Puerto Villamil, Isabela, Galapagos

aerial view Puerto Villamil courtesy redmangrove.com

Puerto Villamil, with its 3,000 or so people, in a district roughly ten blocks deep and the equivalent of maybe twenty blocks long, is the only town on Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos. Tourism is the World Tortoise, or Atlas, supporting its economy. Restaurants, small hotels and guest houses, dive trips, boat and land tours,  a farmer’s market for seasonal produce from the few farms on the slopes of the volcano, some kind of fishing, and a good number of tourists in for the day from their excursion boats, are what make the wheels turn here. It’s a pleasant low-keyed place where we stayed a week or two in July, when the ocean currents bring cool water and mandate wetsuits for swimming, at least for me. I was going to say it was our favorite island, but let’s just call it neck and neck. Each island we visited, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal being the others, had something to recommend it, and so much depends on the people you meet.

inside Catholic church local art palm trees tortoise stained glass bluefooted booby frigatebird Puerto Villamil post office








Acoustic Ecology

Among the people we met was a group of students from the University of Miami. They were under the supervision of a sound engineer, Colby Leider, (“he’s famous!” one student told us), and a former NY Times reporter, Joseph Treaster (“he’s famous too!”), and were learning to listen and record. An expensive liberal arts education, but useful things to know, don’t you think? Mr. Treaster’s students of cross-cultural communication were writing short pieces to be published at themiamiplanet.org. Last year’s students wrote about the nail parlor, and a local surfing contest,  for example.

I learned also that there’s more to making soundscapes than just dangling one’s smartphone into the tortoise corral as I had been doing. I was hoping to share with you the measured scrape of carapace over dry ground, but I got mainly little splashes of bird song; my target tortoise outlasted my phone battery. But Dr. Leider told me to persist- there is much that has been done with smartphone technology, he said.

Turns out I’ve been deaf to the uses of sound. Sound engineering (it’s in the music department) is full of fascinating projects.  For example, what level of urgency should the various alarms in a hospital convey? Acoustic documentary: what can be learned about the state of a forest by listening to insects after a logger invasion? It’s a meaty major compared to the one I chose, political science, which, too late, revealed itself to be mainly unappetizing gristle and fat. You can read more here about Dr. Leider and his work: http://ccs.miami.edu/?p=4369.

Boats and Harbor

The small boat harbor, and the anchorage, are a fifteen-minute walk out of town, to the right in the aerial photo, from redmangrove.com’s blog, at the top of the post. For a while all entrance three buoys stood on the beach in freshly-painted splendor, but eventually, and  with great merriment, they were towed into position.
Isabela-130706-yellow red buoy croppedresized navy men riding freshpainted buoy




The approach to the anchorage is pretty straightforward, if you don’t try to go too far in, because there are some low-tide surprises. After that it’s a rather circuitous dinghy trip ashore, as the inner part of the harbor is full of  small reefs and sandbanks. You’re only seeing a small part of that here.

Isabela Anchorage excursion boats and rocks-130717-0320

The tour excursion boats in the outer anchorage have done it so often they can do it in OUR sleep. We’d wake up in the morning with a “where did that come from” moment, or several. The inter-island boats, which look like sport-fishing boats about 40 feet long, outfitted with benches and lifejackets, took some astonishing shortcuts at mid-tide. I don’t think the water in the break in this reef is much more than 4 feet deep where this fellow is  barreling through, because I had been snorkelling nearby when I saw him coming and skedaddled!   ferry taking shortcut Isabela 130714 morning Isabela excursions getting underway








Solutions to conservation issues

Among the most curious things we saw in Puerto Villamil were several cut-up fishing boats. Isabela is one of the places where there was direct, personal and heated conflict in the last decade between the Galapagos National Park people and the fishers whose activities were being monitored in the interests of conservation and sustainability. One confrontation involved the mayor of Isabela cutting down slow-growing old mangroves, then filling over them, to make a (potential) dock for the tourists to come to see the slow-growing old mangroves, their associated penguins etc.

Isabela 2-130717 cut up boat

The government and its agencies are supposed to be conserving Galapagonian resources, but often claim they have no resources of their own to devote to the cause. And of course opinions vary as to the best use of any resource, and some voices are louder than others. That’s politics! So sometimes the National Park is assisted by international government, aid, or conservation groups. For example, anyone familiar with the group Sea Shepherd will know them to be a kind of guerrilla activist marine wildlife conservation group. Apparently, one of their activities was to fund sniffer dogs on Isabela, which we saw and wondered about as they met water taxis at the dock. The dogs and their military handlers looked so incongruous in that setting. It’s a small operation, but I’d love to know what the effect of it has been. Maybe one of the Miami students could inquire….

The dogs  are supposed to detect illegally harvested wildlife items, sea cucumbers and shark fins for starters,  and prevent them from being smuggled out.  Since part of the definition of fisher is ‘boat of my own’, and rumor has it that the offending fishers camp on the far off and desolate shorelines, cutting mangrove to smoke and preserve their catch, I wonder how effective the dockside sniffer dogs are. But as usual, I don’t know a thing and would willingly stand corrected in all aspects. Who’s got the details out there?

Lawns of  lava

Outer Puerto Villamil’s landscape is so different from the lawny, leafy Maryland exurbs I’m familiar with. Here your cinderblock house would rest on a lava lawn; the cinderblocks are fabricated just a few blocks away.

lava lawn and house Isabela-130711-0187

Diego Dueño (Harry Homeowner) doesn’t have to worry about mowing, or tree trimming. He can mark the boundaries with spray paint, and doesn’t worry about drainage much either. A bright sunny day would be awfully hot in a neighborhood like this, though, and any kind of ball game hard to sustain.

Marine Iguanas

Finally, what’s a blog post about the Galapagos without some endemic animals? Here are the special Galapagos marine iguanas. They were not particular favorites of Charles Darwin’s, who described them thus:

The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2–3 ft [60–90 cm]), disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. I call them ‘imps of darkness’. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit., as quoted in Wikipedia entry Marine Iguana.

marine iguanas baskingBeing reptiles, they spend a lot of time basking in the sun, and they have some favorite places in Puerto Villamil, like on the sunny rock wall of this beach-front hostel at the western edge of Puerto Villamil. In their off hours, they sometimes go across the street (at the “iguana crossing” sign, where traffic is slowed for them by a rope hawser speed bump), to the mangroves at a nearby salt lagoon.

But mainly they go swimming in the ocean, to eat seaweed and algae off underwater rocks. They can stay submerged for 20 minutes. The early-arriving iguanas would not have survived the desolate landscape without this adaptation.

They do need to warm up afterwards, and while they’re doing so they often snort or sneeze to clear the salt out of their nostrils. It’s a disconcerting sound – I asked the park ranger if they were unwell; she assured me not. They also eat sea lion droppings.

I can’t say I find them very appealing myself, except maybe in this picture, where they look like they’re posing for a movie poster. I can’t think of a good caption for the show, but if you can, leave it in the comments!

Marine iguanas coming out of the ocean

A few more pictures will close the Isabela chapter. Thanks again to redmangrove.com for the aerial photo at the top of the page. We ourselves are still in Panama, about to move north-ish (via the southwest-ish) but the next post will probably still be of Ecuador. Thanks for stopping by!

Isabela, Galapagos, around and about

Isabela, one of the newer islands of the Galapagos group far off the coast of Ecuador, was particularly intriguing to me, perhaps because of its remoteness, volcanoes and small population. From the sailing point of view, we liked its anchorage, because there were a few islets and some sheltering reef  between us and the open ocean, which is not always the case in the anchorages yachts are allowed to visit. Not that these were always sufficient protection against swell and quirky  currents, but they did offer some psychological comfort and a perch within binocular range for wildlife viewing.

penguin and iguana on rocks at Isabela anchorage
Penguin standing on rocks, iguana above, birds temporarily absent.

Like  other Galapagos islands we visited,  Isabela has volcanoes rising from a coastal plain. In Isabela’s case, there are half a dozen volcanoes that have melded to form a seahorse-shaped island 80 miles long. Isabela’s volcanoes are young and they’re active, so there are big areas of absolutely no vegetation. Talk about empty! Yet there are farms and fincas in the heights of the volcano closest to town, Sierra Negra. There is a mellow little town, Puerto Villamil,  of maybe two or three thousand people, and tourists too, including a good number of students on ‘summer abroad’ class trips.

20130706Galapagos Isabela-017-56


It’s a great place for touring on a beach-cruiser style bicycle. We unstowed our folding Dahon ‘bicicletas’ and went as far as our little legs could pedal us, which by this sign board is about two inches along the south coast west from Puerto Villamil and its harbor about midway across. The big cone in the middle of the southern part of the island is Sierra Negra, which we visit later, Negra/black perhaps because it’s active and the lava fresh and black and plentiful. And Alcedo is right in the middle, where you’d cinch your belt. The volcanoes up top, Darwin and Wolf, are visited, if at all, by people on the tour excursion boats, not by yachts.

A couple yachts passed through on their way to the Marquesas while we were there, but Isabela is best  for R&R, not for provisioning. The food there is mostly imported, and there is very little  water, or  fuel (unless the barge is in). Unlike the whaling-ship days, no one is loading tortoises for later consumption, although there are wildlife conservation issues aplenty.

Here is the Australian schooner Windjammer, bound for Easter Island and Chile. You can read about their trip here: http://www.sailblogs.com/member/schoonerwindjammer/

Isabela-130707 schooner Windjammer


Isabela has its attractions


I’m not a surfer, or much of a beach-goer, but if I were, I could walk to a beach right in town with lots of waves, and lots of white sand, and enough reef to be interesting. It’s not always this rough.


Humedales or ‘wetlands’


In town, and along the south coast to the west are a series of, I’ll call them water features, since they seem like various iterations on the theme of lava tunnels filled with sea water, or brackish lagoons near the coast. This network has lots of interesting birds and different types of vegetation, including several mangrove forests. The trails take you in areas you’d otherwise miss, and of course there’s lots more to see and wonder about when you can get close and watch from a strategically located platform or bench.

Trio of flamingos and their reflections

flamingo coming in for a landing, wings open



I never knew that a flamingo’s wings had a different color underneath. Or that they ate by shoveling their lower beak through the mud.






Wall of Tears

Further out of town  but still within bicycle distance is a perverse monument to man’s inhumanity to man in the form of a rock wall 100 meters long and 8 meters tall, known as the Wall of Tears. There was a penal colony here from 1945-1959 and the prisoners were made to build this wall, tear it down and build it again, over and over. ‘Weak men die and strong men cry’ said the reader board. It was July, a cooler season, when we were there, baking in a bright blue noonday sun. It must have been misery, even for ‘criminals’ who maybe made other people miserable, or maybe were just poor, but the pointlessness of the task is what particularly distressed me.


The penal colony was built upon the remains of  a US radar station from WWII. Even before that the area had been overrun with introduced species, leading to this sign:Isabela-130709-0097

The pig, the donkey, the cow, cat and rat, you could shoot them all, maybe on the same day, once you gained entry to the zone! All non-native invaders, all highly disruptive to the local flora and fauna.

Tortoise hatchery

It seems each island we visited has a tortoise hatchery. The one on Isabela also served as a refuge for a subspecies rescued from a lava flow that they couldn’t move away from fast enough. Not sure about the breeding and hatching part, but keeping a corral of tortoises is as easy as building a stone wall. The movement towards more ‘natural’ habitat for enclosed animals hasn’t gone far for these tortoises, but it doesn’t have far to go either!

Isabela Galapagos tortoise in the wild

I’ve been reading recently that the intelligence of reptiles has been underrated; might be true! I keep thinking I’m seeing a spark of curiosity in the eyes of the tortoises that peer at us peering at them.  Or maybe they just think we’re bringing leaves. The difference between tortoises and turtles, by the way, is that while they are both reptiles in the family Testudines, tortoises are land-based, and turtles are water-based, with flatter, more streamlined carapaces. Swimming in the high-domed capacious carapace of a Galapagos tortoise would be like a Victorian-era woman bathing in hoop and bustle.

Here’s the first and only tortoise we saw in the wild, big as a hassock maybe, and most likely a graduate of the Isabela hatchery. I got close and s/he scrambled away, which they can’t do at the crianza.

Sierra Negra

We got on the open-sided, wooden-cabin truck-bed ‘bus’ with a trample of tourists for our excursion to view the freshly-lava-spread caldera of the Sierra Negra volcano. It’s surprising how cool and moist  the air becomes ascending 1124 meters (3700 feet), but the cool does burn off as the day wears on. Horseback-riding tours are an option, popular with folks from the Galapagos excursion boats;  I’m not sure who was more miserable, some of the panicked non-equestrian tourists, or the cranky horses. The horses have been doing it so long they’ve got parts of the trail washboarded.

Horses in fog

Isabela washboard trail made by horses

Here’s the Sierra Negra caldera we came to look at, arriving just as the clouds lifted, as promised by the guides.

Sierra Negra caldera

Way in the back you might be able to see the source of the most recent lava flow. I only pretended that I could. The straight lines that look like paths or roads in the  caldera are not, they’re just ‘formations’. It’s a big caldera, 9 km across maybe, and not very deep compared to others, but the most interesting thing about it is that almost all the vegetation growing down the sides (there’s lots more on the southern walls)  and around the top is  Guava (Psidium guajava), one of my favorite fruits. Here it’s a weed, which as we know, is just a plant growing in the wrong place, or worse, as here, a terrible invasive. Guava is displacing all the local flora and upsetting what was the natural balance. I’m so used to associating leafy and green with healthy that the idea of this almost lush spread of guavas being toxic came as a shock to me.

According to galapagospark.org: Guava, which is characterized by a high rate of germination and regeneration, spreads rapidly on the fertile plains and areas of Scalesia spp. This weed is slowly covering the plains of the Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul Volcanoes.

But once guava was kept behind the fence at the mountaintop plantation. The scalesia, one of several species being crowded out, is in the aster family, with flowers like daisies, but 12 species are shrubs, and 3 are trees, quite unusual, except in the Galapagos.

Guava orchard on the outer slopes of Sierra Negra
Before people knew how it might end, guavas were planted as orchards.


A mixed-age scalesia forest, recovering after an El Niño year, courtesy of gallery.lb.nagasaki-u.ac.jp/









Then we marched ourselves over to a smaller caldera for a closer look at more volcanic features. The bright spot is a sulphur fumarole or something like it, not sun through cloud.

I love the colors and textures of the lava
I love the colors and textures of the lava


And I like how so much of volcano vocabulary, like the types of lava, pahoehoe and aa (aa is the clinker-like one that it hurts to walk on, ah-ah), are Hawaiian in origin.

Here are some closer views:

Engineered by Mother Nature
Engineered by Mother Nature


Animal life even here

Yup, it's a big hole alrgight
Yup, it’s a big hole alright
Animal life even here

Can't get close enough to the edge to see if there's a bottom
Can’t get myself close enough to the edge to see if there’s a bottom

You could call this landscape lunar, but I wouldn’t – there’s ocean visible just beyond, and some plants gaining a toehold, a couple insects and a lizard. And no trash – our guide, the excellent Edgar Daniel,  was fierce on this point, reminding us to hold on to every bit of our lunch and its packaging. But this lava field is the tabula rasa, barely formed and almost pristine, of the next Galapagos, which probably won’t be much like the former one. I’d like to make a special trip back to see how it turns out.


I’ve been puzzling over my curiosity about places like Isabela, and I’ve decided that it’s the romance of the place, or better said, my idea or vision of the place, that intrigues me. The dictionary informs me that romantic may indeed be defined as ‘an idealized view of reality’. I plead guilty! In that case, nothing says it better than this 1984 photo by Frans Lanting of  tortoises in the crater of the Alcedo volcano.


He describes his photo so:

In a geologic sense, the islands are young, yet they appear ancient. The largest animals native to this archipelago are giant tortoises, which can live for more than a century. These are the creatures that provided Darwin with the flash of imagination that led to his theory of evolution. ..Immutable as the tortoises seem, they were utterly vulnerable to the buccaneers and whalers who took them by the thousands in the last two centuries. But one population eluded them. Inside the Alcedo volcano on Isabela Island, an earlier era lingers. This caldera is sealed off from the outside world by steep lava slopes that rise to 3,860 feet on the equator. It was not until 1965 that an Ecuadorian biologist found a way down inside and discovered a world where giant tortoises roamed in primordial abundance. This group had presumably never seen humans. ..They hadn’t seen many more when I entered the time capsule of the caldera. For one memorable week, I lived among the tortoises of Alcedo. Photography one morning was one of those precious experiences where I could be part of a scene rather than a distant observer. The tortoises were resting in a pond as soft mist mingled with sulfur steam from nearby fumaroles and dust from an erupting volcano to the west, and I was able to create an image that evokes the era when reptiles dominated life on land."..- Frans Lanting.

In case the watermark doesn’t show up, the featured image at the top of this post should also be credited to Frans Lanting, and is available at



I’m not sure if these tortoises survived the spread of feral goats to the area, but I have read that the tortoise population outside the crater is beginning to recover following a massive, as in perhaps 80,000 goats, eradication program conducted with land hunters, shooters from New Zealand in helicopters, sterile female “Judas Goats’, a full and costly array of attempted extinction.

Here’s a bit about it from http://www.galapagos.org/conservation/project-isabela/

The giant tortoises on Alcedo Volcano provided the catalyst for Project Isabela. In the 1970s the feral goats present on southern Isabela finally crossed the hostile terrain of the Perry Isthmus and arrived at the lower southern slopes of Alcedo Volcano. It would take another 10 to 15 years for the goat population to explode causing massive ecosystem degradation. The destruction was most evident on the southern rim of Alcedo, a gathering place for giant tortoises during the cool, dry, garúa season. The dense forests on the rim created shade and the critical drip pools where tortoises congregated. The thick garúa mists drifting up the outer slopes of the volcano became trapped in the many epiphytes living in the forest and then dripped to the pools below. But the goats arrived like bulldozers, destroying the forest and thus the tortoise shade and water supply. Other native and endemic species, including birds, insects, and plants, were also negatively impacted by the destructive goats, whose population continued to expand to the more northern volcanoes, Darwin and Wolf. Their arrival at each new portion of Isabela resulted in pristine forests and shrubby vegetation being transformed into barren grasslands and in massive erosion of the steep volcanic slopes.

Now, how romantic is that? And then, reading comments on stories about the goat eradication program, you’ll learn that many commenters feel that  the “Darwin hand” should be played out to its logical conclusion. Don’t kill the poor innocent creatures, just let whatever is going to happen, happen, they say. Sounds more like a tragedy to me. But I’m not a goat (so far as I know), just a curious romantic, easily intrigued.