Travel Guide to Isabela, Galapagos Islands
Isabela is by far the largest and one of the youngest of the Galapagos Islands at around one million years old. It was formed by the fusion of six volcanos, five of which are still active, including volcano Sierra Negra. The largest town is Puerto Villamil on the southern coast with a beautiful white sandy beach. It essentially consists of one long sandy road, on which you will find all restaurants, hotels, tour agencies and small supermarkets.
Isabela is less touristy than Santa Cruz or San Cristobal. It's our favorite island of the Galapagos Islands, mostly because of the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that you can see a lot of fascinating wildlife, from penguins and sea turtles that swim right next to you at Las Tintoreras, to playful sea lions that welcome you at the pier, to blue-footed boobies at Los Tuneles, to flightless cormorants at Punta Vicente Roca, to giant tortoises right next to the road in the Wetlands.
Many sights on this island such as Punta Vicente Roca are located on the western coast and are only accessible with a (large) cruise ship because they can only be reached after a long passage (over 200 km) from Santa Cruz. However, you can see many attractions during a land based trip as well.
Be aware of one thing. There is no ATM on Isabela (at least not for foreigners) and lots of things, meaning almost all of them, have to be paid in cash. Even if credit card payments are possible, they are very expensive as you have to pay a fee of up to 20%. Therefore, bring all the cash you need with you.
Why should you go there?
Our favorite things to do on Isabela
Snorkeling at Las Tintoreras (guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Biking the Wetlands and exploring the Wall of Tears (no guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Relaxing at the beach (no guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Hiking active volcano Sierra Negra (guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Snorkeling at Punta Vicente Roca (possible only during cruise)
Snorkeling at Los Tuneles (guide necessary, possible only during land based trip)
Exploring Laguna Salina (no guide necessary, possible during cruise and land based trip)
Some places that you might want to visit but we didn't have the time to
Concha de Perla (no guide necessary, during cruise and land based trip possible)
Darwin Lake (only during cruise possible)
Tejo Bay (only during cruise possible)
Punta Albemarle (only during cruise possible)
Punta Tortuga (only during cruise possible)
Urbina Bay (only during cruise possible)
Elizabeth Bay (only during cruise possible)
A few practical tips for booking a tour
The tours are booked up quickly and we had difficulties getting a seat on some of the tours, even though we were on Isabela for five days. Therefore, we recommend that you book your tours as soon as you arrive on Isabela. However, we do not advise you to book tours online as they are much more expensive. You can also ask your hotel staff in advance if they can organize the tour for you.
Most tour operators only accept cash. Some operators accept credit cards as well, but only with a huge additional fee of up to 20%. Therefore, make sure you bring enough cash as there are no ATMs on the island.
Let the tour operators know in advance if you have any special requests. We asked for vegan / vegetarian food that we got on all tours.
How long should you stay?
We recommend that you stay at least 3 days to explore Isabela, but even with 8 days here, you won't run out of great things to do.
How to get there?
There are two ways to visit this island. You can go on a cruise or stay at a hotel on the island. Some sights can only be visited on a cruise and some can only be visited during a land based trip. If you want to go to a particular sight, make sure you know how to get there.
Isabela is not often visited by smaller boats. Only a handful of cruise ships take the route along the shores because most of the visitor spots are on the western side of the island, which can only be reached after a long passage (over 200 km) from Santa Cruz.
If you want to stay on the island, there are two ways to get to Isabela. You can reach it by speedboat from Santa Cruz or by plane from Baltra and San Cristobal. Note that there is no direct connection between San Cristobal and Isabela by speedboat. Regardless of the way, a 10 USD national park fee must be paid in cash upon arrival on Isabela.
The speedboat runs twice a day (in the morning and in the afternoon) from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to Puerto Villamil, Isabela and costs 30 USD each way. There are also water taxis in Puerto Ayora (0.5 USD) and Puerto Villamil (1 USD), which take you from the pier to the speedboat and back on land.
The speedboats leave from
Santa Cruz to Isabela at 7am and 2pm
Isabela to Santa Cruz at 6am and 3pm
It is recommended to buy the tickets one day in advance. Also, note the name of your boat, as all boats leave at approximately the same time and you have to find yours. Tickets can be bought at the main pier or you ask your hotel staff if they can organize the tickets for you.
You start at the main pier in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, where your luggage will be checked (again) and you will arrive at the pier in Puerto Villamil, Isabela. From there you can either walk to your hotel (probably 10 to 15 minutes) or take a taxi. The journey takes two to three hours and the sea can be rough. If you are sensitive, take some Dramamine with you and make sure you have a seat in the shade.
Two operators, Emetebe and Fly Galápagos, connect Isabela with Baltra and San Cristobal and offer daily flights. You will arrive at a very small airport on Isabela, which is a sight in itself. From there you can take a taxi to the city in 15 minutes. Booking is a bit complicated and the price is more expensive. However, the view is incredible and it is so much more comfortable.
Where to eat?
I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurants on Isabela as I expected it would be much more difficult to find vegan food on the island. But you can definitely find good vegan food in a variety of restaurants.
These are our favorites
Booby Trap: They offer delicious (vegan) food, great cocktails and an incredible view of the beach. Take advantage of happy hour. You get two cocktails for one and can enjoy the view of the sunset in the meantime. Service is friendly but a bit slow, but the food is worth the wait. We went there almost every evening.
Shawarma Hot: They offer great oriental (vegan) food. Since the restaurant is located close to the bike rental shop we had lunch there before we went to the Wetlands.
Coco Surf: First of all, I have to say that we didn't actually go there. We reserved a table one evening, but when we got there, there was no table available which the waitress told us in a rude manner. Still, I wanted to mention the restaurant because friends had dinner there and said the food was really good and they offer vegan options.
Where to stay?
We stayed at Casa Baronesa, which we highly recommend. It's a little more expensive than the average hotel on Isabela, but definitely worth it. It was the best place we stayed at on the Galapagos Islands. It is more of an apartment than a hotel. There is a huge kitchen and living room that we had all to ourselves because there were no other guests at the time. The best thing is that it is right on the beach and the view is just amazing. Breakfast was not included, but the kitchen was well stocked and there is a supermarket in Puerto Villamil that sells the essentials and even offers plant based milk.