Galapagos sea lion near Tagus Cove, Isabela island

Isabela Island: The Galapagos Islands’ Wild West

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.


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Photo credit: Les Williams

Final approach to Baltra airport, Galapagos islands

Baltra Island: The Galapagos’ Fifth Inhabited Island

In the latest chapter of Galapagos Travel Planner’s series on the colonization of the Galapagos Islands, today we visit the history of Baltra.

Baltra is often forgotten on the list of islands where the Galapagos National Park allows habitation by the species Homo sapiens.

Of course, it is so obvious that many do not immediately see it. After all, Baltra is the destination that is marked on most Galapagos visitors’ plane ticket. This airport serves tourists who’ll begin their Galapagos explorations from Santa Cruz Island, which lies on the other side of Itabaca Canal.

As the plane approaches Baltra, you’ll see buildings down below around a bay. Then you see only flat, scrub brush-covered lava before the aircraft touches down.

At the airport, those of you scheduled to begin a Galapagos Island cruise will board a bus marked “Muelle”. This will take you to Caleta Aeolian, a broad cove on Baltra’s west coast. This is where the Muelle de Pasajeros Seymour (Seymour Passenger Wharf) is located.

The airport and the harbor are remnants of the military base the US had here during World War II. Base Beta, home of the 51st Fighter Squadron, was established to protect the Panama Canal from Japanese attack. The US Army also had radar installations on San Cristóbal and Isabela islands.

Lovingly called “The Rock” by soldiers stationed there, Baltra (then called South Seymour) was known for its bleak, boring setting. Despite the extra perks like a bowling alley and a beer garden, stints were limited to six months. The only things to do were to go fishing and make friends with the numerous goats.

After the war, Ecuador took over the airport and other installations left behind. The Galapagos Islanders carried off the barracks to Santa Cruz to be personal homes. If you look closely, though, on the bus trip to Itabaca Canal, you’ll see the concrete footings and platforms where buildings once stood.

On Baltra today, you’ll find no hotels and only a few tourist shops at the airport. Other than the unknown number of military personnel at the Ecuadorian naval and air bases, Baltra has no permanent human residents.

The island’s most numerous inhabitants are the almost 2,500 yellow land iguanas that scurry across the barren landscape. These reptiles are products of the Hancock Expedition’s land iguana relocation in 1932, and the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park’s successful breeding program.


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Photo credit: A.Davey