Here be dragons! You won't find a much more apt place name in Galapagos than Cerro Dragon, or "Dragon Hill." This rocky, low-lying hill on the northwestern side of Santa Cruz Island is home to an impressive population of Conolophus subcristatus, or Galapagos land iguana. These miniature dragons roam around the sun-scorched, boulder-strewn island, nipping away contentedly at the fruits and flowers of their favorite food, the Opuntia Cacti.
The dragons are lucky to still be there. Santa Cruz is the island with the largest human population in Galapagos and domestic animals gone feral have plagued the countryside for decades. On Santa Cruz, wild goats, cats and dogs were especially hard on the iguana populations. The dogs were particularly bad, digging up iguana nests, feeding on small iguanas and even attacking full-grown specimens.
Fortunately, joint efforts of the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos park service to protect the iguanas, increase their numbers and remove the offending animals have been very successful and today the iguana population is booming once again. Ask your guide about how the scientists saved the iguanas: while trying to remove the dogs, the park service put a number of iguanas on a nearby island to protect them for a while. Cerro Dragon is still undergoing active conservation efforts by the park service and Darwin Foundation: it is one of the few places in the islands where tourists and scientists share the same space.
There is more to Dragon Hill than dragons. The trail, one of the longer in Galapagos, wends its way through a desert-like landscape, passing through forests of cacti and fragrant Palo Santo trees. The hill itself is an impressive sight, a rugged spire that dominates the landscape around it. The trail goes to the summit, from which you'll be rewarded with a great view.
The visit includes a salt-water lagoon, where if you're lucky (and quiet) you may catch a glimpse of the elusive flamingo. The flamingos feed on microscopic organisms that need very specific water conditions to survive and there are only a handful of suitable lagoons in the archipelago. There are very few visitor sites which feature these lagoons, so visitors will want to make the most of it!
Bird watchers won't need to be content with the flamingos: Santa Cruz is home to several species of Darwin Finch as well as Yellow Warblers: look for them along the trail. You may see stilts and pintail ducks in the lagoons as well: these rarely seen birds do not get the attention of the boobies or frigatebirds but are just as beautiful and fascinating. Keep your eyes peeled for mockingbirds and flycatchers.
As if the animals weren't enough, the flora of Cerro Dragon is impressive. As the trail goes inland and up the hill, it passes through different vegetation zones. The transition between these zones is sometimes very sharp, as if someone had deliberately planted the trees and plants in their own personal garden.