Isabela Island is the youngest and largest island in the archipelago. Located in the western waters of the Galapagos, close to the popular diving sites off of the shores of Darwin and Wolf, the sea horse shaped island is bigger than the whole of the other islands combined. Isabela is a local and traveler’s favorite for its relaxed ambiance and uncrowded streets and beaches.
The island was formed by six shield volcanoes- Alcedo, Cerro Azul, Darwin, Ecuador, Sierra Negra, and Wolf. Today five different subspecies of giant tortoises live on Isabela-separated by the towering volcanoes that rise above the coast.
Pirates and whalers used the island as a base and place to restock on supplies-heavily reducing the giant tortoise population. In 1684, Ambrose Cowley visited the island and the infamous Tagus Cove, giving Isabela the name Albemarle and drawing the first known detailed map of the Galapagos Islands.
The first settlement of Isabela was established in 1897 when Antonio Gil founded Puerto Villamil on the coast and Santa Tomas in the highlands. Coral was mined to create lime around Puerto Villamil, and a cattle ranch and coffee plantation was created in the highlands. Gil also captures giant tortoises for oil that was used on the mainland to power street lamps.
Like the settlements on Floreana and San Cristobal, convicts from the mainland were employed as a workforce. This trend continued, in 1946 a penal colony was established on the island with 300 prisoners from the mainland. The men toiled under the hot sun and across the barren landscape to build the Wall of Tears in the highlands.
In the last 20 years, Isabela’s residents have developed infrastructure and slowly turned to create facilities for international travelers with the completion of an airport in 1997. Today, most of the 2000 residents work in tourism, fishing, or farming and live around the main port town of Puerto Villamil.
Isabela’s natural attractions span the spectrum between the lush Scalesia forests and towering volcanoes of the highlands, the tropical beaches, and islets of the coast, and the western side of the island where whales and dolphins are spotted in the Bolivar Channel.
Galapagos penguins are full-time residents of the island-the waters are cooler here year round. Other wildlife that lives on Isabela are the flightless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, great blue herons, green sea turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, flamingos, pelicans, and the endemic pink iguana.
Kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, biking, surfing, and relaxing on the tropical beaches are some of the activities that reveal the natural wonders of Isabela.
Puerto Villamil is a sleepy port town where travelers find refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Located behind a stunning beach and Elizabeth Bay- the small, peaceful town has an assortment of bars, restaurants, and shops. It is the launching site for day tours around the island to amazing snorkeling sites, islets where penguins play and white-tipped sharks rest, and excursions to neighboring islands.
Aside from the local restaurants serving set lunches and seafood, there is a small but growing collection of restaurants serving international fare around town. These include Isabela Grill Steak House, the Booby Trap for pizza, tacos, good salads, and great drinks; Shwarma Hot for Middle Eastern and vegetarian, the Hauser’s Restaurant(located inland and reservations required,) Oasis for seafood(reservations required,) and Restaurante La Casa de Marita for seafood.
The long stretch of beach in front of Puerto Villamil is considered one of the most beautiful in the islands. Located on the bay, it’s an ideal spot to swim, surf, relax and have a drink at beachfront bars in a hammock after a day of active exploring.
Activities-Swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, relaxing on the beach
Wildlife-Sea lions, Galapagos penguins, Sally Lightfoot crabs, blue-footed boobies, sea birds
Marine Life-Sea turtles, rays, and reef fish
Flamingo Lake Located behind the main town and to the west is a chain of salt and fresh water lagoons where the largest number of flamingos live in the Galapagos
Wildlife-American Flamingos, coastal and sea birds
Reached via a boardwalk from the Puerto Ayora, Concha de Perla is a clear water bay. The calm, crystal waters are teeming with schools of vibrant tropical fish, sea lions, Galapagos penguins, sea turtles, and rays. It is an ideal place close to town to snorkel and swim with the amazing creatures of the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
Activities-Snorkeling and swimming
Wildlife-Sea and coastal birds
Marine Life-Sea lions and turtles, marine iguanas, rays, Galapagos penguins, Galapagos, and white-tipped reef sharks, and reef fish
Tintoreras is a small islet close to Puerto Villamil that is reached by half day tours that include snorkeling or by kayak tour. On the way to Tintoreras, you pass rocky outcrops where colonies of Galapagos penguins rest and dive into the tropical waters in search of reef fish.
In the shallow pools on Las Tintoreras are white-tipped reef sharks resting on the seafloor. The sharks feed at night, and mainly rest in shady underwater spots during the day.
Activities-Swimming and snorkeling
Marine Life-Galapagos penguins, white-tipped reef sharks, blue-footed boobies, sea birds
A short boat ride along the western coast from Puerto Villamil, Los Tuneles is a sheltered maze of pools and lava bridges formed when lava flowed from a nearby volcano eruption into the sea. The crystal waters and volcanic bridges that span them are a sanctuary for a myriad of vibrant reef fish, decade-old sea turtles, large sea horses, starfish, and reef sharks.
The area is restricted and off limits to cruise ships, and can only be reached by private tours. The snorkeling here is considered amongst the best in the archipelago. On land blue-footed boobies and sea birds gather in the skies and along the rocky outcrops.
Be aware that entrance to the area is dictated by sea conditions-if the waves are too rough and choppy, boat captains won’t risk the journey.
Activities-Snorkeling and swimming
Wildlife-Blue-footed boobies, sea birds
Marine Life-Sea turtles, sea horses, white-tipped reef sharks, reef fish
The Wetlands of Isabela, or, Los Humedales, are located east of Puerto Villamil. The area consists of a network of seven trails that take you to lakes, lagoons, mangrove swamps, and lookout points. You can explore Los Humedales on foot, by private tour or by bicycle.
After ascending a staircase to a lookout point, the view extends to the wetland system of Los Diablos, over the town of Puerto Villamil and bay, and the Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul volcanoes.
Los Tunos is a lookout from the rim of a collapsed lava tunnel with views of the nearby pond of Poza Verde. The view spans the areas mangrove groves and ancient forest of candelabra cacti.
Pozas Verde is a lookout point that straddles the dividing point between the mangroves of the wetlands and a dry carob tree grove.
The Tunel del Estero is a lava tube that is below the water level at high tide. During low tide, visitors can walk a short distance into the tube, where you can find a shallow tidal pool.
La Playa de Amor is a local’s favorite beach for relaxing and swimming. The beach is made of crushed shells, and there is a tidal pool and a colony of marine iguanas nearby. Sea turtles have also been frequently spotted in the area.
La Playita is a small beach that is part of the larger Villamil beach in front of Puerto Villamil. Sea lions, sharks, and sea birds often are seen in the area-where snorkeling and soaking in the sun are the activities of the day.
Poza de Diablos is the largest lagoon in the Galapagos. It is a breeding and feeding site for flamingos-often seen in the shallow waters offshore.
Poza Redonda is a small lake formed by a collapsed lava tube. Hiking to the shore of the lake reveals a plethora of plant life growing out of the volcanic outcrops along the edge of the water.
Following a path through cactus and carob trees leads to a small lake and mangrove swamp.
At the end of the trail stands the Wall of Tears, a stark reminder of the island’s history as a penal colony. The wall itself isn’t much to look at, instead, it signifies the changes that have occurred in the Galapagos over the last century.
Centro de Crianza is one of the successful tortoise breeding centers in the Galapagos. Exploring the different stages of growth is fascinating. From hatchlings that are protected in pens to young adults wandering around the grounds before reaching the age when they are released, the gentle giants are incredible animals to see up close.
Activities-hiking, snorkeling, swimming, biking
Wildlife-Giant sea tortoises, American flamingos, coastal birds
Marine Life-Sea turtles and lions, rays, Galapagos penguins, sharks, reef fish
The highlands of Isabela are a contrast of lush tropical forests teaming with finches, owls, and flycatchers to an arid zone above the tree line where the peaks of the island volcanoes and the neighboring islands are seen on the horizon.
The Sierra Negra Volcano has the second largest crater in the world-spanning six miles high above the coast of Isabela. It is one of Isabela’s most active volcano-the last eruption was in 2005.
The hike takes seven hours round trip, and the trail is sometimes muddy and the volcanic fields are tricky to navigate at times.
Seven species of finches live in the Scalesia forest and tall papaya trees that line the ascending trail. Once at the rim, the air temperature rises from the lava that lies below the crust of the crater.
Another path from the rim leads to the nearby, Chico Volcano fissure-the trail is flanked by multi-colored volcanic outcrops and fissures along the most recent lava fields.
Activities-Hiking, bird watching
Wildlife-Finches, short-eared owls, and flycatchers
Historically, Tagus Cove was used by pirates and whalers as a safe harbor to hide out and restock. The sheltered cove and lookout above provided the perfect hiding place from the Spanish fleet. The crew of the ships who harbored here etched their ship’s names in the cliffs of the bay, dating back to the 1800s.
From the cove, there is a trail that ascends to 5900 ft. or 1800 meters. Round trip, the trek takes an hour and a half.
The trail weaves through a Palo Santo forest to Darwin’s Lake, named for the famous explorer who visited the site during his voyage.
Past the salt water lagoon is a long stretch of wooden steps that takes you to a lookout over the bay and surrounding islands.
Activities-Hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, diving
Wildlife– Flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks, brown pelicans
Marine Life-Galapagos penguins, occasionally whales and dolphins.
Located on the northwest coast of Isabela, Vicente Roca Point is only reached by dinghy. The site has two coves where flightless cormorants, a marine iguana colony, storm petrels, blue-footed and Nazca boobies, and Galapagos penguins are often spotted.
The year-round cool waters and thriving underwater eco-system attracts whales, dolphins, and massive sunfish-whose feeding frenzies create whirlpool-like effects in the clear waters.
Vicente Roca Point is a popular place to snorkel and dive, and trips and tours from Puerto Villamil specialize in showing travelers the natural highlights of the area.
Activities-Snorkeling, diving, bird watching
Wildlife- flightless cormorants, and blue and Nazca boobies
Marine Life-Galapagos penguins, sunfish, dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and lions, rays, reef and puffer fish.
Located on the western shores of Isabela, Urbina Bay is one of the islands more unusual sites. In 1954, volcanic activity forced the sea floor above the surface of the water around Urbina Bay. Coral reefs and fossils on the shores of the bay attract marine and land iguanas.
The area is frequented by flightless cormorants, pelicans, and giant tortoises. The bay is at the foot of the Alcedo volcano, which is seen above in all its grandeur.
Activities-hiking, bird watching
Wildlife–Giant tortoises, land iguanas, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks, and pelicans
Marine Life-Marine iguanas, spiny lobsters, occasionally Galapagos penguins.
Roca Redonda is a submerged volcano north of Isabela where the underwater fumaroles bubble to the surface. This is an intermediate to advanced dive reaching depths of 60 ft. or 18 meters. Schools of hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks and sea lions are often seen in the area.
Located off of Isabela’s eastern shore, The Four Brothers dive site is a wall and cave dive for all levels of divers. With depths of 85 ft. or 25 meters, marine life often spotted includes manta rays, sea cucumbers, eels, octopus, white-tipped reef sharks, Yellowtail Surgeonfish, and sea turtles.
Southwest of Isabela, the Tortuga Island dive site is suitable for all levels of divers. Depths reach to 65 ft. or 20 meters. Marine life that frequents the area includes hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks, rays, parrotfish, barracuda, sea turtles, and angelfish.
The waters of Tagus Cove are deep, reaching over a 130 ft. or 40 meters. This is an advanced dive where seahorses, hawkfish, and red-lipped batfish are seen. Tagus Cove is also home to the largest starfish in the world, their arms spanning up to 4 ft.
Off the northwestern shores of Isabela, Punta Roca Redondo is a wall dive at the tip of an underwater volcano. Depths reach 88 ft. or 27 meters. This is an intermediate to advanced dive because of strong currents. Schools hammerheads sharks often frequent the area and use the coral wall as a cleaning station. During the guara season when the waters are cooler, giant sunfish rise from the depths.
Located off the northwestern shores of Isabela, Cape Marshal is a reef dive that reaches 120ft. or 30 meters. Hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks, rays, schools of barracuda, guineafowl pufferfish, parrotfish, yellowtail surgeonfish, and sea lions are some of the marine animals that frequent the area.
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Note: All information is intended as a general guide of what you might be able to see or do on this island. In reality, wildlife sightings are by nature unpredictable, and activities may be subject to change by your guide or the National Park Authority.