Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos islands and is home to a dramatic volcanic landscape including five volcanoes! There is a population of just 2,200 living on the island, mostly inhabiting its main town of Puerto Villamil.
We spent two nights on Isabela and participated in a range of activities including a visit to a giant tortoise breeding centre followed by a wetland trek; a trek to the summit of Sierra Negra, the largest volcano of the island; snorkelling; a short boat trip to an island surrounded by sharks and some delicious cocktailing sessions 🙂
Following a 6:15 am pickup from our Santa Cruz hotel we were driven the short distance to the marina at Puerto Ayora where we were taken in a small tender boat to our (slightly larger) speedboat.
While most of the seats were inside the speedboat I was lucky to be asked to sit at the back… or maybe not… this meant a couple of uncomfortable hours of diesel fumes and to be honest, not too much to see except maybe a glimpse of one or two dolphins.
The crossing can be choppy and we were advised to prepare for this however we were fortunate that it wasn’t too bad at all.
We arrived in Puerto Villamil the main resort of Isabela which immediately felt quieter and more low key than bustling Puerto Ayora. As we arrived, again by slightly smaller tender boat we immediately saw a stingray chilling in the shallow water and some sea lions basking on the decks.
We were taken by an old rickerty bus to the Hostel Gran Tintorera which was our accommodation for the next two nights and after checking in, Leo (our Explore guide) led us on an orientation walk through the streets of Puerto Villamil towards the beach.
We really felt we were on holiday when we saw the stunning white sand beach at Puerto Villamil which stretches for about 3-4 km, the longest beach of the island.
At the beach we saw many marine iguanas basking in the sun and even a small penguin swimming in the sea near the beach!
Following a tasty 3 course menu-of-the-day lunch where this time I had fish ceviche (i.e. raw fish marinaded in lime juice, chilli and other spices), the afternoon was spent exploring the Arnaldo Tupiza breeding centre.
We were driven for just a few minutes to the Arnold Tupiza tortoise breeding centre where we met Julio aka Mr July for the first time. Mr July explained that tourism has a positive effect on the Galapagos islands as locals no longer fish and deplete the wildlife as many of them now make a living in tourism.
As mentioned in the Santa Cruz post, tourism is controlled and tourists are not allowed to be within 2 metres of any animal while on the Galapagos and are not allowed to use a flash when they take photographs. Mr July said that tourists are very conscious of this and respect the wildlife, which, as a result is now flourishing.
The biggest risk to tortoises, for example, is not humans. They would be unable to survive without help from humans due to introduced predators such as dogs, pigs and rats who eat the eggs and babies. Humans who have provided breeding centres such as this have increased the populations of giant tortoises.
While at the tortoise breeding centre we learned about the yellow paper wasp and saw a few of these nasty little critters flying around. They can cause a painful sting and some people are allergic thus requiring urgent medical attention. Yellow trays with some kind of sugary goo are dotted around the centre to trap them.
From an interesting experience at the tortoise breeding centre we walked for 1.2 km along a wetlands nature trail towards the beach. Mr July pointed out different species and also explained the local geology of the island.
We said goodbye to Mr July when we reached the beach and were greeted by a pelican and the beginning of a sunset.
We made our way along the beach, back towards Puerto Villamil and there in front of us was the Isabela sunset bar where it happened to be happy hour!
The 9 of us settled down at an extended table in the open air upstairs of the bar for a front row seat to watch the sunset together with a couple of rounds of cocktails. Perfect!
It was properly dark when we left the sunset bar so now it was time for food. Leo took us to a street food restaurant and while the set menu was limited it did the job as I enjoyed grilled shrimp kebab with a bowl of lentils, deep fried plantain and salad.
Being taken to lesser known eateries more frequented by locals is another advantage of a small group tour with a local guide.
The next morning we were joined by Mr July again who was to lead us to the top of the Sierra Negra volcano.
The mini bus took us inland towards the start of the walk. Initially near the coast we drove past black volcanic lava fields covered in light scrubby vegetation and dotted with cacti. After 15 minutes or so as we drove further inland we were soon driving through banana and tropical fruit plantations. Mr July explained farmers make the most of this furtile land away from the lava flows.
During our trek to the summit we were on the look out for birds and in particular the red Vermillion Flycatcher.
We were fortunate the Vermillion Flycatcher made an appearance. While I caught a glimpse I wasn’t quick enough with my camera so the above photo was taken by Leo.
From a cloudy start the sun had thankfully made an appearance by the time we reached the summit. As we arrived at the viewing point for the caldera I couldn’t believe the size of it. Above is just a small section as it stretches out for literally miles across. The darker patches represent younger lava flows. Often this is covered in cloud so we were fortunate to have such a fantastic panoramic view.
A mockingbird joined us at the caldera viewing spot. Mr July asked us all to sit still and in silence for about 20 minutes just to reflect and listen to the nature.
We followed the same route back and on the way Mr July took some of us on a short off-road detour through the forest in search of more Vermillion flycatcher birds.
By the time we reached the mini bus it was lunchtime and Leo had previously informed us that lunch was included today.
We were delighted when we stopped halfway back to Puerto Villamil in the middle of the banana plantation area and entered a tropical wonderland!
Actually this was the Campo Duro Eco Lodge and our lunch venue.
We were taken on a tour of the extensive tropical gardens where Mr July pointed out many species of flora and fauna. There was even a bunch of bananas from which visitors could pick one and enjoy a snack as they toured around the gardens.
Above is a huge (introduced) tree which had prickly spiny spikes.
Time for a delicous organic lunch set in a wooden building overlooking the gardens. We were spoilt again with wonderful food from which we were able to help ourselves.
From the eco farm we were driven back to our hostel to get changed, leave our valuables behind and head to Concha y Perla for snorkelling.
En-route we stopped to hire wet suits as the sea is a tad cold at this time of the year
Concha y Perla
There is a small wooden boardwalk trail through the mangroves to reach Concha y Perla (means ‘pearl shell’) and at the end you can leave your stuff on wooden benches before you walk down a few wooden steps to enter the lagoon.
As we were leaving a sea lion took up residence on the wooden platform.
After snorkelling we quickly got ready and all walked down to the beach in eager anticipation of another spectacular orange sunset. Today was cloudy so we didn’t get the vivid colours of the previous day, however the sea was glowing a wonderful silvery purple sheen against the moody dark sky which gave it a lovely effect.
And another cocktail… in a different bar this time… German backpacker Suzanne joined us this evening. Aimee had met her on the bus from the airport and randomly bumped into her outside the bar. Suzanne was a solo backpacker looking for somewhere to have dinner. It was interesting chatting with her and with the help of travel guides and blogs demonstrated again that it isn’t too difficult to do this kind of trip independently.
Dinner tonight was spent in an Italian restaurant in Puerto Villamil with Richard, Steve, Fiona, Sherry-Ann, Aimee and Suzanne.
Visit to Tintoreras Islets and Lava Tunnel Snorkel!
What a morning! I was quite intrigued by the promise of snorkelling through lava tunnels and it turned out to be another amazing experience.
The day began at the marina at Puerto Villamil where we boarded a small vessel to travel the short distance across to Tintoreras Islets. Almost immediately we saw a couple of Blue footed Boobies which are easily recognisable especially for a bird novice like myself! Sadly these rare birds are in serious decline having reduced from 10,000 pairs in the 1960’s to around 3,000 pairs in 2012.
The boat moored to enable us to step onto Tintoreras and commence a short trek to start exploring!
Tintorera is named after a type of shark (white-tipped reef sharks/blue sharks/tiger sharks).
We saw many marine iguanas as we made our way to Tintoreras Grotto.
A nearby sign informed us that all types of Tintoreras sharks rest in this grotto during the day as they feed at night. It said the tide moves water through constantly which is vital for these sharks as their respiratory system needs a constant water flow. As we looked down we could see many sharks resting or swimming around on the bed of the grotto.
From the grotto we continued around the islet and came to a beach surrounded by mangroves.
As we returned to the boat a couple of Galapagos penguins had joined one of the Boobies:
From our short trek around Tintoreras Island we re-boarded the small boat, squeezed into our wetsuits and were ready for the next part of the adventure…
Following our guide we soon spotted a turtle!
And a puffer fish…
A sea lion came to join us…
Towards the end of the snorkel tour we swam towards the lava tunnel. I still wasn’t really sure what to expect…
We stayed in a line following each other as the lava tunnels turned out to be quite narrow in places.
And just a few feet below us, lining the bed of the lava tunnel were a large number of reef sharks! Thankfully they ignored us 🙂
Wow – what a fantastic experience! A wonderful end to our time on Isabela island. After lunch on that day we returned to Santa Cruz island via the 2 hour speed boat.