With a history that reads like an epic tale of pirates and explorers, the largest island of the Galapagos (1,790 sq mi) is an exciting and historical place to visit. Many extended tours to the Galapagos will take some time to tour the many features on Isabela Island, which include, aside from its impressive human history, also exhibits the famously diverse wildlife that the Galapagos are known for.
Isabela Island was originally named Ablemarle, for the Duke of Ablemarle, by Ambrose Cowley, it was eventually rechristened as Isabela for the Queen of Spain. Crowley was one of the first to land on the island in the late 1600s. He was followed a couple centuries later by Darwin who visited in 1835. In the 200 years in between, Isabella’s Tagus Cove was a hotbed for pirates, explorers, whalers, traders, and others.
In 1893, just 58 years after Darwin’s first visit, Isabela’s southern lands were colonized by Antonio Gil. He founded two cities on the island: Puerto Villamil and Santa Tomás. Each were used primarily for business ventures which were mildly successful, but the most significant factor was the population growth these settlements encouraged. By the year 1906, 200 people lived on Santa Tomás. Gil’s businesses fizzled out so this number only doubled by the year 1974. Which is still a very high number considering the remoteness of the Galapagos and their extreme dependence on tourism.
Puerto Villamil - the Main City of Isabela Island
From Puerto Villamil, there are four main tourist sites easily accessible, and often split into their own tour over one or two days. Puerto Villamil itself is a small but vibrant, beach town, providing shopping, restaurants, bar,s and accommodation.
The main attractions you’ll visit near Puerto Villamil are:
1. Villamil Lagoons - The Villamil Lagoons is one of the Galapagos many wildlife reserves, perfect for spotting migratory birds, including over 20 species of waders, and the dinosaur like Marine Iguanas. Get beautiful views of pink flamingos against the water, and observe the iguanas as they sunbathe on the many volcanic rocks along the trail.
2. Tortoise Center - When you visit the Villamil Lagoons, most tours will continue on through mangrove forests on the path, eventually ending up at the Centro de Crianza de Tortugas, (Giant Tortoise Breeding Ground). This is an important research and rehabilitation center where volunteers and scientists are attempting to restore the Giant Tortoise population on Isabela. Take a tour to discover the incredible work being done, and learn about these unbelievable animals. You may even get to observe a hatching!
3. Wall of Tears - This is a poignant reminder of a dark period in Isabela’s recent history. The wall was masterminded by those who oversaw a small penal colony that existed between 1944 to 1959. Not intended to have any function other than manual labor for the convicts to do, the Wall of Tears is a stark reminder of the cruelty humans are capable of inflicting upon other humans. A 3.7 mile walk from Puerto Villamil, this tour is usually recommended for those staying in town for a few days.
4. Tintoreras - If you have the time, an excursion to this small group of islets off the shore is well worth doing. Idyllic waters, beaches, and wildlife viewing are waiting as you take the short but beautiful walk around the main islet. Observe marine life including sharks through the clear blue waters and see iguanas and bird life living in a tiny micro community.
6 Top Sights on Isabela Island
1. Sierra Negra Volcano - Considered to possess the second largest caldera in the world, Sierra Negra Volcano is a must stop for visitors to Isabela Island. A bit remote, this tour is an all day activity, and prepare for a lot of walking or horseback riding, which is the only way to get up close to the Volcano. For an easier option, visit nearby Volcán Chico, at Sierra Negra’s north end, where you can experience the unique sensation of walking over semi recent lava flows.
2. Moreno Point - Moreno Point is the perfect place to visit to learn about the nuances of life flourishing in a volcanic environment. Harsh, and not perhaps too beautiful to look at at first glance, Moreno Point is a classic example of how certain species survive on the Galapagos. Dotted throughout with lagoons which support multiple species, including flamingos, paint-billed crakes, and white-cheeked pintails. Offering several trails, enjoy a wildlife viewing hike with your guide who can provide insight into how the environment helps them thrive.
3. Elizabeth Bay - Observe sea turtles at the Elizabeth Bay lagoon and penguins at the nearby Marielas Islets. Visitors are not allowed on shore at Elizabeth Bay, but this is a prime spot for snorkeling. You’ll also see lava herons and other Galapagos creatures enjoying the black and red mangrove trees on shore.
4. Urbina Bay - Here’s where to see some of the famous tortoises of Isabela Island, as well as an incredibly unique phenomenon of above water coral. Unfortunately this coral is rapidly disappearing due to exposure to the air, so go now.
5. Tagus Cove - Pirate enthusiasts, this is for you! A favorite spot for voyagers of ill repute, due to having a natural protection from the elements, Tagus Cove is a spectacularly fun place to visit. You can see signatures from its various temporary residents carved into the cliffside, with dates - the oldest being from 1836, when the Phoenix was docked there. Aside from the buccaneering reputation, Tagus Cove is also ideal for bird watching.
6. Punta Vicente Roca - Another water based venture, this is the perfect spot for SCUBA diving. Enjoy the incredibly beautiful geological formations which provide the home for Blue-footed and Nazca boobies. Many marine animals and land animals flock to this cove for feeding, as the colder waters attract various food sources not found elsewhere.
What to Pack for the Galapagos
The Galapagos are remote, surrounded by beaches, waters, and lava rock. Your packing list should be light, but you definitely want to make sure you have all necessities with you. The benefit of going on a Galapagos cruise will be the ability to bring a little bit more, as you’ll only be unpacking once.
1. Bring multiple bathing suits. Though it’s generally warm, and clothing will dry quickly, you’ll definitely want more than one suit because you’ll be in and out of the water constantly. It will also be a good idea to bring water clothes, to protect from the sun. It’s easy to forget your exposed neck and arms when you’re floating on top of the water gazing through goggles at the incredibly world below!
2. Bring a pair of hiking boots or tennis shoes. You’ll do a lot of walking around on the Galapagos. Hikes range from strenuous to moderate, to easy, so if you think you’ll be interested in this activity, definitely use up some room in your suitcase for a pair of sturdy, comfortable, close-toed shoes.
3. Sunhat, sunglasses, and strong sunscreen. As you’ll be out on the water regularly, and enjoying time ashore along the coast where there’s little shade, definitely bring plenty of sunscreen, the stronger SPF the better.
4. A multi functional, small day pack. Because most shore excursions will typically last half day to a full day, you’ll want a small to medium sized day backpack for storing water, cameras, sunscreen, phones, and anything else you’ll need. Make sure this is something you don’t mind getting dirty or wet.
5. Rubber soled water shoes. Consider bringing a pair of water shoes to protect against sharp coral reefs and for walking around lava rocks. These can be very useful as well to avoid slipping on board the boats that take you around to the many beautiful snorkeling spots on the Galapagos.
6. Layers! Layers is key for most destinations around the world, but in the Galapagos you may need a light sweatshirt for at night, even though it won’t seem like it during the day. Also consider a pair of long hiking pants to avoid bug bites.
Photography tips for the Galapagos
Without a doubt, you will leave the Galapagos with thousands of pictures, mainly of the incredible wildlife. Here’s some tips to help you make sure you make the most of your trip and arrive home with some amazing shots.
1. Bring multiple lenses. - Learning from a photography professional, you’re going to want to be able to commit to several different types of shot, and this means different lenses. For the Galapagos, try to bring a telephoto lens and a macro lens. These are going to be the best way to capture the unbelievable wildlife on the islands.
2. Don’t be afraid to get up close. - The animals in the Galapagos are famously used to humans, and this makes it very easy to get up close for spectacular macro shots. The proximity means you have a greater ability to capturing the personality, expressions, and textures of the animals.
3. Bring a lens cloth - the last thing you want is a foggy lens to muddy up your image. Make sure you have a high end lens cloth ready to keep dust and condensation off your camera. In warm tropical environments, lens fogging is common - one good tip is to take your camera out with lens cap off a good few minutes before you plan to start shooting. This will give enough time to let any fogging dissipate.
4. Go on a Photography tour! - For serious amateurs and complete novices, photography tours are one of the best ways to learn and grow as a photographer. You’ll get to learn from a professional and get the best tips about how to best capture wildlife. When the wildlife is so entrancing, historic, and relatively easy to get close to, the thing that’s going to make your photos stand out is the composition and lighting - having an expert near to instruct you on angles, f-stops, shutter-speeds, and filters is an incredible asset. See all the Galapagos photography tours on Stride.
5. Get to know the animals - one of the key aspects to wildlife photography is knowing the best times to find them in action. Learn a bit about each major species to discover their habits. You may also learn when to best find them with the least amount of people around. Though sometimes you may want a human presence in your photograph - this can create a wonderful dynamic.
6. Get dirty! - Photography is about finding the best way to showcase your subject. In the case of wildlife, this often means getting down and dirty, wet and uncomfortable. To get the best angles, you will find yourself contorting on the ground on your stomach, or perhaps balancing as quietly as possible on a log or tree branch.
7. Bring underwater casing. - A lot of your time in the Galapagos will be spent in the water. While over the counter underwater cameras actually do an impressive job, if you want sharper and higher resolution photos, invest in an underwater casing for your DSLR or other point and shoot. If you’re wary of getting your nice piece anywhere near the water (understandable) look into smart-phone accessories. There are many ways you can make your camera phone into the perfect underwater photography tool.
Travel to the Galapagos: Practicalities and Logistics
Before You Go
The Galapagos are technically part of Ecuador, so the same visa requirements apply. Citizens of the United States, Canada and most European countries do not require a visa to travel to Ecuador, unless you plan to stay past 90 days. You will generally receive a free visa upon entry into Ecuador.
General travel insurance should suffice for a trip to the Galapagos. You will be spending a lot of time on the water with your tour, and any insurance specificities related to this can be answered by the tour company.
You do need a Yellow Fever vaccine for traveling to Ecuador. Proof of vaccination is required upon entry into the country.
Besides that, no additional vaccinations are required for travel to the Galapagos, but make sure all your regular vaccinations are up to date.
Zika has been reported in some parts of Ecuador, so those traveling with young children or who are pregnant do so at your own risk.
Bring hats and sunscreen! You will be outside and on the water for a large part of your visit, and the sun can be intense.