For centuries, the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador have been shrouded in myth. These islands were far away from the known reaches of the world, and inhabited by fabled monsters – sea creatures as never seen before and turtles of gigantic size.
Only pirates, smugglers, poachers and shipwrecked sailors dared to go ashore there.
They became known as Las Islas Encantadas, the enchanted islands. White sand beaches, towering volcanoes, creatures big and small seemingly forgotten by time itself, and only brought to the world’s wider attention thanks to a certain Charles Darwin and this little theory he had about evolution. And Isla Isabela is the biggest island of the lot.
I was lucky enough to work with the National Park Galápagos on Isla Isabela, and loved the diversity of life there. From seals lounging on the fibras (small motor boats) docked at the embarcadero, to the indigenous marine iguanas sunbathing on the lava rocks all along the beach, to the giant tortoises and magnificent frigate birds, you’re sure to run into a local species or two wherever you go, so keep your camera handy!
One of the best places to start your exploration is the Centre de crianza de las tortugas gigantes, about 1.6 km (1 mile) inland from the Iguana Crossing on the western edge of Puerto Villamil. This is the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre, in which they breed several turtle species to prevent extinction. The people working there will be happy to show you around and answer your questions, so it’s a great place to start learning about endemic species. On the way there you’ll walk past and over a few lagoons, so keep your eyes peeled for flamingos, lava lizards, marine iguanas and all sorts of birds.
While there are not that many giant turtles running wild around Puerto Villamil, you might be lucky and spot some a bit further up volcano Sierra Negra which towers behind the town. There is a Turtle Refuge at Campo Duro, about 14km from town on the slopes of the mountain, as the native Sierra Negra tortugas are now endangered. As I was working for the Parque Nacional, I was lucky enough to accompany the rangers on horseback up the volcano and camp overnight on the caldera’s eastern rim. Sierra Negra is still active and last erupted in 2005, and there are sulphuric fumaroles, known as Volcan de Azufre, on the western wall of the caldera. While camping is usually not allowed up there, horseback and hiking tours are available. The view is stunning on clear days!
Unfortunately, there are only a few trails around the island that you can explore by yourself without guides from approved tour operators or park rangers. One of these self-guided trails, however, is the path to Muro de las Lágrimas – the Wall of Tears. This island used to be a penal colony and this wall was built by prisoners there. It’s about 8km to the West of Puerto Villamil. The path is quite secluded but well-marked, and several smaller boarded walks lead off to the beach and coves to the left or inland into forest and swamps to the right. This is a birdwatcher’s paradise, though make sure that you travel in groups (especially women) and that you carry plenty of water. It’s a long trek and if anything happens to you, people wouldn’t know where to start looking, especially as the shrubbery offers hiding places for more unsavoury characters.
At the other end of town, close to the embarcadero, a wooden pathway leads into the mangroves and to my favourite spot on the island: La Concha de Perla. The Concha is a relatively shallow and calm bay, separated from the ocean by lava formations. This is a snorkeller’s paradise, as it’s home to some playful sea lions, various colourful fish and early in the mornings you might even be able to swim with marine turtles and manta rays. If you’re really lucky, you might even see a Galápagos penguin sunbathing or going for a dive. Iguanas and various birds use the lava rocks for sunbathing and resting spots, and occasionally you’ll see Galápagos flightless cormorants. The water at the Concha is clear enough to see the ground, but there’s a snorkel hire at the embarcadero if you want the full experience.
From the Concha de Perla, you’ll be able to see an island on the horizon. This is Isla Tortuga, a crescent-shaped island and the remnants of an ancient volcano. It’s a protected area, as many of the native birds use uninhabited islands for breeding and nesting. You can’t actually get on the island. It’s too steep and the sea around it too rough to even attempt it, though the park rangers and coast guard to patrol there.
Even though Isabela is a large island, you’ll notice very quickly that most of the wildlife is either off-shore or only accessible by boat. And that means: fibra. You’ll need to find your sea legs fast and hold on for dear life, but if you can stand jumping across waves at high speed while inhaling diesel fumes, then you’re in for a treat.
One day, when I had planned to go take photos for the National Park at the Concha, I ran into a group of tourists who still needed one more passenger on the boat so the captain would take them out on a day trip along the coast. I didn’t even think about it, just jumped on board and didn’t even get snorkelling gear from the hire place.
Our first stop was a small lava islet called Las Tintoreras which is ideal for watching reef sharks and white-tipped sharks. From there, we made our way along the southern coast of Isla Isabela, towards volcano Cerro Azul in the south-west of the island, and the lava formations known as Los Túneles. The lava formed bridges and underwater tunnels, and because relatively few people visit there, it is teeming with wildlife out on the rocks and in the water.
And this is where I met my favourite Galápagos bird of all time: the piquero patas azules better known as the blue-footed booby! Why is this my favourite bird? It’s not just because of their comical name (you wouldn’t believe how many guys would boast about the number of boobies they’ve seen), but because this bird always looks kind of cross-eyed and because their courtship ritual is the most bizzare and adorable in the world. Where other birds like the great frigate bird (fragata común) inflate the massive red pouch on their throats or albatross clapper with their bills and other birds display their massive wing-span, the blue-footed booby is peculiar. It gets up and walks around in slow movements so you or any female booby can admire its magnificent light blue feet. The bluer the better, if you’re a male booby. But the best part is: boobies sometimes show their feet if tourists pay them enough attention.
When we arrived at Los Túneles, this lonely blue-footed booby was resting on the lava rock near to where we had secured the boat. It didn’t mind us much, and as the animals of the Galápagos Islands were only introduced very late to the threat of humans and non-native predators, they are relatively tame and curious and won’t mind getting a little closer. This was the first booby we’d seen up close, so we all paid attention. And then it slowly got up and showed us its feet. Accentuating every step and making sure we were watching. So yes, where other birds go: “Look, I can fly!” or “Look at my amazing plumage!” blue-footed boobies go “Who cares if I can fly? Look at my lovely blue feet.”
The captain then took us out to a a calm lagoon, much like the Concha de Perla but a bit further off the shore and without treacherous and sharp lava rock formations underneath. Remember when I said I had planned to take pictures that day? That was all I had planned, unlike the tourists I was with. They all wore swimwear, had towels and were fully prepared to go snorkelling. Unlike me. But it turned out the captain had snorkelling gear stashed away which he lent me and it was a scorcher of a day, so eventually I jumped head first off the boat and into the turquoise water of the lagoon, fully clothed. Best decision ever made, as we ended up swimming with green sea turtles (tortuga negra), seals, penguins and loads of colourful fish for hours.
Though on the way back, we were nearly lost at sea. Fibras are quite small and choppy, so the ride is quite jerky and one massive bump wasn’t that unusual. We were about halfway between Los Túneles and Puerto Villamil when there was a loud bang and our outboard motor slowly sank into the Pacific! The guys, including the captain, reacted immediately and jumped after it, managing to grab it and get it out of the water before it sank too deep to recover. But then we noticed something else and realised what had caused the motor to dislodge. Next to our boat was a slightly dazed looking manta ray! It must have surfaced “wing” first right between the boat and motor and with its size and weight (we estimated it to be at least 6 metres in “wing-span”) it must have dislodged the motor on impact.
It took us about an hour to repair the damage to be able to limp the boat back to the embarcadero, but we made it. And by the time we were back in Puerto Villamil, all our clothes had completely dried as well.
That night, we all celebrated making it back to shore at a popular local watering hole, the Bar de Beto. A (more-or-less) open air beach bar with hammocks as seats, great views of the Southern Cross on the nighttime horizon, great music, and “endemic drinks” – perfectly rounding off the Galápagos Island feel. Las Islas Encantadas indeed.