Out on the western edge of the Galapagos is seahorse-shaped Isabela, the largest of the archipelago’s islands. For several centuries, it was known as Albemarle – a name pirate Ambrose Cowley gave it. To this day, this far flung island has an air of a last outpost, the Wild West.
This Wild West feel may be because of it locale, or its immense size (4,640 square kilometers / 1,790 square miles in area and 100 kilometers / 62 miles long) or the fact five of its six volcanos still occasionally spew ash and lava. Or perhaps it is because giant tortoises still lazily plod the road just outside of town.
The confirmed history of Albemarle begins with the pirates who found safe harbor and supplies at Tagus Cove, including Crowley who stepped foot on it in 1684. Throughout the ages, this bay on the west coast of the island at the foot of Darwin Volcano continues to draw visitors, from whalers to Charles Darwin, from hopeful settlers to modern-day tourists wanting to see giant tortoises and penguins.
Continuous human occupation, though, would not happen until the end of the 19th century. In 1893, Antonio Gil of Guayaquil scouted the Galapagos Islands for a place to found a town. He decided on Isabela, establishing Puerto Villamil on the southern coast. By 1906, the island had 200 residents.
Soon, various industries sprung up, including a plant making lime from coral and a coffee plantation at Santo Tomás in the highlands outside Puerto Villamil. A sulfur mine (minas de azufre) on the flanks of Sierra Negra Volcano also began operating. Although the Sierra Negra-Cerro Chico volcano hike is more popular, you can get off the beaten tourist track by joining a horseback riding excursion to the Minas de Azufre.
During World War II, the US had military installations in the Galapagos Islands. The most famous of these was “The Rock” on Baltra Island. Scattered throughout the archipelago, though, were radar installations on San Cristóbal Island and at the now-seldom visited Albemarle Point on the northern tip of Isabela Island. US troops were also stationed six kilometers (3.6 miles) west of Puerto Villamil, where you can still see a water desalinization tower they used. During this time, the local people traded products with the soldiers.
As it had done on Floreana and San Cristóbal Islands in the past, the Ecuadorian government established a penal colony on Isabela. In 1946, 300 prisoners and 30 guards were sent to occupy the wooden houses and other facilities the US troops left behind, The prisoners were charged with the task of building a stone wall – and tearing it down again and rebuilding it, over and again. This is the Wall of Tears (Muro de las Lágrimas), now a popular day trip from Puerto Villamil.
The prisoners could no longer stand the harsh conditions. In 1959, they rose up, holding the entire village of Puerto Villamil hostage. When the crisis passed, Ecuador decided to close this far west outpost, the last of its Galapagos prison colonies.
In the mid-1990s, an air strip connecting Isabela with the other Galapagos Islands was built and tourism took root on this distant island. In 1980, Puerto Villamil had only one hotel and two restaurant-bars. By 2006, over a dozen hotels and twice as many restaurants served visitors. Tourism is even opening up in the highlands, with such enterprises as the organic farm-camping site Campo Duro Eco-Lodge.
The centuries of human presence on Isabela, though, had begun to take its toll. The population of goats pirates and whalers had left behind grew astronomically and was affecting the survival of giant tortoises and other endemic wildlife. In 1997, the national park undertook a project that conservation scientists worldwide had said would be impossible: to eradicate the goats. The goal was reached in 2006, after 100,000 goats were slaughtered. The environment has since rebounded.
Today, most of Isabela’s estimated 1,800 residents live in Puerto Villamil and the nearby highlands. They dedicate themselves to fishing, farming and tourism. It’s a perfect place to soak in Isabela’s laid-back vibe for a few days, wandering down the main town’s sandy streets and chatting with the locals, or bike riding out to the Wall of Tears and encountering a giant tortoise in the middle of the road.
(But be sure to bring plenty of cash with you for this Wild West isle doesn’t have an ATM – let alone a bank – not even for any masked outlaw!)
Have you visited Isabela Island? Share your tips for travellers in the comments below.
Photo credit: Les Williams