Isabela Island

About Isabela

The majority of Isabela residents make their living by fishing, farming, and tourism. In the 90s, development for tourism began. A small airport was completed in 1996 for inter-islands flights. The number of hotels, restaurants and bar grew since then. However, the town still retains its relaxed attitude in contrast to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal The center of population is on the southern coast at Puerto Villamil. Villamil is probably one of the most beautiful townsite in Galapagos, with its long, white-sand, palm-lined beaches and several brackish-water lagoons frequented by pink flamingoes, common stilts, whimbrels, white-cheeked pintails, and gallinules.

HISTORY

Isabela Island was originally named Albemarle Island for the so named duke by Ambrose Cowley, one of the first men to ever set foot on the islands, in 1684. It was named after Queen Isabella of Spain. It is the largest of all the islands, with an area of 4,670 square kilometers (1,803 sq. mi), and length of 120 kilometers (74 mi),almost four times larger than Santa Cruz, the second largest of the archipelago. Tagus Cove on the northwestern side of the island provided a sheltered anchorage for pirates, buccaneers, whalers, and others for over 400 years. Darwin visited the place in 1835. Antonio Gil, a well-known Ecuadorian from Guayaquil, arrived in Galapagos in 1893 and after visiting the other islands, colonized southern Isabela, founding the town of Puerto Villamil on the southern coast and the town of Santo Tomás in the highlands. He named Villamil after the freedom fighter from Guayaquil, José de Villamil.

The town of Puerto Villamil began as a lime production center. Santa Tomás was the center for a sulfur mine in the caldera of Sierra Negra Volcano and a nearby coffee plantation. Water limitations have always been a problem for the economic growth of the place. By 1974 there were nearly 450 residents on Isabela. This number has increased in each official census. Isabela was once used as an exile for prisoners, who built the devastating Wall of Tears as part of their punishment.

GEOLOGY

Isabela Island is a hidden gem within a treasure. Shaped as a sea horse, Isabela is the largest island of the Galapagos and one of the younger ones. Isabela Island was formed about 1 million years ago by the joining of six shield volcanoes — from north to south — Ecuador, Wolf, Darwin, Alcedo, Sierra Negra, and Cerro Azul. All of the volcanoes still active except Ecuador. The western flanks of Ecuador Volcano have collapsed into the sea. Wolf Volcano, with an elevation of 1707 m (5600 ft.), is the highest point of Isabela Island and all Galapagos Islands. Two of the volcanoes, Ecuador and Wolf lie directly on the equator. Isabela is one of the more volcanically active islands. Eruptions have been recorded in the last fifty years for Wolf Volcano (1963 and 1982) (its last eruption occurred on the 25th of May 2015), Alcedo (1993), Sierra Negra (1963, 1979, and 2005), and Cerro Azul (1959, 1979, 1998, and 2008).

The island is primarily noted for its geology, providing excellent examples of a geologic occurrence that created the Galapagos Islands including uplifts at Urvina Bay and the Bolivar Channel, tuff cones at Tagus Cove, and Pulmace on Alcedo and Sierra Negra, one of the most active volcanoes in the world and the second largest crater worldwide (11km diameter).

WILDLIFE

Isabela is also interesting for its flora and fauna. The young island does not follow the vegetation zones of the other islands. The relatively new lava fields and surrounding soils have not developed the sufficient nutrients required to support the varied life zones found on other islands. Another obvious difference occurs on Volcan Wolf and Cerro Azul; these volcanoes loft above the cloud cover and are arid on top.Isabela’s rich animal, bird, and marine life is beyond compare. Isabela is home to more wild tortoises than all the other islands. Isabela’s large size and notable topography created barriers for the slow-moving tortoises; apparently the creatures were unable to cross lava flows and other obstacles, causing several different sub-species of tortoise to develop. Today, tortoises roam free in the calderas of Alcedo, Wolf, Cerro Azul, Darwin and Sierra Negra.

Introduced goats multiplied to over 100,000 but were eradicated by the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation.

Other noted species include penguins, cormorants, marine iguanas, boobies, pelicans and Sally Lightfoot crabs abound. Galapagos land iguanas and Darwin’s finches, Galápagos hawks, Galápagos doves and very interesting lowland vegetation. The west coast of Isabela in the Bolivar Channel is the best place in Galapagos for viewing whales and dolphins.

In terms of wildlife, Isabela is home to the vast majority of all species found in the Galápagos. In the Puerto Villamil area you can find an abundance of  ducks, finches, tropical birds, sea turtles, sea lions, marine iguanas, manta rays, sharks, eels and tropical fish.

Galapagos tortoises and land iguanas roam free around the Sierra Negra Volcano. Sally light foot crabs, hawks, owls, dolphins and whales, among other species, are often spotted there as well.

PUERTO VILLAMIL

Puerto Villamil, complete with its white sand beaches, is consistently considered one of the most beautiful sites in the Galapagos Islands. Located just behind the town of Villamil are several brackish lagoons, where pink flamingos, common stilts, whimbrels, white-cheeked pintails, and gallinules can usually be seen. Between November and April each year, the lagoons serve as nesting areas, which makes the beaches and lagoons near Puerto Villamil some of the best viewing sites for migratory Galapagos Coastal Birds in the whole archipelago. In fact, some people also consider Puerto Villamil as one of the world’s most beautiful tropical destinations. The area is made up of volcanic soil left over from eruptions by Puerto Villamil’s five active volcanoes. Villamil still retains its local charm and has not yet been overrun by too many visitors.

If you like snorkeling, then Las Tintoreras is the perfect spot. You can hire a local guide to take you to the Tunnels, which is a striking area of eroded lava islets teeming with abundant sea life.

From the dock of the town, you can walk along the boardwalk, through tangled mangrove stilt-roots to the Concha de Perla. Here, you will be able to snorkel with Galapagos marine life, such as sea turtles, penguins, colorful fish, and manta rays. Don’t worry, though – snorkeling with these marine creatures is safe.

The lagoons in the western part of Puerto Villamil are another amazing place from which to watch the wildlife native to the area. The lagoons themselves create an extensive network of shallow bodies of water that connect the local wetlands.

The precious wetlands of Villamil were designated as an international Ramsar Wetland Site in 2002. The lagoons have viewing platforms from which visitors can watch the wide variety of water birds and flamingos that flock to this site.

The town of Puerto Villamil, near the huge Sierra Negra volcano, was founded in 1897 and named after the general who annexed the Galapagos Islands to Ecuador in 1832. Now there are around 1,000 settlers who fish or farm coffee and fruit in the highlands.

Villamil began as the center of lime production. The town of Santo Tomas (near Villamil) served as a sulfur mine and home to Galapagos Coffee plantations. Unfortunately, these businesses were not too profitable due to the water bound limitations of the Galapagos Islands.

The small town of Villamil has sandy roads and simple houses with fences of woven branches and cacti. There is a small main square in front of the mayoral building and a small church. From here you can head north of the square, which will take you out of the town towards the airport and highlands.

Everything in Puerto Villamil is within close walking distance, so you will not see automobiles or buses very often. Outdoor activities such as swimming, snorkeling, fishing, and watching wildlife are available all over the island, along with great tasting seafood restaurants that serve only the freshest fish from the surrounding waters.

The locals value their tranquility but are friendly and welcoming to visitors. It is easy to arrange activities and get directions with or without the benefit of an organized tour.

It is also a great place to find a hammock and relax, swim and snorkel, or simply enjoy the local seafood and a cocktail at a bar overlooking the water. Most visitors come to Puerto Villamil by boat from Santa Cruz Island, but it is also possible to fly between these two Islands.

Stunning Beaches

The long sandy beach out the front of the town is perfect for sunset walks and viewing seabirds, iguanas, and crabs.

Around the harbor, you will see sea lions move smoothly through the water or rest on any convenient rock.

Galapagos Penguins and Blue-footed Boobies can often be viewed from the cruises offered by many small boat owners.

The long sandy beach that borders the front of the town is perfect for viewing seabirds, iguanas, and crabs, and ideal for sunset walks.

Around the harbor, you will see sea lions gliding smoothly through the water or resting on any convenient rock or bench.

Galapagos penguins and blue-footed boobies can often be viewed from the cruises offered by many small boat owners.

The Wall of Tears

This wall is a reminder of the work of three hundred prisoners who lived here between the 1940s and 1950s. They had the assignment of building their own prison, using the only material at hand (sharp-edged lava boulders).

Driven on by guards, they made a wall of around 190m long, 9m high and 6m wide at the base, but many died in the process, thus giving the wall its harrowing name.

The prison colony was closed down after a revolt in 1959, and the wall was left unfinished.

You can arrive to this place after a two-hour walk to the west along the coastal road that lays beyond several peaceful beaches.

If abundant marine life is what you’re hoping to see, then Las Tintoreras is the best spot.

From the dock, a sandy trail leads past sunbathing marine iguanas up to a lagoon and a narrow channel, where you will see the shiny shapes of White Tipped Sharks patrolling back and forth.

It is safe to swim and snorkel in the lagoon, but don’t swim in the channel itself as it’s not big enough for both you and the sharks. If you’re lucky, you may see rays and marine turtles too.

Giant Tortoise Breeding Center

You can also visit the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, which is just twenty minutes from the city’s small downtown area.

Work is ongoing here to repopulate the island’s five unique tortoise subspecies, each of them based around the five largest volcanoes.

The Galapagos Islands will always exceed your wildest expectations. And Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island is a perfect example of this.

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