Isla Isabela: A Week in The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

The Galapagos Islands are our favorite place so far on our South American adventure. From the relaxed island vibes and cozy coastal towns, to the plethora of sea turtles, marine iguanas, and frigate birds at every turn, the Galapagos felt like the perfect place to take a break from our grungy backpacker lifestyle and have a real vacation. The whole week felt like a proper honeymoon – and at $800 each, it would have been a cheap trip by most honeymoon standards! For us, it felt like a fortune – one week in the Galapagos cost us nearly as much as a whole month in Colombia! But it was oh so worth it. Read about the first part of our week in the Galapagos here!

Isla Isabela is the largest island in The Galapagos. However, much like Hawaii, it is not the main island. There isn’t much civilization on this seahorse shaped piece of land, but there are plenty of critters, as well as awesome geological phenomena…if you’re into that. But what kind of freakin’ nerd would be? (Me…absolutely me.) While it’s by far the best island to see beautiful and unique Galapagos wildlife, it’s sorely lacking in good food and decently priced accommodations.

Arrival in Isla Isabela

We arrived at the dock in Puerto Ayora bright and early for our 7am boat. More accurately, overcast and goodgodwhyareweawakeourcoffeeshopisn’tevenopenyet. Victor, our helpful friend from L/P Andy – the boat ticket kiosk on the docks in Puerto Ayora –  met us with his unique salesman-slash-dad warmth and enthusiasm and offered us some cheap (instant) coffee while we waited in a small crowd of bleary backpackers and families for our boat. We took a water taxi (50 cents each) out to our boat, Sierra Negra, and found a seat outside of the cramped cabin, in the fresh salty air.

These benches say "Isabela was created for you." I think the sea lions think that message is directed at them, because they claimed all of them.
These benches say “Isabela was created for you.” I think the sea lions think that message is directed at them, because they claimed all of them.

We were told to take Dramamine before leaving, which was great advice. These boats go crazy fast, and due to the unique wind patterns and scattered islands, the water is hella choppy. We got knocked around, sprayed, and knocked around some more for the entire two hour journey. Two people on the back of the boat with us looked like they were going to puke, but luckily no one did. Two hours of turbulent sea travel later, we grabbed another taxi ($1 each) to the dock in Puerto Villamil, and set foot on Isla Isabela for the first time.

Compared to driving into Santa Cruz, this felt much more like arriving on a tropical island. Across the clear blue water we were greeted by shimmering white sand, swaying palm trees, basking marine iguanas,  honking pelicans, and several adorable napping sea lions. The pavement by the dock is a nice warm spot for the sea lions, so you have to literally step over them. Dizzy and still incredibly tired, we grabbed a cab (even though the main square is a ten minute walk from the pier on the main street) and asked for Caleta Iguana hostel, which we saw recommended by another blog, Two Wandering Soles.

Unfortunately, the hostel, now called Casa Rosada, changed ownership and lost a lot of the appeal we were looking forward to. And that’s being nice. Lia thinks this was the worst hostel we’ve stayed in during our travels so far. It was $20 a night per person, no included meals (which is fine, but there wasn’t even the option to purchase meals at the hostel), no use of the kitchen, weak WiFi, one decent bathroom for the whole building, a musty “private” room in which everything was slightly wet, uncomfortable bunk beds (yes, bunk beds in a private), loud ass music all night at the bar directly outside of our window, and the only desk employee we saw was gone half the time and locked the main house when she left. She even asked us to watch the place one day while she went to get lunch. In exchange, we could use the kitchen while she was gone to make food…but we had already eaten so she asked us to leave instead. They were nice enough to let us store some perishables in the fridge, but they had to be the ones to take it out and put it back. The best thing about the hostel is it’s right on the beach (but tbh half of the town is on the beach so that’s not a huge draw) and it is crawling with marine iguanas. Literally – there are crowds of marine iguanas outside on the deck and porch! We found this adorable, but we love critters. There’s even a GIANT daddy iguana on the deck everyday, flomped out while the little ones play around. But since you can just walk to the hotel and visit the beach yourself for free, we don’t think the hostel is worth it just for the beach access. It’s the cheapest on the island, but if you can afford to stay elsewhere, do.

This was the resident giant marine iguana. Don't worry, I squatted down a few feet from him.
This was the resident giant marine iguana. Don’t worry, I squatted down a few feet from him.

The hostel wasn’t ALL bad, though: one nice thing that they did for us was to book some tours on our behalf. Booking tours can be kind of overwhelming with the amount of options there are. What I’ve learned while being in South America is most tours are booked through multiple agencies or outlets, but there are a smaller number of actual guides. What this means is it doesn’t matter a whole great deal who you book through, because you’ll likely join forces with another agency. Some agencies take a bigger profit, hence the price differences, but this is usually a max of $5 (at least I’ve found). Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and the hostel will book for you. I’ve heard from other blogs that the hostel takes a cut sometimes, so it’s best to look into prices too. Casa Rosada didn’t take a cut, which was awesome, and they called  around until they found some last minute openings for us. We signed up for Las Tintoreras that afternoon and Los Tuneles the next day.

With a few hours to kill before our afternoon tour, we stopped by the best rated coffee place according to Google, The Booby Trap, which was across the street from our hostel. The name is pretty accurate, since this place seriously sucks. I feel bad saying that, because it’s run by the sweetest little abuela who was kind enough to chat with us while we choked down our food. We wanted to like it, but the fish soup tasted canned (like, canned broth and canned fish … dumped together and warmed up), the coffee was overpriced instant, and our brownie (because I’m 8 years old, shut up) was stale. The worst part was the price: $16! Our advice? Steer clear. 

 

Las Tintoreras Tour

We were told by our (now missing) host that the tour would arrive at 11:14, which is an oddly specific time. So naturally, when the bus arrived at 11:00 and was rushing us out while we were still packing, we were a little annoyed. The bus took us to an agency office where we were fitted with short wetsuits, then we were on our way to the pier. We took a small water taxi the entirety of the tour, because we weren’t covering much water. Our group consisted of: four older Americans who had just gone to Machu Picchu and the Olympic Games, a couple that pretty much kept to themselves, a solo photographer, a couple obsessed with getting GoPro footage of everything with a “fuck your shot, mine is more important” attitude, and a different GoPro couple who were the downright worst (more on why in a bit).

Las Tintoreras is a small group of rocky islands off the coast of Puerto Villamil. It’s a protected reserve, so you have to be with a tour, but it offers a lot of fun things to see. Once everyone got their flippers on, the group followed our guide around the small perimeter. It took me awhile to get in though, since the solo photographer had no idea what the hell to make of the flippers. He took a solid five minutes trying to slip them on, size them, and wade into the water. Everyone told him it’s easiest to just scoot yourself off the rock on your belly, that way you’re in the right position immediately. Instead, he tried walking (terrible idea), squatting (wut), and subsequently falling and flailing (called it) into the water. I caught up soon and within minutes, we were treated to all sorts of sea life. We saw starfish, eagle rays, sting rays, sea turtles, and more fish than we could shake a stick (or camera) at.

colorful starfish in los tintoreras in isla isabela galapagos
We saw a couple of these crazy looking starfish on the Los Tintoreras tour.

At one point the tour got awkward because the dude I said was the worst decided to dive down to a sleeping turtle’s face and take a picture of it with his GoPro accessory spotlight on. If you only want to take one piece of Galapagos advice to heart, it’s this: don’t be a fucking dick to the animals. This place is so sacred and beautiful because people realized that nature here is so much better than humans deserve, so they treat it that way. People ruin everything, but by obeying five (FIVE REALLY FUCKING EASY) rules, we can avoid ruining the Galapagos. First, do not litter. Easy enough. Second, do not venture to places where signs say not to. I don’t care about your sunset shots, there’s erosion and turtle nests. Third, do not feed the animals. It makes them dependent on humans because they realize they don’t have to hunt. Fourth, do not go within two meters of an animal if you can help it. This sign is posted all over the place. I know sometimes it’s hard to follow. Sometimes a bird lands on you. Sometimes you have to step over sea lions. Sometimes animals approach you. It’s a rule of thumb in a lot of cases, but be mindful of your distance. Lastly, NEVER USE A FUCKING FLASH ON AN ANIMAL. EVER. NOT JUST IN THE GALAPAGOS. FUCKING ANYWHERE EVER. It scares them, and make them erratic. It could damage their eyes, which are often more refined and sensitive than a human eye. If there are two many flashes, it could find the area you’re at dangerous, which could lead to a migration issue. Your photography is not that important. Know your place as a guest in the animal’s territory and stop being a fucking asshole.

So back to the snorkeling asshole. He had a special steadicam rig for his GoPro, equipped with dual spotlights to create a high-key lighting system on his subject. I have no idea how much it cost, but my guess is a too fucking much. Let me take this time to remind you that his subject was a sleeping sea turtle in well lit blue as fuck ocean in sunny Galapagos. The turtle awoke and got an eyeful of super bright flash, of course, and our tour guide was pisssssed.  She yelled at him, explaining why you never use flash 3 inches from an animal’s face, but he tried to claim that he didn’t use a flash – because the light didn’t go on and then off again, okay asshole –  and therefore didn’t break the rules. No, chief, you used two spotlights like you were on a drug bust. He then switched gears and said he was trying to take pictures to remember the trip, but turned the stupid spotlight off. With an eye roll and a whispered Spanish expletive, the tour guide continued on.

The snorkeling was too short, in my opinion. We were in too big of a group and everyone was fighting for a view of the animals. Our future tours would realize “Oh we can all just make a circle around the turtle on the surface and take turns diving down and be fine,” but this tour was all about playing Battle of the GoPros, thus ruining everyone else’s picture too. After about an hour of snorkeling we had a cookie (yus!) and headed to a nature hike on one of the islands. We got a(nother) science lesson on Marine Iguanas, saw a cove FILLED with white tip sharks, and saw the cutest baby sea lion trying to cross the island on land. Spanish Steve Steadicam thought this would be the right moment to get his camera RIGHT up in the baby’s face. You know that part in Beyonce’s “Partition” video, where the paparazzi is right up on the window and Bey is looking hella annoyed? That was this guy and the tiny baby sea lion.

The tour guide, fully done with his shit, added a little detail to the two meter rule. Another reason for the rule is because if you touch an animal, even on accident, the oil on your hands can transfer to them. This alters their scent, and animals survive on scents. In the case of the baby – she points to Steve Steadicam –  if someone were to touch it, its scent would change and its mom wouldn’t recognize it. By simply touching a baby sea lion, you could make it an orphan who will surely die soon. How heartbreaking is that?! Apparently not very, because that dude DID NOT care and didn’t get the hint. I hope everyone on his Facebook page fully appreciates the ½ inch of not giving a shit between his camera and the baby sea lion.

He actually got even closer after we snapped this picture...
He actually got even closer after we snapped this picture…

When we got back, we were famished. Shitty canned fish soup and the free Turbo Cookie (love them) from the tour did not last. After a quick TripAdvisor search, we learned what our eyes and instincts had already told us: all of the restaurants on the island are on the same block, and they all serve pretty much the same thing. We settled for Encanto de la Pepa, because they had a set dinner (you pick the entree) for $7. It was actually pretty decent – a lot better than canned fish soup, that’s for sure. It came with the usual fixed price stuff: soup, juice, rice, salad, plantain, dessert. Plus you could choose from a bunch of proteins that changed daily. Even though the dinner came with dessert, the dessert was jello, so screw that. We wanted some legit dessert (this is why we are barely losing weight on this trip). We hopped around the corner to El Cafetal and got tiramisu and flambeed bananas a la mode.  Expensive, but it hit the spot.

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Los Tuneles Tour

After an expensive and not exciting breakfast at Encanto de la Pepa the next morning, we hung around lazily at the hostel until our hostess left us locked out and we waited for our tour, which was an hour late. When it finally did show up, we found out we would again be on a tour with the competitive GoPro couple (the less bad, but still pretty annoying one). After the usual wetsuit hustle (“No, yo soy XL…esta es XXXL.” “Si, claro, XL.” “Un X. No tres.”), we were outfitted and on our way. We had about ten people in tow: us, that couple, a solo ~travel girl~ that the crew LOVED, two friends from Japan, an ominously quiet solo guy, and two adorable old lady friends traveling together. Our guide, Gabriel, was awesome. The company we went through is called Pahoehoe Tours, and they were really nice. Fatima, the manager, was all business and seemingly rushed you out, but I realized it was all for efficiency. They weren’t above letting you hang out in the building and enjoy some complementary coffee if you wanted to be more tranquilo.

Sleeping seahorse in mangrove swamp los tuneles isla isabela galapagos
Photo cred to Gabriel for this one. These guys were so hard to see because they blend right in to the mangroves.

I can’t talk up Los Tuneles enough. This was hands down the best part of the Galapagos. We saw all sorts of wildlife, and at $90 p/p, it was the best bang for our buck as far as tours are concerned. The trek starts with a 45 minute boat ride, that is interrupted by a quick stop at a rock. The rock is home to Galapagos penguins, one of four species of penguins to live in the tropics. Aside from the penguins, this rock also has awesome wave patterns bouncing off of it. We continued onward to our first real destination: the snorkeling area.

a nest of white tipped reef sharks sleeping in los tuneles isla isabela galapagos
Literally a shark nest. These guys are friendly but nine sharks asleep under you is pretty terrifying.

This was the longest we went snorkeling on a tour the entire week. All told, we were in the water for two whole hours! Since, there is just so much to report, I’ll hit you with the highlights. The area we were swimming in is a collection of four or five rings of rocky islands. In this area, we saw more water critters then we did anywhere else. In addition to the usual boatload of fish and rays, we saw roughly ten giant sea turtles! No one pissed them off this time, so I was lucky enough to swim in between two of them, side by side. They’re so chill and used to humans. We also saw two (one might have been dead tbh) sea horses. They’re tricky to spot because they wrap their tails on the mangrove roots and tend to be a similar color. Mangroves bring a lot of sea life, so the dirt on the ocean floor gets kicked up easily. There were also plenty of white tip sharks! These are harmless to humans, and thank god because we swam into a shark nest where NINE of these guys were asleep. YIKES! One of the coolest experiences came as we were following a turtle. We looked below and freaked out as we saw THOUSANDS of small black fish darting together. Our guide said he’s never seen a school that big there. When your tour guide is getting giddy, you know you stumbled on a good find.

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huge school of fish in los tuneles isla isabela galapagos
This was a pretty awesome sight to see. This was just a small portion of the giant school.

Back in the boat, we all had a lot to talk about over our lunch (chicken with rice) before we headed to the titular stop on the tour. Los Tuneles is a geological miracle. Isla Isabela has a few major volcanoes all on the one island. These volcanoes way back when erupted, sending lava into the ocean. As the lava cooled over water, water got trapped underneath, forming a tunnel that gets closed off to the world. Over the centuries tectonic shifts occur, which shatter these tunnels. What remains is a series of natural rock bridges bursting with wildlife. As we traversed carefully via boat through these land masses, we were able to spot penguins, blue herons, more turtles, cacti, and finally…the animal I have been waiting years to see…BLUE FOOTED BOOBIES! These are the derpiest, most adorable birds ever. We were able to see a few males and one female hanging out with some baby boobies no older than two months! We tied the boat up and climbed to our new bird friends.

Gabriel told us the reason for their trademark blue feet is their diet is pretty much exclusively silver fish. The older the bird, the bluer the feet, so you can tell age relatively easy. You can identify gender by the noises they make and the size of the pupils. Males have small pupils. I got a kick out of a dad bird and his daughter. She kept bugging him for food, but there wasn’t any. Fed up with her poking, he decided to show her how little food he has to give. Luckily for you, we got it on video…

Conche de Perla

Our last morning on the island was bittersweet. I didn’t expect to like Isabela at first glance, but it grew on me. We had until 2PM until our ferry back to Santa Cruz, so after breakfast Lia and I rented wetsuits and snorkels from Pahoehoe and headed to the dock. We had heard Conche de Perla had good snorkeling, but we didn’t exactly know where it was. All we knew was it was around the dock. So we went to the dock and walked into the ocean. True to form, we spent an hour in the wrong spot. We didn’t see shit, except this one stalker pelican we named Alfredo who was following us around and eating sticks. What kind of vegetarian ass pelican eats sticks? Like, I researched it, and there is no reason for him to be chewing and swallowing sticks. Something was terribly wrong with Alfredo. I miss that little idiot.

pelican swimming with snorkelers in isla isabela galapagos
Alfredo the Pelican derping around next to us.

We had nearly given up on snorkeling for the day when we noticed a sign for Conche de Perla about 50 meters from the shore. Well, shit. We walked along the boardwalk, stepping over sea lions and marine iguanas along the way, and reached a peaceful little alcove between breakers and mangrove trees. The actual Conche de Perla was amazing. Honestly, it’s a great alternative to Los Tentoreras if you want to save money. It’s directly next to it, you can do it on your own, and we actually saw more wildlife there. We floated around for an hour and saw two turtles, an eagle ray, a bunch of coral (which I realized at the time I had never seen before), several large puffer fish, a SWIMMING marine iguana (another first), and a HUGE manta ray. The manta ray scared the shit out of us. There we were, following a turtle, when all of a sudden this mass of black maybe six feet wide swam right up behind us. This thing looked like death could swim. It glided with great speed and grace across the ocean floor and terrified us every second we could see it. I honestly felt like it was going to get annoyed by us, turn around, swallow us whole, and all of existence would implode like a black hole. After an incredible hour of snorkeling, we dragged ourselves from the water and sadly made our way back from Isabela to Santa Cruz.

giant manta ray off of Isla Isabela in the galapagos
This giant motherfucker snuck up on us. You can see some fish on the bottom of this picture to help with scale. Pun intended.

Santa Cruz Island: Back to Puerto Ayora

After another bumpy, turbulent 2-hour boat ride, Victor met us on the boardwalk at Puerto Ayora. It was nice to see a familiar face. He did, however, have some bad news: the San Cristobal day tour  to Kicker Rock we booked with him was a no-go. The tour guides were in San Cristobal, so there was no way we could pull it off without staying the night in San Cristobal, which was impossible because our flight time. Instead, he offered to change our tour to Sante Fe, which was cheaper anyway. He also gave us a great recommendation for a hostel: Galapagos Native. He said it was $40 total for a private, and to say he sent us there. (We wanted to stay at Carlos’s place again, but the savings and proximity to our early morning tour was pretty solid.)

When we got to Galapagos Native, it was pretty clear that $40 wasn’t the price. Call it my natural ability to read people (or my natural ability to read well displayed room rate signs), but when we said “Victor said it’s 40 a night here,” the receptionist wasn’t giving much agreement. Instead, he gave a slight smile, shrug, and a “Sure. We can do that.” The room was REALLY nice. GN is one of the few hostels in the Galapagos that are on Hostelworld, so they seem to care about keeping their image up. We went back to Sol y Mar on the Avenue of Kiosks for dinner, because it’s so goddamn good. After a few days of canned fish soup and overpriced tiramisu, it felt great to be able to order a whole fresh fish for $10 again.

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Santa Fe Island Tour

On our last full day in the Galapagos, we had one final all-day tour we could do. Instead of Kicker Rock, where you can swim with sea lions and hammerhead sharks, it ended up being Santa Fe. Let me preface this section with my overall opinion of the Sante Fe tour: meh. It’s not bad. In fact, if it was my first tour, I’d probably think it was great. But at the tail end of a critter filled week of adventure, it felt anticlimactic. I think we would have preferred Kicker Rock.

To start, there are a BUNCH of Santa Fe tours. All of the boats say they leave at 8, but they kind of leave in waves. Due to lack of instruction or help, we weren’t even with our tour group until 8:30, and we weren’t on the boat until nearly 9. This group was all people our age or younger, backpackers and a couple of lucky souls who had gotten English teaching gigs on the island for the past few months. Our guide was actually the student of one of them!

The tour starts with a brief boat ride to an uninhabited part of Santa Cruz. Here, we got off the boat with nothing in our hands (we were told we didn’t need anything), and our wetsuits on. Our guide talked to us about marine iguanas, which were plentiful, and sea turtles, which were absent. We took a treacherous footpath – barefoot, over pointy black lava rock – to Playa Principal, a beautiful small shoreline. Cool. A beach, and we had nothing to make this beach fun. Back to the boat right? Nope. The guide told us we had an hour or an hour and a half to kill before we could go to Sante Fe. No problem. We had snorkeling equipment. But the guide said there isn’t anything in the water. So we just sat around…for over an hour. Lia managed to entertain herself by making a baller sandcastle. There were multiple moats, and an entire section made out of oh my god Lia stop  telling me what to write nobody wants to read about your sandcastle. (Lia says: it was an incredibly badass sandcastle ok)

building a sandcastle on Santa Cruz in the Galapagos
Lia building her masterpiece. She’s actually forming the community sculpture garden, because her people are professional artisans who make pottery.

Once we were up and moving and I had managed to drag Lia away from her architectural masterpiece, Santa Fe took us about an hour to get to. Our guide gave us strict instructions: once in the water, swim like hell towards shore – there’s an incredibly strong current. He wasn’t kidding: the current was vicious. This is not the easy swimming we’d been doing all week long. Thankfully, the water is fucking freezing, so swimming for your life was a nice way to warm up. I wish I could say there were memorable sights, but aside from a baby sea lion on the land, all we saw were fish. I mean, some of them were pretty big, and a lot of them were pretty. But we’d seen all of them all week long already, so it was a little anti-climactic. After 45 minutes struggling in the freezing cold water against the strong current, we returned to the boat.

baby sea lion swimming with snorkeler in the Galapagos
I love this because it looks like he’s telling Lia to come play with him.

Our next stop: a sea lion cove. This part was by far my favorite, because this is where you’re able to swim with sea lions! I’m obsessed with sea lions – I grew up with them in my coastal hometown of Morro Bay, California. But I’ve never swam with them.  It was amazing to see how graceful they are in the water! Especially considering how goofy they are on land. There was this one baby in particular who kept swimming with me. It was so cute.  Our guides let us swim for a while, then we all took a break for a fresh fish lunch. After lunch, we had the option of swimming again, which nobody took advantage of. Then, weirdly, the boat spent about half an hour trying to catch fish, slowly gliding up and down outside of where we were swimming with lines out. I guess that’s where our fresh fish lunch came from. Anyway, after a full day of touring, we returned to Puerto Ayora in the setting sun. For our very last Galapagos dinner, we of course returned to the Avenue of Kiosks and each ordered a whole fried fish from The Blue Footed Booby Restaurant. It was amazing.

Goodbye, Galapagos!

The next morning, we dragged our feet getting out of bed. I mean, that’s normal for us, but this time it was because we were sad to leave.  We grabbed a $1 pickup truck taxi to the bus terminal, paid the $2 bus fare, took the five minute ferry, rode the free airport bus, and walked into the airport.  As we sat sadly gazing out the window in the airport waiting to be allowed to go through security (that’s how small the airport is, there are only 2 gates), some Darwin finches twittered overhead, soaring in and out of the open air windows. They were the last Galapagos critters we would say goodbye to. Our amazing week had come to an end.

Every time we leave a place, we do so with some sadness, but also excitement for what lies ahead. It was different this time. There was no “Time for a new adventure!” attitude. We were just sad. The Galapagos was (and still is) the best part of our journey. There is something so magical and surreal about this tropical paradise in the middle of an endless sea off the coast of a country a lot of people give little thought to. It is a group of islands many people say “one day, maybe” to. It is sacred and awe-inspiring. Every day we were there was full of wonder, laughter, smiles, and sunshine. It might be expensive and difficult to pull off, but to say it was worth it would be a gross understatement.

We love you, Galapagos. I promise we’ll be back soon.

sea turtle off of Los Tuneles on Isla Isabela in the Galapagos
This turtle was swimming alongside the school of fish. I never got sick of swimming with these guys. They’re so chill and sleek.

 

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A Week in the Galapagos Islands by land! Read our write up in 2 parts. Part 2 is all about Isla Isabela and the Santa Fe island tour.

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  1. […] details, read about our week in the Galapagos here: Part 1: Santa Cruz Island and Puerto Ayora and Part 2: Isla Isabela and Santa Fe. We’ve also included tips for the tours we did to help ensure that you have as amazing of an […]

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