Isla Isabela – Galapagos
From the very first day I ever went to Isabela, I was smitten. I’ve since spent countless hours there at this point and still, it is my favorite place in the Galapagos. It is the most scenic and charming fishing village with sandy streets, crooked tree-trunk street lights and an amazing 3 kilometer long, powdery white sand beach against the incredible green sea. Puerto Villamil with a population of roughly 2000 is the name of the port located on the southeastern side of this, the largest island in the Galapagos. (Be sure to check the gallery of Isabela photos below!)
Sometimes near the town pier (as opposed to passenger pier), you can watch maybe 500 blue footed boobies doing their kamikaze dive bomb feeding. Take a trip down to Los Tuneles which is such an amazing, amazing place. It is the stuff of BBC /National Geographic documentaries. It’s a labyrinth of lava arches inside the breakers with crystal clear water full of huge sea turtles (sometimes man-sized), eagle rays, sea lions, fish, white tipped reef sharks and more. Turtles navigate their own highway from the mangroves to the open sea through Los Tuneles. You can stand on an arch (with 2 active volcanoes in the background) and watch them pass each other on the way from the mangroves to the open sea as if on a highway with lanes clearly designated. The land before time vistas are spectacular! Pose with penguins for photos if you wish. At certain times of the year, Los Tuneles is also a blue footed booby nesting ground. We always spot mantas just before entering and almost always get to snorkel with them. Once we had 9 males chasing 1 female. We left them after 30 minutes, but not before I got clipped. Though I am a strong advocate against touching any marine life, they were almost always close enough to touch. Once as we were about to enter, we stopped to watch 2 eagle rays mating. And mating turtles are so commonplace you almost begin to take it for granted.
Yes, Los Tuneles is the epitome of Galapagos magic. Because I love it so much, I do usually rave this much. I remember a marine biologist once told me he thoroughly expected to be disappointed because of how much I had raved, but instead, he was in awe. I remember a Brit once saying that he didn’t know which he enjoyed most…diving Darwin and Wolf or visiting Isabela and especially Los Tuneles. His final summary was, “Let’s just say it would have been a travesty to have missed this.”
In 2010, in an area near Los Tuneles, local dive guides discovered sea horses residing in 1-8 foot deep water, often wrapped around mangrove roots. It’s amazing to see the giant seahorses of Galapagos in such shallows as they usually are only found around 60 feet in cold water. But everytime…there they are. And sometimes you can find huge pregnant males ready to burst. This area also seems to be a breeding ground, as mangroves usually are for the protection they provide. I think I have seen the cutest, tiniest baby eagle rays everytime I’ve been there. There is an area where you can lay down in crystal clear water about 1 foot deep to get shots of resting white tipped reef sharks in the white sand beneath the ledges. And again, the giant turtles of Isabela! I remember going over to the deeper side of this area to have our picnic lunch in the shade and counting 22 turtles at once!
Merely the boat back into port might offer more marine life sightings than most dive sites in other parts of the world. And then there are the stunning land-before-time vistas along the way. I remember once reading a very well written article on the Galapagos by a British writer. He talked about how sure, it was the immediacy of the blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and other unique wildlife in the Galapagos that got you so excited in the moment, but months later, it was the landscapes that lingered in your memory as the biggest highlights. For divers, I don’t think anything can top swimming through a few hundred hammerheads to chase a 60 ft. whaleshark, but if we’re talking about land visits in the Galapagos, I’d have to agree.
On Isabela, you can also trek Sierra Negra Volcano, a live volcano that last erupted in 2005 and has the second largest caldera in the world on an active volcano. If you do, I would highly recommend taking the extra jaunt over to Volcan Chico, a parasitic cone as opposed to separate volcano, where the vistas to the sea are magnificent and the landscape is usually best described as a lunarscape. Volcan Chico is such a stunning site where you can see steam escaping from fumeroles and feel the heat of the lava beneath you…truly otherwordly.
There’s a fantastic campground, Campo Duro, half way up the slopes of Sierra Negra that is perfect for lunch after a trek. Everything they serve is from organic fruit and vegetable gardens on the paradisiacal premises. They bake chicken and bread in outdoor lava rock ovens over fire. They are also a half way house for young tortoises after the Isabela breeding center and before being released back into the wild. And yes, you can camp there. I’ve heard they sometimes have unexplained bright light visits in the cleared area where tents are set up during the night.
Nearby are my favorite lava tunnels in the Galapagos, Las Cuevas de Sucre. I had the privileged of taking a Naturalist Guide with over 20 years experience in the Galapagos there for the first time. It’s not too difficult to wow visitors, but it did provide a certain thrill to wow someone who knows the Galapagos that well. These caves have been cleared by the Park, so the relatively quick walk through them is easy and suitable for any age. I really like that it has no electric lighting as those on Santa Cruz have because then, you get to experience it in a natural state. Due to sulfur in the rock content, in parts of the tunnel, the ceilings look like they are lined with gold and where the sulfur is now fossilized, it appears as tiny drops with silver tips. Incredible!
Within walking distance from Campo Duro is a Park constructed wooden tower, a Mirador, that offers huge views and is especially good at sunset. If you arrive just before dusk, that seems to be the time of day the Galapagos Hawk prefers to perch from its height to survey dinner possibilities below. We once had the hawk watch us as we ascended to the platform and remain there without moving which meant photo ops from a distance of roughly 5 feet. When he did finally fly away, it sure seemed like he merely got bored rather than intimidated by us humans. At one point, as we ascended the wooden steps, he jumped from one side of the platform to the other in order to have a better look at what we were doing and that was long before he departed.
There’s great snorkeling on your own in Isabela, including turtle cleaning stations where I’ve seen them on their hind legs like a dog begging in order to give the cleaner fish better access. At one place inside the Park, you can snorkel with swimming marine iguanas, sea lions and schools of Half Beaks which resemble miniature sword fish. At that bay, maybe 40 feet from the shore exists what I have come to call turtle pastures. The shallow sea floor is covered in green algae. As you snorkel over it, you see turtles sleeping or grazing a mere couple of feet beneath you.
The Breeding Center for tortoises is fascinating as Isabela has more species of tortoises than other islands due to treacherously jagged AA lava fields (think ragged and rough iron stalagmites) they could not cross. At the Breeding Center, you can not only see tiny newborn tortoises, but also the only flat back tortoises in the islands…some of which now live at the Breeding Center after being rescued from Cerro Azul’s last eruption and still bear the scars on their shells. And getting there from town is half the fun as you walk a wooden path above Isabela wetlands full of marine iguanas and shore birds.
In addition to everything else, there’s the Isabela beach that is the stuff of island magazine covers. The wide, white sand beach, most of which is inside the National Park, therefore mostly empty and pristine truly has some of the softest sand I’ve ever felt anywhere. It’s like you’re walking on baby powder in this remote and isolated beach with a backdrop of land-before time vistas and only the unique wildlife of Galapagos to keep you company. One of my favorite photos from Isabela isn’t necessarily a great photo, but does remind me of a great memory. The only track on the beach was the squiggle of a marine iguana across the sand and into the sea. Marine iguanas nest, live and eat through there.
You can get in more diving while there if you wish. Most only want to take you to Isla Tortuga because it’s easy and close. You can see hammerheads, mantas, turtles, eagle rays, scorpion fish and more at Isla Tortuga, but much more interesting and equally close (though a bit advanced) is La Viuda. With groups, we can take you to spots where no one dives and no one fishes, so the marine life acts completely different. Large schools of yellow tailed surgeon fish will follow you like puppies. Long-nosed hawkfish are easy to spot. I’ve seen up to 4 shark species, mantas always circle, huge schools of tropicals, steel pompanos, barracudas and more; large colonies of marine lions and even lots of coral and anemones abound. This is the only spot I’ve ever dived in the Galapagos where the sea lions come out to hang and are mellow, rather than frenetic. I have to assume it’s because they are completely unaccustomed to people. It’s our secret spot and we don’t share the location with anyone, so you’ll have to just travel with us and see for yourself.
And ps…for any birders, Isabela has lots of wetlands chocked full of various shore birds, but for most of visitors, the one everyone enjoys the most are the flamingos.
Sorry to go on, but I absolutely love Isabela. Did I mention that there are really good restaurants in Isabela? The central square is lined with restaurants. Do try the ‘camarones apanados’ at Pepa’s. Fried and barely breaded shrimp. It’s not on the menu, so you have to ask for it. Cesar’s is another of our favorites, though go early so you don’t have to wait long. Immediately behind Commercial Naboa on the town square is Gabriel’s awning covered food stand which offers delicious fruit batidos…milkshakes. Ask where to find Restaurant Oasis (prounounced Oh ah sis) if you’re in Puerto Villamil on a Friday night, the only night they make homemade muchinis, a yucca fritter that is so good. And the last small restaurant in front of the town square has an excellent breakfast for $4. And again, the food at Campo Duro is so good and the setting so beautiful, it’s worth a trip up to the Highlands just to eat.
Hotels on Isabela begin too cheap to recommend and go up to about $450 per night. There are a couple in the $50-$60 pp per night range that are excellent and on the beach. Careful… some hotels may charge you $250 per night and put you in a nearby room that you could have paid 50% less with booking through us…for the exact same room. We primarily work with Casa Sol and Casa de Marita. Day tours to Los Tuneles or Sierra Negra range from $75-$150 pp. Packages that offers the hotel class of your choice and the tours of your choice are the best way to go. There are no ATMs on Isabela, so if you don’t take sufficient cash, you could find yourself in a bit of a pickle.
Everyone there knows everyone else which is why all residents will swear there is no crime. Once we rented bikes, left them leaning against the curb in front of a restaurant while we walked somewhere else and when we returned, one bike was missing. We looked around to no avail and went over to the police who put us in a truck to begin driving around to look for the bike, again to no avail. By the time we came back from the search, the bike was leaning against the curb on the other side of the street from where we left it. Found out later someone mistook it for someone else’s bike, borrowed it for a bit and then returned it….which was exactly what I assumed before leaping to the conclusion someone stole it.
There is so much to do on Isabela and it is virtually the only populated island in the Galapagos where you can do a lot on your own for free. That’s not to say you don’t have to pay to hit the highlights, but simply that magic in the Galapagos doesn’t always come with a price tag. And apart from live-aboard diving in Galapagos, you simply can’t experience a more magical topside than Isla Isabela.
So for those of you who want more than just diving, but don’t necessarily want to have to go on back to back dive / Naturalist cruises, we cannot recommend strongly enough a dive cruise followed by an extension of a few days on Isabela. The combination is certainly a memory you will cherish and carry for the rest of your life.