Staying on the Galapagos Islands
Every year 100,000 tourists visit the Galapagos Islands National Park, with 70% of them staying on cruise ships, boats, or yachts. They tour the islands by day and sleep on the vessels by night. Though they see a lot, it is often a hurried itinerary, packed with activities and constant transfers from the boat, to the dingy, to the island, and back. Then it is off to the next island to do it all over again.
Perhaps one of the greatest and most overlooked experiences on the Galapagos Islands is just staying put and not racing from one island to another. Two islands are best positioned for enjoying all of the Galapagos: Isabela and Santa Cruz.
Isabela Island is home to about 3,000 habitants, who live principally in Port Villamil and neighboring Santo Tomas, at the southern tip of the Island.
Six volcanoes have given and continue to give Isabela its shape, that of a sea horse. The Sierra Negra Volcano in the southern half of the Island is just north of Port Villamil. The mouth of the volcano, is more than 11 kilometers (six miles) across, making it the second largest volcanic crater in the world (first is the Ngorogoro Volcano in Africa). An interesting day trip is to visit on horseback.
Like the other islands, Isabela is a place to see wildlife, especially the famous Galapagos tortoises. It is home to more giant tortoises than all of the other islands combined. You can see them in the wild or visit the Arnaldo Tupiza Breeding Center where species from all five islands are held in captivity.
Tagus Cove, in the Bolivar Channel that separates Isabela from neighboring Fernandina Island, contains the coolest and most productive waters, home to dolphins and as many as sixteen species of whale. Just south, Elizabeth Bay contains Las Marielas Islets, home to the largest colony of Galapagos Penguins. And the Tunnels and the Tintoreras provide the greatest snorkeling experiences around Isabela.
For a day at the beach visitors need not go anywhere; Port Villamil was built alongside some of Ecuador’s most beautiful white sand beaches. And for land lovers, Santa Cruz is more that just volcanic rock with some interesting animals. Though it is home to every life zone found in the Galapagos and home to some species of Galapagos turtles, it is also a trekker’s paradise.
Those who like hiking and exploring will be fascinated to discover the lava tunnels and caves, such as two twin craters referred to as Los Gemelos (the twins). An easy day hike through the highlands offers a chance to encounter the tortoises as they search for food or rest at a drinking hole.
For those who hit the highlands to go birding (Santa Cruz is home to almost every species of bird found in the Galapagos), they will be pleasantly surprised to find small-scale agriculture of a very tasty persuasion.
Lava Java is a small coffee plantation that offers visitors a chance to see how coffee is produced from bean to brew and a chance to taste and purchase coffee that is grown and roasted on the island. If you’re not a coffee drinker, then the Cascaja sugar cane stop offers a sweeter interlude to any highland visit in Santa Cruz. Visitors have a chance to understand the production of sugar cane products from cultivation to final products such as trapiche and panela.
If you are not in the highlands of Santa Cruz then you will find yourself along the shores, which have several bays and beaches unmatched anywhere, such as Academy Bay, Tortuga Bay, and Garrapatero Beach.
If you go:
Entrance fee to the Galapagos:
- $16 for nationals or residents with ID
- $100 for visitors
Isabela does not have a commercial airport. Daily flights take you from mainland Ecuador to Baltra Island, near Santa Cruz. Check out my piece on the airport’s new and more eco-friendly terminal on the island here. Baltra currently receives five daily flights during the week and seven on weekends, including service by LAN, which often offers great promotions (talk to travel experts here and they will tell you no other airline does that).
From Baltra, hop over to neighboring Santa Cruz Island and take a boat from Puerto Ayora to Isabela (about $30). The ride is 2 ½ hours, not including the one hour journey from Baltra (a short ferry followed by a bus or taxi ride).
Ground Transportation on Isabela
Sierra Negra, 05 252 9496
Las Tintoreras, 05 252 9140
Galapagos Sea Transport
Nena, 05 252-9146
Trans Isabela, 05 252-9112/438
Aqua Express, Phone. 05 252-9249
Darwin Explorer, Phone. 05 252-9097
Alitutu: Phone, 05 252-9053
Places to stay: Both islands have a wide selection of places to stay, from cheap hostels to luxury hotels. Also, find recommendations by other travelers.
Santa Cruz Hotels (higher-end)
Isabela Hotels (variety)