Yay, we saw a penguin! Actually we saw 4. Not looking too dissimilar to a duck in all honesty, and too far away to get a good photo, but I am confident we will have other opportunities. We made it to Isabela, the largest of the Galápagos Islands, and it straddles the equator. Puerto Villamil is south of the equator, but the same breed of penguin also inhabits the north of the island, and are the only wild and free penguins to be found in the entire northern hemisphere.
We saw them as we reached the harbour, and were a very welcome sight after another 2 hour boat ride in rough seas, which saw a few passengers fall victim to mal-de-mer, including one young man who was the most nervous traveller I have ever seen, throwing his hands up in the air and covering his head with every large wave we hit. Every single one. We hit many big waves. On this occasion I am very happy to report Carol was fine 😊 The 50 centavos she had spent on a packet of anti-seasickness tablets appears to be money well spent.
We arrived into the dock and disembarked before being shocked with a $10 each charge to leave the dock and enter the island. Nobody told us about this! Anyway, with no choice we paid and were warmly greeted by Amelia, our host at our accommodation. She had organised a taxi with a family friend at no cost to us and took us to our accommodation for the next 10 days at Cielo Azul (more about this later).
After we had unpacked and settled in we were made coffee by Amelia and then given an orientation tour around the town which actually was really helpful for us. She showed us the market, pointed out the supermarkets and some places to eat and also took us to the seafront which was stunning.
After being in Santa Cruz for a while we were missing the wildlife and it wasn’t long before we found iguanas and sea lions here much to our glee. Around the dock area where you arrive there are several lazy sea lions and some of the largest iguanas we had seen. In the town itself there wasn’t so much as you would expect but we were excited that were were going to see more. After all we had already seen some bullet like penguins when we arrived!
Now fully orientated we had 10 days to explore this lovely island. Our first impressions were great; but we wanted to see more penguins and the flamingos that were known to live here. Would we find them?
Where we visited around Puerto Villamil
Concha de Perla
Concha de Perla is located near the main dock “El Embarcadero” where we arrived and is known for its great snorkelling. Access to the site is by a wooden walkway, the same type that runs through a mangrove forest, up to an intertidal pond. This was recommended to us by Aron & Lara who were staying at our accommodation but we had also read about it online. We visited here on a couple of occasions, the first time just for a look. We saw sea lions playing in the water around the steps and the iguanas just sit watching you.
We also saw turtles in the water. Although we weren’t prepared for a swim we were impressed enough this would be a great spot so came back to on another day.
Next time, despite being fully prepared with mask and snorkel there was never any guarantee we were going to get in the water. A sea lion on the boardwalk seemed to have other ideas. Though I am far from fluent in speaking sealionese, the message from him was crystal clear. “Thou shalt not pass”
It took us 10, maybe 15 minutes to negotiate a way around the determined sea lion. I mean, I strongly suspect their bark is worse than their bite, but I had no intention of putting my theory to the test. He really did not want to let us pass. Eventually he hopped to the end of the boardwalk and after one last moan let us pass.
Ready for a rest after our tough negotiations, I made the mistake of sitting on a bench. Apparently this was Sidney’s bench, and he was going to get on it whether I chose to move or not. 😊 Sydney was way bigger than his younger friend so I wasn’t going to argue!
Concha de Perla is structured as a kind of hollow circular enclosure of natural rock, which is fed by the sea with the changing tides. Locals use this site as a place for swimming and snorkeling with fish, iguanas, sea lions, turtles and penguins, and that is exactly what we did. Well to be precise, the penguin dashed past us at bulletlike speed just before we got in the water. Although we had a great view at the foot of the steps, which the penguin came within 2 feet of, the camera was not at the ready, and we missed a glorious opportunity. One sea lion came and checked us out in the water, but he wasn’t as playful as previous encounters.
Before long, we had swum too far to the right of the steps, and we both got caught up in strong currents and were swept towards the harbour. Our previous experience with strong currents in the Galápagos Islands stood us in good stead. Firstly, we did not panic. We did not fight the current, that would have been a losing battle, instead we grabbed onto some rocks and took a minute to consider our next move. Carol remembered our time at Nauyaca Falls when swimming directly towards the waterfall was too difficult, but swimming to the side made it very easy for us to get to where we wanted to be. We swam to the side of the lagoon and did indeed find the current to be far weaker there. We turned a corner with the help of some well placed rocks, and we were then easily able to part walk, part swim our way back to the steps. – It is a lovely place to swim just be careful of the currents and swim straight out rather than to the right.
Always keen to see new wildlife we were eager to see flamingos as neither of us could ever recall ever seeing any in our lives. We were given directions to where we could find them in the wetlands by Lara and Aron and their directions were perfect. We were first directed to a small lake on a road very near the town. where we were likely to see one or maybe two. There was one solitary flamingo but he was some distance away across the other side of the lake and even with our camera we didn’t get the best shots. Good start though!
Next was onto the wetlands or Poza Baltazar, our directions were to head to Iguana Crossing Hotel and it is a clearly marked path just past it on the right. We found it easily and entered the walkway only to be greeted by loads more obstructions on our path, this time marine iguanas. Luckily they don’t bark or chase you, they generally don’t move much so you can step round them.
The path isn’t long; it starts with a walk across a few lakes where we watched the birds and marine iguanas swimming. The wetlands consist of lagoons and swamps and are home to many different seabirds and we managed to get a few good pictures during our walk.
Finally we reached Flamingo Lake and it was with great glee we heard them before we saw them; they make goose-like noises! We turned a corner and there we were faced with 11 flamingoes, all as pink as pink could be. Yay! we stood and watched them posing on one leg and then feeding and swimming around; even playfighting with each other. They spend a long time with their heads underwater but with some patience we managed to get some pictures with their heads up.
The trail continues onto the Isabela Tortoise Reserve but we decided to turn back as we had seen what we had come for. It turned out that the solitary flamingo we saw in the salt lake nearest to town, was actually visible from a side road right in the heart of town. We made a slight detour, and very quickly found it just a few yards from us.
We were very happy to see them, and pleased to get them on camera. The walk was about 2km in total from our accommodation so is an easy one and all on boardwalks.
Wall of Tears (Muro de las Lágrimas)
Due to a little bit of ill health, our sleeping pattern had become disturbed, and we both found ourselves wide awake at 4.30 one morning. Perfect time to go for a long walk? Well we do some crazy, spontaneous things from time to time, so that’s exactly what we did. We left the hostel by 5.30am and headed off to the Wall of Tears (Muro de las Lágrimas). In order to get to the Wall of Tears you have to enter Isbaela National Park and follow the signs. It was a 7km walk and finally we made it. Luckily we left early enough to miss the main heat of the day and the paths were pretty much flat except for towards the end.
The story goes that this is where all the Ecuadorian bad boys were shipped off to during the period 1946-1959. The wall of tears is what remains of a prison they were forced to build, where most prisoners were tortured, abused and eventually killed by a very harsh regime. The wall remains as a reminder of a period of Ecuadorian history they are not proud of. It is said that so many were killed here, you can still hear their screams of pain, and their tears in the several feet wide wall.
Funnily enough, Carol and I heard nothing, in fact I enjoyed it for the peace and tranquility we found there. A small hill/mountain range in the distance, possibly a volcano, and nothing but finches for company. We had been on a mission to reach this end point but took a leisurely stroll back to take in some of the other sights we had passed on our way.
A highlight of the walk, was seeing 5 completely wild and free giant tortoises. It was on a part of the route known as Camino de Tortugas (Tortoise Path) but we were by now miles from any breeding centre or sanctuary. Of course they look exactly the same as ones we had seen before, but these were as free as can be.
It was a short walk off the park through the mangroves and with some low branches to duck before we reached this little gem. Funnily enough we saw this place on My Family and the Galapagos (s2e2) the day after we visited. It’s a quiet place in the mangroves with picnic tables and benches. We watched a playful heron in the trees.
Tunel De Estera
The lava tunnel was formed by a river of lava which formed a hole and made its way to the sea. Although the outside cooled the magma inside continued to the sea making the tunnel we saw. There are several lava tunnels in the Galapagos; this one was the nearest one to the sea we had seen.
Playa de Amor
Or the beach of love! This was a cute little spot with loads of marine iguana invaders. It was only a small stretch and we aren’t clear why it is called love beach; maybe because the marine iguanas do the deed here who knows! It did appear to be a nesting ground for them and there were some very big ones here.
Las Tintoreras Islet (Islote Las Tintoreras)
Wow what a day! It started off with us having no plans at all. We had previously agreed that any tours we were going to take would be booked through our hosts here at El Cielo Azul, so we had to wait until we saw either Amelia or Jackson to see what we could book for today. We wanted to see penguins and had heard this was a great trip to see them. We located Jackson and he made some calls and booked us in for 2pm that afternoon.
While we were waiting, I managed to intermittently follow Spurs’ final game of the season. A goal down early on before an equaliser just before half-time. A goal behind early in the second half too, before the introduction of Gareth Bale, and things rapidly improved. A second equaliser courtesy of their goalkeeper, before Bale put us 3-2 up with 4 minutes to go. Internet was very patchy as usual, could they hold on for an important win? I lost my connection completely, but Carol managed to get brief access and told me there had been another goal before the final whistle. It was Bale again, and Spurs had won 4-2. This meant we had qualified for some bloody obscure European competition, the Europa Conference league, but more importantly it meant we finished higher in the table than Arsenal. We had a poor season, very poor, but we did better than Arsenal 😊 – One happy boy!
Buoyed by my team’s victory, a neighbour started playing some very loud latino music and I could not stop my hips from swaying. I was cheered on by Jackson, his uncle, and the people down the road who were playing the music. Finally I felt like we were in South America 😊 Time for our trip! We were picked up from our accommodation and taken to the main dock where we would board our boat. It turned out it was only the two of us so we had a private tour yay!
Before leaving the Dock (El Embarcadero) we had seen a swimming iguana, a few sea lions and a penguin. As per usual the penguin was too quick for us to get on camera, but photographing a penguin was our main hope for the trip, and we expected to see many more. A short boat ride from the dock to Tintoreras, maybe 5 or 10 minutes, and we had our first sight of penguins on land.
They’re not as quick on land as they are in the water, in fact Los Très Pinguinos all stood perfectly still for us, well one laid on his belly, and all posed happily for pictures. We were completely blown away by these gorgeous creatures.
We asked our guide Pablo how many penguins lived in Puerto Villamil, and he confidently and quickly answered 25. We had already seen 5 in the water, 3 on a rock, and within seconds we saw a whole load of them on a rock on the far side of the harbour. 17 in fact, and a bonus blue footed booby sat in amongst them. The booby was far larger than the Galápagos Penguins, which Pablo informed us was the second smallest breed of penguin in the world.
Mission accomplished! What we had come to do today, to photograph penguins, had been achieved, and that was only the first part of an excursion broken down into 3 activities. There was a boat tour element, a walk and a snorkel. Next was a trip to another small rock, home to a few blue-footed boobies, again we got some great photos.
We then had a short walk on another nearby island. The hope here was to see some white-tip reef sharks sleeping in a channel that ran on one side of the island. Sadly they were awake, well they must have been because they had swam off, and we saw none. We did however see 3 or 4 recently hatched iguana eggs, and 5 turtles swimming in the calm waters nearby. There was also a very sleepy sea lion and a couple of baby iguanas cuddled up together
The final part was getting in the water and doing some snorkelling. I had been in the water 2 minutes, when a Marble Ray swam directly underneath me. It kept coming and then some. By far the largest ray we had swum with, I would guess a metre and half wide and about the same length as me, including his tail as I swam beside him, and so beautiful to see one so close gliding gracefully through the water. At times he swam directly underneath me, and I was aware of how Steve Irwin died. This wasn’t a stingray, but still that tail looked like a bread knife to me. He was also close enough to touch, but I followed the Galápagos golden rule of never touching the animals. As usual, this was a good move, it turned out to be an electric Ray!
I don’t know if it was due to the water temperature (cold) or not, but Carol and I both struggled a lot with our masks fogging up on this trip, so we cannot really comment on the clarity of the water, we couldn’t see very well 😊 Carol did however manage to get the Ray using her phone in a plastic bag trick, which was a fantastic effort in the circumstances.
We saw a couple more turtles, then headed back on board the boat for the very short ride home. In fact the captain piloted the boat very slowly, just to give us time to get changed before we were back at the dock. A taxi was waiting to take us back to our hotel, and this was part of the $40 per person package we had paid for this excellent, fun and, exciting day trip.
Once upon a time there were some lava tunnels here. The outside of them cooled and hardened, and the lava inside continued into the nearby sea, forming tunnels. Now, much of the tunnel roofs have collapsed, so it’s more like lava arches and bridges now, which can easily be swum under. The site is badly named perhaps, but is still a ‘must see’ for any visitor to Isabela. We were collected from our accommodation at 11am and taken to the wetsuit hire company to get our suit, fins and snorkel and off we went to the port. The boat trip was an hour and for some parts it was really quite rough. We did manage to catch the silhouette of a penguin in the water.
One of the highlights was a small rock we stopped at just outside of Los Tuneles, and we saw much of what the Galápagos Islands have to offer in one spot. 2 or 3 hundred metres out at sea, we saw a penguin, a marine iguana, a blue-footed booby, a pelican and a couple of playful sea lions. The most pleasing aspect of the wildlife here is how they all peacefully co-exist. A crab will climb over a sea lion, which will share its space with a whole load of iguanas whilst the pelicans stand completely unfazed just a foot or two away. My favourite photos have been the ones showing at least two of the common animals here getting along.
Arriving in Los Tuneles, the water clarity here is outstanding, and whilst on our visit there we didn’t see much wildlife, others have had much more luck on other occasions. This is a spot where you have a fair chance of seeing seahorses and on rare occasions possibly even orca. More common are white-tip reef sharks and turtles. It is said that in some parts of the world, of every 10,000 turtle hatchlings starting off on their journey from beach to sea and onto adulthood, only one will make it. I don’t think that can be true of the Galápagos Islands. We have seen so many turtles here we have lost count. Rarely do we see one on its own, groups of 3 or even 5 are not uncommon here. We had a walk on land although the lava rocks did make this a little challenging.
Our understanding and that of many of the other passengers was that we would be snorkelling here but instead we got back in the boat and headed further down the coast back towards Puerto Villamil from Los Túneles. The water clarity wasn’t great here; the water was filled with debris, mainly leaves and bits of trees. We swam amongst the mangroves and saw the spectacular parrot fish we had seen before on other islands, and a few baby sharks like we had seen around the pier at Santa Cruz. There were also several huge turtles we saw despite the poor clarity.
Several people got back on the boat and we all had to have a cold water shower as we boarded again to get rid of the debris. This was apparently the best place to spot the seahorses but despite our guides best efforts he couldn’t see them. There must have been a few complaints because the captain suggested going back to Los Tuneles and snorkelling there which we all agreed to despite being warned this would involve navigating the rough seas again. Kudos to the Captain he did an amazing job despite the huge waves he had to navigate. Although there wasn’t so much to see there the clarity was great and there were rays and lost of colourful fish. We had lunch and then headed back to Puerto Villamil.
The trip cost $80 person which included door-to-door transport, a boat trip of an hour plus in each direction, a guide, lunch, and all necessary equipment such as wetsuit, mask, tube and fins. Overall this was good value, and we had a lovely day out.
Around Puerto Villamil
Out of the three islands we had visited it was clear this was the least developed. In the area we were staying there were big piles of lava rock in between houses. This certainly isn’t a criticism it shows just how undeveloped Isabela is in comparison with its neighbours despite being the biggest island.
The roads nearing the seafront were much more developed however with street art, shops and restaurants and of course the Isabela sign found on Malecon Cuna Del Sol.
We perhaps saw more of the underdeveloped areas because our accommodation was slightly back from the main town.
Where we stayed
Our accommodation was called Cielo Azul which is translated as ‘blue Sky’. We booked it for a reasonable rate through Booking.com and were aware from reviews that the property was undergoing some building works. These seem to have been going on for some time judging by the reviews dated back a couple of years; however all stated the hospitality from Amelia and Jackson was second to none.
When we arrived indeed there was a lot of unfinished building work but despite this we could see the potential. When finished the shared kitchen will be spacious and modern, there will be multiple rooms and a swimming pool also. They were probably some of the kindest people we have met, making us drinks, looking after Carol when she was ill and giving her medicine and generally making us feel very welcome. Jackson booked our tours for us at very reasonable prices and they were always happy to have a sit down and a chat; despite their english being even more limited than our spanish. The room itself was comfortable with a huge bed, great air con and a private bathroom. Amelia cleaned regularly so despite the external appearance of the property we still had a very enjoyable stay.
Thank you Jackson and Amelia for your kindness and hospitality and we wish you all the best in the future.
Food and Drink
We will be honest we can’t really comment too much about this as we suffering with some tummy trouble for the duration of our time in Isabela. One issue with being on the Galapagos Islands is the water is not safe to drink and fruit and vegetables need to be thoroughly washed. In addition it is easy to pick up a dodgy stomach just from having different types of food. We aren’t sure what caused our issues but it began as we arrived in Isabela so likely to have been something from Santa Cruz. We were careful about not even cleaning our teeth in the tap water anywhere in the Islands but something we had; maybe a salad or something in a restaurant wasn’t washed or cooked properly. It served as a stark warning to always be careful what you eat and drink around the islands especially.
What an amazing place! we saw penguins, flamingos, copious sea lions and iguanas, turtles, sharks, sea birds you name it. Isabela is the least modern island we visited and that adds to its charm. It was also the least populated with only 3000 residents and a handful of other tourists when we were there. One good thing about the islands right now is that all residents are in the process of or already have had their covid vaccines which helps to keep them safer and allows tourism to continue to rise. We really enjoyed Isabela, we were able to walk to the main attractions and get transport for everywhere else. If you like bustling with loads of bars, restaurants and shops like Santa Cruz this may not be for you but for us we loved it. Unfortunately this is our final island on Galapagos and we will be sad to leave, but bucket list location – tick! – what an amazing month we’ve had and memories which will last a lifetime.
Carol & Nigel x
One thought on “Galápagos Islands on a Budget – Isabela”
Again,a well written and informative and entertaining report Nigel…As you say memories that will thrill you 20 years from now when you look at the pics again…Thanks for the report.I will never get there now but i do enjoy your comments and pics…Dennis