The Galápagos – Part 2 – Isabela, my favourite island

Marine iguanas, Isabela

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.

Isabela

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. 

Flamingo, Isabela

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. 

Church stained-glass window

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!

Baby tortoise

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

Blue-footed booby

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

Turtles at Las Tintoreras

Galápagos penguin

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

Sierra Negra crater

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. 

On the trail to Muro de las Lagrimas

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. 

Sunset at Puerto Villamil
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Fernando de Noronha – the most beautiful beaches in Brazil

Praia do Sancho
Praia do Sancho

“Welcome to the most beautiful beach in the world!” proclaims the sign at the entrance to Praia do Sancho on the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha. When you travel a lot, you get used to these kinds of hyberbole, but it’s certainly one of the nicest beaches I have ever been to. Access is not easy, however, as it’s backed by high cliffs. You have to climb two vertical ladders down through a narrow chasm and then the rest of the way is along stone steps cut into the rock. But once you’re there it’s all worthwhile. Fine white sand, waters of every shade of blue imagineable, and all kinds of marine life await you if you have a snorkel.

Baia dos Porcos
Baia dos Porcos

Fernando de Noronha is renowned throughout Brazil as a tropical, paradisiacal, but high-end and costly destination. Outside Brazil, though, it’s not that well known except as the place where Air France flight 447 tragically crashed in 2009. Fernando de Noronha is actually an archipelago of 21 islands 354 kms off the coast of northern Brazil. Recife and Natal are the gateway cities and flights are not cheap, nor is accommodation or food and drink. But with the current devaluation of the Brazilian real, foreigners will find things pretty reasonable right now.

Praia do Leão
Praia do Leão

The best beaches are in the national park, for which you need to pay an entrance fee, but they are superb. Praia do Sancho and Baia dos Porcos are visually dramatic and have excellent snorkelling. Praia do Leão is wonderful and is a short walk from Baia do Sueste where you can snorkel with turtles. I also saw a shark there, but don’t worry, they’re a harmless species.

Baia do Sueste
Baia do Sueste

Even the beaches outside the designated park are stupendous. On Praia da Conceição I saw seabirds diving into the water to fish and thought there must be something worth seeing there. So I put on my snorkel and waded in. Just metres from the shore I was astonished to find myself surrounded by millions of sardines. Even more spectacular was swimming very close to a stingray. On the beach at the port I also snorkelled with three turtles.

Mirante dos Golfinhos
Mirante dos Golfinhos

There are some great trails. The most popular and easiest is to the Mirante dos Golfinhos, the Dolphin Lookout Point. Huge numbers of spinner dolphins are to be found all around the island, but this is one of the best places to spot them and the view is amazing.

Spinner dolphins
Spinner dolphins

If you’re prepared to stay in homestays like I did and walk and take the bus rather than hire taxis and beach buggies, then you can cut costs dramatically. There is a steep daily tourist tax to pay which goes towards the preservation of the island. But this, and the fact that tourist numbers are limited, means that it never feels crowded and it’s really easy to find a space to yourself – even on the most beautiful beach in the world!

Praia da Conceição
Praia da Conceição