Isabela Island Travel Guide
Isabela Island is not only the largest but also the most volcanically active of the Galapagos Islands. On the western side of the archipelago close to the hotspot from which these islands are born, Isabela is geologically young, compared to the eastern islands. It is just across the Bolivar Channel from the giant shield volcano that has formed Fernandina Island.
Because of its size, there are plenty of places to explore, ranging from multiple fascinating marine sites to the six towering volcanoes that are still actively forming this island.
From the tranquil port town of Puerto Villamil, you can enjoy time simply relaxing on the beach as the waves lap against the shore or touring all of the different sites that this island has to offer.
Visitor Sites on Isabela
Wetlands (Humedales): The wetlands comprise a network of trails that wind through the low-lying estuaries of Isabela. With several different trails of varying length to choose from, this is one of the best sites in the archipelago if you want to see land birds like flamingoes and pintail ducks that enjoy the expansive ponds and lagoons that form this area.
Wall of Tears: Harkening back to the period of time in the mid 20th century when Isabela was used as a penal colony, this wall strikes a harrowing chord on an otherwise idyllic tropical island. Prisoners were brought to the island to labor in the brutal sun building a tall wall of lava rock, and many died in the process, giving the site its current name. A bike ride or a short hike are a couple popular ways visitors can gain access to this bitter part of Isabela’s human past. This site features several good photo opportunities of this sun-baked wall in the arid grasslands of Isabela’s interior.
Urbina Bay: In 1954, a surprising and sudden geological uplift at the base of the Alcedo Volcano actually brought over three miles of the ocean floor out of the water and extended the beach by nearly a mile. The drastic change resulted in a fascinating visitor site, where exposed coral heads can still be seen on the rock wall. Along the inland trail, you’ll likely see large burrows from land iguanas.
Punta Vicente Roca: As far as marine sites go, Punta Vicente Roca is among the best on Isabela Island. With opportunities to dive, snorkel, or navigate the area via panga, explorers will likely encounter sea turtles, rays, puffer fish, and perhaps even the elusive mola mola (sunfish), which has been described as a giant floating head. As you explore both coves, keep a sharp eye out for small seahorses bobbing through the water too or the trademark blue-footed boobies that have come to define the Galapagos Islands.
Punto Moreno: Birdwatchers will delight in the diversity of land birds that call this place their home. Just a short way from Elizabeth Bay, this site features a mangrove colony and a lava rock trail which host flamingos, gallinules, and pintail ducks, among other native and endemic species. If you explore the area by panga, you might see reef sharks and sea turtles gliding gracefully through these waters.
Elizabeth Bay: This is a great spot for snorkelers and birdwatchers alike. As you navigate around the rocky islets, you will probably see the endemic Galapagos penguins and blue-footed boobies. If you choose to take a dip, you will be immersed in the mangrove forested home of tropical fish, sea turtles, rays, and perhaps even sharks.
Tintoreras: Just 10 minutes from Puerto Villamil, this site is named after the reef sharks that can be seen patrolling these clear turquoise waters. Although swimming is not allowed here, a dinghy grants visitors access to the shallow pools, where sea turtles, rays, and tropical fish share the water with the sharks. The beachfront trail leads past nesting sites for marine iguanas and sea lion colonies as it crosses from a white sand beach to a black stone beach enclosed by a mangrove swamp.
Tagus Cove: Tagus Cove does a nice job balancing Isabela’s fascinating human history with the natural beauty of the landscape. First, you will see a small cave where the names of ships that used to anchor here are carved into the wall. This reflects the time in the 19th century and before when Isabela was used as a hideout for whalers and pirates, who would come to the island to stock up on food (including, unfortunately, the giant tortoises). Continuing further inland, a trail that is just over a mile will lead you up the side of the tuff cone of Darwin Volcano to the rim of Darwin Lake – a saltwater lake that has formed in the volcano’s caldera. The arid biome is home to few species, but among them are several birds, like penguins and the curious flightless cormorant.
Tortoise Breeding Station: Similar to the breeding station on Santa Cruz, the goal of this station is to raise endangered tortoises in the safety of captivity from egg all the way to maturity, when they can be repatriated into their natural environments. The tortoises here are kept in pens of varying sizes and (having been raised in captivity) are not shy in front of visitors, often coming right up to the edge of the pen to greet people. It’s a really engaging way to see these majestic creatures up close.
Sierra Negra Volcano: A short ride to the base of the volcano followed by a winding hike up the slopes will take you to the record-setting caldera of the Sierra Negra Volcano. With an impressive diameter of 10 km across, this is the second largest volcanic crater in the world and on a clear day offers a tremendous 360-degree panorama of the western Galapagos.
Chico Volcano & the Sulfur Mines: From the base of the Sierra Negra Volcano, two paths split. One trail leads to the well preserved Chico Volcano; the other is much longer and extends to the Sulfur Mines, where bright yellows contrast with the almost lunar landscape.
Concha de Perla: Featuring a boardwalk trail that passes through a mangrove colony, this site is a favorite spot of the locals for swimming and snorkeling in a tranquil intertidal pond that changes depths throughout the day as the water rises and falls.