Isabela Island is the largest island in the Galapagos, but home to only a population of just over 2,000 people. Compared to Santa Cruz, which houses more than 12,000 permanent residents. Which is exactly what we were looking for. Remote. Peaceful. A place where we could immerse ourselves in the wild.
We arrived by boat after about two hours. Bouncing across the sea in a dingy in the wee hours of the morning for a cost of $30 a person. As we pulled up to the marina, I was immediately greeted by a penguin swimming by. A host of blue-footed boobies catching some sun. And some sleepy sea lions, resting after what was likely an active morning hunt for breakfast.
It was everything we’d hoped for and more.
We spent a lazy first day at our oceanside hotel, mostly recovering from the waves and catching up on sleep. And then began to plan out the rest of our week, booking excursions and checking out the lay of the land. It’s a small town, a literal square surrounded by restaurants and rental shops. Though the variety is nowhere near what you find on Santa Cruz.
Food is expensive. Aside from the $8 specials, which we tired of quickly, meals on average cost upwards of $20 per plate. And it’s really nothing special. Just your standard island markup. Our favorite joint of the week was Coco Surf, which served up delicious Asian-inspired dishes. Crispy rice teeming with perfectly prepared seafood and a tangy passion-fruit sauce. White fish paired with a creamy risotto. And a super fresh tuna tartare stacked high with citrus and just a hint of mayo. Make a reservation and settle in for a bit. While meals in general will take awhile to reach your table, the tiny kitchen and popularity of this restaurant makes it upwards of an hour or so. Which tends to feel even longer after a day out in the sun.
We woke up early to catch a bus to the docks for our first excursion of the trip. Los Tintoreres is a small group of islands about forty-five minutes off the coast. For a cost of $100 for two adults and one child, we had a three hour tour that included a guide and three different stops. Part one swept us past different rock formations with plenty of blue-footed boobies. These unique birds are easily recognizable by their bright blue beaks and feet. The color coming from the fresh fish they eat, while also being an important part of the mating ritual between males and females. The ladies tend to have darker feet and choose partners with brighter feet signifying health -and let’s face it – a bit of style, too.
Up next was a quick hike that took us to a cove full of white tip reef sharks. It was chock full of barely moving bodies laid one on top of the other. My son, who is a shark fanatic, was beside himself. Angling off rocks to get a better view in a place where there was no bad view. While my husband and I excitedly snapped photos. As someone who has never seen a shark outside of captivity, it is an incredible feeling. One that washed away any fears and replaced it with awe and appreciation for the magnificent creatures with eyes that read old as time.
The third part of the tour took us into the water. Finally. We followed our guide through the tranquil blue spotting giant sea turtles and a variety of fish. The water was clear. The feeling weightless. And the hour flew by as we encountered different animals along the way.
Hungry and tired, we spent the afternoon food crawling through town. A ceviche here. Some ice cream there. Mixed in with a few lazy walks down the beach. Making friends with baby marine iguanas sunning themselves on the black rocks and jittery crabs that always seemed in a hurry.
We started off the day early, loading up on the free breakfast at our hotel. Which actually had some pretty tasty selections. Eggs, bread, jams, cheese and fruit with fresh juice. Enough to keep us full for awhile. We headed off to Concha de la Perla, an area near the marina that boasted great snorkeling. With gear in tow, we hailed a taxi for $2, which dropped us off right by the entrance. A long wooden dock dotted with sleepy sea lions of every size. Draped over one another. Flippers flapping every which way. Big eyes slowly opening to give a look. And then close again, as if to say, been there. Done that.
We reached the end of the trail through a mangrove forest and put our gear on. This was one of my favorite spots. We were lucky enough to catch some penguins sunning themselves on a nearby rock. My favorite selfie of the trip. Some marine iguanas swimming back to shore. Tails wagging with their lizardy legs paddling through the water. And a few frisky sea lions. So fast and suave in the water. A far cry from their awkward land waddle. Gracefully gliding past swimmers, as if playing a game that only they know the rules to. Mellow and chock full of animals, this was a great place for the kiddo, who could take plenty of breaks on the wooden benches between swims.
Today was the day. Booking an excursion to Los Tuneles was somewhat of a debate. We had heard mixed reviews this would be age appropriate for our son. But after observing him in the water, we decided that he would be okay.
Plus, we all wanted to see more sharks.
Or rather, swim with them.
An hour or so boat ride brings you to Los Tuneles, gorgeous rock formations in the middle of the ocean. The standard fare greets you. Penguins. Giant sea turtles. And a quick hike to the nesting grounds of some blue-footed boobies. Where the birds seemed unaffected by our presence as they sat atop their eggs. We meandered over the jagged ground, my son hopping from level to level with such ease it assuaged any fears I had about his perilous speed over the uneven terrain. Lots of photos of the tunnels formed long ago creating natural beauty so raw and untouched it felt almost alien. Exploring this newfound world hordes of other tourists. Cameras slung around necks. We finished the hike sweaty and ready to brave the cold water ahead.
Almost welcoming it.
Fitted in wetsuits and snorkels, we set off on my favorite journey of the trip hitting all the hot spots. Sea horses bobbing gently. Golden manta rays flying through the water. Soft wings floating effortlessly through the aqua sky. More giant sea turtles around every bend. Each one seemingly bigger than the next. And fish. The most beautiful one I have ever seen in my life. An array of neon, the bright colors cutting through the overcast sea. We paddled onward and out. The waves getting rougher as the clouds came in. My son riding atop his dad’s back. Salty water beading on his face. He was tired. I think we both were at that point. But we had one more creature to discover.
I took a deep breath and used my hands to push my body down struggling against the buoyancy that threatened to take me to the top. Peering down into the murky water, I was met with dozens of white tip reef sharks resting on the sandy bottom. Some eerie movement of tails and fins. I didn’t feel afraid, but unnerved. Or maybe it was immense awe to be so close to sharks without anything between us. Their eyes just as I had imagined. A blankness that spoke to the ages of their species. Before the dinosaurs. Survivors. Predators.
We swam to a couple more spots, though none quite meeting that first encounter. My husband and I excitedly heaving in big breaths of air to catch as much time with the sharks as possible. Before each submersion telling ourselves it would be the last. But unable to pull ourselves away from the sight. It didn’t get old. A pod of sharks doing nothing but be. But it was cold. And the waves were getting rougher. Our son was tired. And the group as a whole was dwindling. And so finally we made our way back to the boat. A quick snack provided by the tour and another jaunt through the waves and were were back to shore. Exhausted and ready to do nothing but eat, sleep and take a long walk down the beach.
After so many days at sea, it was time for a little land.
We rented bikes and set off to the Wall of Tears. Built by prisoners in the 1940s as a form of punishment, there is a sadness in the rocks that calls to the unspeakable horrors that were alleged to have occurred.
At the end of a sandy trail with plenty of hills. This was another one of those rides I proceeded with caution. And I’m glad I did. Running into a fellow traveler we had casually chatted with a few times before, her hand bloodied and wrist hanging at an odd angle. She had taken a nasty spill and busted the front brakes of her bike. Far behind the rest of her group with her daughter, we helped her clean the wound with what little water we had left and promised to inform the rest of her family what had happened.
And so we reached the wall without further incident, other than plenty of sweat. Hydrated under some shade while being attacked by the biting kind of bugs. Took a few solemn moments to reflect by the stones, stacked one by one so many years ago under the same hot sun. And began the climb to the top of a trail that wound you up the side of a mountain via a series of stairways and platforms to a stunning view that showed off the incredible coastline as far as the eye could see.
A few quick snaps and we were back on our way. Stopping briefly on the way home at Amor Beach, where we had been told was the most tranquillo swimming spot on the island. Perfect for our son to get back some confidence with his snorkel. Something that got lost somewhere along the way with a mask full of water and ominous waves in the middle of a vast ocean.
The boys swam while I posted up on a blanket until our stomachs began to collectively rumble, all traces of the snacks we had eaten dissolving in our bellies. We headed back to town for some grub and a nap, before taking off for what had become somewhat of a tradition on this trip. A leisurely stroll down the beach at sunset. Every night a different spectacle of clouds and colors painting the sky. Warm salty wind filling my nostrils. Crunchy sand beneath my feet. The cool splash of water on my toes. Silhouettes of wings and spindly feet dancing through the air.
Our last full day on the island before heading back.
And our son requested bikes.
But this time, instead of riding shotgun with his dad.
He wanted his own.
I was hesitant. Not only was he fairly new to a two-wheeler without training wheels. The only bikes I had seen were far too big for him. I voiced my concerns, but was also feeling pretty tired at this point. The fatigue of pregnancy taking it’s toll. He and Nate set out to find something suitable and returned to the hotel with a bike that was just a little too big. But a smile that said, I can do this.
So we headed off.
My husband on foot, running to keep pace with Darwin. And myself on a bike. A little sore from the day before. But sticking with it through the last day.
We hit up the Tortoise Breeding Center first. By this point, these giant beasts had become somewhat commonplace. Though it was cute to see the tiny babies. And funny to watch them mating. Mounted one on top of the other and barely moving, it was a wonder that this act was actually a successful method of procreation.
A quick stop at the information center shed some light on the history of the breeding center. Born out of necessity as predators infiltrated the island killing the young and destroying their habitat, these centers help maintain the dwindling population.
Next we stopped at the wetlands, a wooden trail through protected areas that were abundant with wildlife. Most notably, the pink flamingoes. Beautiful beyond belief. The most perfect representation of the species that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing up close or otherwise. The Galapagos flamingos lived up to their expectation. Perfectly pink with black markings. Stunning feathers that gracefully swept through the air. One long leg to perch on. An elegant neck tucked gently behind a wing.
After some breathless moments watching them, we moved onto the last part of our trip. We returned to Amor Beach in the hopes of catching more low tide. I parked up under a tree, while Nate and Darwin hit the water. Tiny pools surrounded by rocks that protected them from the crashing waves. The two of them glided through the water, little bits of snorkel popping up above the surface. And I knew each one was in their own special happy place, making my heart melt.
This is what it’s all about, folks.
Passing on that love of things we love from one generation to another.
We knew it was time to leave when the sea iguanas began their migration to land. Dozens of them laying motionlessly across the hot rocks soaking up all the warmth of the scorching sun. The tide too high for both man and beast. Lunchtime and nap. And for me, time to pack up. Shake as much sand from our stuff as possible. And prepare for a long day of travel.
If I had to do it again, I would do it differently.
We started our day at 4:30 in the morning. Just enough time to get out the door and catch a cab to the dock, where our water taxi departed at 5:30. Shuttling us over to our boat by 6:00. And then three hours back to Santa Cruz. A painful ride relative to the first one. We had one less motor and I could feel it. My stomach turning as I tried to breathe the discomfort away. Pushing down on pressure points in my hands. Gently massaging my temples when I had the energy. Slow neck rolls. At a fraction of the cost of flights between the islands, the boat is an economical choice. But depending on the day, can definitely be a little tough for pregnant ladies and kiddos.
Arriving at the dock with two giant suitcases, a bag of all our aquatic gear and two backpacks. We made our way to the first hotel in the hopes we could leave our stuff there for the hours in between our arrival to Santa Cruz and our flight, which didn’t leave until later that afternoon.
Thankfully, they said yes.
It was hot and we were in no mood to get wet, sandy or sweaty before boarding a plane. Leaving us with very few options. After eating, again at our favorite joint Galapagos Deli, we hit up the boardwalk and did a bit of shopping. A small backpack for our son and a stuffed shark. A hat and some t-shirts for dad and me. And some souvenirs for our family and friends.
Checking the clock, it was still far too early to head to the airport. Making me regret that we hadn’t planned a buffer day in between coming back from Isabela and going home. Somewhere nice to relax after that long morning boat ride. With a pool.
I guess there’s always next time.
Exhaustion setting in from the early morning. Slightly sick still. And hot. The next few hours passed in a blur. Both my son and I almost falling asleep at a restaurant, where we had ordered juices, if only to sit under the cool fans. It was from there that we started our journey back. A taxi. To a boat. To a bus. To the airport. A plane. To a taxi. And then finally home.
What can I say.
It was awesome. One of those once in lifetime, super special places that you’re so glad you got to see before it got ruined any further by tourism and development. A chance to immerse yourself in nature like never before. Vast openness of wild abandon comprised of every shape and color imaginable. And best of all, the opportunity to share it all with our son, who is growing bigger by the day and able to connect with the things we love so much more intimately than ever before. To understand and enjoy the outdoors and some of our favorite activities like swimming and biking.
I want to get a new house, he says to me.
By now, it has been a couple months since our trip.
Where, I ask.
The Galapagos, he says.
Me too, buddy.
Maybe one day.