Muro de las Lagrimas (The Wall of Tears) is situated about 7km west of Puerto Villamil. During World War II there was a Military Detachment here (and in some other places of Galapagos Islands too) operating a radar station, which was part of the of the surveillance system for this part of the Pacific Ocean.
After the war, in 1946, a penal colony was built here and they could then use much of the buildings left by the US Army. It was 300 convicts and 30 policemen who arrived. To keep the prisoners busy they were forced to build a long wall made by lava rocks. They were harshly punished and food were often scarce. There was a saying about the penal colony: Here the strong cry and the weak die. In 1959 the penalty colony was closed.
I cycled to Muro de Las Lagrimas from Puerto Villamil and made many stops along the way. There are also tours organised from Puerto Villamil.
Update June 2012: I have just read that about a month ago a tortoise was run over and badly injured along the road to Muro de Las Lagrimas. To protect the tortoises the road has now been closed for motor vehicles. You can still cycle or walk to Muro de Las Lagrimas.
One of the highlights of Galapagos Islands is to see the amazing Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). They are endemic to the islands and they are also the only lizards in the word that swim in the sea. The Marine Iguanas spend most of their time on land, but they feed on algae and seaweed. There are seven subspecies of Marine Iguanas in the archipelago and they can be found on all islands, often in the shore zone, on the lava rocks.
During millions of years the Marine Iguana has evolved to be well adapted to its environment. With a flattened snout and sharp teeth they can effectively feed on the algae on the rocks. Their tail helps them swim under water and with their long claws they can stand firmly on the rocks. Sometimes you can see the Marine Iguanas snort, that is when they get rid of excess sea salt with help from salt-eliminating glands in their nostrils. Most Marine Iguanas are black or dark grey in colour but on some islands the male can have a red or green colouring, a colouring that becomes brighter during the mating season.
Males become around 1m long, but some subspecies become longer and others shorter. The females are shorter than the males, and the spines along their back are not as large as on the male.
Females and young iguanas feed along the shore when it is low tide. It is mostly the males that feed in the sea and they can stay up to an hour under water. As the water is cold the iguanas must get warm when they come up on land, and then you can often see them basking in the sun with their face to the sun and their body raised from the ground (they must get warm, but not too warm so by raising the body they will allow the air to circulate under the body).
The Marine Iguanas are funny to see in the water. Twice when I snorkelled I saw them swimming. At Sullivan Bay I saw a Marin Iguana just as it took off from the bottom and swam up to the surface. As it reached the surface a sea lion got hold of the tail and played with it. Great for me to see, but I don’t think the iguana appreciated it that much. While snorkelling near Puerto Villamil I saw a whole group of iguanas swimming at the surface and just past me. It was wonderful.
The breeding season is from November - March. The females will then lay the eggs in an underground nest where they are incubated for three months. The baby iguanas are small and are therefore vulnerable to predators. They risk getting eaten by owls, hawks herons or mocking birds.
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. There are eleven different subspecies, but there have been at least 14.
Some tortoises can be very big, up to 150cm in length and with a weigh of 250kg, but it is not until they are around 40 years that they are fully grown. I didn’t see a tortoise of that size during my visit (many years ago though, on Prison Island, just off the Zanzibar coast, I saw a huge tortoise which I remember to be larger than the ones I saw on Galapagos Islands). It is not known how old the Galapagos Giant Tortoise can be, but many live till they are 150-160 years old.
The shape of the tortoise shell have evolved depending on the habitat where they live. There are two major types of shape to the shell, a saddleback shape or a dome shape, but there are also intermediate forms. The tortoises with a saddleback shaped shell are adopted to life in the more arid and hotter areas, where vegetation is sparse. They have longer necks and legs as they must be able to reach vegetation higher up. The dome shaped tortoises can be found in the highlands where there it is cooler and wetter and plenty of ground vegetation can be found.
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise reach sexual maturity at an age of 20-25 years. They mate throughout the year, but mostly during the warm and wet season. Usually the tortoises don’t travel long distances, but when it is time for the female to lay her eggs she will travel for many kilometres to reach more sandy and dry ground near the coast.
The tortoises are herbivores, which means they only eat plants, for example cactus pads, poison apple, guava and different grasses. They can live without drinking and eating for a very long time.
It is estimated that there were around 250 000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands at the time the islands were discovered. The number soon declined as they were hunted for by sailors who took them aboard their ships. As the tortoises can live very long without food and water the sailors could get fresh meat during their long journeys. Another threat came from the introduced animals which dig up nestings, eat the hatchlings or compete for food. In the 1970s the number of tortoises were only around 3000. Luckily there are many ongoing conservation projects in the Galapagos Islands, many introduced animals are hunted and numbers are decreasing, and there are a few Tortoise breeding centres in the Galapagos Islands where tortoises are brought up until they are big enough to be placed in their natural habitat. There are now around 20 000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.
When I cycled from Puerto Villamil to Muro de Las Lagrimas I saw several Giant Tortoises along the road, and there was also one near Muro de Las Lagrimas.
Puerto Villamil is situated on the south-eastern side of Isla Isabela. It is the third largest settlement in the Galapagos Islands with about 2000 inhabitants. It is a laidback place with sandy streets and a long white sandy beach in front of town. Around the central plaza there are some nice restaurants, there are a few Internet places, grocery stores, souvenir shops, laundries, a post office and a bank (but not yet with an ATM that takes foreign bankcards).
People from Puerto Villamil traditionally got their income from fishing, but now more and more are working with tourism, as the number of visiting tourists is increasing.
If you are visiting Galapagos Islands independently this is a good place to go. You have a beautiful beach right in town, there is a Tortoise Breeding Centre just outside Puerto Villamil, and there is a good place for snorkelling. Around Puerto Villamil there are several lagoons where you can spot many bird species and especially the Greater Flamingo is nice to see. You can make a trip to Muro de las Lagrimas and probably see Giant Tortoises along the road, and a trip to Las Tintoreras, an island full of Marine Iguanas and where you can also see White Tipped Reef Sharks. A very interesting tour to do is to Volcán Sierra Negra.
Puerto Villamil is named after General José Villamil who came to the Galapagos Islands in 1832 with the purpose to establish a new community, a place that was going to be a place of peace. It started out well, but as many of the settlers were convicts and rebel soldiers sent from the mainland to work, the presence of “rough characters” were to high, and also introduced domestic animals grassed on the dry, sparse vegetation. Already in 1837 General Villamil left the Galapagos Islands.
One morning I went for a walk along the sandy road west of Puerto Villamil. I came to a sign indicating that this was where the area Complejo de Humedales y Muro de las Lagrimas started. To Muro de las Lagrimas it was 5km and there seemed to be many interesting places to stop at along the road. It looked like a place I wanted to explore, but as I had little water and nothing to eat with me I thought it was better to go back to Puerto Villamil, snorkel, have lunch, rent a bike and come back in the afternoon.
Los Homedales is a wetland area with many small pools with mangrove vegetation, an important nursery ground for many aquatic animals. Along the road there are signs to interesting places to see, pools, small beaches with Marine Iguanas, a lave tunnel, an area where you can see all four species of mangroves on the island; white, jeli, red and black mangrove. There is a zone with Majagua vegetation, another with Candelabra Cactus and at one point you can see how the plants can grow on a very hard lava massif. It is all very well signed and there are information boards about the different ecosystems.
After a while the road starts to go uphill and further up you will come to an area where you can see the Giant Tortoise. I saw a few along the road from my bike. Then you will come to Cerro Orchilla, a small hill with stairs leading up to the top. From the top you will get fantastic views over the south part of Isla Isabela, and you can see Puerto Villamil in the distance. The vegetation is beautiful and on the trees there are Orchilla lichen. From Cerro Orchilla it is not far to Muro de las Lagrimas.
Long ago whalers and pirates hunted tortoises to keep on board their ships as the tortoises could survive a long time without food and water. In this way the sailors had access to fresh meat while they were at sea. Hunting continued after the islands got populated. Not only hunting reduced the population significantly but also predation by introduced animals. Especially baby tortoises who have a soft shell are vulnerable. Now there are a few breeding centres for tortoises on the Galapagos Islands with good programs for restoring the population of the Giant Tortoises. The largest one is Crianza de Tortugas (Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre) just outside Puerto Villamil.
At Crianza de Tortugas around 850 tortoises are kept in separate enclosures and you can see different subspecies from the island. The youngest ones are kept in corrals covered with a metal net to protect them. Tortoises are born and brought up at the breeding centre to eventually return to their natural habitat. There are many information boards around the centre where you can read about how they work at the centre and about the tortoises. There is also a small information centre. If you are in Puerto Villamil you should definitely make a visit here!
There are 13 species of Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands, and they are all endemic. The Finches are famous because the role they played in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution . When Charles Darwin visited Galapagos Islands in 1835 during his voyage with the Beagle he didn’t pay much attention to the finches, but more to the Mockingbirds which he noticed differences in, between the islands. He collected finches but didn’t record from which islands. It was not until he came home and talked to an ornithologist and others who had collected finches during the visit that he understood the significance of them.
All 13 Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands have evolved from a species of finch found on the South American Pacific coast. When they came to Galapagos Islands they adopted to different habitats and food available there. The beaks have evolved to be suitable to the food they eat. To be able to specialize in feeding is good when food is scarce and there is more competition for what is available.
Interesting to know is that the Woodpecker Finch can use thorns or twigs as tools when they search for larva or other insects in small crevices. Ground Finches eat skin parasites from Tortoises, Land Iguanas and Marine Iguanas, and the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch on Wolf and Darwin is also called Vampire Finch as they feed on blood they peck from Nazca Boobies.
The Darwin Finches have a length of 10 - 16cm. Their plumage is mottled grey, brown, black or olive coloured. Some species are not difficult to distinguish, while others are more difficult to identify. Not only are some species looking alike, but there are variations within a species and there are also hybrids.
The finches in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd photos are Ground Finches, all seen around Complejo de Humedales west of Puerto Villamil. The Ground Finch in the 3rd photo is a male which you can see because of the black colour. The finch in the 4th photo is a Woodpecker Finch seen around Volcán Sierra Negra.
The Lava Heron (Butorides sundevalli) is endemic to Galapagos Islands, and there it is quite common and can often be seen around mangrove swamps, tidal pools or along rocky shores.
In size, shape and colouration it is very similar to the Striated Heron and by some authorities the Lava Heron is even considered to be a subspecies of the Striated Heron. The Lava Heron is a small heron, around 35cm long. The plumage is dark grey, which blends well with the colour of the lava rocks. When breeding the legs become brighter yellow and the bill darker black
You will often see the Lava Heron sit still on a stone or a branch near the shore where it waits for small crabs and fish which it feeds on.
During the breeding season the Lava Herons are monogamous. If conditions are favourable they breed throughout the year, but mostly between September - March. The nest is often built in the lower branches of mangrove trees or under lava rocks.
The Lava Heron in the photo was sitting on the mangrove by one of the tidal pools in Complejo de Humedales, west of Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela.
In July 2011 the committees AOU and IOC voted to split the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) found in America from the Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) found in the rest of the world.
The Common Gallinule is a medium sized bird, belonging to the Rail-family. It becomes around 30-38cm long. The plumage is black with some white feathers in the tail and by the wings. It has a very characteristic bright red bill and forehead. The tip of the bill is yellow. The legs and feet are yellow with reddish upper parts.
The Common Gallinule can often be seen around brackish ponds and lagoons where they feed mostly on small insects and plants.
The Common Gallinules in the photos were seen around the small pools west of Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela.
The Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is common in Galapagos Islands, but it is a migrant bird that prefers breading in the colder northern climates of North America, Europe and Asia. In the Galapagos it can often be found along sandy beaches, by lagoons and tidal pools.
The Whimbrel is a large wader with a long curved bill. The females have a longer bill than the males. The legs and neck are long and the plumage is grey-brown with a paler underpart than upperpart.
Whimbrels eat small crustaceans and marine worms they pick up from the muddy surface they walk over, and they eat small fish and insects.
The Whimbrel in the two photos was walking on the beach west of Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela.
The Galapagos Sea Lion (Zalophus californianus wollebaeki) is an endemic subspecies. It is common, and there is a population of about 50 000 Sea Lions in the Galapagos Islands. They can be seen in many places near the shores, on beaches, on the rocks or even in the towns (for example on a porch in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and at the Fish Market in Puerto Ayora). Don’t be surprised if you get surrounded by playful sea lions while snorkelling. It is absolutely fantastic!
The male Sea Lion becomes very large, up to 230cm in length, with a weigh up to 250kg. They have a dark brown fur, which almost looks black when wet and they have a thick neck.
The females are smaller and weigh up to 120kg. They have lighter brown fur, which looks dark brown when wet. There are many more females as only one tenth of the Sea Lion pups are males.
The Galapagos Sea Lions feed during the day and they mostly eat Sardines. They can be away at sea for days to hunt for fish. Sharks are natural predators of the Sea Lions.
The Galapagos Sea Lions form colonies which consist of a dominant male (bull) and up to 30 females (cows) with their pups. The bull protects its territory against other males and sometimes there are fights. As it is difficult for a male to be away feeding while protecting his territory he becomes weaker and he will then be replaced by a stronger male after a while. Males without a territory form bachelor colonies.
The females give birth to one pup each year, which they nurse for up to three years. Sometimes you can see two pups of different age suckling milk from their mother. When they are around five months the pups can start fishing for themselves though. The mother and child can recognise each other’s bark and thus find each other among the other Sea Lions in the colony.
The Sea Lions in the first photo are lying on a small beach on Las Tintoreras, and the Sea Lion in the second photo is lying on the boardwalk between the harbour in Puerto Villamil and Concha de Perla.
When Charles Darwin visited Galapagos Islands in 1835 he noticed that the Mockingbirds looked a bit different on different islands, and that is something that influenced his thoughts of evolution.
There are four different species of Mockingbirds and they are all endemic. One is the Charles (Floreana) Mockingbird an endangered species that can only be found on the two small islands Champion and Gardner just off Floreana. Then there is the Chatham (San Cristóbal) Mockingbird that lives on Isla San Cristóbal and it is quite uncommon. On Isla Española the Hood Mockingbird is common, and common on the other islands is the Galapagos Mockingbird.
The mockingbirds have a grey and brown plumage with a white belly, and their length is 25-28cm. The bill is long, thin and black.
Mockingbirds can be found in dry forests- and shrubland areas. They are omnivours and often prey on seabird eggs, insects, young finches or small Lava Lizards.
The Mockingbird in the photos is a Galapagos Mockingbird that I saw near Muro de las Lagrimas on Isla Isabela. The Galapagos Mockingbird has a darker brown colour than the other Mockingbird species on the Galapagos Islands and it has a quite broad white collar. There are six subspecies of the Galapagos Mockingbird and the one on Isla Isabela is called Nesomimus parvulus parvulus. The same subspecies can also be seen on Fernandina, Santa Cruz, Seymour and Daphne.
On Galapagos Islands you will find an endemic subspecies of the White-cheeked Pintail, also called Galapagos Pintail (Ana bahamensis galapagensis). It is quite common and it can be found both in highland pools and lowland lagoons and mangrove swamps.
The White-cheeked Pintail is a medium sized duck that becomes around 46 cm long. It has mainly got brown feathers, with patterns of light and dark brown. The cheeks and throat are white and the bill is very characteristic with a blue and red colour. The legs and webbed feet are grey. Males and females look very similar, but the male is slightly larger and has a longer tail.
The White-cheeked Pintail feeds on small aquatic plants and small animals in the water. It mainly gets the food by dabbling at the surface, but it can also dive in deeper water.
If the conditions are good the White-cheeked Pintail can breed throughout the year, and they build their nest near the water, on the ground, protected by vegetation.
When I visited Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela I saw several White-cheeked Pintails in the lagoons in and outside Villamil, and that is where the photos are taken.
The Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) is endemic to Galapagos Islands and it is also the only penguin that can be found here. They are not very common, but there are only around a thousand couples. After El Niño years the population become smaller though as food supply decreases. The Galapagos Penguin can mostly be found around Isla Fernandina, the west coast of Isla Isabela, on Isla San Bartolomé and sometimes on Floreana.
Males and females look the same, but the males are usually a little larger. The penguins become around 50cm long. The flippers, back and face are black. From the eyes, round the cheeks, there is a curved white line. The breast is white with a black line across the throat.
The penguins can’t fly. They dive in the water for food and usually feed on small fish like sardines and mullets. They are very fast under the water. While snorkelling at Sullivan Bay I saw one penguin shooting through the water like an arrow.
The Galapagos Penguins are monogamous. They breed throughout the year if food availability is good. They lay 1-2 eggs near the shore in crevices and holes to protect the eggs from sunlight and overheating. The incubation time is 40 days and both parents take turns in looking after the nest.
The penguins in the photo was standing on a small lava rock that the boat passed on the way from Puerto Villamil to Las Tintoreras, Isla Isabela.
The brown Pelican can be found in many areas along the American Pacific and Atlantic coasts, but on Galapagos Islands you will find the endemic subspecies Pelecanus occidentalis urinator. They can be found by the coast on most islands.
The Brown Pelicans are large birds with a length of 105-152cm and a wingspan of 203-228cm. They have very long bills with an elastic pouch which they use when catching fish. The male and female look alike, but females are usually a little smaller. They have a greyish-brown plumage and they have a chestnut and white marking on neck and head when breeding. When not breeding the neck is more greyish. The juveniles have the same greyish-brown colour, but a paler/white belly. The feet are webbed.
The Brown Pelican feeds on fish and crustaceans and they can often be seen plunge-diving from the air into the sea to catch their prey. Under the water they fill their bill with water and fish, and then filters the water and swallow the fish.
The Galapagos Brown Pelican usually nest in mangroves and low bushes. They nest in colonies or individually. The female lay 2-3 eggs and they are incubated by both parents for about a month. They breed throughout the year.
The pelicans can live as long as 30 years.
On the beach west of Puerto Villamil, on Isla Isabela, there were many Brown Pelicans.