After the rather austere start to our visit – seemingly many officials checking us and our luggage after disembarking – I thought I had arrived on paradise island. Our hotel, Sol Isabela, was right on the beach. My ground floor room, decorated with a huge brightly coloured painting of a fish, opened directly onto the fine, pale yellow sand. Less than a hundred metres away the Pacific Ocean waves crashed down. Directly outside my room a hammock was slung between coconut palms. The sky was turning different hues of yellow and red in the setting Sun, reflected on the water.
Our base on Isabela was Puerto Villamil, where most of the approxiamtely 3,000 isalnd population live. The low, frequently unfinished, buildings extend from the beach to the larva fields.
This town is so much quieter, more laid back and like a step back in time when compared with Puerto Ayora. There are few vehicles, the main form of transport for the inhabitants being by foot, bicycle and scooter. The sandy roads are wide bordered by high pavements. There are few obvious shops but many places to eat. Large satellite dishes are evident and there is a couple of Internet cafes but little or no connection at our hotels. Children are able to wander around and play on the beach unaccompanied with no fear for their safety. However they are subjected to some stress – we were introduced to a class of 6-7 year-old pupils clutching pencils in a small primary school who were taking an official state exam. Football, volleyball and surfing seem to be the main outdoor sports.
Nick has described our walk up the slopes of the volcano. My particular memories, besides the heat and the red dust, include standing on the rim of the crater and shouting out my name to have it thrown back at me from the other side. Whilst eating my lunch under a large soapberry tree, I was accompanied by a yellow warbler (we saw these birds everywhere, hitching a ride on a tortoise, at Guayaquil Airport and on the beach) as I chatted to Julio, our guide, about life on the island for young people. (It is usual for the women to have started families by the age of 20 and have 3 or 4 children by 30.) Julio was born in the Amazon jungle and visits his father, who still lives there, once a year. Such a different life from my own.
The flamingoes in the brackish lagoons on the outskirts of the town provided splashes of colour against the grey-white dried beds. Julio told us that the pinkness of the birds varies during the year. Interestingly since we have returned some research has been published about female flamingos ‘putting on make-up’ to attract suitable males.
We visited the tortoise-breeding centre where it would seem that the future of giant tortoises is in good hands – there were certainly very many animals of differing ages and examples of the different (sub-)species found on Isabela, identifiable by the shape of their shells. We were shown a month-old tortoise, so tiny in comparison with the unusual flat saddle-backed specimen.
At the end of a wooden boardwalk through a mass of aerial roots of mangroves I found a young sea lion playing, hauling itself out of the water on to a platform and then slipping off again. This was a truly peaceful spot (called Concha de Perla) where I was able to sit and share some minutes with this animal and a small flock of finches. In the near distance an adult sea lion was catching and playing with fish and a frigate bird was flying back and forth. ‘At one with nature’.
Nick’s great video saves me describing what we saw whilst snorkelling off Las Tintoreras, a lava rocky reef a few minutes boat ride from Isabela. I don’t believe I have seen so many different species of animals in their natural habitat in the space of 20 minutes – and in addition to the crabs, iguanas, larva lizards and sea lions, there was a lone Galapagos penguin, a preening blue-footed booby and a channel packed with white tipped reef sharks!
There were a couple of interesting ‘dead finds’ on the sand.
Thanks to Julio, we had a most interesting stay – a unique experience.