Isabela is my favourite island in the Galapagos archipelago. The biggest and most diverse, it’s got character by the truckload. The beach town of Puerto Villamil is all white sand and palm trees, the kind of place you can forget about time and life, and just hammock away the days between hiking trips and swimming in the pristine ocean.
Puerto Villamil locals are up for a chat, and the whole place feels so relaxed and welcoming. There’s a strange feeling of community with the tourists here. It’s like we’ve reached an understanding; we respect the amazing place in which these people were born and are lucky enough to live, and they respect our desire to share it, however briefly. I don’t know if I’m making it all up, but being an outsider here felt far more comfortable than in other tourist-heavy parts of the world.
Town: Puerto Villamil
Price: hostel US$22 – $27 || meal US$5 – $15
Points of interest: biggest island in the Galapagos; volcano hikes; snorkelling and boat trips; beachside bars; bike rental.
How long to spend at Puerto Villamil: 3 – 4 days (or many more!)
Go solo. Don’t bother booking a tour for Isabela. Other islands yes, but not here. Head to the port and book a ferry Santa Cruz to Isabela (US$30) and organise your accommodation separately. That way, you’re in control of your time, your meals, where you stay, and your itinerary. See backpacker’s Galapagos for other budget tips.
Hike Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico (half day/ full day). It’s a 16km trek around the lip of the 10km wide, active Sierra Negra crater, and down to the strange, crumbling, volcanic landscape of Volcan Chico. Sierra Negra is the second biggest caldera in the world, and Chico its rocky offspring. Since an eruption at the beginning of this century, the crater is a deep valley of sharp black volcanic rock that stretches into the distance. In the morning, when we passed, most of it was obscured by cool cloud. By midday on our return, the whole 10km expanse was visible, and it’s incredible.
Snorkel at Concha de Perla (2-3 hours). Within walking distance of town, and only a little walk from the boat dock, this natural lagoon is the perfect place to snorkel in the clear water with thousands of flickering silver fish and a few playful sea lions. Rent a snorkel and fins in town for about US$5. This site remains one of my most magical snorkelling experiences; the astoundingly blue calm water, the sparkling sunshine filtering down to the bottom, and a little sea lion diving through schools of shining fish. This was mermaid business, for sure.
Visit Los Tuneles (half day/ full day). Book a tour from Puerto Villamil and you’ll take a speed boat an hour or so to experience the strange, impressionistic painting that is los tuneles— the tunnels. After a thrilling race across the reef break, you will reach the strange Dali-esque landscape. The bridges were formed when lava flows solidified on the outside but continued to run underneath, forming dark rock tunnels which have since partially collapsed to create the quirky landscape I write about here. Tall cacti sprout all the way to the horizon, huge sea turtles swim slowly under the bridges, and blue footed boobies dance their flat-footed mating dance. This is a landscape unlike any I’ve seen. Try to find a trip that includes a few snorkelling locations. The tunnels themselves are a breeding area for turtles so you can’t swim there, but there are great sites to see turtles around this area.
Cycle or stroll to Mura de los Lagrinas (half day/ full day). The Wall of Tears is a thick wall of stone, constructed by prisoners sent to Galapagos last century under less pleasurable conditions than you or I. Serving no purpose but punishment, the wall has been left as a tribute to those who suffered the isolation and inhospitality of pre-tourism Isabela. The wall is at the end of a 4.5km track, which starts 1.5km out of town. All along the way, small signs indicate beautiful secluded swimming beaches, still mangrove lagoons, and a lookout that’s worth the climb. As a little bonus from nature, wild Galapagos tortoises hang out by the sides of the path looking completely unperturbed by the walkers stopping to say hello.
The whole track could be a (free!) day walking trip with all the little stop offs, or you can rent a bicycle in town ($15/full day or $3/hour) and smash it out in 3 hours if you’re pressed for time (as we were). I don’t recommend doing it this way, nor would I suggest doing it the same day as the volcano hike unless you’re a glutton for punishment. You can hire a guide to take you to la mura, but if you’re interested in cutting corners with costs, this is a good place to do it; just make sure you follow every path to the end and take your swimsuit.
Take a tour to the Tortoise Centre (1hr). About 1.5km west of town is the Tortoise Centre, a great place to see these gorgeous heavy old beasts. It’s free, and you can do it on the way to la mura de los lagrinas or as a separate stroll. You’ll find all ages of tortoise here thanks to the breeding program, as well as information on all the species, the way recent human interaction has affected them, and conservation efforts happening now.
See pink flamingos in the Villamil lagoons (2 hours). Close to the Tortoise center, on a 1.5km round track that runs from the west end of Puerto Villamil, the Villamil lagoons host a huge diversity of migratory birds, including black-necked stilts and everybody’s favourite gangly friend — the fabulous flamingo. Take a stroll along a long boardwalk that winds through the mangroves and see the whacky pink guys at work, sifting for pink shrimps with their heads underwater.
Take a long sunset stroll along the beach (1 hour). The stretch of white sand running roughly west (to the right) from town is worth a wander. The black rocks are decorated with bright red crabs, pelicans bob on the waves, and sea lions dive in the foam. During one of my evening strolls, I was gifted with a burning red sunset, one of the most colourful and intense I’ve ever seen.
Watch the sunset at the Pink House bar (1 hour/ all night). Let the sun go down over you and your favourite cold drink. The Pink House is the island beach bar epitomised; beanbags in the sand, hammocks, a slackline, and furnishings of driftwood cluttered at the tideline. This hostel-cum-bar is the perfect place to watch Isabela’s spectacular sunsets. You’ll be joined by other tourists of course, but also local surfers ducking in on their way home and ready for a chat as the sun goes down. The topped veggie chilli chips were great after a full day of exertion. Warning: you’ll also be watching your cash slip away with the sunshine; this is probably the most expensive beer you’ll buy in Ecuador, with drinks starting from US$7 and going up quickly from there.
Volunteer your time. If you’d like to stay longer on Isabela on the cheap and are interested in helping preserve this astounding environment, there are conservation organisations looking to exchange your manual labour and a small daily price for their accommodation and meals. Friends of mine have spent time here volunteering, and I’ll be going back to do it one day myself! Check out idealist.org or galapagos.org for opportunities.