Touring Isabela Island in Galapagos

In continuing with our Galapagos Island themed posts, we recently spent a glorious 2.5 weeks doing land-based travels in the Galapagos which was an adventure for the ages. We’ve covered  touring the “main island” of Santa Cruz, so now we are moving onto tours on the largest and most rugged of the inhabited islands, Isla Isabela.

Puerto Vilamil is the town on Isabela island and has a population of 2,200 people. It’s a sleepy, charming fishing village that has a renewed focus on tourism. Here wild encounters are possible right from town, but many sites require a licensed guide to accompany travellers when visiting.

Isabela Galapagos Sign

Getting to Isabela

Isabela is accessible by ferry from Santa Cruz Island. Ferry tickets can be purchased from any number of sellers in Puerto Ayora. We went with Lancha Mi Sol for $25usd per person one way.  Tickets range between $25-40 and the difference is mainly whether or not you get a snack on the boat and whether or not the boat is covered for example. Ferries leave twice a day, the morning ferry usually leaves for Isablea around 7:00am and takes around 2 hours to make the crossing which can be quite rough. Once in the harbour, you will need to take a water taxi for $1usdKeep your eyes peeled on the taxi since you may get lucky and see an endemic Galapagos penguin like we did!

Once you land on Isabela, foreigners will need to pay a $10usd entrance fee at the dock.

Things to do in Isabela Galapagos

Cycling on Isabela

Just like Santa Cruz, there are excellent cycling opportunities on Isla Isablea. Bikes can be rented from a number of places for about $15usd per day and spending a day cycling to the Wall of Tears is a great way to explore the Island.

The 5km path to the Wall of Tears is the main cycle route on the island, and involves cycling along the beach to a dirt road with forest on either side of it where wild juvenile giant tortoises roam.  There are numerous ponds, mangroves, and small beaches that can be stopped at along the way as well.

 

The Wall of Tears, a remnant of Galapagos Island's history as a penal colony
The Wall of Tears, a remnant of Galapagos Island’s history

The Wall of Tears is a sad reminder of the island’s history as a penal colony where prisoners were forced to continuously build, take down, and rebuild this pointless wall in the hot sun day after day. It is said that thousands of prisoners died during the ordeal and it stands today as a reminder for humanity to do better. After the wall is a beautiful footpath to a lookout that gives you a panoramic view of the coastline, as well as the highlands. We recommend cycling to the Wall of Tears and lookout hike because otherwise you will be hiking 10km roundtrip on a dusty road under the hot, equatorial sun. This is also a great way to visit sites on the island without a guide, who are required for other sites.

Isabela Island from the lookout
Isabela Island from the lookout (click for a larger panorama)

Beaches and Snorkeling on Isabela Island

Concha de Perla

Concha de Perla is the best DIY snorkeling site on Isabela. It is near the ferry landing along a boardwalk leading to a secluded cove. It is common to see sea lions right on the path. As long as they are not the dominant male, you can walk by them without any trouble, even if they’re rushing you  a little like a playful juvenile was one day. If it is the male, you may need to throw something at him to get him off the path as he may be aggressive. When we encountered one, a parks maintenance worker shoed him away with a broom stating to be careful because this one was “mean.” So to summarize, walk by any of the sea lions on the path, unless they are a massive male with a bump on its head because that’s the dominant male and he’s a jerk.

Sea Lions regularly block the path at Concha de Perla
Sea Lions regularly block the path at Concha de Perla

Once at the cove, you can leave your stuff on the dock and enter the water with the stairs. We did it a few times and never had issues with people touching our stuff. We recommend going in the morning when the tide is low because the water will be clearer and you can see turtles, lots of different kinds of fish, rays, and small harmless sharks. We went in the afternoon once when the tide was high and it was very challenging swimming, so don’t try unless you’re a strong swimmer. It’s definitely worth a few trips since you may see different wildlife each time.

Also look out for lava herons and blue-footed boobies at the docks too!

Playa Isablea Beach

From the Isabela pier, Isabela beach begins and stretches 3km to the Iguana Point Bar at the opposite end of town.  People may swim and snorkel where the seas are calm and surf where they’re more rough. This is one of the most picturesque beaches in the archipelago because  the sea views are expansive and black, porous lava rocks jut into the water. Closer to town, there are numerous restaurants along the beach with the biggest and most famous being the Iguana Point Bar.

Lava Flows on the Beach of Isabela Island
Lava Flows on Playa Isabela

After the town beach ends, smaller and more secluded beaches such as La Playita can be reached from the bike path, just be prepared to walk over dozens of marine iguanas to get there!

Other Things to do in Isabela

Poza las Salinas Wetland

Right in town is a small wetland (humedale) and boardwalk where you can see american flamingoes.

Flamingo on Isabela Island
Flamingo on Isabela Island

Los Humedales to the Tortoise Breeding Centre

Larger than Poza las Salinas, these picturesque wetlands begin slightly past the town and the boardwalk through them connects to the footpath to the Centro de Crianza, or Tortoise Breeding Centre. We consistently saw flamingoes who don’t seem to mind people gawking at them while they feed, sleep, and preen. You can also see gallinules, black-necked stilts, white-cheeked pintails, herons, lava lizards and marine iguanas. In fact, it was in the wetlands were we saw our first marine iguana swimming!

Marine Iguana Swimming on Isabela aAlapagos
Marine Iguana Swimming

The breeding centre is a neat place to visit too. You will not doubt see some giant tortoises mating which always ellicits a chuckle or two, and you may get lucky enough to see two males fighting. Imagine two clunky, thick-necked reptiles taking turns biting each other in slow motion. Hilarious. Also at the breeding centre are cute little baby giant tortoises who need to get to a certain size before they can be released to the wild and then seen along the path to the Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul Volcanoes, or on the road to the Wall of Tears. Stray dogs and cats threaten the turtles until they are large enough to have no natural predators.

Guided Tours on Isla Isabela

A number of activities on Isabela require a licensed guide to accompany visitors.

Los Tuneles

If you only choose one paid tour on Isabela, we recommend this one. Here you will take a boat for about 45 minutes to a series of flooded lava tunnels where you can snorkel and see young black-tipped sharks, green sea turtles, rays, the Galapagos giant seahorse, and possibly even a Galapagos penguin or two.  On the way you may also see frigatebirds, noddies, petrels, and rays.

Galapagos Penguin at Los Tuneles
Galapagos Penguin at Los Tuneles

 

After the swimming portion, you will go on a guided walk on some of the lava formations, so be sure to bring sturdy shoes since lava rock can be uneven and sharp.  While on the land portion of the tour, we got up close and personal with some blue-footed boobies who were a bit behind their peers on Seymor Norte. A couple males were doing their very best to impress a seemingly non-plussed female by showing her their beautiful blue feet, whistling loudly, and flapping their wings. The male’s mating dance is a cute and funny thing to see, and we were lucky to get front row seats to the show!

Blue Footed Booby Dancing for a Mate
Blue Footed Booby Dancing for a mate. Look at those sexy feet!

Tours include transportation, equipment, a guide, and a hot lunch and snacks on the boat for about $100usd per person. We booked with Isabella Dive Center (not to be confused with Isabela Dive Center across the street that doesn’t do diving, only snorkelling…yup the only difference in names is that the dive shop spells “Isabella” wrong). they  gave us a small discount for combining diving and a snorkel trip to Los Tuneles.

Los Tintoretas

A guided visit to Los Tintoretas is a good budget option if you are looking to spend less on a tour. On this tour, a guide will take you to a snorkel spot not too far from Concha de Perla and also on a walk on lava formations. There you have the chance to see much of the same animals as on a Los Tuneles tour, but not the seahorse, boobies nesting, and black-tipped sharks. You should be able to see white-tipped sharks and rays though. A tour will set you back between $35usd and $45usd.

You can also go on a guided kayak tour around this area for about the same price.

Sierra Negra/Cerro Azul Volcanoes

As of June 2018, Cerro Azul was closed for tours because of the high probability of eruption which was disappointing because the pictures looked amazing. Instead, we did a Sierra Negra with our guide Dario from Sea Lion Tours. He charged us $25usd per person and despite being new to guiding, he did a great job showing us around and even helped us find the endemic Galapagos vermillion flycatcher ( a subspecies from the mainland). This ended up being the highlight since it was too foggy to see anything once we reached the crater, which is disappointing since it’s one of the largest calderas in the world, spanning 9km long and 7km wide. Also, as of 27 June 2018, Sierra Negra erupted so it may not be visitable now. That said, if there’s an opportunity to visit the highlands on Isabela we recommend doing so. They’re very beautiful!

Galapagos Vermillion Flycatcher
The Galapagos Vermillion Flycatcher

One non-guided option may be to make your own way via bike or taxi to Campo Duro, an organic farm and tortoise center where you can camp and volunteer on the farm.

SCUBA Diving in Isabela

Our research before we landed on Isabela suggested that there were few novice/intermediate diving sites, but once we started talking to people on the island it seemed like we would have no problem finding a suitable place to dive. While we were there, only Isabella Dive Center was open, which is not to be confused with Isabela Dive Centre… Just to make things easy on everyone, there are two shops on the main street almost directly across from each other that have almost the same name.

Unfortunately, we can’t find our receipt to confirm and Google Earth isn’t detailed enough to clarify either. So for ease’s sake we’ll say Isabella Dive Center, because that seems right to us.  At any rate, it’s the dive centre that is on the same street as a laundromat and Sea Lion Tours. There we spoke to the owners who had us try on wetsuits and equipment the day before, and ensured us that we could easily dive some of the nearby sites.

We went to Isla Tortuga where we dove along an old volcanic crater and saw many turtles, rays, black-tipped and white-tipped sharks, caught glimpses of hammerhead sharks, and swam with massive schools of fish. One sea turtle swam so close to me I almost got a high five! Your surface interval will be next to an island where you can see many bird species too. As I waited at the surface at the end of the dive, a blue-footed booby bobbed up and down on the surface right in front of me, looking for food and seemingly oblivious to my presence.

Dives are usually $180 but since we booked Los Tuneles with the same company, we got both tours for $270usd. Hardly a savings to write home about but the Galapagos is an expensive place so every little bit counts.

Where to Stay

We stayed at Hotel Neptuno which is a beautiful hostel with a small kitchen, and the second-floor rooms have a nice balcony that overlooks a small wetland. It was a comfortable, large room, with fairly consistent hot water and air-conditioning. As of June 2018, there was a building being constructed next door so be prepared for construction noise. It didn’t bother us much because we were out and about most days. A double room should cost about $35usd a night. Use this link to get a $25 credit for your first booking on Booking.com.

Where to Eat and Drink on Isabela Galapagos

Breakfast

As we’ve mentioned before, if you’re eating on a budget, bakeries are your friends in the Galapagos. You can get delicious cinnamon buns and croissants for 0.25-0.50usd from the bakery down the street from Hotel Neptuno. Otherwise, we loved the “bolons” that were often served for breakfast. Bolons are balls of mashed plantains (bolons de verde=green plantains) that are delicious and served with an egg for about $5usd.

Coffee SUCKS on the island and most places will charge you way too much for putrid Nescafe.  It is very difficult to get a good coffee and if you find one, it will usually cost you about $5 a cup, rather than $5 for a pot in Santa Cruz. Bring your own and get a mesh filter to make easy and delicious pour over coffee with boiled water. The $1.50 we spent on a mesh filter recently has been one of our most favourite purchases on the road so far.

Lunch

Almuerzos exist on the island but you will pay $6-10 instead of $2.50-$4 like you would elsewhere in Ecuador. Just like almuerzos on the mainland, you will be fed a positively stupid amount of food so stock up and eat something small for dinner. For those who may not know, almuerzos are the “daily menu” that are usually advertised on a white erase board and generally feature soup to start, a main dish that typically includes rice with some kind of protein, and a fresh-made juice of some sort. You may also get a dessert if you’re lucky. Most of the time for us it was tasty stewed fruit or a piece of flan.

Dinner

There are so many delicious ways to waste money on dinner on this Island, so splurge or save as you see fit. If you’re looking to save, there are street stalls that pop up where you can get a cob of corn for $3 and some pinchos for about $2 a piece. Cooking dinner yourself is a good idea to save money, but stock up on dry goods on the mainland or Santa Cruz ahead of time.

There are also “mienestras” or “cenas” (dinner) menus that will cost about $10USD. This is the best way to get a lot of food for dinner. Otherwise, ordering à la carte will set you back at least $10usd a plate.

 

Isabela Menu
Set Menu on Isla Isabela

Booby Trap Bar

This place makes mean caipirinas and features a balcony with a beautiful sea view. From there you can watch the namesake boobies dive for their dinner.

Blue Footed Booby diving off Isla Isabela
Blue Footed Booby diving off Isla Isabela

Iguana Crossing Bar

This place features beach seating and 2 for $12usd happy hour drinks. We enjoyed a nice, albeit pricey coffee from the beach lookout.

Iguana Crossing Lookout Isabela Galapagos
The Lookout at Iguana Crossing

We can’t for the life of us remember the name of the place, but there is a small juice bar at the end of the beach, before the malecon that  sells coconuts for drinking fresh water from the fruit, as well as blended drinks. Try a “coco loco” which is a fresh coconut with sugarcane liquor poured in. We just had to try one but preferred a regular coco. The liquor also knocked us out and we ended up napping until after dark on the afternoon we tried the coco loco. This lady also makes good bolons with egg.

Coco Loco
Coco Loco!

There are no micro-breweries on the island and a bottle of Pilsner will set you back $4 rather than $1.50-2 like most places on in Ecuador. If you want to invest in our proprietary brewery and coffee farm business on Isabela, do be in touch.

Laundry

 

For the love of all things, do your laundry before arriving on this island. Here laundry is $1 a pound, as opposed to $1 a kilogram like everywhere else in Ecuador.

Money

We recommend getting money out either on the mainland or Santa Cruz beforehand. We read that there were no ATMs on the island, but we did see some. They will likely charge $5 to take out a paltry $200usd which doesn’t go far on the island.  Use the Banco Pichincha ATM on Santa Cruz pictured below because you can take out $600usd at a time rather than only $200 like other ATMs on the island.

Banco Pichincha
Banco Pichincha on Santa Cruz – the highest withdrawal amount we found on the Galapagos Islands

Another thing to consider, is that a Galapagos-wide straw, plastic bag, and non-reusable bottle ban is in the process of being implemented this summer. When we were there in June, businesses had already phased out plastic straws and single use utensils. We recommend bringing a reusable water bottle, either with filter or without, some reusable bags, and some stainless steel straws if you prefer. drinking with one . We’ve provided some links to products that we travel with and love.

To conclude, Isabela is the most chilled-out and ruggedly beautiful of the inhabited Galapagos islands. Wildlife viewing options are endless, and its easy to be enchanted by Isabela’s relaxed vibes. A trip to Isabela island feels like taking a vacation from your trip. Just be sure to check out the volcano situation first!

Stay tuned for our write-up on San Cristobal Island.

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