Isabela was the second major island that we visited on our Galapagos tour. It is the largest of all Galapagos islands (1792 sq mi), but much of its land is uninhabited by humans. It’s main settlement, called Puerto Villamil is the third most populated city next to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. Isabela island is also the youngest, and was formed one million years ago by the merging of six different volcanoes, all of them active today except one. On our fourth day in Galapagos we boarded a small ferry (more like a covered speedboat) to take us from Santa Cruz to Puerto Villamil in two and a half hours. Hearing horror stories about the bumpy and boring crossing, we made sure to take full strength Dramamine for the dreaded journey ($25 per person).
As soon as we landed, it was clear that we had arrived at a more rugged, isolated and sleepy outpost than Puerto Ayora. It also appeared that foreigners made up for more than half of the local population, and that tourism was the main form of income. The town consisted of one under-tended central plaza, sandy, unpaved roads, an unusual, modern church built in homage to the islands unique wildlife, and a series of restaurants with similar substandard meals and set pricing. There was also no ATM, and cash was required for all transactions unless you wanted a 24% credit card fee tacked on to your bill! Having made the mistake of not carrying a lot of cash to the island, we quickly realized that we did not have enough money to do all of the tours we had heard about. Specifically, we eliminated the recommended “tunnels” trip in favor of the much less expensive volcano and bay tour.
Trying to keep things cheap, we only did free activities our first day. This involved wandering the piers and paths near the arrival dock, watching all of the sea lions and iguanas that lounged on benches and in the middle of roads, completely fearless and oblivious to people. We lodged at friendly Tero Real, in our own tiny A-frame, double-storied cabin ($60 a night), and they lent us snorkels and fins to go swimming at Concha de Perla, a mangrove bay that is reached by a wooden path built on stilts above the water. Here, the shallow lagoon was in varying shades of dark blue and green, sheltered from the waves by lava reefs, and a great place to observe reef fish, rays, turtles, marine iguanas and birds.
Our fifth and only full day on Isabela began with an early departure by truck, inland for our Sierra Negra volcano tour ($120 for the family). We hiked for two hours through the highlands to the Volcan Chico, ascending through different bio-zones, and stopping first to admire the second largest volcanic caldera (*the largest is in Yellowstone National Park), and then to eat a picnic lunch in the company of curious yellow warblers. The view from the lush green crater rim, was into a deep field of dark, reddish-black lava rock. Although beautiful in its expansiveness, nothing compared to our final destination, which brought us up close to the rocks, vents, tubes and fumaroles of a surreal lava landscape. The first part of our hike was long in duration and short on excitement. It was on a never-ending dirt path, endlessly lined with encroaching guava trees, a plant that is invasive to the island and spreads like ivy. This monotony, finally gave way to a new and far more interesting terrain of endemic cacti and shrubs, leading to a barren, crusty lava field. It was everything that I had wanted out of the tour – a truly unique landscape that felt quintessentially “Galapagan”.
We still had to walk 2.5 hours out of this volcanic region, the same way we had come, but this did not stop us from going on another hike later that day! We crossed through Puerto Villamil’s quiet center to the outskirts, where we followed a raised wooden trail, over a lagoon of pink flamingos, on our way to the tortoise breeding center. As the sun was setting, we ended our evening drinking caipirinhas at a busy beach-side bar, while the kids drew pictures in the sand.
We had one final half day in Isabela before our scheduled return ferry to Santa Cruz. It was another beautiful, sunny morning, and we all agreed that it would be best spent in the water. So, after shopping for last-minute discounts on a tintoreras snorkeling tour, we settled at $120 total for our family, and headed to the dock for our next adventure. Our boat trip took us up close to a group of Galapagos penguins perched on a rock. We later swam face to face with this small endangered species, marveling at their grace and speed in the water. Las Tintoreras is an island of rugged lava formations, within an emerald bay. It is a major nesting site for black iguanas and lava lizards, which blend right into the textured rocks. Besides seeing a lot of baby reptiles, crawling all over one another, we had a birds-eye view of a group of white tip sharks resting in a sheltered lava pool. After our short walk with a guide on Las Tintoreras, we spent the rest of our morning snorkeling in an underground wonderland of rock channels and reefs, full of playful sea lions, penguins, large eagle rays, schools of fish, tiny shrimp, sea cucumbers, and starfish.
To be continued…