You know you’ve arrived in yet another special place when the church in the main town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela has stained glass windows of pelicans and blue-footed boobies. And behind the altar there is a painting of Christ hovering over this Galápagos island, with sealions, tortoises and iguanas at his feet. It’s all far removed from the usual depictions of suffering. The only suffering you’re likely to experience here is in your wallet.
After four nights on Santa Cruz, I caught a ferry to Isabela. Actually, ferry is not the right word. They’re basically speedboats and charge you a whopping $30 for an unpleasant 2 hour ride. They’re tightly packed with inadequate seating. You can choose between suffocating heat inside or being at the mercy of the sun and sea-spray outside. Either way seasickness is not uncommon.
Isabela lies to the west and, although it’s the largest island, is in fact one of the least developed. No planes arrive here from the mainland and no cruises start from here, so it’s a lot more chilled. Puerto Villamil has sandy streets and the main square is just a block from a beautiful stretch of beach.
I stayed in an Airbnb place with a kitchen, so I could try and save money by cooking, but the shops are severely lacking in food. The restaurants on the square serve set lunches and dinners for $7 and the dishes are a bit more creative than the usual fare, but portions are small. If you’re on a budget, you can forget any luxuries. One cafe was asking $6 for a brownie!
Day Five. After checking into my hotel and a quick lunch, I strolled along the boardwalk to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre. Along the way there are several small lagoons with flamingos. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to these birds. Each of the main islands has its own tortoise centre and conservation of these amazing creatures is a huge project. You can see some cute baby tortoises which are raised here before slowly being released into the wild. It’s quite moving when you consider the age which giant tortoises can reach – over a hundred years. This means that the dedicated workers here won’t live to see their tortoises gain full maturity. It’s an impressive commitment to the future which is sadly lacking in politicians all over the world today. Cost = Free
Day Six. There are two main snorkelling trips you can do from Puerto Villamil, Los Túneles and Las Tintoreras. The first costs $120, the second $40. I asked a travel agent what the difference was and appreciated her honesty. She told me the only things you’ll see extra at Los Túneles are sea horses. Well, to save $80, I was happy to skip the sea horses. And I don’t regret it, as this turned out to be my favourite trip. It was only a half day and the islands are right there in the bay, so the less time spent travelling means you have more time to spot wildlife which was abundant. I saw the Galápagos penguin, sealions and a blue-footed booby. An added bonus was when two mating turtles passed close to our boat. The trip also included a guided walk around an island. Cost = $40
Day Seven. Another trip through an agency, but this time without a focus on wildlife. I signed up for a guided hike up the Sierra Negra Volcano. It’s about a five hour round trip, but not difficult as the ascent is not steep. At the top you can see the second biggest crater in the world at over 10 kilometres in diameter. The trail continues to another volcano, Volcán Chico, where there are inspiring views of Elizabeth Bay and across to the neighbouring island of Fernandina. Cost = $35
Day Eight. After two paid excursions it was time for me head off independently. I walked along the beach and then the trail to Muro de las Lágrimas, or Wall of Tears. It’s the remains of a prison built under horrendous conditions by the prisoners themselves and it’s really just a wall, but the journey there is great, if extremely hot, past lagoons and secluded beaches. At Playa del Amor I saw some of the biggest marine iguanas so far. Cost = Free. You can hire a bike for $15 a day.
I was quite sorry to leave Isabela, but I had a boat to catch the next day back to Santa Cruz and from there another boat to my last stop, San Cristóbal.