Galápagos on a budget: Isla Isabela & Puerto Villamil travel guide
Formed by 6 different shield volcanos about a million years ago, Isla Isabela is both the youngest and largest of the Galápagos Islands, home to a wide diversity of land and marine species, as well as an incredibly varied landscape from wetlands and beaches to highlands and volcanos. But, despite its size, Isabela is not very populous, and it’s this quiet, undeveloped feeling that makes the island so special.
Arriving into Isabela on a small passenger boat, expect to see Marine Iguanas shuffling slowly across the middle of the dirt road, Galápagos Sea Lions splayed out on wooden picnic benches, and flowers lining the street in every colour of the rainbow. There’s hardly more than a handful of restaurants and shops in town, and certainly none of the (admittedly still very quiet) bustle of Santa Cruz. This is the real Galápagos, unpolished and raw and incredibly magical.
Use this guide to plan every aspect of your visit to Isla Isabela, including how to get there from the airport or other islands, how to get around the island itself, where to stay, insider travel tips, and heaps of the best tours and free things to do!
Getting to the Galápagos
From mainland Ecuador
Every visitor to the Galápagos will travel through mainland Ecuador, either flying from Quito or Guayaquil out to the islands on a ~2hr flight. LATAM, TAME, and Avianca all operate daily flights from the mainland to Baltra (GPS), which is the main airport for the islands located near Santa Cruz and the route I’d recommend for reaching Isla Isabela.
Flying from Quito or Guayaquil, you will need to arrive at the airport with enough time to perform a few extra security measures before your journey to the islands (2hrs before your flight should be enough). In the Departures hall, you’ll see a signed area near the check-in counters for those travelling to the Galápagos— you need to purchase a Transit Control Card for $20 (which you should keep with your passport for the return journey) and put your bags through an additional biosecurity screening (they are mostly concerned about foreign dirt, like on hiking boots, or fruits and nuts). The process is incredibly quick and easy, and when you’re done you’ll be able to check in for your flight and go through all the normal bag drop and airport security procedures.
From Baltra Airport
When you arrive in the Galápagos, the first thing you’ll do is queue up to pay the $100 National Park fee. It’s expensive, but it’s absolutely unavoidable and actually an excellent way to contribute to the continued protection of the islands.
Immediately after paying the park fee, you also need to buy a ticket for the shuttle running between the airport and the Itabaca Canal ($5 each way, and I’d recommend buying a return ticket so you can skip the queue on your way back). Because the Galápagos airport is on Baltra, a tiny island just north of Santa Cruz, you’ll need to take a shuttle to the canal, cross over to Santa Cruz on a quick boat, and then either take a bus or taxi across the island to Puerto Ayora— this is the main town on Santa Cruz and also the port for ferries out to Isla Isabela.
At the Itabaca Canal, your bags will be transferred onto a boat that will carry you across to Santa Cruz. The boat ride is less than 10min and costs $1, payable on board. On the other side, you can collect your bags and continue onwards to Puerto Ayora via bus or taxi. The bus costs $5 per person and a taxi costs $20 total, so if there’s a couple people sharing, the taxi isn’t a whole lot more expensive and is quicker (because you won’t need to wait for everyone’s luggage to be loaded up on the bus, but also because the taxi will deliver you directly to the ferry).
Expected travel times
As a rough guide, here’s how much time you need to conservatively allow for each section of the journey between Baltra Airport and Isla Isabela:
- Biosecurity screening at the airport and collection of customs cards ~15min
- Shuttle ($5) from airport to Itabaca Canal (including all the bags being loaded) ~30min
- Ferry ($1) across the Itabaca Canal (including all the bags being transferred) ~30min
- Taxi ($20) from the Itabaca Canal to Puerto Ayora ~40min OR bus ($5) from the Itabaca Canal to Puerto Ayora ~60min
- Ferry ($30) from Santa Cruz to Isabela ~2.5hrs + 30min early to check in
From Santa Cruz
Once in Puerto Ayora, ferries depart daily for Isabela at both 7.30am and 2.30pm (if you’re going straight from the airport to Isabela, you’ll definitely be getting the afternoon ferry). These inter-island ferries cost $30 each way and can be booked online in advance or last-minute at any of several dozen tour agencies in Puerto Ayora.
The first leg of the journey is a quick water taxi ride out to the ferry, which will be anchored somewhere in the harbour. The boat ride is usually only a couple minutes and costs 0.50c per person (not included in the price of your ferry ticket). Directly from the water taxi, you’ll board a medium-sized speed boat, usually with cushioned seating around the perimeter (facing inwards) and the luggage loaded into the centre and the back. I’d strongly recommend grabbing a spot in the middle of the boat so that you’ll be sheltered from the sun and ocean spray— it also seems to be a slightly smoother ride here, which will hopefully prevent sea sickness. Still, taking Kwells or Dramamine during check-in is a good idea!
For heaps more information about island hopping in the Galápagos, read this post: ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT A LAND-BASED TRIP TO THE GALÁPAGOS (WITHOUT A CRUISE)
Getting around Isla Isabela
Getting around Puerto Villamil
Although Isabela is the largest of the Galápagos Islands, its main town Puerto Villamil is incredibly small, with only 2,000 residents and seemingly never more than a couple hundred visitors. The obvious benefit is that it’s incredibly easy to walk anywhere in town, the ferry, restaurants, and main accomodation areas all clustered in a relatively small area.
If you do want to take a taxi from the ferry port to your hotel to avoid hassling with luggage, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes or cost more than $2.
Getting around the island
If you want to venture out of Puerto Villamil, perhaps to the highlands or one of the island’s many volcanos, there are taxis or tours that can shuttle you around. Depending on the distance, you can even hire a bike for $2-3/hr and explore around that way, but car hire and Uber are definitely not options here.
Where to stay on Isabela: Puerto Villamil
Although Isabela is a large island by Galápagos standards, the port and main town of Puerto Villamil on the southern end is where just about every visitor will stay during their time on the island. There are a number of hotels around here, as well as a clustering of restaurants, shops, and tour agencies, but definitely don’t expect anything on the same scale as Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz.
While on Isla Isabela, I stayed at Hotel Star Fish, which I found to be incredibly comfortable, both in terms of the room and the friendly staff, with whom I was able to communicate only through amazing patience on their part.
My mum is incredibly picky and even she had no complaints with our modest, air-conditioned room that opened out onto a quiet courtyard. Our double room was $65USD/night (for 2 people), and it was easy walk to anywhere in town including the ferry, main restaurant area, and the beaches. I’d highly recommend it!
*What to do on Isla Isabela
Isla Isabela is overflowing with beautiful scenery and exciting things to do, from awesome snorkelling and hiking tours to sightseeing excursions out to neighbouring islands. Here are 9 of my very favourite activities to get you started, but know that this is far from a comprehensive list!
1 | Snorkelling at Los Tuneles
By all accounts, this is the best day tour on Isla Isabela, but arguably also one of the best snorkelling spots on any of the Galápagos Islands. For more marine life in a single location than you ever imagined possible, including reef sharks, sea horses, Golden Rays, Spotted Eagle Rays, Manta Rays, sea turtles, and Galápagos Sea Lions, save room in your itinerary for Los Tuneles.
Pahoehoe offers half-day (5hr) tours out to Los Tuneles for $145USD, which includes a guided walk around the lava platforms where you can see Blue-Footed Boobies and other marine birds, followed by snorkelling in one of the best sites in the entire archipelago. If you have some flexibility or are travelling during shoulder or off-peak season (anytime not June, July, August, or December), you can book directly at the Pahoehoe office in Puerto Villamil when you arrive and it tends to be much cheaper.
2 | Cycling to El Muro de las Lágrimas
See flamingos, marine iguanas, sea lions, and giant tortoises, swim at secluded beaches, visit beautiful mangroves and lagoons, and learn about some of the island’s convict history as you cycle to El Muro de las Lágrimas (The Wall of Tears), an easy DIY trip from Puerto Villamil.
The Wall of Tears itself is not incredibly scenic (it’s more the stops along the way that are beautiful), but it’s still an important place to explore, the site of a penal colony in the 1940s which stands as a reminder of the harsh conditions under which the prisoners lived. The site is said to have been given its name by locals who could hear crying during its construction, as convicts were forced to carry heavy volcanic stones in blistering heat, erecting the 25m wall that confined them.
3 | Snorkelling at Las Tintoreras
Named for the White Tip Sharks who live here by the thousands, Las Tintoreras offers particularly interesting snorkelling through narrow channels in the lava, with hundreds of sharks swimming below, even more marine iguanas crowded onto the rocks above, and plenty of Galápagos Penguins, sea lions, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, and sea turtles scattered throughout the convoluted, volcanic landscape.
Among Isla Isabela’s many spectacular snorkelling spots, Las Tintoreras at the south end of the island is a real standout. Pahoehoe offers half-day (3hr) tours out to Las Tintoreras for $60USD, which includes a guided walk and snorkelling through the islets.
4 | Turtle Breeding Centre
Along the entire cycle route to and from El Muro de las Lágrimas, giant Galápagos tortoises wander slowly across the path, nibbling on fallen fruits or just peering curiously from their shells as you pass by. If you want to discover more about these gentle giants, the best place to head is the Centro de Crianza Arnaldo Tupiza, one of the most successful tortoise breeding centres in the Galápagos.
You can see large decades-old tortoises as well as more recent hatchlings, learning all about the re-release of tortoises into the wild on a guided tour or by reading the plaques provided throughout the facility. It’s an easy walk or bike ride from Puerto Villamil.
5 | Playa Isabela
You might not imagine that the ferry docks in town would be a recommended place to hang out, but the beach just to the left of the docks is surprisingly lovely, with dozens of Galápagos Sea Lions sleeping on the sand, Marine Iguanas lurking on every surface (including the middle of the road as you walk over), Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Blue-Footed Boobies dotting the rocks, and often little Galápagos Penguins swimming through the shallow water.
There’s a little kiosk here selling cold drinks and snacks like helado, but it seems to keep odd hours, so pack along your own nibbles and stay for a few hours. The sunset is pretty spectacular!
6 | Los Humedales
Not far from Puerto Villamil, a large Wetlands complex of green swamps, tangled mangroves, and hidden lagoons is an excellent place to spot local birdlife and experience a landscape totally different to the beaches in town. This area is best enjoyed on a bike or by foot, stopping to explore each of the little trails that winds off into the trees.
One of my favourite places in the Wetlands is a convoluted tunnel of branches, a thick passage leading out to a beautiful estuary that feels like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Once at the water, all 4 species of mangrove found in the Galápagos are knotted around the emerald shore, and the little sandy beach makes for an excellent place to open up a book and relax in nature for a few hours. There’s even a little picnic table here if you want to bring snacks.
7 | Concha de la Perla
Just to the left of the ferry docks across the road from Puerto Villamil beach (#5 on this list), a boardwalk leads through mangroves to a stunning cove that is one of the best free snorkelling spots on the island. If you haven’t brought your own gear, it’s easy enough to hire a mask and snorkel for $4-5 from most shops in town.
Concha de la Perla (Pearl Shell) is sheltered from any ocean waves by a ring of trees and volcanic rocks, attracting all variety of reef sharks, sea turtles, sea lions, and even penguins to its calm waters. There’s a little wooden platform with steps leading out to the water and you can leave your towel up here whilst you blow bubbles.
8 | See the flamingos
There are several places on Isla Isabela to spot beautiful Galápagos Flamingos, but the Pozos (lagoons) to the immediate west of Puerto Villamil are readily accessible and considered to be the best place to see the hot pink birds. I personally had great luck spotting a number of flamingos fishing for dinner or artfully posturing on their graceful, spindly legs at Pozos Salinas.
This ties in well either with a visit to the Turtle Breeding Centre (#4 on this list) or the whole bike ride out to El Muro de las Lágrimas (#2), as the Pozas Salinas are along a stretch of trail that forks off just before the start of the cycle track, about 10min out of town. You’ll have to leave your bike at the turnoff, but it’s only a short stroll out here on boardwalks.
9 | Playa del Amor
A beautiful, volcanic beach with deep black lava stones that perfectly contrast against the golden sand and light blue water, Playa del Amor (Love Beach) is one of my favourite places near Puerto Villamil to go for a swim. There are heaps of marine iguanas lounging about, but hop over them and head straight to the large tide pool for a sheltered float in the cool water.
Most beaches on Isabela are already really quiet, but since Playa del Amor is around 2km out of town, it is especially peaceful and you can expect to enjoy it either completely or nearly all to yourself.
More about Isla Isabela
Where to eat in Puerto Villamil
Most of Puerto Villamil’s restaurants are clustered along Avenido Antonio Gil and around the Plaza in the centre of town, and given how few streets there are, you won’t have any trouble finding the area even without a map. I can recommend a few places specifically, but I imagine all of the restaurants are of a similar standard.
My best recommendation is to order the menú del día, a multi-course set menu offered by nearly every restaurant in Latin America that is drastically cheaper than ordering a la carta (and also a great way to try different local food). The menu is either completely fixed or involves a choice between a short list of mains and drinks while the starter and dessert is fixed.
Here’s an example of the menú del día I had at a couple memorable restaurants to give you an idea of what to expect on Isabela:
- Cesar’s: $8USD for tomato soup (fixed); beef main (about 5 different choices here) with rice, beans, and salad; fresh tropical juice; fruit and jello dessert (fixed)
- Restaurante El Cafetal: $8USD for veggie lasagna; seafood main with rice, salad, potato (all fixed)
Shops and facilities in Puerto Villamil
- There are no ATMs in Puerto Villamil, or indeed anywhere on Isabela, so it is absolutely essential to plan ahead and bring enough cash from Santa Cruz! Don’t rely on a credit card, as it’s unlikely your hotel will accept it and even less likely a restaurant will.
- As mentioned above, there are restaurants in Puerto Villamil, as well as a few shops selling snacks, drinks, and other basic items. Nothing is very expensive, but you also won’t be able to find everything.
- There are a few tour agencies in Puerto Villamil that offer day tours out to popular snorkelling sites like Las Tintoreras or Los Tuneles and hiking to Volcán Chico or Volcán Sierra Negro. Booking on arrival typically affords cheaper prices, but during high season, you’ll need to be flexible on dates. Tour agencies typically also hire bikes ($2-3/hr) and snorkel gear ($4-5/day) if you want to explore on your own!
- I got a SIM card while I was travelling around Ecuador, but the mobile reception on Isabela is rather dismal, so I wasn’t able to use maps or look up tours. Take the opportunity to disconnect, and if you have to ask for directions, the locals are always happy to help! And most hotels do have passable Wifi reception, so you won’t be completely cut off.
General tips for the Galápagos
- The Galápagos are a year-round destination, with different months offering better opportunities for spotting certain animals, but every month boasting varied wildlife! High season is from November to March and June to August, so visiting outside these times, especially around September and October, will ensure fewer crowds, better tour availability, and even lower prices on accommodation.
- Ecuador uses the US Dollar as their official currency, although you will sometimes get change in a mix of Ecuadorian coins and US coins. In the Galápagos, always plan to pay with cash rather than a credit card, as 99% of the time there will be a comical fee tacked on (like 12%).
- Despite being much more English-friendly than mainland Ecuador, there are definitely still some situations in the Galápagos where you will need a basic knowledge of Spanish to communicate effectively with the locals. Tour guides all speak reasonably good English, but I found that waiters, shop owners, and hotel staff often spoke little to none.
- It’s a good idea to drink filtered water to prevent getting sick, so I strongly recommend bringing a filtered water bottle like this one to avoid buying heaps of plastic bottles.
- After travelling around the Galápagos, be sure to check out the equally amazing mainland of Ecuador!