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 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!
The boardwalk and path to Crianza de Tortugas begins just west of Puerto Villamil. The boardwalk goes over a wetland area with several lagoons where you can see flamingos and many other birds, among others Black-necked Stilt, Moorhen and White-cheeked Pintail. The lagoons are bordered with mangrove vegetation. Further north the boardwalk continues as a path through green vegetation (it is open area for a while). The trees are beautiful with curvy stems. One of the tree species you can see here is the Manchineel tree, which is a native tree to Galapagos Islands. It has got poisonous fruits that can only be eaten by the giant tortoise.
The trail to Crianza de Tortugas is not long, only a bit over 1km.
In the southwest corner of Parque Central, on Antonio Gil, there is a small booth were you can rent snorkel equipment for $5 per day (July 2011). You can also rent snorkel equipment, and wetsuits, at the harbour. I went to the harbour to rent the equipment as I was going to snorkel at Concha de Perla, near the harbour.
I got my snorkel, mask and fins and the woman said it was $2.50 and I paid. Then I walked the boardwalk down to Conch de Perla to snorkel. There was a very big group there and many seemed to be first time snorkelers. I decided to go further out at once, closer to where we had snorkelled during the Bay Tour, so I put on my fins, lay on the back and paddled out. When I put on the mask and snorkel I realised they were both bad. It leaked water into the snorkel through the vent hole. I blew it out, but the snorkel was immediately full of water again and I couldn’t breath. I always want to have a “closed” snorkel as I think the snorkels with vents often get water coming in, but there was only snorkels with vents for rent. So I thought I had to manage without the snorkel, but could I see anything, no. The mask was very foggy and I tried to clean it several times, both with saliva and mangrove leaves (the guide on the Bay Tour had used mangrove leaves and said it was a god way to clean the mask). Nothing worked so I swam back to the board walk and went back to the store to leave the snorkel equipment. Now the woman wanted to have $2.50 more as she had told me the wrong price first. But as I hadn’t been able to use the equipment we agreed that I didn’t need to pay another $2.50.
I booked the Bay Tour at Hostal La Jungla the evening before going on the tour and it was $25 (July 2011). At 9 o’clock in the morning I was picked up at the hostel and in Puerto Villamil we picked up four other tourists. At the harbour we were met by a guide and went aboard a boat.
Las Tintoreras is a small volcanic island just off the coast from Puerto Villamil. On the way there we saw a couple of penguins, a Blue-footed Booby and Sally Lightfoot Crabs on some lava rocks. At Las Tintoreras there is trail around the island which we walked together with the guide.
On the southern side of many lava rocks on Las Tintoreras you can see different kind of lichen. The lichen are found mainly on the south side of the rocks as the moist prevailing winds are coming from the south and the lichen can take up the moisture from the air.
There are lots and lots of Marine Iguanas on Las Tintoreras. There is a nesting area and we saw many juvenile iguanas. Visiting Las Tintoreras there is also a good chance that you will see White Tipped Reef Sharks. In the calm waters between the rooks the sharks rest at the bottom during the day. There were several sharks there when we walked passed. There were also some sea lions playing at the water edge at a white sandy beach. It was restricted area though and we could only watch them from the trail. Just by the trail we also saw a Great Blue Heron.
After visiting Las Tintoreras we went snorkelling in the bay for an hour. It was a good place for snorkelling and the equipment was good as well. We saw a lot of Sergeant Mayors, small wrasses and tiny box fishes. At one place there were 8-10 big turtles laying on the sandy bottom (I wish I had brought my disposable camera). It was also fun to see many big Marine Iguanas swimming near us at the surface.
Coming back to the harbour I walked back to Puerto Villamil and Hostal La Jungla and then went out to eat lunch. The Bay Tour is a half-day tour.
In the morning of my last day on Isla Isabela I took a walk along the road that runs parallel to the sea west of Puerto Villamil. I came to an information board about Comlejo de Humedales y Muro de Las Lagrimas and saw that it was another 5km to Muro de Las Lagrimas. It was too far as I didn’t have much water with me, so I decided to go back to Puerto Villamil, snorkel, have lunch and then rent a bike and come back.
I rented the bike at a hotel which is situated on the road leading west from the south corner of the plaza. To rent a bike was $2.50 per hour (July 2011), and the bike was okay to use on the bumpy dirt road to Muro de Las Lagrimas. There are several places of interest to stop at along the way and the best is to see them on the way to Muro de Las Lagrimas as it is more uphill that way.
There was no lock on the bike but I was told it didn’t matter as no one would steal it anyway, it’s safe on Isla Isabela.
I used the bike for a bit more than 3 hours and was charged for three hours, so I paid $7.50.
There are no paved roads on Isla Isabela and not too many roads either.
Volcán Sierra Negra on Isla Isabela is situated 27km northwest of Puerto Villamil. The volcano is 1490 metres high and has got the second largest volcano crater in the world, the caldera is 10km in diameter. Volcán Sierra Negra is an active volcano and it had its latest eruption in 2005, an eruption with lava flows that lasted for a week (wish I had seen that). Even if it is clear in Villamil it is often foggy around Sierra Negra, especially during the garúa season, which is between June-December. Even if it is foggy on Volcán Sierra Negra it often clears up when you follow the trail north towards Volcán Chico, a subcrater to Sierra Negra.
I visited Volcán Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico on a daytour from Puerto Villamil. I booked the tour the night before and paid $35 (July 2011). In the morning I was driven from Hostal La Jungla at 7.30 to meet up with other people outside another hotel. We were eight tourists in the group and one guide.
In Puerto Villamil it was grey and raining so we knew what was waiting in the highlands. At Volcán Sierra Negra it had rained the whole night and the trail was very muddy. There was a fine drizzle and it was difficult to take photos. When we reached the crater we could not see it, but further north along the path we could see a little glimpse of it. The trail is following the east side of the crater. North of the crater it stopped raining and was not so foggy anymore, but still cloudy. As we approached Volcán Chico the landscape changed to an amazing lava landscape, at some places colourful with red and yellow colours. There are several interesting formations, like lava tunnels, and very thin lava straws ”Devil’s hair”. You can clearly see the difference of the more reddish lava, maybe 5000 years old, and the more recent black lava stream from 1979. At one place there is a big yellow area in the distance and you can easily think it is the sun shining on the ground, but it is not. It is heat and sulphur.
Our group walked all the way to a view point in the end of the trail from where we could see Isla Fernandina, even if it was not a very clear day. There were four groups visiting Volcán Sierra Negra, but two of them did not walk the trail to the end, but turned around when the lava landscape begun. I’m glad I wasn’t in one of these groups as it was a very interesting part to walk to Volcán Chico.
After visiting the view point in the end of the trail we walked back the same way we had arrived. Along the way we stopped at a picnic spot under some tall trees to eat our packed lunch (included in the price of the tour). The trail from the starting point to the view point on Volcán Chico is 8km.
On Volcán Chico the lava landscape is bare, even if there are some vegetation, but around Volcán Sierra Negra crater the vegetation is more dense and here you will probably also see several kinds of birds. Among others we saw the Vermilion Flycatcher, Ground Finches, Woodpecker Finch, Yellow Warbler and Smooth Billed Anis. We also saw a wild cat and along the path a rat without its head. Was it the cat that had taken the rat’s head?
Don’t forget to use sun block, even if it is foggy or cloudy. The sun is strong!
There is a population of about 400 - 500 flamingos on the Galapagos Islands. They can mainly be seen on Floreana (Punta Cormorant), Isla Isabela (Villamil), Isla Santa Cruz (Las Bachas Beach), Santiago and Isla Rábida.
When I visited Floreana on the cruise with Cachalote there was only one flamingo in the lagoon at Punta Cormorant. That was a disappointment, as there usually are many more to be seen. However, I got the chance to see the flamingos again when I visited Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela after the cruise. There is a lagoon in the middle of Villamil where you can see flamingos and another lagoon with flamingos just outside Villamil, by the boardwalk to Crianza de Tortugas. A good time to see the flamingos is towards the evening when you can see them come flying in to the lagoon.
The Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is a big wading bird with a bright pink plumage. The legs and neck are long and it has a big curved bill. It can be up to 120 cm tall and the wingspan is about 140 cm. The flamingo flies with its neck extended and then you can see that it is black under the wings.
Flamingos feed on crustaceans, algae and small water plants. It is actually the pigment carotenoid which is found in the crustaceans that gives the flamingo its pink colour. When the flamingo is young the feathers are white/light grey. The flamingo feeds in shallow coastal lagoons and because their feet are webbed they can walk in the mud without sinking to deep. When the flamingos eat they move their head upside down under water and filter the mud and water. If you have taken photos of flamingos you have probably, like me, been waiting long for them to lift their head above the water surface. It seems they can keep their head under water for ages.
One of the tours most aggressively touted on Isabella if this expression fits this gentle frontier town at all, is the tour of the lagoon. It is located just off the boat peer and hence does not seem exciting at the beginning but it delivers the goods – literally speaking. One can see penguin, blue foot boobies, sea lions, and sea turtle to mention a few. This is a great sea safari. The surroundings are matching the wildlife in its bizarre appearance such as lava field eroded by the elements and covered by lichen but only on one side where the southern winds prevail!! Posing for a perfect photo, iguanas bask in the sun perched on the peculiar lava formations and local white tipped sharks roam the lava canyons on their union break from devouring other creatures!
At a point, in the backyard of hotel Iguana -the last building along the beach street going west, or at the sign “iguana crossing point”, (no worries, you might miss the sign but not the iguanas) one can cross it and follow a path approximately 2km through dense mangrove vegetation and lava dessert all the way to the turtle breeding center. The center must not sound as much and it probably is not but the show that the local curators put up is not to be missed. You might end up not being able to buy a T-shirt in the store but you will turn into a turtle in matter of seconds. Conveniently, after the visit of the turtle enclosures one could figure out, if desired, into exactly which subgroup of turtle he has been morphed in.
Puerto Villamil is the main port of call of the largest of the Galapagos Islands – Isabel. The town and its development are restricted by the marsh area behind it where one can find flamingos as one of the more spectacular birds to mention. The marsh itself starts practically downtown from the backyard of hotel Rincon de George and continues miles upon miles westward where it can be followed along the ocean beach.