The final and most remarkable island that I visited was Isabella. Home to seven very active volcanoes, Isabella is the largest island in the Galapagos. Knowing that it was the largest, I assumed that it would also be the most populated. However, Isabella’s charm came from it’s small beach towns and untouched, pristine nature. This was a real island escape.
Upon arrival on Isabella I was surprised and delighted to see that Puerto Villamil not a bustling city as Puerto Ayora was, but instead was much more relaxed. Evidentially the island was only used for fishing and hunting until very recently, so the infrastructure has not been built up yet. This made Isabella absolutely charming. People walked the sandy streets barefoot, and the beach could be seen from almost anywhere in town. Isabella offered us a chance to unwind, relax, and enjoy the true natural beauty of the island.
But, being naturally inquisitive, we hit the ground running, ready to explore the island. Taking a walk past a pond filled with brilliantly pink flamingos, we ended up at the tortoise research center. This center put the Charles Darwin station on Santa Cruz to shame. There were so many more tortoises of every single size! This was also a breeding center with the intent being to release most of the tortoises back into their natural environments. Interestingly enough, there was a different species of giant tortoise for each volcano on the island! So, not only are there various species throughout the islands, but each of the seven volcanoes on Isabella has it’s own species. How cool!
Our first of two real excursions on the island was a bay tour. Getting out on a boat was nice, although we stayed in the near bay area. From the boat we were able to see an incredible amount of wildlife from the frigate birds to penguins, marine turtles to playful sea lions. The tour took us to a large hunk of lava offshore, and we had our first experience walking on lava rock! On these rocks the marine iguanas like to sun themselves, and we saw groups of 20 or so iguanas all together. The highlight of the bay tour was the “shark tunnel”. The white tipped sharks like to sleep in the warmer water provided by a crevice in the lava rock. Looking down into the clear water, at least 20 sharks were visible, swimming back and forth. I had expected just one or two sharks, so to see that many at such a close proximity was amazing. Snorkeling here was obviously forbidden, but we did try our hand in the bay and tracked down a few sea turtles.
The real adventure came when we took on the Sierra Negra volcano, which was a five hour hike taking us to a breathtaking view of the volcanic crater an for a walk on a lava field. The Galapagos Islands are on a volcanic hotspot as well as shifting tectonic plates, which causes the volcanoes. So, the chain began its creation on the eastern side of the islands with San Cristóbol and others. These very oldest volcanoes are now extinct. As the plates shifted more volcanoes were created. Thus, the farthest western islands like Isabella are still very active since they are so new. Eruptions on the island occur frequently, our guide told us that we could expect one every three years! The last time that the Sierra Negra volcano erupted was 2005 (I believe). Our guide was present for the last eruption, and said that by hiking to the top of the crater and peering down, it looked like a city with all of the lights from the lava. The crater was enormous; stretching 6 miles in diameter it is second in size only to Yellowstone crater. If it follows the previous pattern, it is du to erupt any time now. I found it interesting that with our modern science we cannot predict when these volcanoes will erupt… yikes!
Our hike took us onto a lava field from the last eruption and many previous, when lava poured over the lip of the crater and down the mountain. It was like walking on Mars. Everything I could see in every direction was black rock. It was hot, half from the beating sun and half from the thermal heat. By reaching a hand into the hole of a rock I could feel the thermal heat. There were many “lava tunnels” in which the lava went beneath the surface in a river, which then dried hollow. Additionally, there were many different colors in the rocks. Some were slightly red, and some were colored yellow. This was because in each eruption different minerals are brought up from beneath the surface. The red was iron and the yellow was sulfur. This was really one of my favorite parts of the entire trip because the exposure to such a different geology was so new and so interesting.
Exhausted from the hike, we spent our last day relaxing on the untouched beaches of Isabella. I was able to rent a surfboard and practice my skills in the waves while getting a little bit of that equator sun. Often times on vacation you feel like you could stay in that place forever, and I felt that on Isabella.
But, prior to returning to reality, we treated ourselves one last time with a lobster dinner. It is lobster season in the Galapagos, so we devoured the most enormous lobster as a sweet ending to the trip of a lifetime.
Until next time, Darwin.