I can only describe Isabela as the lost world meets tropical paradise. The largest island on the Galápagos, it has mist-hidden volcanoes, dramatic escarpments, and unearthly Opuntia forests; but it’s also blessed with a sublime number of white sand beaches and aquamarine seas. If you’re on a land-based DIY itinerary like we were, you’ll stay at Puerto Villamil, a sleepy little town by a gorgeous beach. Our two and a half days on Isabela were definitely the closest we got to that quintessential tropical paradise; only it was better, because alongside the hammocks and coconuts you had some of the most famous wildlife on earth casually lounging beside you. Below are our highlights, and, as in previous posts, I’ve tacked on a little logistics section at the end. Everything on this list (apart from our trip out to Las Tintoreras) was absolutely free- so grab a caipirinha (or, like me, a more prosaic cup of tea), and let’s go.
Just behind Puerto Villamil, a path at the end of the Avenida Antonio Gil (labelled as the way to the Centro de Crianza de Tortugas, by the Iguana Crossing Hotel) takes you on a boardwalk through a network of lagoons surrounded by mangroves. They’re a good place to watch fiddler crabs, waders and finches going about their business- and you will occasionally have to step over the odd marine iguana that’s decided to bask right in the middle of the path- but their main draw is that they’re a good place to see flamingoes.
The Galápagos species, which is endemic, is a shocking shade of crimson, and has ink blank primaries that match the ink black of the tip of their bills. These are designer birds, a mixture of supreme elegance and daintiness and oddness that’s only really revealed when they open that extraordinary bill of theirs and you can fully appreciate the mechanism they have for sieving tiny shrimp out of the water. I’d highly recommend bringing a hat, taking a seat on the boardwalk, and watching them preen, feed, or play right into that stereotype by standing on one leg.
TORTOISE BREEDING CENTRE
If you keep going on the path that passes the flamingo pools you’ll head through some Opuntia forest and, after around 20 minutes, you’ll reach the Isabela Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre. Having not had enough time to visit the more famous Darwin breeding centre in Puerto Ayora, this was an excellent surprise. Giant tortoises have famously had a hard time both on and off the Galápagos. They weren’t properly classified by Western science until 300 years after their discovery because they kept being eaten by sailors during the voyage back (tortoise meat was, apparently, just too delicious), and those left on the Galápagos have since been under constant siege from invasive species (rats, dogs and cats eat baby tortoises before their shell has had a chance to harden, whereas goats compete with them for food). Breeding centres like the one on Isabela have acted as a sanctuary for many tortoise populations, and most of its residents are earmarked for reintroduction. You can see representatives from quite a few localities, including the odd ‘squashed shell’ tortoises from the Sierra Negra volcano. The highlight is, obviously, the babies (adorably known as galápaguitos), which mooch around their pens and have slow-motion disagreements with each other.
CONCHA DE PERLA
Concha de Perla was my favourite snorkelling experience on the Galápagos (and that’s saying something, because the snorkelling in other places was incredible). It’s a sheltered little circular bay that you can reach via a little board walk, not 5 minutes from the island’s main port. Once we’d side-stepped over and around the sea lions basking on the steps, we found its gin-clear waters to be bursting with colourful fish and iguanas commuting to and from the more open ocean. Sea cucumbers and the biscuit like chocolate-chip starfish peppered the rocks. Most memorable of all, though, was watching a green sea turtle- as big as a coffee table- foraging among the algae, and coming up to get air. Obviously your opinion of these places will depend on the number of people, the visibility, and what happens to be there – but Concha de Perla was the time we lucked out on all three.
Like all of the places near town that don’t require guides, it pays to get here early as you’re less likely to have to share it with people and there will have been much less disturbance.
Las Tintoreras was the one paid trip we did on Isabela. We paid $45 to be taken out for the morning to a group of islands around 15 minutes from the dock. In Spanish, a tintorera is a black tipped reef shark, and the islands are famous for a thin canyon in the lava that the sharks use to rest when they cut off from the main ocean by the low tide.
When we went, at least ten black-tips had been cut off by the tide and were in the channel, chilling on the floor of the canyon. Unfortunately for them, a young sea lion had also discovered them temporarily stranded and decided, optimistically, that the sharks may be interested in a game of tag. He/she would swim up to the them and nip their tails, until they’d grumpily swim a little further down the channel to get away from the keen youngster. It was all rather one-sided, but the sea lion really wanted to play, and like a toddler persisted in trying to get the sharks interested. It was one of my favourite things we saw on the Galápagos, and to this day feels totally surreal.
The second best thing about visiting las Tintoreras at that time of year (July) was that there were hundreds- and I mean hundreds- of baby marine iguanas hanging out together in a creche. They were so abundant that they carpeted a stretch of path, and when you peered over into the channel the overhanging rocks were dripping with baby lizards. It was extraordinary to see them all moving around in unison, this little hoard of tiny reptiles keeping their eyes peeled for herons, hawks and other predators.
After an hour or so on the island, we got back on the boat and headed to a snorkelling spot. Enormous corals, royal blue starfish, marine iguanas and green turtles were all abundant- but my absolute favourite encounter was an eagle ray, all spotty and gliding across the sea floor. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for hours afterwards.
Yes, the wildlife on Isabela is insanely good, and there’s a huge island out there for you to explore – but some of my best memories were of buying a coconut (or a caipirinha at the beach bar in Casa Rosada), lying in a hammock, and watching as the iguanas scampered over the rocks or snoozed on the lava, the only sign of life being the occasional snort of saltwater. We even ordered cheesy chips. Paradise on earth.
Ferries between Santa Cruz and Isabela cost $30 (you can usually get a discount for a return ticket) and leave from the main dock. There’s a fair bit of hanging around at the port, but boats will leave early if everyone’s there – so make sure you remember what your boat company is called, and keep an eye on what other people who are travelling with that company are doing! (they’ll all be given the same lanyard as you). If you’re outside, remember the boat can get windy and cold, so bring a few layers (I also found a scarf really useful for my hair). At the same time, if you strike lucky and get a beautiful afternoon like we did, you’ll be glad you kept your suncream in an accessible place. Keep your eyes peeled for albatross, as this is your best chance of seeing them unless you’re heading to Española.
You have to pay a $10 landing fee at the Isabela port upon arrival. There’s usually a minibus taxi waiting to take you to Puerto Villamil from the port for a couple of dollars. It’s only really worth taking a taxi if you’re laden down with luggage – if you’re not, it’s only a 20 minute walk along a pebbled track.
There are no cash machines on Isabela, so make sure you have enough money to take you through however long you expect to spend there. Remember that Ecuador is still very much a cash society, and not all places to stay will be able to take card!
Most snorkelling trips will offer you a wetsuit- in some its included, with others it comes at an extra charge. We went in July, and I found that the water was cold enough to need one!
We arrived on Isabela with no firm accommodation plans, and were pretty surprised at how difficult it was to find somewhere that had space (maybe we were just there during the high season). In the end, we splashed out and stayed in Cormorant Beach House , which cost us $50 each per night. It was on the beach, we had our own private terrace, and waking up to the sound of the waves, then having my breakfast (bought at one of the corner shops- it’s not provided) while watching the pelicans glide over the shallows was an absolute dream.
Lastly, this should be hopefully go without saying- but all the pictures above (apart from the coconut, obs) were taken with a long 300mm lens at a respectful distance (definitely further away than the 2m limit that’s the standard national park rule). NEVER go within 2m of an animal if you can help it, and never stray off the path- you don’t know where the iguana/turtle/snake nests are, and no photograph is worth destroying one.