After spending one week in the anchorage on San Cristobal the crew of Sea Rover pulled up the anchor and had a pleasant sail to Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela. Isla Isabela is the furthermost island to the west in the Galapagos (San Cristobal being the furthest island to the east). We had originally planned on visiting it last before heading off to Easter Island, however, the ‘clear out’ process for the Galapagos recently changed. It used to
We had a beautiful afternoon/night sail to cover the 80 nm from San Cristobal to Isabela and actually had to slow the boat down to prevent us from arriving at 3 am. As it turned out, the wind died at 3 am and so we had a slow drift with the current (2 knots west!) until sunrise. We anchored in the reasonably protected anchorage just off the town of Puerto Villamil at 8 am. The Armada and Port Captain were on board 30 minutes later to check out our paperwork (yes, official paperwork is required to travel between the islands for sailboats). Despite the language barrier, Bolivar (or ‘Don Bolo’ as he is known to almost everyone in the islands), our acting agent on San Cristobal had all our paperwork in order and the check in went smoothly. We were all asleep 30 minutes later.
After long naps, we all jumped in the water for a wonderfully reviving swim. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the water temperature was up to 25oC, compared to a chilly 20-22oC on San Cristobal. And it was much sunnier and warmer than it had been on San Cristobal. Ah, tropical paradise at last!
As Puerto Villamil is the only town in the Galapagos that allows you to access the shore using your own boat (versus one of the water taxis), we lowered the dinghy and headed for the dock. The anchorage in Puerto Villamil is surrounded by a rocky reef system called the Tintoreas. We were anchored in the sandy part of the reef system, but had to dodge numerous rocky outcroppings in the dinghy on the way to the dock. Luckily the bright sunshine and clear, baby blue waters make it easy to see these ‘boomers’. We were escorted into the dock by several manta rays, sea lions, and several baby white reef tip sharks. We knew we were going to like this place.
The town itself is 800 meters from the dock. A pleasant walk on a welcoming road led us into the downtown core, if you can call it that. The population of Puerto Villamil is about 2000, and it makes Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal (with all of 8000 people) seem like a huge metropolis. To say the town is sleepy is an understatement. But it is wonderful! The streets are filled with lovely fine, soft sand, there are palm trees along the surf beach, and the people are friendly and welcoming. The whole place has a ‘resort’ feel and there are definitely more tourists compared to San Cristobal (or maybe just the tourist-to-local ratio is greater). We all instantly fell in love with it. Definitely a place worth visiting for anyone going to the Galapagos.
The next few days were spent exploring the town and visiting with our Leg 1 crew. Our first stop on the wildlife tour was a visit to the lagoons just outside of town where a special Galapagos species of pink flamingos hang out. It was amazing watching them use their beaks to siphon mud from the bottom and strain the food out of it.
The next stop was snorkelling in one of the salt water lagoons just off the anchorage. As all activities in the Galapagos require a guide, there are only a few places you can visit unaccompanied. This lagoon, called Concha y Perla, is one of them. To get to it you have to walk along a boardwalk constructed amongst the mangroves. Inevitably you end up having to step over marine iguanas and sea lions blocking the path (trust me, they don’t move). The snorkel spot itself is quite nice. It isn’t the best snorkelling we’ve ever done, but each time we’ve gone there (3 times so far) we’ve seen some pretty cool stuff, including sting rays, an eagle ray, a sea turtle, and chocolate chip sea stars. And big parrot fish (Bill, we thought of you).
One of the reasons I wanted to go to Isla Isabela was that it is one of the only islands in the archipelago where you can see the Galapagos Penguin. This is the only tropical penguin in the world, and definitely the only we’ll be able to watch from our boat while wearing a bikini! I wasn’t sure we were going to see any as from reading our guide book it seemed that most of the colonies are found on the west coast of the island where we, as a sailboat, are not allowed to go. Needless to say I was overjoyed to look out from the cockpit on day 2 to see a penguin swimming by the boat! It turns out there are a couple of small colonies in the reef area where we are anchored. We’ve seen them many times now fishing around the boat in the morning and evening. They make a wonderful honking noise which always alerts us to their presence, and they usually put on a show streaking through the water and leaping out like a dolphin while they charge after their dinner.
Other highlights of our time here so far have been snorkelling at the Tuneles, about a 30 minute boat ride west of town. We swam with too many turtles to count, and at least a dozen white tipped reef sharks. We even saw a pair of sea turtles mating!
|Tanya, Nadine, Gary and I at the Lava Tunels|
Unfortunately the sea horses eluded us that day, but a visit through the water tunnels formed through the lava fields made us forget our disappointment. What a wonderful place.
|Cerro Sierra Negra Volcano Crater|
We did the ‘must do’ 16 km round trip hike around the Sierra Negra volcano crater (which is 10km across!) and down into the smaller Cerro Chico volcano. It was really interesting to see all the different lava flows. Picture taking was a bit of a challenge as the one family on the tour kept ‘photo-bombing’ my pictures, but really, the pictures don’t capture the true magic of the area anyway.
We also visited the tortoise hatchery. They have an active breeding program to re-populate the 5 different kinds of tortoises on the island. The hatchery is a branch of the Charles Darwin Research Centre and opened in 1994. They have saved most of the tortoise species from going extinct. They actually rescued 8 tortoises (4 males and 4 females) from the slopes of the Sierra Negra volcano when it erupted in 1998 and had to start from scratch to keep the species going. Perhaps not the most genetically diverse way to do it, but better than the alternative. It turns out that for the last 25 years all the tortoises born on the island have come from the hatchery.
Park staff actually follow the wild tortoises and dig up any nests they find and move the eggs to the hatchery to allow them to incubate. Apparently feral dogs, cats, rats and goats have taken a toll on the birth rate in the past and so this is their way of guaranteeing a continuation of the species. The baby tortoises live at the centre until they are 5 or 6 and are then released into the wild. At this point their shells are deemed strong enough to survive their predators. It was an interesting place to visit and gave us a good appreciation for the differences between some of the different tortoises (ie, different shaped shells).
While seeing all the tortoises in the hatchery was very cool, the biggest highlight of our visit was seeing them out in the wild. Nadine, Gary and I rented bikes one afternoon (mine was a dud – apparently I’m not allowed to choose bicycles anymore…) and rode a trail up to the old prison. Along the way you travel along the “Caminas de las Tortugas” or the “turtle road”. We actually saw 10 of them along the way! About half were right on the road, but the rest were in the bushes eating cactus etc. Most were quite old – based on the size we estimated they were about 50 years old.
We’ve now been on Isla Isabela for almost 2 weeks and have done all the touristy things there are to do. Our Leg 1 crew (Tanya, Denis and Rosario) have all returned to their lives and it is now just Gary, Nadine and I. In between enjoying the island we’ve taken advantage of the calm anchorage here to complete a very long list of boat jobs. Although we could easily stay here forever, our 30 days are rapidly coming to an end and it is probably time for us to move on and check out the next place. We plan to sail against the 2 knot current back to Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, the middle island in the archipelago, on Monday/Tuesday. We’ll spend a few days there checking out the ‘must see’ activities and provisioning. Then we’ll start looking for our weather window to leave this paradise.
This is a really special place and it will be difficult to leave. Where else can you see penguins, sea lions, rays, turtles and marine iguanas swimming by the boat in the span of 5 minutes? These are truly the enchanted islands.