Isabela Island, June 15-18 2009

Isabela is the quietest of the three main inhabited Galapagos Islands, with about 2500 people concentrated in one area and the rest of the island protected. Tourism to Isabela was essentially nonexistent until a volcanic eruption in 2005 drew a trickle of visitors; after the eruption subsided, the visitors continued. We like quieter, wilder places, so we decided to spend the longest time on Isabela of the three islands we're visiting. We intended to visit Isabela last, but even in September the few hotel rooms on the island were fully booked starting the fourth week of June.

The most popular day-trip on Isabela is a visit to the dramatic summit of Sierra Negra, one of several large shield volcanoes that make up the island. After driving partway up, many people continue on horseback, but we'd heard that walking with a guide was also possible. As frequently happens in out of the way places, especially when one barely speaks the language, information was sketchy. We expected a 3-hour hike to reach the rim of the enormous crater (photo 1) -- imagine our surprise when we got there in 15 minutes! On the other hand, it took a couple of hours to walk around the rim to a spot where we could descend the volcano to an area that's still active (photo 2). With a diameter of ten kilometers, the Sierra Negra crater is reputed to be one of the world's largest, second only to the vast Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. If all goes as planned, we'll check that one out for comparison next summer.

Another major day-trip was a boat ride (of the uncomfortable-terrifying type -- this one even included surfing the boat between large breaking waves to reach our destination) to an area known as "The Tunnels." It's a strange and beautiful landscape of cactus-covered collapsed lava tube islands and arches set among ocean lagoons. (Photo 3 fails to do it justice.) Snorkeling in the area was excellent, with numerous turtles, sharks, rays and sea lions (photos 4-7), occasionally all at the same time. We did some snorkeling elsewhere on Isabela as well. There's something a bit incongruous (and quintessentially Galapagos) about snorkeling among tropical fish on the equator in the company of penguins (photo 8).

Other activities on Isabela included:
  • Animal watching and photographing -- photos 9 & 10
  • Ditto with birds -- but there are too many photos in this travelog already; we'll include some bird photos next time
  • A giant tortoise breeding center -- very successful, judging by the amount of "activity" we witnessed
  • A day of mountain biking
  • Even a small bit of relaxing
If there's one place we'd compare Isabela with geologically, it's the Big Island of Hawaii, and there's a slight bit of Hawaiian beach atmosphere as well. (Photo 11 shows the fabulous view from our hotel room.) But of course the biology is quite different, and that's what makes the Galapagos unique, literally. It's already become a family "thing" to comment on how everything, but everything, is endemic (found here and only here): numerous endemic bird species; endemic iguanas; endemic sea lions, turtles, and penguins; endemic grasshoppers; cactus found only on a particular volcanic slope; the list goes on and on -- truly a biologist's haven. In addition to the endemic wildlife, we enjoyed endemic slightly-soggy pizzas, endemic flaky internet, and an endemic partially deflated soccer ball for beach pick-up games.

Next: Adding insult to injury, the only time the dreaded speedboats make the run back to Santa Cruz Island is 6:00am. We'll spend four nights on Santa Cruz and three on San Cristobal before heading back to mainland Ecuador.

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