Isla Isabela is a must-visit stop on any tour of the Galapagos Islands. It is by far the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago—at 1,790 square miles, it’s more than four times larger than Santa Cruz, the second-largest. Isla Isabela offers amazing geological attractions, as well as a wide variety of wildlife. A good-sized village named Puerto Villamil is the third-largest settlement in the Galapagos Islands and is a good place to relax for a meal or even stay overnight. Named after Queen Isabella of Spain, who sponsored Christopher Columbus’ voyage in the late fifteenth century, the island is located next to Isla Fernandina, which is named for her husband.
Being the youngest island in the Galapagos archipelago, it has been said that Isla Isabela is still in the process of being created. Of the six volcanoes that formed this roughly seahorse-shaped island, five are still active, making Isabela Galapagos one of the most volcanically active regions in the world. Visitors can see lava flows, volcanic rocks, and other evidence of fresh volcanic activity. The island’s unique geological makeup means that the terrain looks quite different from other islands in the Galapagos, with the variety of species that such differentiation would suggest.
Many boat tours and cruises will stop at Tagus Cove on the western coast of Isabela Galapagos. The beautiful clear waters of this cove house many marine species such as dolphins and whales, who come to feed in the rich waters of Tagus Cove. From the landing at the cove, you can look up and see Darwin Volcano and its lava flows, whose slopes are overgrown with low shrubby trees. At Tagus Cove you can also see some of the rich land wildlife of Isla Isabela. Short and stubby little Galapagos penguins swim through the cove hunting for fish, or play on the rocks by the water's edge. The smallest penguins in the world, these birds are entirely dependent on the waters of the Galapagos for food, and fluctuations in the food supply have caused them to be classified as an endangered species. If you hike up the slopes of Darwin Volcano you may also glimpse the majestic Galapagos Hawk.
Isabela Galapagos is particularly known for its many species of land tortoises. Throughout Isla Isabela's history, tortoises were trapped in different parts of the island because they were unable to cross lava flows. This caused a tremendous differentiation of tortoise species, and you can see some of these unique tortoises, from giant ones to small ones, on the island.
Many boat tours will also dock at Puerto Villamil on the southeastern coast of the island. Puerto Villamil is the second most popular settlement for tourists in the Galapagos Islands, after Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. It is a town of slightly more than 2,000 inhabitants, so although there are restaurants, bars, and hotels, be aware that facilities are basic. This can be a great place to relax for a day or two, and the laid-back atmosphere is ideal for getting a feel for life in the Galapagos. The town is located next to a beautiful white sand beach, and a boardwalk allows you to walk into the nearby mangrove forests where you have a chance to glimpse a flamingo or two in the lagoon or visit the Tortoise Breeding Center.