About one million years ago, six volcanoes (five of which are still active) coalesced to form seahorse-shaped Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands. At 1,790 square miles, it’s larger than all of the other islands combined, and, because it’s located on the western edge of the archipelago near the Galápagos hotspot, it’s one the world’s most volcanically active places. While many of the Galapagos islands are home to wildlife only, Isabela had a robust population of 1,749 in the 2006 census. From Tagus Cove on the northwestern side (which sheltered whalers, pirates, and buccaneers in days of old) to the laid-back resort town of Puerto Villamil at its southern tip, the island offers visitors a dazzling variety of terrains, wildlife and experiences. The Cromwell Current hits the base of Isabela’s west coast, causing nutrient-rich water to up well creating the perfect feeding environment for ground for fish, whales, dolphins, and birds. Because 16 species of whales have been identified in the area (including humpbacks, sperms, sei, minkes and orcas), it’s regarded as the best place to see whales in the Galapagos. As is often the case in the region, animal species abound. Visitors can hope to see penguins, cormorants, marine iguanas, boobies, pelicans, Sally Lightfoot crabs, Galápagos land iguanas, Darwin’s finches, Galápagos hawks, and Galápagos doves. There are many and varied ways to encounter wildlife on Isabela: at Moreno Point, near Elizabeth Bay on the west coast, visitors traverse a lava path to find pools at which a wide variety of birds feed. Vicente Roca Point offers some of the most dramatic landscapes in the Galapagos and the opportunity to see the remains of Ecuador Volcano
Most of Isabela Island’s 1,700 residents live in Puerto Villamil, one of the prettiest towns in the Galapagos. It was traditionally a fishing and agriculture economy, but with the completion of a small airport in the 1990s, the area began operating inter-island Galapagos flights. At last count there were 13 hotels in town and 18 restaurants. That’s a long way from 1980 when there was just one hotel, but Puerto Villamil still exudes the same laid-back charm of the early days. Take a walk down the long palm-tree-lined beach or visit one of the lagoons where you’ll find plenty of bird life including pink flamingoes. Be sure to stop in at the Tortoise Breeding Center to see hatchling and adult tortoises and learn about how they’re being protected.
The port city of Puerto Villamil, founded in 1893, is home to the majority of Isabela’s residents and is the third-largest town in the archipelago. Because the town is unspoiled and lovely, with long, white-sand, palm-lined beaches and lagoons frequented by pink flamingos and other birds, tourism took off in the late 1990s. Bars and restaurants grew from two in 1980 to 18 in 2006, but the town retains its laid-back character, making Puerto Villamil a popular place to relax and regroup after a trek into the wild. Isabela is home to more wild tortoises than anywhere else in the Galapagos, some of which roam freely in the calderas of the volcanoes. Outside Puerto Villamil, Isabela’s Tortoise Breeding Centre offers visitors a chance to learn about the life cycle and history of the giant creatures. Also near Puerto Villamil, are the historical remains of a decidedly less altruistic endeavor and a darker time: the Wall of Tears, which prisoners were forced to build out of heavy rock, to then tear down.
At Tagus Cove, a zodiac ride might even yield a Galapagos penguin sighting or two. Thanks to the colder water temperatures on the western side of the island, phytoplankton are in abundance here, rich phytoplankton feed zooplankton and fish. Penguins primarily feed on these small fish the abound in the area. If conditions allow, snorkeling with the chance of penguins for company is a very special added bonus.
Located on the northwestern side of Isabela Island, Tagus Cove was historically favored by pirates and whalers as a protected anchorage. In fact, one of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive are the inscriptions etched by ancient mariners into the cliffs. If you’re up for a hike, a trail offers a short but steep climb that’s well worth the effort for the breathtaking views of Isabela, its volcanoes, and spectacular Darwin Lake. Tagus Cove is also a bird watcher’s paradise, offering opportunities to see many land varieties of our feathered friends, including Darwin finches, Galapagos hawks, yellow warblers, and the elusive woodpecker finch. Along the shore, Galapagos green turtles, seabirds, sea lions, iguanas, and nesting flightless cormorants can often be found.
Situated on Isabela Island’s west coast, Elizabeth Bay is surrounded by a lush mangrove forest. Explore the rocky islets just outside the bay by zodiac and get to know the wildlife within this delicate ecosystem. There’s a lot to see, so keep an eye out for spotted eagle rays, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and more. Mariela Islet is home to Galapagos penguins and many of them can be seen on shore or in the water hunting among the plentiful fish. Near the lagoon, watch for sea turtles, who favor the spot for grazing and resting.
Moreno Point is a birdwatcher’s paradise, as its rocky shores attract great blue herons, pink flamingos, brown pelicans and other wading, sea and shore birds. A path through lava rock leads visitors to tide pools and mangroves that shelter green sea turtles and white-tip shark.
In 1954, the ocean floor at Urvina Bay lifted up 12 to 15 feet just prior to a volcanic eruption, extending the coastline about three-quarters of a mile. Today, visitors can see remnants of the land’s underwater beginnings, including seashells, sea urchins, and uplifted remains of a coral reef. The waters here are noticeably colder than in other parts of the island.
Vicente Roca Point offers the chance to snorkel. Unique species of fish include the parrotfish, mexican hogfish and puffers. Marine coral abounds. There is even a native shark, the primitive and unaggressive bullhead shark, known locally as the Port Jackson shark.
A throwback to Isabela’s darker times, the Wall of Tears, outside Puerto Villamil, was built using the forced labor of convicts between 1944 and 1959. Legend has it that convicts were forced to build the walls from heavy rocks, only to be told to disassemble it. There was no real reason for the wall, other than to break prisoners physically and spiritually, locals say. Some in town believe that the wall is haunted; many claim sat they can sometimes hear cries of those who died at the wall during its construction.