Lying around the azure inlets of Academy Bay's rocky shore, PUERTO AYORA, on the southern coast of Santa Cruz, was home to fewer than a couple of hundred people until the early 1970s. Now, laden with souvenir shops, travel agents, restaurants and hotels, the town supports a population of around 11,000 people who enjoy a standard of living that's higher than any other province in the republic, giving it a distinct aura of well-appreciated privilege. There's a relaxed atmosphere to the place, with tourists meandering down the waterfront in the daytime, browsing through shops stuffed with blue-footed booby T-shirts and carvings of giant tortoises, while fishermen work across the street in little Pelican Bay, building boats and sorting through their catches, watched by hungry pelicans. In the evenings locals play five-a-side soccer and volleyball outside the Capitanía, and as it gets darker, the restaurant lights cast a modest glow over the bay and the bars fill with locals, tourists and research scientists, a genial mix that ensures Puerto Ayora has the best nightlife of all towns in the Galápagos.
It's easy to find your way around the port. The main thoroughfare is named, predictably, Avenida Charles Darwin, and runs along the waterfront, from the municipal dock at its southern end to the Charles Darwin Research Station at its northern, the latter home to giant tortoise corrals and extensive exhibits on the natural history of the islands. Just about everything you'll need is on Darwin: hotels, restaurants, the bank, travel agents, bars, discos, information, plus a number of less indispensable souvenir shops. The town's other important road is Avenida Padre Julio Herrera, running inland from Darwin and the dock to become the main road to the highlands and the link to the airport on Baltra.
If you have some time in the port, note there are several good local excursions, which don't require a guide. For a spot of peace and quiet, you can't do better than visit one of the local beaches, such as the glorious Bahía Tortuga, a short walk southwest of town through a cactus forest, or the Playa de los Alemanes and the nearby swimming hole, Las Grietas, reached by water taxi. The Santa Cruz highlands also hold a number of natural attractions, including lava tunnels, craters and a tortoise reserve, which can be visited on day tours through many local agencies.