Another Rolly Anchorage, a Former Penal Colony, and an Epic AdventureBefore arriving at Isabela, we had read that this was a calm, protected anchorage, though smaller than it looked due to all the rocks and reefs in the anchorage. The latter part proved to be true, but we found Puerto Villamil to be almost as rolly as Puerto Ayora. Even though there were far fewer boats in the harbor than on both San Cristobal and Santa Cruz---and only a few water taxis---the swells created by the tour boats constantly zipping in and out of the harbor contributed to the motion in the anchorage. My overall impression of the island when we were there was one of relentless surf, and one of the local people we met mentioned that the waves were high during our visit, so perhaps that was a contributing factor as well. Indeed, on our last night at anchor in Puerto Villamil, we experienced the calmest night we'd had at anchor there, so it may have indicated a shift in the weather.
|Entrance channel to Puerto Villamil barely showing yellow buoy marking anchorage entrance|
|Lava gull, Isla Isabela|
|Anchorage at Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela|
We had heard that Isla Isabela was the "best" island in the Galapagos in terms of things to see, and I was eager to explore it. However, I found that Isabela was less accessible in terms of things to see and do locally without a paid, guided tour. Cruisers are no longer allowed to visit Las Tintoreras, the series of islets surrounding the anchorage in which white tipped sharks and Galápagos penguins are found, in their dinghies. They must go on a guided tour. The port has set up orange floats beyond which cruisers are not supposed to take their dinghies or snorkel. Luckily, the wildlife doesn't recognize the orange floats, and one can see fish, bat rays, sea turtles, sea lions, and penguins swimming right through the anchorage. It would be easy to swim over from your boat and explore the outer edges of Las Tintoreras, as well as the reefs extending into the anchorage; however, the traffic and swell conditions in the anchorage did not make this feasible during the short time I was there.
We also did not take the snorkeling tour of Los Tuneles (lava tunnels), although we heard from other cruisers that this was a disappointment. They were not allowed to snorkel in the calm waters of Los Tuneles; the snorkeling spot on the tour was somewhere else with poorer visibility.
The mangroves next to the dinghy dock house a plethora of wildlife, and you can see many sea lion pups and marine iguanas there. The local hangout touted by our guidebook as a great snorkeling spot, "Concha y Perla," was disappointing in its low diversity. Low tide is best, and the farther you go out on the reef, the more you can see; but you have to be aware of tricky currents both in this area and in the channel between the snorkeling hole and the embarcadero. The sight of mangrove roots extending over the underwater lava flows was eerie and unique.
|View of Isla Tortuga from Concha y Perla|
On our first day in town, we checked out Laguna de Sal and found a stagnant, algae filled pond with a solitary flamingo.
On the second day, we rented bikes for the 10 km round trip to the Wall of Tears. Along the way, we saw the entire flock of flamingos at a much healthier looking Poza de las Diablas (a lagoon).
|Flamingos at Poza de las Diablas|
I would recommend this excursion, because there is a lot to see along the way. A short distance from town is Villamil's picturesque cemetery. As well as the flamingos, we saw huge numbers of marine iguanas at Playa del Amor and land tortoises along the upper reaches of the trail. A family we met on our way back saw three sea turtles at one of the viewpoints along the coast, but the turtles had not been there when we had passed by earlier.
|Marine iguanas at Playa del Amor|
|Relentless surf at Playa del Amor|
|Not yet an octogenarian|
|Taking a break in the red mangroves along the trail|
|The Wall of Tears|
Clearly, it was a project that was never finished.
From the ridge above the wall (where one can imagine the guards keeping watch over the prisoners) excellent views of the island and Puerto Villamil can be had.
|View from the top|
Near the Wall, you can also see the stone platforms that Americans from WWII built their barracks on. Before visiting the Galápagos, I wasn't aware of the American presence here during WWII. On Isabela, Americans monitored ship traffic for potential threats to the Panama Canal.
We weren't able to see and do as much on Isabela as we would have liked, due to the fact that our autografo was about to expire, and our time there was interrupted by a trip back to Santa Cruz. (Fellow cruisers: See that story in our "Special Pages.") However, our stay ended on a positive note with a trip to the sulfur mine inside Volcán Sierra Negra, a volcano with the second largest caldera in the world. (The first largest caldera belongs to a volcano in Africa.)
Our last day on Isla Isabela was to be our last day on land for the next three to four weeks, and we ended our trip with an epic adventure and a full dose of terra firma. One of the other cruisers in the anchorage had organized a guided tour and we participated, along with the organizer (a French-Canadian), his two boys, a French couple, and a German family with two kids. The four children on this trip ranged in age from two to eleven.
It was great spending the day with the Canadians and Europeans, because the majority of the conversation was in French: a nice transition into our next destination in French Polynesia. Although neither of us speak the language yet, it gave us the chance to hear the accent of native speakers. I even got one of the boys to teach me my numbers on the way to the volcano.
We started out with a three and a half hour horseback ride through lush vegetation along the flanks of the volcano. (The ride normally takes two hours, but they had given us docile horses due to the children, and the horses kept stopping along the way. Some of them had never been to the sulfur mine because it's not a tour frequently taken; consequently, they did not know the way and were a little skittish.)
|Patrick on his mount|
|Along the volcano's flanks|
|Second largest caldera in the world: Volcan Sierra Negra; fumarole seen at right|
|Over the rim|
|Ferns are the pioneer species after a volcanic eruption here|
|Approaching the fumarole|
|Slope of volcanic boulders with Kirsten "for scale"|
|Approaching the sulfur mine inside the caldera|
|Chunks of sulfur were just lying on the ground|
|Almost at the fumarole|
|Orifices at the fumarole|
If you broke a piece off, bright yellow sulfur crystals composed the opposite side.
There were cracks and fissures in the crust over which you could scald your hand, if you held it above them too long, on the hot gases escaping from the inner planet!
The volcano exhaled steam and sulfur (dioxide?) gases through larger vents. If the wind was right, you could walk close to them and actually look inside the vents and hear the sound of the hot gases escaping along with the wind blowing over the vents. But when the wind changed suddenly, we made a massive retreat, throats and nasal passages burning, to higher ground. This spot was truly one of the most amazing places I've ever been.
|Cinder cone (rust colored dome) inside the caldera|
Posted from sea via HAM radio