Isabela Island, Galápagos
What you need to know about Isabela Island, Galápagos
The remarkably-shaped Isabela Island was originally called Albemarle Island by the first Galápagos explorers in 1684. It is the largest of all the islands at 120 km long, and its total area is larger than that of all the other islands put together! The northwestern side of the island features Tagus Cove, a notorious anchorage used originally by pirates and buccaneers, and later by whalers and fishermen.
Isabela was visited by Charles Darwin in 1835 when he arrived on the Beagle. Near the end of the 19th century, Isabela Island started to be properly colonized with the founding of the town of Puerto Villamil on the south coast, and later the inland settlement of Santa Tomas in the highlands. Isabela was a centre for lime production in the islands, which was made by burning coral that had been collected from the abundant coastal waters. Santa Tomas was home to a sulphur mine that was based in the volcanic crater. The lack of much fresh water on the islands meant neither of these businesses thrived and the island never become too developed. One of the younger islands in the Galápagos, Isabela Island was formed by the joining up of six volcanoes, all bar one of which are still classed as active. Amongst them is the famous Wolf Volcano, whose summit is the highest point on the whole archipelago.
The island's population has grown slowly over the years and now stands at over 1,750. The majority of Isabela islanders make their living by fishing, farming, and from tourism. Most of them live on the southern coast at Puerto Villamil. The island has many relatively new lava fields, and the surrounding soils have not yet broken down to develop enough nutrients to support the variety of habitats found on some of the other Galápagos islands. However, the Isabela wildlife is amongst the richest to be found anywhere in the Galápagos. Isabela is home to more wild tortoises than all the other islands put together, and each of its 6 volcanoes boasts a separate species. On her west coast, Isabela is hit by the nutrient-rich Cromwell Current, which rises up from the depths and creates a bountiful feeding ground for fish, whales dolphins and seabirds. Isabela has the reputation as the best spot for whale watching in the archipelago, with 16 species seen in the seas around her.
Interesting facts about Isabela Island
The island was formed when 6 volcanoes joined together
16 species of whale have been seen in the waters around Isabela
Wolf Volcano on Isabela is the highest point in the whole Galápagos
Isabela is bigger than all the other islands put together!
Pictures of Isabela Island, Galápagos
Highlights and Visitorpoints on Isabela
The Wetlands is the name given to the area of lagoons and mangrove swamps just along the coast from Villamil on Isabela Island. This is a popular excursion as it is just a short walk from town on good paths and boardwalks.
This is an important habitat, and is one of the only places where you can see all 4 of the native Galápagos Mangrove species. These mangroves are hugely important, not only for the wildlife they contain, but also for their help in preserving the coastline and resisting the eroding action of waves.
There are a large number of bird species that make their home in the Wetlands, and if you are a birdwatcher this is an excursion you will want to make sure is on your schedule. Speak to one of our Galápagos experts to help select the best itinerary for a visit to the Isabela Wetlands.
Moreno Point (known locally as Punta Moreno) is a short journey from Elizabeth Bay on the west coast of Isabela Island. You will take a panga ride which will give you great views of the striking rocky shoreline before you make your landing.
Here you will see the eerie site of a huge lava field leading up to the distant Cero Azul volcano. Hiking through this alien landscape you will come across several tidal lagoons, pools and mangroves - all of which provide an oasis for a range of wildlife, particularly bird species. In the larger tidal pools you may see green turtles or sharks, the clear waters giving you a unique opportunity to view them from on land!
On your journey back to the boats from your 1.2 mile hike you're likely to see Galápagos Penguins on the rocky shores as well a range of birds including herons and Galápagos Flamingos. This is a favorite excursion as it combines the opportunity to see coastal species with a hike through stunning landscapes.
This islet off the coast of Isabela is a popular diving site thanks to the variety of species that you can see in the waters here. In or on the water you are likely to encounter a range of shark species, Galápagos sea lions, stingrays, green sea turtles, cormorants, penguins, manta rays, and many more.
Also visible in these habitats are sponges and corals, and if you are lucky even sea horses, shaped just like the island of Isabela herself!
If you have any particular species that you are keen to see on your dive, contact one of our Galápagos experts today and we can advise on the best dive itinerary to suit your requirements.
Las Tintoreras are a group of small islets just a few hundred metres from the shores at Villamil, only accessible by kayak or panga. The network of Tintoreras forms a patchwork over the stunning turquoise waters of the bay, and this natural shelter is a haven for wildlife.
At low tides, one shallow lagoon is famous for offering amazing views of sharks swimming near the surface - the water clarity is such that they often look like they are floating in air! Other species that call Las Tintoreras home include Galápagos marine iguanas and friendly (and noisy) Galápagos Sea Lions.
Depending on tide conditions and time of year, it may be possible to snorkel here. If this is important to you, speak to one of our Galápagos experts who can advise you on the best itineraries to choose to meet your requirements.
Urbina Bay is one of the youngest features in the Galápagos. It was mainly formed in 1954, when a sudden uplift of the land raised the seabed by over 5 metres, and pushed the coastline over 1 km further away. This has resulted in the astonishing site of heads of coral stranded far from the water. Exposed to the air and elements, the coral heads are rapidly deteriorating and are one of the sights of the Galápagos that won't be around for much longer.
Once ashore, a long hiking trail will take you away from the beach and into the island's arid zone. In this habitat, you are likely to see wild Galápagos Giant Tortoises and Galápagos Land Iguanas. As the trail circles back towards the shore line you'll come across colonies of the unique Galápagos Flightless Cormorant.
This is a pleasant area for snorkeling, and as you enter and leave the water you might do so watched by some Galápagos Penguins, who have a colony nearby. This is also one of the best sites to see Galápagos Marine Iguanas feeding underwater.
The vast majority of Isabela's human population live in Puerto Villamil, which still holds onto its traditional fishing port charm. Indeed many of Galapatours visitors tell us they think it's the prettiest village in the whole archipelago.
The main reason for this is that Villamil had little impact from tourism until the 1990s, the residents quietly making their living from fishing and farming. Then in 1996 a small runway was opened for flights for light aircraft operating inter-island flights. There are now 13 hotels and 18 bars and restaurants in town, compared to only 1 and 2 respectively in 1980! Despite this, the town still enjoys a relaxed and authentic atmosphere.
Villamil enjoys a beautiful long beach, which is picture-book tropics - palm trees line it's bright white coral sand. Behind the beach are several saltwater lagoons which are home to pink flamingos, pintail ducks and several other species. There are several visitor sites that can be the subject of excursions from town on foot, by minibus or panga.
Wall of Tears
Called “El Muro de las Lágrimas” in Spanish, the Wall of Tears is located 6km from the town of Villamil. For visitors who enjoy hiking this a very interesting and historic path that leads from the centre of town. You soon pass the the Villamil cemetery, which contains the graves of some of the first permanent settlers on the islands.
Halfway along its length, the walking trail goes along a white sand beach surrounded by lagoons which host all 4 of the native Galápagos mangrove species close to one another.
Your walk continues through the arid zone until, out of nowhere, you come across the Wall of Tears. This is close to the site of the former penal colony that existed on Isabela Island between 1944 and 1959. Prisoners were forced to construct The Wall for no other reason than to punish them with "hard labor". In places the wall is almost 20ft tall and 10ft wide, and it runs for over 300ft in length. It was constructed entirely by hand from the sharp lava rocks, and this cruelty is said to have resulted in many deaths.
Locals say that if you listen closely to the wall you can hear the cries of the spirits of long-dead prisoners…
Sierra Negra Volcano
Sierra Negra is renowned as the most impressive volcano in the Galápagos. The crater is over 6 miles across and is the second largest in the world.
However, to visit the volcano is quite a logistical effort. The only way to get there is to start with a 45 minute drive from Villamil to a trailhead from where you can follow another 2 hours of trails up to and along part of the rim.
There's also the option to walk on quite recent lava flows, as the so-called parasitic cone of Volcan Chico last erupted in 1979 leaving large flows to cool to rock.
The journey is well worth the effort, as the views from the rim of Sierra Negra are simply stunning. You can see across the other volcanoes on Isabela and across to Fernandina.
Your expert Galapatours guide will explain in detail about the geological processes that shaped not only this part of Isabela, but of the whole Galápagos.
Arnaldo Tupiza Tortoise Breeding Center
A short walk from Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island will bring you to the Arnaldo Tupiza Tortoise Breeding Center. The short trail from town is lovely in itself - you follow a boardwalk that takes you across the wetlands and Opuntia cactus fields.
At the breeding centre you can see 5 different subspecies of Galápagos Giant Tortoise that are all native to Isabela, but currently threatened by habitat damage caused by introduced animals and volcanic eruptions. Here, the Giant Tortoise eggs are carefully incubated in a special hatchery, whilst the adults are cared for in large supervised corrals. This careful breeding program is aiming to increase the populations of these remarkable animals to ensure their survival as a wild species that's unique to the Galápagos.
Cape (or Cabo) Marshall is a good wall dive on the northeastern coast of Isabela. Depths here can be as much as 130ft and the visibility is anywhere from 20 to 70ft depending on the time of year.
Because of the geography of the site the current here is always moderate to heavy, and this is always done as a drift dive following the coast. There's little surge here, though and you'll have a mix of wall and reef diving.
Cape Marshall is a great location for giant manta rays and a wide variety of pelagic fish, and hammerhead sharks are a common sight. Galapatours visitors have also reported encounters with large schools of barracuda and sea lions who come along to join in with your dive!
Located on the remote northern tip of Isabela Island, Albemarle Point has the ruins of an abandoned US radar base from World War II. This infrequently visited site is only accessible by panga, but this gives you the opportunity to see the nesting sites of the critically endangered and unique Galápagos Flightless Cormorant.
Living alongside the Cormorants is a colony of the largest Marine Iguana species anywhere in the Galápagos, and you will be able to see these remarkable creatures as they feed at the water's edge or dive into the waves.
Because there are no landings allowed here, and thanks to its remoteness, this is one of the most unspoiled areas in the Galápagos, with little impact from introduced species. From the boat, you will also get a great view of a smooth undulating lava flow that made its way to the water's edge.
Concha de Perla
Pearl Beach, Concha de Perla, is a small beach in walking distance from Puerto Villamil. Simply walk down the main road (Antonio Gil) direction East and follow the signs to "Concha de Perla". A short beautiful walk through the mangroves on a boardwalk will lead you to the spot with turquoise waters and wildlife galore! You can expecto to see plenty of other tourists alongisde colorful fish, sea lions, sea turtles, pelicans, mockingbirds and maybe even marine iguanas!
Vicente Rock Point
Galapatours clients regularly rate Vicente Rock Point as one of the best snorkeling and SCUBA diving sites in Galápagos, or perhaps even in the world! There is no landing here, and snorkeling is done directly from the boats. The scenery around the Point is stunning - the remains of two ancient volcanoes made this formation, and the cliffs and caves around the bay provide an amazing backdrop.
The bay is well sheltered from ocean swells, making it ideal for snorkelers of any experience. The cold-water currents bring a rich stock of food to these waters, and the bay around Vicente Rock Point is often home to feeding frenzies, with groups of whales, dolphins, Galápagos Sea Lions, tuna, Blue-footed Boobies and other marine birds all feeding together, making for spectacular sights.
Many boats also take visitors on a panga ride along the shore, offering the chance to explore some of the caves and to encounter some of the other species such as Galápagos Flightless Cormorants and a small colony of Galápagos Fur Seals.
On the eastern coast of Isabela, the wide and sheltered Elizabeth Bay is a haven for wildlife. With areas of mangrove on the shore that contrast with the surrounding lava fields, and a myriad of small islets and rocky reefs, this is a particularly rich area for wildlife.
Accessible only by panga (small motorised dinghy), exploring Elizabeth Bay will provide you with an opportunity to get up close and personal with many of Isabela's species. During your 2 hour boat ride around Elizabeth Bay you can see rays, sharks, green sea turtles, Galápagos penguins, pelicans, and plenty of Galápagos Sea Lions. Nearer to the shores and mangroves you'll see Galápagos Flightless Cormorants and marine iguanas.
Galapatours guests regularly tell us that Elizabeth Bay is one of their favourite Galápagos excursions and visitor sites.
Only available since 2012, this site is rarely visited by divers and is recognized for wonderful encounters with six different species of shark, manta & eagle rays, sea lions, moray eels, lobsters, and a prolific population of “tropicals”.
For divers, Roca Blanca is one of our top "secret sites" - it's a mecca for sea life, rather like the Arch at Darwin Island. Located on the southeast coast of Isabela Island, this site promises some of the very best diving the central islands has to offer. Waters in this part of Galápagos are cooler and more nutrient rich than the areas of Wolf and Darwin. This increases the diversity and intensity of marine life.
Most unusually, the dive site at Roca Blanca also sometimes provides you with the remarkable opportunity to encounter enormous "bait balls" with marauding billfish in action. This is truly spectactular Galápagos diving!
Tagus Cove is a sheltered deep-water bay on the western coast of Isabela Island, overlooking Fernandina Island. This natural anchorage has been a popular destination for ships since the 1800s, and when you come ashore you can see ancient graffiti left by whalers and buccaneers.
A steep (but thankfully short) hiking trail then takes you up to the salt water Darwin Lake, formed inside a volcanic cone. How did salt water get all the way up here? Scientists think tsunamis caused by eruptions or landslides on Fernandina may have deposited seawater originally, and then evaporation has made it even more salty over time.
From Darwin Lake, a series of 160 steps takes you to a stunning viewpoint where you will not only enjoy amazing views over the Galápagos, but may also see some unique wildlife, such as Galápagos Hawks, Vermilion Flycatchers, and species of Darwin's Finches.
Your panga ride along the shoreline back to your ship gives a great opportunity to see Galápagos Flightless Cormorants, Galápagos Penguins, Galápagos Martins, and the friendly Galápagos Sea Lions.