per day Monday through Saturday, and less often on Sunday.
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🐢 What to See at El Chato Ranch
One of the top reasons for visiting the Galapagos is to witness Galapagos giant tortoises in their natural habitat, and El Chato Ranch is the perfect place to do this. It is also popular for the lava tunnels that you can explore here.
While these are the most popular and iconic sights, the highlands are also a great place for bird-watching! They provide housing for a myriad of endemic avian species.
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35 MOST ICONIC GALAPAGOS ANIMALS & WHERE TO SEE THEM
About the Galapagos Giant Tortoises at El Chato
The Galapagos giant tortoises are the star attraction of the Galapagos, and El Chato Ranch is the best place to see them.
This protected area provides the perfect natural habitat for these creatures with its lush vegetation, Scalesia forest, and mud pools.
Galapagos Tortoise Lifespan & Population
The Galapagos giant tortoises were once so abundant that Spanish explorers in 1535 named the islands after them (galápago meaning tortoise in Spanish). However, they reached near extinction in the 19th century due to excessive hunting and introduced species.
These impressive reptiles are the world’s largest tortoises and have been known to exceed 5 feet in length and weigh over 500lbs (225kg).
Galapagos tortoises are also the longest-lived of all land vertebrates, averaging over 100 years old, with the oldest tortoise on record reaching an impressive 175 years.
Galapagos Tortoise Species & Habitat
On Santa Cruz, there are two genetically distinct subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoises, and throughout the other Galapagos islands, you will find even more.
The ones you’ll see at El Chato are the Western Santa Cruz Giant Tortoise, which exists only on the southwestern slopes of the island. Based on the last population estimation in 2016, it is believed that there are around 3,400 mature adults living in this area.
The tortoises in the highlands farms are monitored but are free to go anywhere they want. However, they have little reason to leave as this area provides them with ideal conditions.
Here at home, they have plentiful food sources as well as an extensive population of potential mates.
Due to these perfect conditions, there is a year-round population of tortoises that live in the Santa Cruz highlands.
Galapagos Tortoise Interactions & Etiquette
At El Chato, the tortoises are very used to human company making for a magical experience and great photo opportunities.
However, please be respectful of them and their home, and adhere to the rules! Most importantly, always keep at least 6ft (2m) away and obviously never touch the animals.
With that said, the tortoises don’t know the rules so if you keep still, don’t be surprised to find one come walking right up to you!
Lava Tunnels at El Chato
Throughout Santa Cruz, you can discover a number of underground tunnels created by ancient lava flows.
As the outer layers of lava cooled, they solidified forming a hardened crust. Meanwhile, the lava inside continued to flow hot and fast. As the flow of lava ceased, the magma inside the crust continued flowing outward, eventually escaping it and leaving behind a tunnel.
Within El Chato, you can venture into one of these lava tunnels to experience this subterranean ecosystem.
The lava tunnels at El Chato are one of the smaller ones open to visitors at around 650ft (200m) in length but are still impressive to see.
The tunnel is lit with small lamps throughout, but is still fairly dark. The floor is uneven with rocks and puddles which can make it slippery.
While there is a handrail for much of the trail through the tunnel, there is one area where you have to duck a little as the ceiling is lower and there is no handrail here. Therefore, it is not recommended for people with mobility issues.
The lava tunnels can be chilly inside. On a hot day, this can provide a welcome respite from the sun but on an already cooler day, you may want an extra layer.
Other Wildlife at Rancho El Chato
The highlands of Santa Cruz are great for bird-watching. On El Chato Ranch you can spot a variety of endemic birds flitting between the trees or hopping along the ground.
Some of the birds that call this area home include yellow warblers, vermillion flycatchers, Darwin’s finches, cattle egrets, herons, and many more.
Those with a keen eye may even be fortunate enough to spot the elusive short-eared owl!
⭐️ Our Experience at El Chato Ranch
We visited El Chato Ranch in April 2023 as part of our tour with Inspiring Ecuador.
We had already seen Galapagos tortoises on our previous, independent visit to Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado on San Cristobal so we were perhaps a little less excited about seeing the tortoises than others in our group.
However, this quickly became one of the best experiences we had in all of our time in the Galapagos!
Before even reaching the ranch, we had spotted 13 tortoises from the bus on the road to El Chato. By the time we arrived, everyone was already buzzing with excitement!
Upon arrival, we immediately spotted another giant tortoise enjoying a snack on the grass just outside the visitor center… Tortoise number 14 and we had yet to begin!
Better yet, #14 was completely unphased by our presence and was happy to pose for photos.
Before we set out along the trail, we were each provided rubber boots to protect our feet, primarily from fire ants. These mean little guys are an introduced species that pack a painful bite.
We were impressed with how organized this area was and that the boots had been well-cleaned prior to our use.
From here we had time to use the bathrooms, which were also exceptionally clean, and browse the cafe/shop area.
Our naturalist guide took us through El Chato, giving us ample time to stop and photograph the many tortoises we saw along the way. We found that having a guide really added to our experience.
Not only did she know the best places to see the tortoises but she was also able to provide information about them and their behavior. The guide also found a mating pair after hearing the male’s grunts from afar, something we likely otherwise would’ve missed.
At the end of our visit, we stopped back at the visitor center to take pictures in the tortoise shells here. It’s fascinating to feel how heavy the empty shells are.
We also loved the coffee and lemongrass tea that was provided for free here!
⭐️ Pro Tip: Bring your passport to get a unique tortoise stamp at the visitor center!
🧐 Is It Worth Visiting El Chato Ranch?
The short answer is yes, it is absolutely worth visiting El Chato Ranch! In fact, we consider it one of the best things to do in the Galapagos.
Even if you’ve visited Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado in San Cristobal or Centro de Crianza in Isabela, you will still have a unique experience at El Chato seeing adult tortoises roaming freely in their natural environment.
Additionally, this was one of our favorite places for Galapagos photography with these iconic creatures.
🌦️ Tips for Visiting El Chato Ranch
We are sure that a visit to El Chato Ranch will be a highlight on your Galapagos itinerary but hope these helpful tips can further enhance your time there.
- Ensure you pack plenty of water. You can also refill your water bottle for a small fee.
- The weather in the highlands is unpredictable. Be sure to bring both sun protection and rain gear!
- Pack a pair of socks to wear with the rubber boots you’ll be provided.
- As per Galapagos National Park rules, maintain a distance of 6ft (2m) from the tortoises at all times.
- Mosquitoes can be a problem so bring insect repellent.
- Plan for at least 1-2 hours at El Chato Ranch.
- Make sure you stop by the visitor center for free tea/coffee, as well as to snap a photo in a tortoise shell.
- Plan your visit in conjunction with an airport pick up/drop off for maximum efficiency.
- Do not touch the manzanillos (poison apples). These small green fruits are a favorite tortoise food but are toxic to humans and can cause blisters.
🙋🏽♀️ FAQs About Visiting El Chato Ranch
How do you get from Puerto Ayora to El Chato?
You can get to El Chato from Puerto Ayora by bike, bus, cab, or tour, but the easiest way is by taxi. This takes approximately 45 minutes and costs around $40-$50, including a stop at Los Gemelos (Twin Craters).
Taking a bus ($1) to Santa Rosa and walking 2.5 miles to El Chato is the cheapest option.
For maximum time efficiency, combine a visit to El Chato Ranch with an airport pick-up or drop-off.
What time does El Chato open?
El Chato Ranch is open every day from 6am-6pm.
Where can I see giant tortoises in Galapagos?
Santa Cruz is the best island for seeing giant tortoises in the Galapagos. Wild tortoises can be seen in the highlands region, while young, protected tortoises can be visited at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
It is also possible to see giant tortoises in a semi-natural habitat at La Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado in San Cristobal and at Centro de Crianza breeding center in Isabela.
Although Isabela Island has the largest number of wild tortoises, these exist mostly in remote locations that are not accessible to tourists.
Where can I see giant tortoises in Santa Cruz?
The best places to see giant tortoises in Santa Cruz are in the highlands at one of the ranches and at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora.
There are several ranches in the highlands but El Chato is considered the best as it provides a special opportunity for seeing giant tortoises in their natural habitat.
Can you sit on a giant tortoise?
You are absolutely not allowed to sit on or touch a giant tortoise. Not only is sitting on a giant tortoise illegal in the Galapagos, but it is also extremely stressful for the tortoises. While their shells are very strong, tortoises are sensitive to touch through their shells.
As per the Galapagos National Park rules, you must remain at least 6ft (2m) from the Galapagos tortoises.
🙂 Our Experience Visiting Galapagos in 2023
In April 2023, we (Adam, Sophie & Adam’s 70-year-old mom) spent three weeks in Ecuador, two of which were on the Galapagos Islands.
The highlight of our visit was a guided hybrid tour of mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands with Adventure Journeys.
If you’re interested in a trip that combines culture, nature, and even a touch of luxury, we highly recommend their upcoming Thanksgiving Special: Discover the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador Cruise.
Over 7 days, you’ll discover the best that the Galapagos and Ecuador have to offer with expert guides and all of the planning done for you. This is very similar to the tour we took and absolutely loved, but includes a luxury cruise as well!
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💬 Final Thoughts
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