Isabela is the largest island in the archipelago, accounting for half of the total landmass of the Galapagos, at 4,588 square kilometers. Though narrow in places, the island runs 132 km from north to south, or 82 miles. Isabela is formed from six shield volcanoes that merged into a single landmass. It is also home to the highest point in the Galapagos, Wolf Volcano at 1707 meters (5,547 feet), and calderas of up to 20 kilometers (12 ½ miles) across.
Located at the ‘mouth’ of the head of the seahorse that forms the northern part of the Isabela is Punta Vicente Roca. Here the remnants of an ancient volcano form two turquoise coves with a bay that is protected from ocean swells. The spot is a popular anchorage from which to take panga rides along the cliff where a partially sunken cave beckons explorers. Masked and blue-footed boobies sit perched along the point and the sheer cliffs, while flightless cormorants inhabit the shoreline. The upwelling of coldwater currents in this part of the Galapagos give rise to an abundance of marine life which, in combination with the protection of the coves, make Punta Vicente Roca a sought after dive spots. One cove is only accessible from the sea by way of an underwater passage. The passage opens to calm waters of the hidden cove where sea lions like to laze on the beach after having traveled along the underwater route. The entire area of Punta Vicente Roca lies on the flank of the 2,600 foot Volcano Ecuador. This is the island’s sixth largest volcano. Half of Volcano Ecuador slid into the ocean leaving a spectacular cutaway view of its caldera.
On the way to Tagus Cove, the boat will sail through the Bolivar Channel. These are the coldest, most productive waters in the Galapagos, the upwelling of the Cronwell Current, where dolphins and whales are frequently seen. Tagus Cove, named for a British naval vessel that moored here in 1814, was used historically as an anchorage for pirates and whalers. One can still find the names of their ships carved into the rock above our landing, a practice now prohibited, of course. The cove’s quiet waters make for an ideal panga ride beneath its sheltered cliffs, where blue-footed boobies, brown noddies, pelicans and noddy terns make their nests, and flightless cormorants and penguins inhabit the lava ledges.
From our landing, a wooden stairway rises to the trail entrance for a view of Darwin Lake, a perfectly round saltwater crater, barely separated from the ocean but above sea level. The trail continues around the lake through a dry vegetation zone, and then climbs inland to a promontory formed by spatter cones. The site provides spectacular views back toward our anchorage in the bay, as well as Darwin Volcano and Wolf Volcano farther north.
Urbina Bay is directly west of Isabela’s Volcano Alcedo, where we will make an easy, wet landing (a hop into a few inches of water) onto a gently sloping beach. In 1954, a Disney film crew caught sight of this gleaming white strip, and on further investigation found pools of stranded sea creatures! To their astonishment, three miles (5 km) of the marine reef had been uplifted by as much as 13 feet (4 meters) in moments. Now visitors can walk amongst the dried coral heads, mollusks and other organisms that formed the ocean floor. A highlight of this excursion is the giant land iguanas, whose vivid and gaudy yellow skin suggests that dinosaurs may have been very colorful indeed. Giant tortoises inhabit this coastal plain during the wet season, before migrating to the highlands when it turns dry. Our landing beach also provides opportunities to snorkel amongst marine creatures, or just relax on shore. Here we must take care not to step on the sea turtle nests dug carefully into the sand.
Elizabeth Bay: A panga ride brings us to a protected mangrove lagoon, where sea lions sleep in trees (tree lions). Sea turtles and manta rays surface in the quiet waters while Galapagos hawks circle overhead. Outside the lagoon sit three islets known as Las Marielas, home to the largest concentration of Galapagos penguins on the islands.
Punta Moreno is a place where the forces of the Galapagos have joined to create a work of art. In the places where the roof of a large swirling black-lava flow gave way to form craters, crystal tidal pools have formed, some surrounded by mangroves. These are a magnet for wildlife, including flamingo, great blue herons and pintails. One can walk to the edge of the lava to look straight down at the inhabitants of the pools, including the occasional green sea turtle and white-tipped sharks.
Puerto Villamil has a feeling of standing on the edge of the earth. The tiny fishing village, founded in 1897 by Don Antonio Gíl, is something of a forgotten gem in the islands. It has a population of roughly 1,700 and is set amidst miles of white sandy uninhabited beaches that rest beneath the 4,452 ft. (1370 m) Sierra Negra volcano. Buried pirate treasure was unearthed here some years ago in the shadow of a tall coconut palm, giving credence to all the legends of hidden treasure. We travel into the highlands by bus to the base of the volcano, and then set out on a two-hour hike on fairly steep terrain to the rim of Sierra Negra. Measuring 10 km across, the caldera is the second largest in the world after Ngorongoro in Africa. At the rim we have some spectacular views of the caldera, the island and the surrounding Pacific. We continue hiking for another 45 minutes to the sometimes active cone of Chico Volcano. This is a parasitic cone that protrudes from the side of Sierra Negra. Recent lava flows and fumaroles give evidence of the birth and continued growth of the islands. In the afternoon we’ll return to Puerto Villamil. Along the way we will visit a breeding station for the endemic giant tortoise as well as a lake frequented by flamingos. We also plan some R & R time giving you the opportunity to relax in a local beachside bar.
Los Tuneles is a site visited by land based visitors to Isabela Island. It’s best to take this tour between the months of November and May, when Isabela Island experiences favorable weather conditions. Los Tuneles (the tunnels) are sunken black lava volcanic formations where you can find a large colony of penguins playing in the waters and also white-tipped sharks resting in the lava canal. You can snorkel or swim in the unique habitat of these animals, viewing colorful fish of all sizes, as well as sea lions, sea tortoises, lobsters, and a great variety of birds. Nearby hundreds of marine iguanas can be observed, as Los Tuneles is one of their main breeding sites. On the nearby sandy beaches, sea lions play and relax in the sun.
Las Tintoreras is a three-hour tour that takes you along the coast of Isabela, to coves and islets where you’ll have the chance to see white-tipped reef sharks and a colony of marine iguanas. You’ll have the opportunity to snorkel with sea turtles, pelicans, blue-footed boobies, penguins and the harmless tintoreras (reef sharks).
A visit to the Wall of Tears and Tortoise Center is a half-day tour for land based visitors. From 1946 to 1959, Isabela was designated a penal colony by the Ecuadorian government. Prisoners were obligated to build a wall with enormous blocks of lava. Due to the arduous labor and harsh conditions in which the prisoners lived, this site is known as ´El Muro de las Lagrimas´ (Wall of Tears). Additionally you will visit a small lava tunnel and another Flamingos lagoon, and then you will return to the hotel to have lunch. You’ll also visit the tortoise center on Isabela, where the staff dutifully tries to sustain potentially endangered species. The following hike takes you through a diversity of flora ending on the beach and finally at the hotel.