Isabela Island is the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago and one of the most desirable islands to visit as it is characterized by its abundant wildlife and spectacular volcanic landscapes. Even though this is the largest island in extension, its populated center, Puerto Villamil, is small and has a relatively little population, much of the charm of this island resides on this and makes it a place where it is easy to relax and find all at practically immediate distances. Therefore, if you have planned to visit this destination during your trip to the Galapagos and you want to know what to do on Isabela Island, we bring you below a list of 13 top things to do on Isabela Island, as well as some curious facts about this paradisiacal destination of the archipelago.
Cover photo The Tunnels – Cabo Rosa, by: not.c.s.i
How to get to Isabela Island?
If you want to know everything about how to get to Galapagos from Ecuador, read our note as it tells you how to get to the famous islands and what you should do when you arrive at either of the two main airports in the archipelago. These are located on San Cristóbal Island (San Cristóbal Airport in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno – Airport Code: SCY) and Baltra Island (Seymour Airport – Airport Code: GPS).
Now that you know how to get to the Galapagos archipelago, and if you are on Santa Cruz Island or San Cristóbal Island and you want to travel to Isabela Island, you can do it by a passenger transport boat or ferry and, for this purpose, many local businesses offer this service. The trip from Santa Cruz to Isabela takes 2h30 to 3h00, depending on the weather and sea conditions. The important point is that no boats transport you directly from Isabela Island to San Cristóbal or vice versa, so the only way to travel is to stop on Santa Cruz Island.
Hence, if you are in San Cristóbal, we recommend you take a ferry in the morning to Santa Cruz and, later, from Santa Cruz to Isabela. Remember that as soon as you arrive at the main dock on Isabela Island, you must pay a landing tax per person collected at the counter just before leaving the dock.
Consider that the visit to Isabela Island is included in most Galapagos cruises. Therefore, if you choose a cruise option to travel around the islands, you will arrive at Isabela comfortably.
Finally, it should be noted that there are no airports for commercial flights from the mainland in Isabela. However, there is a small airport in Puerto Villamil. The airport, called General Villamil, is located 2.5 km (1.55 miles) from the center of Puerto Villamil. This airport receives small planes or local connection planes between islands. Two airlines offer inter-island flights from Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal to Isabela Island: Emetebe and FlyGalapagos.
List of activities to do and destinations to visit on Isabela island
In this section, we give you a list of what we consider to be the 13 main attractions of this island, so you will know what to do on Isabela Island during your stay.
1. Puerto Villamil
First, we recommend visiting Puerto Villamil, a quiet port city with its surrounding beaches. In Puerto Villamil, along its sand and dirt streets, you will find accommodation, restaurants, bars, cafeterias, and shops for souvenirs. In addition, Puerto Villamil is the starting point for day trips around the island, as well as excursions to neighboring islands. The town is surrounded by a charming beach of fine sand and crystalline waters, approximately 3 km (1.86 miles) long, where you can sunbathe, swim, surf, or relax. In addition, this beach is the ideal place to enjoy impressive and unforgettable sunsets.
2. Concha de Perla (Pearl shell)
One of the main attractions on Isabela Island is Concha de Perla (Pearl Shell), a shallow bay that sits next to the port of Puerto Villamil and can be reached via a short path that takes you through mangroves. Concha de Perla is a natural pool known for its calm and crystalline waters, which allows you to snorkel in excellent conditions. You can enjoy the presence of turtles, marine iguanas, sea lions, manta rays, tropical fish, and even penguins. In addition, we recommend that you bring your snorkeling equipment with you since there are no rentals in the area. Remember that you can enter Concha de Perla for free; this is an activity you can do on your own and without hiring a tour.
3. Muro de las Lágrimas (Wall of tears)
Between 1946 and 1959, there was a Penal Colony on Isabela Island. 300 prisoners were taken from the mainland, and to punish them, they were forced to build a wall with huge blocks of lava about 100 meters long, 7 meters high, and 3 meters wide (328 ft. long, 23 ft. high, 10 ft. wide). The Wall of Tears is the only remaining evidence of a prison camp where the abuse of power ended the lives of many convicts. This construction is preserved in memory of the suffering of those forced to build it and as a reminder of a period that was never repeated.
This site is located 5 km (3.10 miles) west of Puerto Villamil. You can get to the Wall of Tears on your own, for which you can rent a bicycle or if you prefer, you can walk. Although the most recommended option is usually a bicycle since sometimes the sun can be inclement, and the closer you get to the Muro de Las Lágrimas, the area becomes drier. On this walk, you will find beautiful views of long stretches of beach only interrupted by mangroves and other local trees until you lose sight of the water and surround yourself with thick vegetation.
One of the charms of doing this tour is that after reaching the wall (end of tour), you can return and make many stops. We guarantee you will meet giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and many kinds of birds along the way. The tour in this area is known as the Wetlands Complex. Nine trails along the route are between pools, viewpoints, and beaches: Orchilla Hill, Los Tunos and Poza Verde, El Estero, Poza Escondida, Poza Redonda, Túnel del Estero, Playa del Amor, La Playita, and Cemetery.
During this incredible walk, you will come across El Estero, another picturesque place on Isabela Island that offers a pleasant walk through nature. You can follow a wooden boardwalk that crosses mangroves, streams, and pools, where you can see different plants and animals, such as crabs, herons, ducks, finches, and more. El Estero on Isabela Island is a perfect place to cool off after taking the tour in El Muro de Las Lágrimas.
You will also find some paradisiacal beaches, such as La Playita, a wide area of sand with small wooden seats protected by the shade of the trees, or Playa del Amor, a rock and stone beach, which marine iguanas have chosen as a nesting place.
4. Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan Giant Tortoise Breeding Center
The giant tortoises of the Galapagos are one of the most iconic animals of the archipelago. If you want to know and learn about them, we recommend you visit the Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan Giant Tortoise Breeding Center. This tortoiseshell is the ideal place to learn about all the conservation activities dedicated to this species since, within this breeding center, the specialists watch over the tortoise’s development until they reach the appropriate size and measures to return to their home. natural habitat. You can learn about their life cycle, their threats, and their importance to the ecosystem.
You can get to the Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan Giant Tortoise Breeding Center from Puerto Villamil through a boardwalk. It should be noted that if you follow the wooden promenade to the breeding center, you will surely see flamingos. These animals live in the lagoons, fish for crabs, and pose for beautiful photographs.
5. Poza de los flamingos (Flamingo pool)
Another thing to do on Isabela Island is meet the fantastic flamingos there. In the Poza de los flamingos, popularly known as this, a saltwater lagoon very close to Puerto Villamil, you can see flamingos in all their splendor. In Isabela Island, the highest flamingo concentration can be seen in the Galapagos Islands.
Ideally, you should start at the Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, from there take the path through the flamingo pool, and when you leave, you will be near the beach on the route that goes to the Wall of Tears. Remember that this is an activity you can do on your own and without hiring a tour.
6. Las Tintoreras
Another of the best activities on Isabela Island is going to Las Tintoreras, some islets located very close to Puerto Villamil, where there is a colony of white-tip sharks (also known as Tintoreras) that can often be seen view resting in the lava channel. This area has diverse marine life, lava formations, mangrove forests, and coral reefs. Also, this is another great destination for snorkeling.
You can access Las Tintoreras by boat, for which you must necessarily take a tour. The trip begins with a boat ride through the bay, and during this ride, you will meet blue-footed boobies and penguins. Later, already in Las Tintoreras, in the area designated for snorkeling, you will be able to see manta rays, reef fish, sharks, sea lions, and other species. Remember that it is also possible to get to the site if you rent kayaks.
7. Sierra Negra volcano
Another thing to do on Isabela Island is to visit the famous Sierra Negra volcano, an active volcano with one of the world’s largest craters. Hence, walking to this fascinating place and along the edge of the crater is highly recommended if you visit the island. Its dimensions are difficult to comprehend, with a diameter of around 9 km (5.6 miles) at its widest point. Tours may take you to a vantage point where you can try to comprehend its sheer size.
Remember that to carry out this hiking tour with impressive views and enjoy this lunar landscape, you must take a daily tour from Isabela Island. You will be accompanied by a guide who will teach you about the geology of the area and the volcanic processes in the area. The walking tour can take approximately 4 hours. If you cruise through the Galapagos Islands, check if this visit is included in your travel itinerary.
8. Los Túneles (The Tunnels)
Los Túneles in Cabo Rosa is another fantastic natural formation that deserves to be visited during your stay on Isabela Island. Los Túneles is located southwest of Isabela, and they are lava tunnels that have formed arches and bridges over the water, making it a unique landscape. This is another ideal place to perform snorkeling since abundant marine life exists. In addition, the clarity of the waters will allow you to appreciate a great variety of tropical fish, sea lions, sea turtles, reef sharks, and even seahorses. To get to know Los Túneles, you must necessarily take a tour. In addition, this activity is outside the scope of cruise ships.
9. Sulfur mines
Another thing to do on Isabela Island is to visit the sulfur mines, which are located near the Sierra Negra volcano. Specifically, “In the southwestern sector of the sinuous ridge is the Minas de Azufre zone, an active fumarolic field with important native sulfur deposits. In this area, the temperatures of the fumaroles reach more than 250°C (482°F)” (Escuela Politécnica Nacional, Instituto Geofísico, Volcán Sierra Negra, 2023).
Sulfur dioxide is one of the critical elements that is released in volcanic activity. Hence, for many years, miners exploited this stone in Isabela. Today this mine is no longer in operation, and the site has become a tourist spot. This is a perfect activity for those who enjoy the volcanoes’ geology and those who want to appreciate the fumaroles. Remember that you need to take a tour to visit the sulfur mines.
10. Elizabeth Bay
If you are wondering what to do on the island, we must mention Elizabeth Bay, a sheltered bay on the island’s west side. On this site, you can kayak and row along rocky cliffs, where you can enjoy the presence of a large colony of penguins, sea lions, and marine iguanas, among others. In addition, at this destination, you can enter the mangrove channels to see turtles and sea rays. This side of the island can usually be reached by cruise ship, so ensure this destination is included in your itinerary.
11. Punta Vicente Roca
Located on the northwest coast of Isabela Island, Punta Vicente Roca is a large bay with impressive and diverse marine fauna. In this desired place to do snorkeling and diving, you can see sea horses, sea turtles, and the strange but fascinating Mola-mola or sunfish. Punta Vicente Roca is surrounded by imposing cliffs and is well known because a large population of green turtles inhabits its surroundings.
Normally, this is a popular destination on most cruise itineraries that sail through the archipelago. Remember that before purchasing the tickets for the cruise, it is important that you make sure that this destination is included in the itinerary.
12. Caleta Tagus (Tagus Cove)
The Caleta Tagus visitor site is west of the Darwin volcano on Isabela Island. The site’s name is due to an English warship that, in 1814, passed through the islands to hunt Galapagos tortoises for food. Pirates and whalers who arrived at the place inscribed the names of their boats on the stones to leave a trace of their passage, which you will be able to notice from the beginning of the tour since you can see inscriptions dating from 1800.
In the area, you can enjoy an impressive volcanic landscape that reveals the spectacular volcanoes of northern Isabela. Due to the explosive eruptions, the substratum has many volcanic rocks of different sizes, known as “lapilli” that are formed when the lava solidifies by contact with water, forming small balls that are also formed when it rains after an eruption.
Caleta Tagus is made up of a 1,800-meter path that borders a saltwater lake inside a volcanic cone called Lake Darwin and is named after the famous naturalist. In this lake, you can observe various land birds and vegetation characteristics of the arid zone. Darwin Lake has a depth of approximately 9 meters. You can arrive at this site on a cruise that sails through the Galapagos Islands.
13. Urbina Bay
Another thing to do on Isabela Island in the Galapagos is to visit Urbina Bay. This destination is located in the western part of the island, at the foot of the Alcedo volcano. Coral reefs are visible in this area due to a violent eruption of the Alcedo volcano in 1954, when much of Isabela Island’s coastline was raised by around four meters. One of the main attractions of Bahía Urbina is that through one of its main paths, you can reach a black sand beach.
At the site, it is possible to see “manzanillos”, “muyuyos”, and “palo santo”, as well as Darwin’s cotton flowers, an endemic species to the Galapagos Islands. While concerning the fauna, in the site, it is possible to see many Darwin’s finches, as well as land iguanas. Here you can do snorkeling and observe sea turtles, sea lions, and countless tropical fish. This site is normally accessed by sea and through a cruise.
Curious facts about Isabela Island
- Isabela Island is the largest in the archipelago. Located in the western waters of the Galapagos, it has “approximately 4,588 km², representing 60% of the total land area of the Galapagos Islands. [In addition], Isabela is one of the four inhabited islands of the archipelago” (Proyecto Galápagos Verde 2050, Fundación Charles Darwin, Isabela Norte, 2023). Worth noting that the island is shaped like a seahorse.
- The island has a great diversity of fauna as it has several brackish lagoons home to the highest concentration of flamingos in the Galapagos Islands. At the same time, it is the best place in the archipelago to see the famous Galapagos penguins. In addition, on the island, you can find 5 types of giant tortoises, which you can meet at the Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan Tortoise Breeding Center; and, of course, we can’t forget the very unusual pink iguana, a species of iguana that only lives in this part of the planet, on the virgin slopes of Wolf Volcano.
- The island is also well known for having volcanoes. These volcanoes are Wolf, Darwin, Alcedo, Cerro Azul, Ecuador, and Sierra Negra. All the volcanoes except Ecuador are still active. Isabela is one of the areas with the highest volcanic activity on the planet. The highest point on the island is the Wolf Volcano, which reaches 1,707 meters (3,510 ft.) above sea level.
- In 1684, Ambrose Cowley mapped the Galapagos archipelago and named the larger island Albemarle after the first English Duke of Albemarle. Ecuador later changed the title to Isabela in honor of Queen Isabella I of Castile, who sponsored Columbus’s voyages.
- In 1946 a penal colony was established in Isabela. 300 convicts from the mainland were shipped and suffered hard labor. Those who visit Isabela Island can witness the fruits of their labor at the Muro de las Lágrimas, a wall built of black lava rocks.
- Isabela Island “hosts approximately 70% of the terrestrial biodiversity of the Galapagos, with high percentages of endemism. An example is the endemic plant species Galvezia leucantha var. leucantha, exclusive to Cape Douglas on Fernandina Island and the northern and central parts of Isabela Island. However, due to detrimental impacts from introduced herbivorous species such as goats and rats, there are only five individuals of Galvezia leucantha var. leucantha on this island, located in the lava fields near the mangroves of Playa Tortuga Negra” (Proyecto Galápagos Verde 2050, Fundación Charles Darwin, Isabela Norte, 2023).
Questions and answers
What is Isabela Island known for?
Isabela is known for being the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago, and despite this, it is the one with the least population. The island is known for its tranquility and enormous natural spaces since only a small portion is inhabited. In addition, a fact that distinguishes this island and that makes it a truly special place is that “it has a chain of intermittently active volcanoes that offer unique spectacles” (Ministerio de Turismo del Ecuador, Isabela, isla de encantos turísticos y especies únicas en el mundo, 2020).
The island, additionally, is home to the highest concentration of Galapagos penguins and flamingos; And, as if this were not enough, the only pink iguana in the world lives on the top of the Wolf volcano because “its crest and back differentiate it from other iguanas that inhabit the islands. Scientific studies have ruled out hybridization between yellow and pink land iguanas, making it a unique species in the world” (Ministerio de Turismo del Ecuador, Isabela, isla de encantos turísticos y especies únicas en el mundo, 2020).
Why visit Isabela Island?
Isabela Island in the Galapagos is the largest in the Galapagos archipelago. It has a small population and is somewhat isolated, facts that make it a true paradise for those seeking total disconnection. In addition, on this island, you will be able to appreciate the enormous diversity of flora and fauna combined with spectacular volcanic landscapes. On Isabela Island, you will find fascinating places to perform snorkeling and swim with sharks, sea lions, and even seahorses (Los Túneles). The island is an ideal place to see populations of flamingos in the lagoons and penguins of the Galapagos. And as if this were not enough, Isabela is an ideal place to see hundreds of iguanas everywhere. If you continue to wonder why to visit Isabela, we must tell you that it is also a perfect place for kayaking, hiking, biking, surfing, and relaxing on tropical beaches. Isabela, an island that invites you to relax, and see endemic wildlife and spectacular volcanic landscapes, is a must-see during your trip to the Galapagos.
How old is Isabela Island?
Isabela Island, formerly known as Albemarle, is located in the western part of the Galapagos archipelago and is approximately one million years old.
What animals live on Isabela Island?
[On Isabela Island] “You can find 5 types of giant tortoises, flamingos, penguins, marine iguanas, lions, and sharks that easily take over the base of the city of Puerto Villamil” (Dirección de Desarrollo Productivo y Sostenible del Gobierno Autónomo Descentralizado de Santa Cruz, Isla Isabela de Galápagos, 2022). In addition, on the island, there are cormorants, land iguanas, pelicans, red crabs, and finches, among others.
To be well-informed before you make your trip, we would recommend that you read our note on the Best time to travel to Galapagos. We would also suggest including Isabel Island in your Galapagos travel itinerary. This island ideally combines adventure tourism and natural landscapes, a destination you should take advantage of on your visit to the enchanted islands.
Now that you know what to do on Isabela Island, write to us, and we will provide you with advice and continuous support during your trip to this unique destination in Ecuador. For more information, check out this unique selection of the best Galapagos tours from our partner Viator (Tripadvisor).