The Galapagos (part 3 Isabela Island)

Days 9 & 10 - Isabela Island

Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands and is one that is not normally visited on boat cruises. Being still over the hot-spot of the earth's mantle, it is one of the younger islands and has 5 volcanoes, some of which are still active. It seemed that a trip to this island would be a good complement to our cruise, during which we had visited older and smaller islands in the archipelago. Hence, after a misty morning in Puerto Ayora, we lined up on the dock to board a 16 person "ferry" for the 2½ hour ride to Puerto Villamil on Isabela.

The ride was interesting, as the small boat raced up the big swells and almost surfed down their other side; we had a feeling of extreme vulnerability in such a small vessel way out in a very large ocean. Still, by the time Santa Cruz had disappeared from view, we were passing the broken cones of Los 4 Hermanos and the shoreline of Isabela started to appear. Not long after, we were surfing the waves into the calm harbour of Puerto Villamil, protected by flat jagged islets, remnants of long past lava flows.

The Isabela race of giant tortoise

The next generation

Giant tortoises at the National Park rearing centre

In the late afternoon light, we visited the tortoise rearing facility run by the National Park before walking back through the muddy pink mangrove flats behind the shore - home to several flamingos, that were feeding for algae in the shallow water of the pans.

A pair of flamingos seiving for their supper

Why flamingoes are pink - lagoon full of algae

Elegance in pink

From here we wandered along the white sand beach, taking in the brisk salt air and checking out the clusters of black marine iguanas that clung to lava rock platforms or the walls of houses warmed by the afternoon sun. With its coconut palms, long stretch of beach and white sandy roads, Puerto Villamil has a sleepy, tropical ambience - visit it while you can, as it is starting to wake up to its tourist potential.

Two stilts and a flamingo

Dark clouds gather over the beach at Puerto Villamil

The following day we were up early and sitting in the back of a truck with our new travelling companions heading off into the interior of Isabela; first across the barren black lava flats, which gradually became covered in tree cacti and palo santo trees, before climbing up into the cloud layer and denser, lusher garua forest, kept green by frequent mists. We were on our way up to climb Volcan Sierra Negra, 1400m high and, with a diameter of 10km, the world's largest crater of an active volcano, having last erupted in 2005. Soon the vegetation began to change again, becoming more shrubby as we emerged above the clouds to reach our destination at a grassy clearing in a local ranch, where our horses were waiting.

Nello ready to ride

Above the forest on Volcan Negro

The first part of this trip was to be by horseback - a novel experience for the fair Nello and myself, both veterans of one ride. My previous ride was only 6 weeks earlier in Puerto Lopez and I had quite enjoyed it, riding with two others through the steep muddy trails of the San Sebastian cloud forest. This was to be a very different experience.

There were 16 in the group of riders and we set off climbing slowly up the dirt road. Pleasant at first as our horses strolled along in a drawn out file, we soon discovered that our arriero considered his role was to herd us all up the mountain as quickly as he could; whacking the trailing horses, sending them and their riders cannoning into those in front and so on, thus maintaining a tight jostling bunch of mainly inexperienced riders at fast trot up the narrow and uneven path which led to and then along the volcano rim.

It was difficult to admire the spectacular views and, given the amount of dust that our tight cluster of horses generated, it probably did not matter much that we were concentrating more on horses than the surrounds. With all the equine surging, I suspect that I had my knee up a horse's khyber more times in one hour than in the rest of my life. Nello was spared this indignity as her horse was a natural leader.

The horses waiting at the cloud line

We were pleased to finally get off, high on the rim of Volcan Sierra Negra, to at last admire the size of the crater and the broad river of black lava from the 2005 eruption, flowing down from the eruption zone on one flank and running alongside the steep inner wall. To the north we could see the broad flat cones of Volcans Wolf, Darwin and Alcedo, looking like inverted plates beyond the narrow isthmus of central Isabela, the blue of the sea on both sides and the band of cloud below us to the east - an amazing panorama.

The rim of Volcan Sierra Negra

The 10km diameter crater of Volcan Sierra Negra with flows from the 2005 eruption

It was time for a 5km walk down the outer side of the rim in a long traverse. first through the high heathland, dotted with flowering shrubs and home to mockingbirds and finches, then across the tortured landscape of old lava flows, basic black with tinted shades of yellow, red and tan - with only the rare cactus or shrub finding a niche to grow in. Our goal was Volcan Chico, a small parasitic cone on the flank of Sierra Negra.

Heading of to Volcan Chico

Crossing several old lava tubes, and the different types of blacker, newer lava flows from a 1979 eruption, we soon reached the twin craters of Volcan Chico, their interiors tinted the reds and yellows of metal sulphides; infinitesmally smaller than the immense crater of Sierra Negra, but equally impressive in this mordor-like landscape.


Entry to a lava tube

Recent dark lava flow from 1979
alongside older lava

Sulphurous colour scheme Inside the crater
of Volcan Chico

On the edge of the crater

Lavascape of Volcan Chico

View over the lava to the flat cones of Volcans Wolf, Darwin and Alcedo

On the north face of Volcan Sierra Negra

The walk back was quick, if a bit hot, with the heat bouncing off the dark lava. The only downside was that, after lunch in the shade of a large and gnarly tree, we had to mount our horses once again to be herded back down the volcano in a jostling cloud of dust. We finally arrived, covered in a thick layer of brown grime. I only have two comments to make - first, dust and contact lenses do not mix at all and, secondly, if this is the pleasure of horse-riding, pass me my trekking boots.

A small parasitic cone

Looking up from our lunch spot

Blue-footed boobies

An hour later we were back at Puerto Villamil and heading out into the harbour to check out Los Tintoreras, the jagged low islets that protect the harbour here. They are home to marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, sea-lions and white-tipped reef sharks, which during the day rest in large numbers in long channels in the fractured lava.

The latter, being something new, were the most interesting for us, though we were disappointed that they did not join us when we went snorkeling in the bay nearby. However, a pair of spotted eagle rays were more obliging.

A cluster of marine iguanas

A spotted eagle ray swims by

White-tipped reef shark resting in the lava channel

A good place for a snooze

Days 11 & 12 - Santa Cruz and Home

At 6am we boarded the fast ferry in Puerto Villamil for the ride back to Santa Cruz. The sea had become rougher, but after another 2½ hours of ploughing through the big swells, with the occasional spine-jarring thumps as the boat lifted its bow over one swell to crash flat bottomed into the next, we were back in Puerto Ayora, which was now beginning to feel like home. Sadly though it was our last day on the Galapagos before we flew back to the mainland to continue our journey in the Andes.

Sunlight on a prickly pear

After an idle morning, we caught a water taxi across the harbour for a short walk to stretch the muscles that were complaining about yesterday's horse-ride. We followed the Sendero de las Grietas, which took us past a small, coral sand cove, past a small salt flat, across an ancient lava flow that had fractured into tesselated polygons, to Las Grietas.

Here lay a 20m deep crevice in the lava, at the bottom of which fresh water infiltrating from the mountains and salt water infiltrating from the sea had created a long, deep pool of crystal clear sapphire coloured water; a beautiful spot where you can sit and reflect on the world about you in the silence of a sanctuary.

The still waters of Las Grietas

On the way back, we stopped at Finches Bay to sit in the shade and watch the sandpipers and lava herons go about their business. It seemed a fitting end that a small flock of Darwin's finches arrived to sit on our feet and hands, twittering and cheeping. Maybe they were just checking us out from breadcrumbs, but we took it as an appropriate farewell from the inhabitants of the Galapagos.