Isabela is the largest island in the Galápagos Archipelago, but the town of Puerto Villamil is the smallest we visited (Puerto Velazco Ibarra on Floreana is smaller but we didn’t make it there). It’s also the most laid back, giving off more of a beach town vibe than the busier Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. There aren’t many souvenir shops here, only a half dozen tour agencies, and the main restaurants are grouped in a line along the main road near the beach. There are a lot of free activities, hikes and snorkels within walking distance. The big tours are snorkelling the Los Tunnels and hiking the Sierra Negra Volcano. It’s a great island to visit, offering unique landscapes and intimate interactions with flamingos, marine iguanas, sea turtles, blue footed boobies and more.
How to Get There
You’ll need to take a ferry from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to get to Puerto Villamil. There are multiple small ferries that leave from Santa Cruz to Isabela at 7am and 2pm, that hold about 28 people each. You can book a seat on one at any tour agency for $30 USD (this price is fixed, no point in negotiating). You board at the main pier, make sure to show up a bit early to have your bag checked by inspection to make sure you’re not bringing any fruit, seeds or plants between islands. You also won’t necessarily end up on the boat you were booked on, just look for captains with clipboards and tell them what boat you’re on, you’ll eventually end up finding one with your name on their list. Just bring your proof of purchase with you! The length of the boat ride depends on weather and sea conditions. Our trip took 2 hours and 45 minutes from Santa Cruz to Isabela, but 1 hour and 45 minutes back (our driver was pretty crazy and the ride was rough!). Be ready to pay a $0.50 USD fee for your water taxi ride between the pier to the ferry. Bring exact change! You are travelling over open ocean on a smaller ferry, so be ready for a bumpy ride. If you get seasick have some meds ready.
At Isabela, the water taxi fee is $1 USD. You also need to pay $10 USD to enter the island. You can walk to the main part of town, it’s about a kilometer, or hop in a taxi truck for a small fee. When leaving the island, ferries leave at 8am and 3pm. The process is a little more streamlined, you pay for your water taxi while in line at the pier and receive a ticket that you give the water taxi driver. You get a lanyard with your boat name on it after you find the captain with your name on their list (yes, our boat changed again) and then wait until your boat is called. As we said before, the trip to Santa Cruz took 1 hour and 45 minutes, but our driver was insane and the ride was extremely rough.
Where to Stay
- Brisas del Mar – We only stayed one night on Isabela, and didn’t spend a ton of time looking for accommodation. Brisas del Mar was a nice spot, $35 USD for a private double bed with an ensuite bathroom. The wifi was spotty, but the beds were comfy, there was free water and bananas and a nice hammock zone to hang out in. You can book online here.
What to Do
- Snorkel Concha Perla – Just down a boardwalk beside the arrival/departure pier is a secluded snorkel spot you can visit free without a tour. Just rent some snorkel gear for $5 USD from any tour agency or dive shop and walk down the main road. You’ll probably stumble across some sleepy sea lions napping on the boardwalk, and by stumble across we mean you’ll have to literally step over them to get by. Concha Perla is completely enclosed either by marked lines or rock walls, and we felt completely safe snorkelling by ourselves. Just be aware of the potential for a somewhat strong current that can build on the right side of the snorkel area. There is a large resident sting ray that hangs out here (don’t worry, he’s harmless as long as you keep a respectful distance), and we also saw a couple sea turtles, and sea lions.
- Villamil Lagoon – This is an awesome elevated boardwalk through a wetland that’s known for it’s resident flamingos. Absolutely bizarre to see flamingos in the wild, but we saw 6 or 7 up close feeding on shrimp. You’ll also see large marine iguanas at the start of the path, and other wading birds looking for food. The path begins just past the Iguana Crossing Hotel on the right, which you’ll find if you continue walking east on the main road. The path turns into a dirt path after about 15 mins, and after 20 mins or so of walking through forest you’ll end up at the Centro de Crianza, a giant tortoise breeding center.
- Centro de Crianza Giant Tortoise Breeding Center – A small breeding center at the end of the Villamil Lagoon hike that’s worth a short visit. There’s a bunch of tortoise species in different areas, as well as baby tortoises although they aren’t that visible. There’s also a small gift shop.
- Playa del Amor – While the translated “Beach of Love” isn’t all that romantic, it’s a cool place to check out, and the hike there is a good way to spend the day. You get there by either hiking along the beach or the path east away from town. We recommend hiking along the beach, the path isn’t all that special. Once the beach ends head over to the path and from there it is very well signed. There are multiple beaches around, as well as some viewpoints and paths through the wetlands. Playa del Amor isn’t a beach you’d swim at or tan at, but rather a beach made of black volcanic rock. You can explore the area full of tidal pools, sally lightfoot crabs, and marine iguanas. This is also the same path that takes you to the Wall of Tears, however we recommend to rent a bike if you want to go that far. It took us about 30 minutes to walk to Playa del Amor, but it’s another 4km to the Wall of Tears.
- Wall of Tears – Rent a bike from one of the tour agencies, or hike if you really want to! It’s a 5 km hike out… so we would recommend the bike! The wall was built in the 40’s and 50’s by prisoners of the colony that settled on Isabela. It may be a heavy trip due to the deaths and suffering caused by the building of this wall, but it is important to understand the history behind it and the island.
- Los Tunnels – This could easily go down in the books as our favourite day trip, and is a must see if you make it off Santa Cruz. The entire tour takes between 4-5 hours, and consists of snorkelling and then exploring the naturally occuring lava tunnels. After a 45 minute boat ride we arrived at the snorkel spot, a calm sheltered area near shore. We saw seahorses, an octopus, spotted eagle rays and a white tip reef shark in the shallows among the mangroves. Then we moved to a white tip reef shark cave where we came face to face with about a dozen sharks! Finally swam out of the enclosure and found 5 or 6 sea turtles grazing. The full snorkel took about an hour. Another quick 10 minute boat ride took us to the main Los Tunnels area, where lava flows carved out amazing black rock structures and arches now flooded with beautiful turquoise water. We walked along the lava paths for 45 minutes and saw sea turtles and sea lions swimming along the channels, and blue footed boobies nesting among the rocks. A 45 minute boat ride back included a yummy lunch of rice, veggies and chicken, while we visited Roca Union, a popular resting spot for Nazca Boobies, sea lions and fur seals. We booked the tour through the Isabela Dive Center for $85 USD last minute, and by last minute we mean we literally jumped on a boat and booked the tour at 11am, within an hour of arriving on the island. Other agencies, including the highly rated Pahoehoe, were offering last minute and next day tours a $105-$120 USD (but we literally got the exact same trip as them!). The cost of our tour included snorkel, mask, flippers, short wetsuit and lunch. Some didn’t include a wet suit so make sure to clarify that!
- Volcan Sierra Negra – This massive volcano boasts the second largest volcano crater on the planet, and makes for a great day trip. We didn’t do this tour, but the quotes we got ranged from $40-$60 USD, including lunch and transport to the start of the hiking trail. If you do not want to do a tour, you can hike the 9 km trail to the volcano, or hire a taxi. However you must have a guide to visit the crater, which will run you about $30 USD/person anyway, so it’s probably cheaper and easier to take a tour. Every tour agency on the island will give you a price quote for it, just make sure to ask what is included (i.e. lunch, water, guide, transportation etc.).
Where to Eat
- Restaurant Row – The main area to eat is what we dubbed “Restaurant Row”. It’s along the main street on the south side of the main square. Some of the restaurants are a little pricey, head to the west-most restaurant to find menu del dia (meal of the day) deals similar to the cheap street in Puerto Ayora (aka beans, rice, chicken). These ran us as little as $5 USD!
- El Sorbete – A small breakfast spot with a few tables out front, you can find El Sorbete on the main street, just west of the main square. Nice $5 USD breakfasts and $2.50 USD toastadas that’ll fill you up before a morning hike.