Isabela Island

Isabela Island

The seahorse-shaped Isabela was formed was by the joining of six shield volcanoes — from north to south — Ecuador, Wolf, Darwin, Alcedo, Sierra Negra, and Cerro Azul. The island was originally named Albemarle Island for the Duke of Albemarle by Ambrose Cowley, one of the first men to ever set foot on the islands, in 1684. It is the largest of all the islands, measuring 120 km long and greater in size than all of the other islands combined. Tagus Cove on the northwestern side of the island provided a sheltered anchorage for pirates, buccaneers, whalers, and others. Darwin visited Tagus Cove in 1835 and in 1893 Antonio Gil, a well-known Guayaquileño, arrived in Galapagos and after visiting the other islands founded the town of Puerto Villamil on the southern coast and later Santa Tomás in the highlands. By 1906, Santa Tomás had a population of 200 people who depended primarily on the wild livestock ranging the slopes of Sierra Negra and on the exploitation of sulfur. By 1974 there were nearly 450 residents on Isabela. This number has increased in each official census, with the total in the 2006 census reaching 1749.

Today, the majority of Isabela residents make their living by fishing, farming, and tourism. The center of population is on the southern coast at Puerto Villamil. Unlike the other large islands, the vegetation zones on Isabela do not follow the normal pattern. There are many relatively new lava fields, as five of the original six forming volcanoes are still active, and the surrounding soils have not developed sufficient nutrients to support the varied life zones found on other islands. In addition, the high elevations of Wolf and Cerro Azul Volcanoes reach above the cloud cover, resulting in an arid zone at the top of the island. The island’s rich fauna is beyond compare. It is home to more wild tortoises than all the other islands combined, with a separate species on each volcano. On the west coast of Isabela the upwelling of the nutrient-rich Cromwell Current creates a feeding ground for fish, whales, dolphins, and birds. These waters have long been known as the best place to see whales in the Galapagos with some 16 species including humpbacks, sperms, sei, minkes and orcas.

Isabela Island

Puerto Villamil, Genovesa’s main city, is considered on of the most beautiful cities in the Galapagos with long, white-sand palm-lined beaches and several brackish-water lagoons frequented by pink flamingoes, common stilts, whimbrels, white-cheeked pintails, and gallinules. The number of bars and restaurants has grown from only two in 1990 to 18 in 2006. However, the town still retains its relaxed attitude in contrast to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal. There are several visitor sites on Genovesa that are accessible by car, foot and dinghy.

Sierra Negra Volcano is one of the most impressive examples of a volcano in the archipelago. Its caldera measures 10 km across from north to south and 9 km from east to west, and is considered to be the second largest caldera in the world. Visits to Sierra Negra require a 45-minute drive from Villamil followed by several hours of walking or horseback riding.

From Puerto Villamil the are four visitor sites that are easily accessible — Villamil Lagoons, Tortoise Center, Wall of Tears, and Tintoreras. The first three are reached by foot while a panga ride is required to reach Tintoreras. An interpretive trail runs from town, through the Lagoons, and ends at the Tortoise Center. The beach and lagoons near Villamil are the best sites in the archipelago to view migratory birds. Black-necked stilts and flamingoes are two of the most common resident species.

Isabela Island

Moreno Point, another popular visitors site, appears to be a lifeless lava flow typical of hundreds of others in the archipelago at first glance. However, its black surface at the base of Cerro Azul is dotted with numerous lagoons containing a wide variety of wildlife. Commonly seen species include flamingoes, paint-billed crakes, white-cheeked pintails, and common gallinules. The trail branches at a couple of points to enable the visitor to explore the lava field.

While no visits are allowed on land, Elizabeth Bay and Mariela Islets are often visited by dinghy. The lagoon at Elizabeth Bay is a resting and feeding place for sea turtles. The mangroves surrounding it are principally red and black mangroves. Rays, flightless cormorants, penguins, pelicans, lava herons, and other species are often seen here. The Marielas Islets, just outside the bay, are home to many penguins who hang out on the shores and swim in the waters.

A long, loop trail leads from the beach of Urbina Bay into the arid zone of the island. This area is home to giant tortoises, land iguanas, and flightless cormorants (near the coast). The most unique feature at Urbina Bay is the result of an uplift of the island in 1954, when a 6-km stretch of coral reef was raised from the sea bed up 5 m, stranding the coral heads above sea level with the new coastline more than a km away. However, exposed to the air, the coral heads are rapidly deteriorating.

Isabela Island

Tangus cove was a favorite site of the early pirates and whalers and many of these early visitors wrote their names on the cliffs along the shore. The oldest include the Phoenix in 1836 and the Genie in 1846. The name Tagus comes from an English war ship that passed by the islands in 1814 looking for giant tortoises. A short steep hike passes Darwin Lake, a salt water lake, which sits within a tuff cone. site is an excellent place for viewing landbirds, including ground and tree finches, hawks, yellow warblers, large-billed flycatchers and even the occasional woodpecker finch. Land iguana or giant tortoise can also sometimes be observed, but are not common. A dinghy ride along the cliffs is a great way to see the geologic features of the island as well as penguins and other bird species.

For divers, Isabela boasts seven incredible site. These include: The Four Brothers, Tortuga Island, Urbina Bay, Tagus Cove, Punta Vicente Roca, Roca Redondo, and Cape Marshall. Many of these sites provide viewing of various species of sharks, sea lions, sting rays, moray eels, sea turtles, cormorants, penguins, manta rays, and many other species. Of particular interest is Roca Redondo, a small island to the north of Isabela, where many shark species can be seen, as well as gas fumeroles. Tagus Cove provides viewing of sea horses, sponges, and coral among other species other species.


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