After some mediocre snorkeling and wildlife viewing in Santa Cruz, Mike, Jon, John and I were more than ready to head to Isla Isabela, as we had heard such positive things about it, by far the largest island in the archipelago.
When we arrived at the embarcadero on Isabela, we were confused as to where the town of Villamil even was. We hiked in the dry sun up a dirt road and some guy in a red shirt surreptitiously stalked us from hotel to hotel, every so often suggesting that we allow him to take us to his hotel. He wanted us to ride his horses on a day trip to the volcano as well. He was a pain. The hotel we finally chose was right on the sand, and the views in the beach photos were taken about twenty meters from the front porch. We had some buying power among the four of us, and the place was pretty empty at the time, so it would be tough for others to get the rooms for the 15 a night that we paid. The rooms at the Sierra Negra normally go for 30-40, but everything about the place was fabulous.
The Beach in front of our hotel.
Paula, the owner, is helpful and kind in every way, and the maid does a wonderful job keeping everything spotless. The spacious deck on the third floor is the perfect place to exchange travel tales and have a few Pilsners in the early eve.
The town itself is on the verge of becoming much like its less attractive neighbor on Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora. Right now, Villamil still has dirt roads, no ATM, and a population that is ambivalent about dealing with tourists. There is construction on every street, though, and in a few years the town could lose much of its charm. The locals want this growth, without truly knowing what it will bring.
Before Jon had to leave for his cruise, we set out the next day for Los Tuneles, a forty minute boat ride from the town (see photo). Here we saw two Blue-footed boobies doing their dance and found our first glimpse of sea lions and giant turtles in the wild. We snorkeled a bit, and saw a number of interesting fish, but the forty-five dollars we each spent on the day trip left us unsatisfied overall. The guide was not terribly personable and
This was my first view of a feeding frenzy. Many different birds were involved, and they all seemed to work together to keep the school of fish herded together. I encountered this on a walk on the beach at 6:30 AM, and the show was all mine. Still, it paled in comparison the one we saw on the boat (see video above).
slept on the boat much of the time, and he didn't offer much, even though he knew Jon is fluent in Spanish. If you´re traveling independently on this isla, you should consider going directly to the dock rather than dealing with an agency. This eliminates the middle-man and allows you to judge the attitude and energy of the guide.
At this point, John, Mike and I had decided that we weren't going to any other island for quite awhile. We knew that our next few days wouldn't be bad: some of the best nature viewing in the world, swimming in the crystalline waters, playing Frisbee on the powdery beach, and relishing the company of others with the same attitude toward moving around the world. We´d also met two Brits, Neil and Emma, who are sailing around the world, and the five of us planned a short trek to the summit of Volcan Sierra Negra.
Ask around town for Jose, the perfect guide for a trip to Volcan Sierra Negra (see photos). He is knowledgeable about the island and is passionate about pretty much everything. He speaks very good English and is helpful in planning other excursions as well.
A sea lion toying with us in Los Tuneles
The volcano caldera was impressive to say the least. It was miles across and looks like some sort of Jupiter moon landscape. Consider taking the entire day to hike there. Taking an SUV over two thirds of the way made the crater summit anti-climactic, however.
Because we took our time and decided to go on another snorkeling excursion, we were rewarded with the most spectacular encounter with animals that I have ever experienced. We walked back to the dock a few days later (along with Patrick, our Canadian man we met at another instant breakfast), and found someone to take us to a few choice spots for only 10 pp. Before we even left the boat we saw boobies and penguins up close. At one point, Mike pointed and shouted, ¨Feeding frenzy!¨and we all looked to find hundreds of gulls and boobies circling a spot in the sea. The guide immediately sped toward the diving birds (see the video, if it works) and we got a close up look of birds diving into the water. We raced to put on our snorkeling gear (you can hear John say "es posible?" in the vid) and then jumped in, and what
We saw these formations (and these cacti, many of which which are many hundreds of years old (told to us later by Jose)) on our day trip to Los Tuneles.
we found underwater was magnificent. There were literally millions of three inch long bluish-green fish packed into a small space as they were being corralled by the circling birds. As the darted in different directions, they reflected little glimmers of silver light. Soon about twenty or thirty penguins swam by, chasing the fish while we followed close behind. The penguins ignored us completely (except one of them bit Patrick), and after awhile it actually seemed like we were helping them fish. If I dove beneath the surface, it was like a scene from the Matrix, and thousands of fish altered their course, opening up a sort of wormhole that reached down about fifteen feet. Beneath the opening I could still see more fish, packed tightly together, and spiraling in reaction to the hole above them.
Penguins maneuvered diagonally through the water, opening spiraling tuneles and forming 3D patterns that astounded me. They typically all dove at once, in an attempt to give the fish no escape. Mike dropped 25 ft - all the way to the bottom - over and over again, and said later that when he looked up and moved his hands around, the fish would separate
Shadow and Beach
A shot of the beach with the volcanic rock (home to hundreds of iguanas) to the right.
and form smaller, spiraling tunnels around his arms. We stayed in the water for close to an hour until the penguins, well fed, began to rest on the surface or retire to the rocks.
After that, the guide took us to a second spot, the Bay of the Sharks (no Tiburon was to be found, thankfully), where we swam with six or seven sea lions for another hour. They were curious and playful, and when we finally got back on the boat, several of them came to the sides and looked up at us, crying, as if they wanted to continue playing.
I started getting cramps in my leg, so I stayed on the boat for the third spot, but the others found many larger fish as well as white coral.
More to come:
2. Other accommodations (Brisa del Mar)
3. The tourist breeding center
4. The Wall of Tears
5. All good things...
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