Many people dream of an escape to the archipelago because they love wildlife, history, hiking, snorkeling, boating or diving. Isabela Island in Galapagos offers all of these activities. It boasts extreme scenery, beautiful snorkeling beaches, excellent hiking trails, diverse and charismatic wildlife, and welcoming visitors centers.
Isabela Island in Galapagos is the largest of all the islands and sits across the line of the equator. It is a merged collection of six shield volcanoes named Alcedo, Darwin, Cerra Azul, Sierra Negra, Ecuador, and Wolf. Sierra Negra continues to be one of the world’s most active volcanoes, but all six provide endless fascination for lovers of geology. Tuff cones, uplifts, pumice beaches and more can be found here to discover. The island is also the home of one of the breeding centers for the Galapagos tortoise. Today, 10 subspecies remain, and the center continues to support these populations with breeding and returns to the wild.
The volcanic soil is too young to support the same plant life as some of the other islands, and the tall cones create mountainous environments that attract clouds and bring a rainy side. Because of this, Isabela Island in Galapagos is considered one of the most diverse of all the islands in regards to wildlife. In addition to the famed tortoises, the island has seabirds like flightless cormorants, boobies, pelicans and penguins. Land birds, including several species of the famed Darwin’s finches, Galapagos doves, and Galapagos hawks enjoy the uplands. Along the beach, Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine and land iguanas, and lava lizards can all be found. Plant lovers will be enchanted at the unique vegetation that is found nowhere else on earth, not even the neighboring islands.
Isabela is one of the few islands with a small human settlement in the town of Puerto Villamil. This gives you access to rental items like snorkel gear or mountain bikes, which you can take out on your own. Though some islands are available by tour only, there is more freedom on Isabela, which creates opportunities to do your own thing. One of the best-unchaperoned snorkel sites on Isabela is Concha de Perla. It’s a popular site, and there are well-marked trails and easy maps to help you find the way.
Underwater wildlife of note off Isabela include swimming land animals like penguins and sea lions along with the occasional marine iguana. Reef fish abound, and the volcanic nature of the area has created delicate arches, lava tubes, and other beautiful underwater structures. Unique Galapagos-only damsel and angelfish varieties are here along with a host of other more common Pacific reef fish. Eagle rays and cow-nosed rays glide elegantly through the water, and the spectacular zebra moray and garden eels can be found peeking out from crevices. If you venture further toward the deep, you may be treated to some larger fish; the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, has been known to frequent these waters as well as a few species of hammerhead and the silky shark. White-tipped reef sharks swim closer in, about as far out as the turtles, but are no danger to you. If you visit between April and October, you may be treated to the song or sight of the breeding humpback whales in the area.
A large network of trails crosses Isabela Island in Galapagos, creating opportunities for all sorts of hikers and mountain bikers from the casual to the extreme. If you’re looking for a cross-section of the island’s beauty and wildlife and a good day hike, one example for fit hikers is the Sierra Negra volcanic hike. As this is the only volcano that visitors can hike, it’s the place to go if you want to get up close to an active volcano while here. The hike begins at a lowland outpost, about a 30-minute drive from Puerto Villamil to the trailhead. Bikers can get a map from town and start there. The trail starts gently through a lush forest of fern-covered trees and stays that way for much of the ascent. The mouth of the caldera, or volcano opening, is about 6 miles across, and the trail approaches its ridge to open into spectacular views. The trail then follows the rim of the volcano around from the west side to the dry, and you will notice a change in both plant and animal life as you go. The other side is protected from the clouds, so it is very desert-like, but it is also protected from the wind, giving you a nice break if it’s a breezy day. Finally, descend into the Volcan Chico portion of the area, where eruptions from the 1970s have created a moonscape that is eerily beautiful.
If you are limited in movement or activity level, there are simpler, shorter wildlife trails around that are designed to give you a taste of the wilds of Isabela Island in Galapagos, without the strain of getting there.