Visiting Isla Isabela, Galapagos
A Guide to Isla Isabela, Galapagos
Were you to picture your perfect day, would it include playing with baby sea lions in fresh, deserted lagoons? Would it include hiking flamingo-strewn mangroves, making sure to hop over the marine iguanas lounging in the morning sun? Or else, surfing in the waning sun, waiting for purple sunsets with gaggles of locals on the white sand beaches? A day in Isla Isabela is close to paradise. Despite being the largest of the Galapagos islands, Isla Isabela is virtually deserted when the cruise ships are out. The dusty lanes of Puerto Villamil are void of people before 9am, but are brimming with every other kind of life. Sea lions laid out across paths and benches, giant pelicans perched prying for an easy prey, birds of every colour and creed swooping overhead.
If you are visiting the Galapagos by land, as many of us budget travellers do, Isla Isabela is the biggest and best spot to pause. Take tours from the mainland out to the seas, or navigate yourself through the many free options that are available for free. You can craft a dream day, hardly spending a penny, immersed in the best that nature has to offer.
Things to do
1. Los Tuneles
While not exactly cheap, at around $100 for a day, the tours that run from the main towns of the Galapagos Islands to more remote areas are incredible. Setting out in the morning for a trip to Las Tinatoreras, I expected to be ripped off. Just in the boat ride to the first location we found orcas, humpback whales, colossal manta rays, hammerhead sharks, so many ludicrously rare and wonderful sightings just floating off the side of our little speedboat. An hour into the tour, before it had even really started, I didn’t regret a single penny.
The tour to Los Tuneles leads you to a series of tunnels, forged by lava that cooled over the ocean, creating waterways cut off from the rest of the world. The uniqueness of the formation has bred a myriad of many of the weird and the wonderful critters that the Galapagos has to offer. Before you reach the tunnels, you’ll be taken for snorkelling nearby. Swim alongside gargantuan sea turtles, unimaginably large and serene, bobbing next to you through the mangroves. Spot tiny seahorses flitting through flora, reef sharks sheltering beneath rocky groves. Bob up to the surface to find crimson crabs scuttling between the feet of the famous blue footed boobies, settled on black rocks jutting out of the water. Also look out for the, seemingly inevitable, collection of terrible tourists. The Galapagos have very strict rules about touching animals, and proximity to animals. This doesn’t seem to sway oblivious travellers insistent on getting their ideal GoPro shot cosying up to a giant sea turtle. It’s not cute. It’s not even permitted. If you see people doing it, kindly remind them to stop being a total twat.
Not the easiest swim against the currents and through rocky inlays, you’ll have a better time if you’re at least somewhat comfortable in the water. We had people in our group that, seemingly, could barely swim, being practically dragged through by their partners. For the best experience, spend a little bit of time getting comfortable in the water swimming off the shores, in the Galapagos or on the Ecuadorean coast.
After the snorkelling trip, you’ll move on to the lava tunnels themselves. A maze of rocky archways, tread carefully through the area to find more blue footed boobies, penguins, sea lions, herons, turtles, a whole array of the wildlife that flourishes in the Galapagos islands.
A ride back to Puerto Villamil will take you past rocky formations flooded with unusual seabirds, and will treat you to yet more denizens of the Galapagos’ depths. A full day of firsts, your nature bucket list will take a kicking before you make it back to civilisation.
2. Conche de Perla
Waking early in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds, stroll down from Puerto Villamil to the sea. Right by the port which offers access to and from Isla Isabela, a small lagoon sits undisturbed. Clamber down the crab-covered rocks at the side of the water, if you don’t have to jostle for space with snoozing sea lions, and drop into the cool wash. An almost empty pool is only occupied by flapping sea lion friends, who will swim in spirals around you as you snorkel. You’ll find marine iguanas, bobbing next to your face when you come up to the surface. Turtles, manta rays, reef sharks, puffer fish, a whole collection of Galapagos’ favourites. Free, beyond the charge of renting a snorkel and mask, and only a 10 minute walk from the centre of Puerto Villamil, Conche de Perla is the perfect spot to start your day. Immerse yourself in some of the best wildlife that the island has to offer, only a few minutes away from where you rose for the day.
3. The Tortoise Breeding Centre
The giant tortoises are, perhaps, the most iconic of the Galapagos’ creatures. Dinosaur faces peak from enormous shells, on the oldest and most wrinkled of the tortoises wander nonchalantly around their pens, curious at the folk peering over the low walls at them. The scatterings of baby ones tussle, slowly, for leaves. There are more than 300 turtles bred, raised and fed in the sanctuary, each one as cool and cute as the last.
As well as being able to explore the tortoise’s homes and watch them being fed, there is an exhibit on site. Here you can learn about the breeding process, and about the challenges that face them. From human intervention, to the introduction of foreign breeds, to the simple challenges of getting tortoises to reproduce without help, the exhibition goes through all of the work that the breeding centres on the islands do to bring the breed back from the brink of extinction.
4. The Wetlands
The walk from Puerto Villamil to the tortoise breeding centre will take you through a part of the island referred to as The Wetlands. A wooden path built over lagoons, you’ll duck through mangroves and climb over sleeping sea lions to get through. Filled with a massive variety of birdlife, most notably the flocks of grazing flamingos, and of plant life, you’ll have plenty to explore just on the walk up to the centre.
The walk, which takes around half an hour, was absolutely deserted the entire time I was there. Never passing another soul on the path, I had uninterrupted access to the marshy wetlands. One of the main perks of travelling in the Galapagos via land, rather than via cruise, is how rare it is to find another traveller taking the same route.
There are tours that go through the wetlands and the centre, charging around $80 for the experience. It is totally free if you are willing to take the hike up there by yourself. There are clear signposts the whole way from the beach by Puerto Villamil to the centre, and to the flamingo lagoons slightly further up the road. If you’re very keen to get a guide than it may be worth paying, but it’s an easy way to save $80 to just take yourself on a little tour.
5. Las Tintoreras
Though it is a tour that you need to book and pay for in Puerto Villamil, around $50, the day trip to Las Tintoreras isn’t too different an experience to snorkelling in Conche de Perla. While both are amazing experiences, one is free. The tour to Las Tintoreras will take you to a lava-forged lagoon around 10 minutes from the main port of Puerto Villamil, where you’ll seek out turtles, sea lions, iguanas, and maybe even glimpse some Galapagos penguins. For another option for a spot to spend a day snorkelling, seeking out some of the island’s secret critters, Las Tintoreras is a good option. However, if you, like me, are on a fairly strict time and monetary budget, it isn’t an essential addition to the itinerary.
6. Diving in Tortuga Island
I cannot scuba dive yet, so I didn’t do this tour. However, there was a group of guys that I did a day tour to Los Tuneles with who had done so the previous day, and said it was one of the most incredible experiences of their lives. An island just south of Isabela, you can book tours out to Isla Tortuga from Puerto Villamil. Once you reach the optimum spot, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a massive variety of sea creatures. Hammerhead sharks, enormous manta rays, sting rays and eagle rays, tons of different types of fish, some unique only to the Galapagos Islands, and, if you’re very lucky, maybe even orcas.
With options available for divers of every skill and confidence level, this is the best spot for keen divers based on Isla Isabela.
7. Wall of Tears
Where “los valientes lloran y los débiles mueren” - “the strong cry and the weak die”. Previously used as a remote and desolate spot in which to exile prisoners, Isla Isabela was the home to a small penal colony of around 300 following the second world war. Designated random and fruitless tasks, solely designed to keep them out doing hard manual labour in the height of the equatorial sun, ‘el muro de las lágrimas’, the ‘wall of tears’, is a living example of the work they did. A daunting tower of jagged brick, it stands as a reminder of the bleaker periods of the islands past. A reminder that we have not always been so concerned with preservation, instead focused on persecution.
7. Sea and Surf
Before travelling to Ecuador, I had never quite appreciated that Ecuadoreans embody the stereotypical surf culture. Boys and girls with lock, beachy hair and perfect tans spend their afternoons lounging on the beaches of the Ecuadorean coast. The Galapagos Islands are no exception. Head down to La Playita or La Playa de Amor in the afternoon to sit out on the sand and watch the locals catching waves, or else rent a board from one of the many shops between the town and the beach and head out onto the water yourself.
Watch the sunset from here, or else wander down to some of the hammocks hanging over the sands and wait for purple skies to fade to black.