Isabela Island Part Two: Galapagos Wildlife

This is a continuation of the travel report detailing the time that we spent visiting Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos. The first part covered the lengthy travel that we needed to undergo just to make it from the airport on Baltra over to Isabela and then explored the hike that we took up to the top of Sierra Negra volcano. It had been a busy initial two days in the Galapagos and we still had two more days on Isabela before continuing onwards to the other islands in the archipelago.

Our morning activity for the day would be visiting the beaches to the west of Puerto Villamil. We had the option of walking or riding bikes and decided that we'd be able to cover more ground and see more wildlife by taking the bikes; this definitely proved to be the correct decision. We would have wasted a lot of time if we'd been forced to walk everywhere. Our same guide Pablo from the previous day was back again and we were happy to have him since he had done such an excellent job showing us around the volcano. It would be just the two of us along with Pablo throughout this morning with no other tourists present. Our first stop was located only a few minutes away from our hotel in Puerto Villamil at a small lagoon where flamingoes frequently come to feed. Unfortunately there were no flamingoes present this morning and we had to be content with views of an empty pond - not that interesting.

The next stop proved to be a much better experience. We were visiting the Centro de Crianza Tortugas Gigantes or giant tortoise breeding center, home to the most famous inhabitants of the Galapagos. This was the first time that we'd been able to see the giant tortoises on this vacation and we'd be encountering a lot more of them in the upcoming days. The tortoise breeding center here on Isabela island was dedicated to increasing the numbers of these remarkable animals which had fallen to near-extinction after the arrival of humans and the intrusive species brought with them. The good news is that the giant tortoises are protected species today and their numbers have rebounded over the last 30 years thanks to these breeding programs. We were amazed at how close we could get to the giant tortoises and how many of them there were at the breeding center. The lumbering giant reptiles were everywhere!

We have a whole lot of pictures of giant tortoises from this vacation but I don't think we ever grew tired of watching the animals. The tortoises have such a deliberate walking pace that they kept making me laugh as they veeeeeery slowly moved around in their enclosures and interacted with one another. The tortoise breeding center on Isabela had about a dozen distinct areas where the animals were separated from one another based on their ages, everything from tiny little tortoises that had hatched only a few months earlier up to giants that weighed more than 500 pounds / 250 kilograms. There were several hundred of the tortoises at the breeding center ranging across about half a dozen subspecies. We learned here that the giant tortoises can't cross the lava fields on Isabela and therefore a bunch of different subspecies have developed over time due to the six volcanoes on the island. Some of these subspecies had domed shells, some of them had saddlebacks, and some of them had a boxlike shape. I won't pretend to know which subspecies was which but the differences between the various tortoises were easy to spot.

That sign listed the ten different parts of southern Isabela island where giant tortoises can be found. It was also fascinating to see the ways in which the tortoises interacted with one another. Each animal seemed to be acting on its own without having much concern for the rest of the group and it was common to see them pile up in big "tortoise traffic jams" when their paths intersected. The animals would bump into one another and occasionally even start walking on top of each other in an attempt to get past. The tortoises don't fight amongst themselves but they will compete for dominance by sticking their necks out as far as they will stretch; having a longer neck is a sign of being the stronger individual and it was hilarious to watch this in action. Galapagos tortoises have no natural predators and these animals frequently act as if they don't think anything can hurt them.

These were the baby tortoises who were less than one year old. These little guys were miniscule in size and absolutely adorable in their enclosures; I tried to capture a picture of a leaf to provide a sense of scale for how small they were. The tortoises don't grow very quickly and it takes them a few decades to reach the point at which they could fairly be called "giant". The breeding center doesn't release these animals into the wild until they've grow large enough to be safe from birds and other potential predators. I think it's well known that the giant tortoises can live extremely long lifespans with several specimens reaching ages of 170 years in captivity. There aren't quite any giant tortoises still alive dating back to when Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos islands in 1835 but it's a pretty near miss given that they can live for almost two centuries.

This was the last group of giant tortoises that we saw at the breeding center. They were off by themselves and represented a subspecies that had a boxlike shape to their shells. Even we could tell that this was a different group of giant tortoises from the ones that we had been seeing earlier near the entrance. The breeding center also had a small informational indoor area that talked about how long the animals could live and the threats posed to them by introduced species like dogs and pigs. We would later find similar presentations at the other giant tortoise breeding centers; there are other facilities on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal islands which we would be visiting later on our trip.

Next we rode our bikes down to the beach and then headed west on a sandy road that paralleled the water's edge. We were heading away from Puerto Villamil and into the Parque Nacional Galapagos that protected the waterfront in the hopes of seeing more wildlife. As usual for this trip, there was hardly anyone else present aside from a few other tourist groups doing their own walking or biking exploration of the area. The road was deserted of cars but a bit tricky to ride since the bikes kept getting bogged down in sand. I was also carrying our camera bag and without a basket on these bikes there was no good way to balance the thing while pedaling. At least we weren't traveling very fast. We quickly noticed that there were tons of sea birds diving in the waters along the shore and stopped to take some pictures of them:

The birds were fishing in the waves for prey to eat and they made quite a spectacle for onlookers. The larger of the two birds were pelicans, officially Brown Pelicans according to our "Birds of the Galapagos" reference card. They were accompanied by the slightly smaller but still huge animals named frigate birds. These birds have a highly distinctive wing pattern that bends back in the middle to give them a shape that looks a bit like the letter "W"; this is best visible in the fourth picture above. Both types of birds were circling low over the water and then diving vertically down when they spotted fish. And by that, I don't mean swooping down in an arc, I mean vertically jackknifing straight into the water like an Olympic diver. It was wild to watch and there were dozens of these birds all fishing together in the same area along the beach.

Past the beach (Playa del Amor) we reached the formal entrance to Galapagos National Park. The rough road continued on here for a couple of miles until hitting a dead end at Muro de las Lágrimas, the "Wall of Tears" built by convict labor during the 1940s and 1950s. This is a popular tourist attraction on Isabela because it's located close to Puerto Villamil and the trip out to the wall offers a chance to view more wildlife. Pablo asked us if we wanted to visit Muro de las Lágrimas or if we would rather focus on the wildlife in the area and for us it was an easy decision to look for more wildlife. While we would have enjoyed seeing the wall, it was after all just a bunch of stones piled up for no real reason other than punishing the prisoners with hard labor. Here's a picture of Muro de las Lágrimas for the curious, we did not end up seeing it ourselves. Instead, Pablo took us to a bunch of the stopping points along the road that led to the wall. We hadn't traveled far at all before we came across a giant tortoise half-hidden under the brush by the side of the road. I stopped to get a picture with the tortoise, then we found a second one less than five minutes later on the road itself! Both tortoises were scared of people and pulled back inside their shells when we approached. We were able to get close to the animals but made certain not to touch them as the road sign amusingly indicated. We had seen a bunch of tortoises at the breeding center an hour earlier but these were the genuine article living out in the wild.

The road leading out to Muro de las Lágrimas had lots of small trails offshooting from the main road and we stopped to explore several of them. We found yet another giant tortoise on one of these paths which was hanging out in the grasses and apparently resting during the day. This must have been a relatively young tortoise since it wasn't particularly large yet. The poor thing was similarly afraid of people and pulled back into its shell when we approached; we would have stayed longer to take more pictures but felt bad for the tortoise. Then Pablo took us along a path that led through a grove of mangrove trees to a tiny sheltered beach along the water's edge. This was a beautiful spot and we loved the way that the mangrove branches formed a tight canopy overhead. It felt a bit like the forts made out of blankets and cushions that my brother and I used to make when we were children.

Giant tortoises weren't the only reptiles present in the Galapagos. The islands are also home to several types of land iguanas as well as the marine iguanas pictured here. The marine iguanas can be found everywhere throughout the islands and are one of the very few reptiles that swim into the ocean to feed. Their diet is made up almost entirely of algae so these are not carnivorous animals despite their Godzilla-like appearance. We had already seen marine iguanas in several different locations and we'd encounter them in much greater numbers later this afternoon. As for the terrain itself, the southern shoreline of Isabela was more arid than we'd been expecting, with lots of scrub brushes and several types of cactuses growing here. The highland interiors of the islands seem to be the places that draw most of the rainfall while the coastal areas wind up considerably drier.

I made a friend with this little bird while we were walking along the shoreline. It was another one of the many types of finches that can be found in the Galpagos; I want to say that this was a cactus finch but I'm not entirely certain. It was hopping around on the ground and when we stopped to watch it decided to jump onto my shoe for a closer look. Hopefully this does a good job of putting into perspective how small these finches were - they were tiny!

We stopped next at a tidal pool along the beach where a series of rocks created a sheltered area. There were several different types of wildlide sharing the pool of water starting with these pictured crabs. I wasn't able to find the name of the exact species in question but we spotted these crabs everywhere along the water's edge across the archipelago. We learned that the crabs start out with a dark coloring that matches the appearance of the rocks and then they become lighter as they age until eventually winding up a bright red. I think that this is related to their mating cycle; in any case, the older crabs really stood out against the wet rocks while the younger ones were almost invisible. There was a wading bird here which was very interested in those crabs, and although I don't remember ever seeing it eat any of the crustaceans while we were watching, the bird seemed to be sizing them up for a tasty meal.

There were more marine iguanas here too, lots and lots of iguanas. We even managed to catch one of them swimming in the water in search of algae to eat; apparently the male iguanas are the only ones that swim while the females and the juvenile animals will eat the algae that gets stranded on rocks at low tide. There are about a dozen different subspecies of marine iguanas scattered across the archipelago but they all share the same basic features. The iguanas spend most of their time lying very still to conserve energy and there were several times where Liz thought one of them was dead because it was unmoving for such a long span of time. The marine iguanas can live up to 60 years in captivity while typically having a lifespan of about ten years in the wild. If you don't like lizards then the Galapagos is not the place for you because these things are absolutely everywhere.

Our best pictures from this beach had to be the ones that Liz took of the pelicans, however. These brown pelicans were simply enormous birds with a wingspan of more than two meters in length. Like all birds that can take flight, the pelicans don't weigh very much so that they can get up into the air (Wikipedia says that they average about 7 pounds / 3 kilograms) but they certainly looked a lot bigger than that. Liz took a bunch of pictures of the pelicans in flight and managed to capture some excellent images of the birds as they passed overhead. This was about as good as we were going to be able to do as non-professional photographers.

Sometimes there were so many marine iguanas that it was difficult to walk along the path. These things don't get out of the way either, they make you step over them to continue forward. Again, this is not the place to visit if you have a phobia of lizards!

On our way back along the same beachfront road, we spotted a different type of bird that we hadn't seen previously. This was another one of the most famous types of wildlife to be found the Galapagos: the blue-footed booby. Named for the distinctive blue coloring of their feet, the boobies are not endemic to the Galapagos (they can be found elsewhere along the Pacific coast of North and South America) but flock on the islands in huge numbers and have their highest population concentrations in this isolated region. We didn't have a great view of these boobies since they were congregating on a group of offshore rocks and fortunately would have the chance to see some of them at a closer distance later on our trip.

Finally, Pablo spotted this solitary flamingo when we were almost back to Puerto Villamil. We were supposed to see flamingoes at the start of this bike ride up near the tortoise breeding center and it was sheer luck that we came across this one by itself in a separate pond near the ocean. Flamingoes are also not endemic to the Galapagos and can be found in many tropical regions across the globe. This one stood out for its bright pink coloring as it waded through this little pond in search of food. Liz and I aren't particularly big fans of bird-watching but we'd had good luck throughout the morning in spotting so many different kinds of feathered creatures. The Galapagos are full of different types of birds and the islands are a paradise for anyone who does happen to enjoy birding.

After we had another lunch at the El Faro restaurant, we took part in our afternoon activity for the day. We headed back to the docks where we had first arrived on Isabela to join a larger group for a tour of a nearby offshore island named Islote Tintoreras. This was the only other group activity that we took part in while staying on Isabela and even this "large" outing had about 15 tourists in total. Everything in the Galapagos continued to be highly personal with small numbers of visitors, completely different from the big-scale tourist attractions that we had often enjoyed elsewhere. The docks on the outskirts of Puerto Villamil continued to feature sea lions laying around in the sun and we paused to take a look at them before boarding the small boat which would ferry us across to Tintoreras.

While we were making the short 10 minute crossing over to Tintoreras, we passed by some offshore rocks where birds liked to gather. There were more blue-footed boobies here but we would have other opportunities to see them later in our trip. This was the one and only place where we were able to see another of the star wildlife attractions of the islands: the Galapagos penguins! The penguins can be difficult for tourists to see because they largely inhabit Fernandina and the western coast of Isabela, i.e. places where no people live and there's no tourist infrastructure. One of the reasons why Tintoreras is a popular visitor attraction is because the penguins are known to frequent these rocks nearby. The Galapagos penguin is endemic to the archipelago and can't be found anywhere else in the world; they are also the only penguin species that lives north of the equator (just barely crossing the imaginary line at the northern tip of Isabela). They are one of the smallest species of penguins standing about 20 inches / 50 centimeters tall and weighing about 10 pounds / 4 kilograms. The dark coloring of the penguins blended in perfectly with the wet rocks they were standing on and it was legitimately tough to see them sometimes - did you spot the penguin hiding below the boobie in the second picture above? These little birds were absolutely adorable and I wish that we'd seen them elsewhere on this trip.

We soon arrived on Islote Tintoreras where the tour group left the boat behind to walk along a small trail. There were more sea lions here, naturally, having completely taken over the small shelter next to the boat dock. The sea lions absolutely love laying on benches to take their naps; I mean, why not? Better than sleeping on the ground, I didn't blame them! Tintoreras proved to be made up of cooled volcanic rock like virtually everywhere else in the Galapagos. The interaction between the lava and the ocean had resulted in these strange lumpy patterns where the rocks folded and bent in odd shapes. It looked a little bit as if someone had taken a can of playdough and crumpled it up in their fists. There appeared to be a layer of salt on some of the rocks thanks to the wind blowing off the surrounding ocean and this was part of the reason why Tintoreras attracted lots of wildlife. This was a good place for birds to nest and for other animals to eat the salt off the volcanic rocks.

Tintoreras proved to be a popular location for the marine iguanas as well which were crawling all over the place. At times, there were so many of them that it was difficult to make it past them on the only path that winded across the small island. This is a place where the iguanas will lay their eggs and as a result we saw lots of tiny little baby iguanas crawling around. The lizards seemed to like laying on top of one another and grouping up in big clumps. There were some people on the tour who weren't wild about this and I'll repeat again that the Galapagos aren't a great place to visit for anyone who finds lizards to be disgusting.

There was a sheltered cove in the center of Tintoreras (visible on the map that we had seen when we first arrived at the dock) which was another popular spot for the local wildlife. The walking path ran in a loop around this central cove and passed by a narrow channel where our guide pointed out a pair of small sharks. These were adolescent sharks which I believe were whitetip reef sharks who like to swim in here when the channel fills with water during high tide. Islote Tintoreras is named after these sharks as the word "tintorera" refers to a certain type of shark in Spanish. On the land, we also passed by another sea lion pup who was sleeping by itself next to the walking path. Our guide explained that its mother had likely left the sea lion pup here to rest while she went to catch food. We walked right past the animal and were able to take some close pictures of the sea lion as it snoozed away and then opened a sleepy eye. Sea lions look an awful lot like dogs in their facial features, if not so much in the rest of their bodies.

As we walked around that central cove, our guide stopped the group and pointed out that there was a sea turtle swimming out in the water. We had spotted a sea turtle the previous day when we were swimming at Concha de Perla but hadn't been able to get any pictures thanks to someone [me] breaking the underwater camera. This was one of our best opportunities to get some pictures of a sea turtle while using our main camera and we were close enough to keep snapping images every time that the animal came up to the surface to breathe. Much like their land cousins in the giant tortoises, the sea turtles seem to have a serene lifestyle as they glide through the water in no particular hurry. We hadn't been fortunate enough to encounter any sea turtles when we went snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia two years earlier and it was a real treat to keep running into the turtles here in the Galapagos.

These are a few more pictures that we took while finishing up with the walking circuit around Islote Tintoreras before heading back to the pictured ferry boat. At this point we were taken a few minutes away to a place which had been marked off as safe for swimming. Everyone put on wet suits and we spent the next 30-40 minutes snorkeling as a group in the waters near Tintoreras. The water was once again cold enough that we were glad to have the provided wet suits and the wildlife viewing continued to be spectacular. While we didn't see the manta rays from the previous day, we came across significantly more sea turtles on this excursion, about half a dozen of them in total. There were a bunch of them hanging out down at the bottom of the water (which was pretty shallow here, never more than 10 feet / 3 meters deep and usually less than that) as we swam past overhead. Occasionally the turtles would come up to the surface to take a breath and then glide majestically through the sea. There were lots of fish to see here as well but the sea turtles were the undisputed stars of the snorkeling trip. This is where we really, really wished that we could have taken pictures with our water camera if it hadn't been irreparably broken the previous day. We exchanged email addresses with some of the other tourists who had an underwater camera in the hopes that we could get some of their pictures but they never responded. Oh well.

After the afternoon trip over to Tintoreras, we returned to our hotel room to change out of swimsuits and then headed to get dinner. When we arrived at El Faro, we were told that dinner wouldn't be served until 7:00 PM that night which was about an hour away. This didn't make a lot of sense - why wasn't a restaurant open for dinner at 6:00? - but we later figured out that the one person on staff who spoke English wasn't due to arrive until an hour later and they didn't want to try and serve dinner without him. This was another time when we would have liked to visit another restaurant and would have done so if we had known that that was supposed to be an option for our tour package. Anyway, the result was that we had to kill an hour walking around on the beach watching the sun set and that wasn't the worst thing in the world. These are some pictures of the beach at Puerto Villamil as the light was starting to fade for the day.

This is where we would have chosen to eat dinner, this restaurant named Royal Rock sitting out near the end of a small pier. The food probably wasn't any better here than at El Faro but the location was excellent with views looking out across the water. We watched the sun set over Cerro Azul volcano at the western horizon and (eventually) enjoyed a nice meal before calling it a night and heading back to the hotel. Puerto Villamil doesn't have much in the way of nightlife and we're not the kind of people who would be interested in that stuff anyway.

The next morning marked our final day on Isabela and after two hectic days this one would prove to be a bit more laidback. Our scheduled activity for the morning was a kayaking trip in the small bay running between the public docks outside Puerto Villamil and Islote Tintoreras. We had a guide leading our kayak but otherwise this was another activity with only Liz and myself present, no larger group. I've always enjoyed opportunities to take a kayak out on the water even though paddling the boat can be hard work. Liz and I were sharing a double kayak and with the two of us mere inches from the water there was no opportunity to bring our main camera along. (Yet another place where the underwater camera would have been perfect, argh!) Instead we used Liz's cell phone camera on the kayak and that limited what we could capture since we didn't want to break it or drop it into the waves. We were able to get some great views of the boats floating in Puerto Villamil's harbor and make a closer approach to the same rocks where we had seen blue-footed boobies and penguins the previous day. There weren't any penguins this time around but there were more boobies than ever and we were able to rest from paddling for a few minutes to watch them strutting around on the rocks.

We were out on the water for about an hour in the kayak and made a circuit of Puerto Villamil's harbor area. Afterwards, we had the chance to go snorkeling again which was included as part of our tour package. However, we had been snorkeling on both of the two previous days and we weren't terribly eager to jump into the chilly water again to swim in basically the same place. I think we would have felt different if the water had been warmer or if we hadn't been so tired from the previous two busy days on Isabela. Instead, we decided to relax on the beack for an hour until lunchtime, getting some fresh lemonade from this restaurant named The Beach (somewhere other than El Faro!) and basically taking it easy for a little while. Liz poked fun at me for bringing such large books along for the trip instead of traveling with an eBook reader to save space. This particular tome was a history of the Napoleonic Wars designed to place them in a more global perspective and it was quite good! Maybe not exactly beach reading but I enjoyed it.

We had yet another lunch at El Faro and then headed off for our last afternoon activity on Isabela. We were reunited with Pablo once again who would be our guide as he drove the pair of us to several attractions in the central highland portion of the island. We were the only two tourists traveling with Pablo and essentially had our own private tour. As Pablo drove us through the fruit-producing farms in the interior of the island, I was struck again by how much more rainfall the highland portion of Isabela received as compared to the coast. This was the same pattern we would observe on the other islands: rainforest in the interior at elevation and desert along the coast. Anyway, we were visiting some of the lesser attractions on Isabela this afternoon, the kind of places that would be skipped over for people who had only one or two days on the island. The first stop was at a natural cave named Cueva de Sucre which had been formed by an ancient lava tunnel. The entrance to the cave was only a short walk from the trailhead and soon enough we were descending down into the darkness.

Cueva de Sucre wasn't an especially large cave but the fact that it had been formed completely by flowing lava made it a pretty neat place. Most of the caves that I'd visited in the United States were created by water eroding away rock over time, not lava forming a tube and then hardening in that shape. It was noticeably cooler underground as compared to outside (as usual when visiting caves) and the ceiling was low enough that I had to duck in a number of different places. The darkness in the cave was quite a contrast to the bright sunshine outside and the flourishing tropical plants growing everywhere on the surface. This was a fun place to stop and visit for a short time.

Our next stop was at a hotel named Campo Duro which was in the process of reinventing itself as an "eco lodge", whatever that meant. This place was quiet and peaceful but also a little bit sad because it had to shut down temporarily due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I could imagine that Campo Duro would normally have been much busier with guests enjoying the outdoor bar and eating food cooked in the adorable tortoise-shaped oven. We spent a little while walking around the grounds and taking in some of the tropical plant life on display. There were a number of different types of flowers and we spotted one lonely tortoise (which must have been on the younger end since it wasn't too "giant") creeping through the underbrush. The main attraction at Campo Duro for the moment was this gigantic tree:

Pablo told us what type of tree this was but I can't recall now when writing several months after the fact. Whatever the species happend to be, it was an enormous tree that stretched well above 100 feet / 30 meters in height. Up close, the bark had small spikes sticking out that we were able to capture in the second image above. This tree was at least a hundred years old and it had been preserved by Campo Duro from an attempt to cut it down when the main road that runs past the hotel was being modernized. This was one of those natural phenomena that really made it feel like we were in an exotic location; we could have been deep in the jungle instead of a short distance away from Puerto Villamil.

Finally, we stopped for the last time at a lookout platform situated up on top of a hill. It was late afternoon by now and the sun was beginning to set, casting a soft golden glow across Isabela's landscape. From up here we could look out over the tropical forests and see far off towards the horizon. The view to the north in the third image above was probably the least interesting, looking towards Sierra Negra and Cerro Grande volcanoes as they poked up above the landscape. More interesting were the views to the south and the east where we could see Puerto Villamil off in the distance and then some of the offshore islands beyond it. The zoomed in fourth picture captures some of those tiny barren islands, Isla Los Hermanos and Isla Tortuga being the largest among them. These are uninhabited islands that are too dry to support much in the way of plant or animal life. We could also see how the landscape became visibly drier as it approached the coast where less precipitation falls. This was a great place to stop at the conclusion of the day to take in some final views of the island from up above. It was the last time that we would spend with our guide Pablo who had taken us on four separate excursions and we can't recommend him highly enough.

Aside from one final meal eaten at El Faro, the EIGHTH time that we had eaten at that restaurant, this brought our time on Isabela to a close. We enjoyed one more glorious sunset on the beach before heading back to our hotel. We had an early wakeup time the next morning to catch the ferry over to Santa Cruz and that meant getting some much-needed rest. Isabela was an amazing place to visit between the volcanoes, the snorkeling, the hiking and biking, and of course the innumerable wildlife sightings that we were able to enjoy. This was the most remote and least-developed of the islands that we visited from a tourist perspective and I think it was probably our favorite of the bunch. That's not to say that we didn't enjoy Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, only that we had an excellent time taking part in the activities described on these two pages. Everything was great aside from getting sunburned and having to eat all of our meals at the same restaurant!

Next we would be returning to Santa Cruz, the island that we had passed through in a couple of hours when initially landing in the Galapagos. We hoped that the ferry crossing would be smoother this time around now that we knew what to expect; the story continues on the next page.