Weekend Escape to Isabela Island

Two Tuesdays ago Matt called me with exciting news: he was going to be off school the following Monday, providing his first day off since we arrived here. Originally, his school was required to march in a parade on August 10, in commemoration of Quito Independence Day, but on Tuesday the local government cancelled the parade due to road construction. Subsequently, on Thursday, there was some confusion when the parade was reinstated, but on Friday schools were again deemed exempt. A good thing as we had already paid for our non-refundable hotel on Isabela Island.

Apart from our day trips, this was our first opportunity to explore a new island. From Santa Cruz, the two best options for a weekend getaway are San Cristobal or Isabela. We chose Isabela because the túneles (tunnels) snorkeling trip is supposed to be one of the best of the islands and I miss hiking after living in Cajamarca and Isabela has a volcano hiking trip I wanted to do. Both islands are a 2 -2 1/2 hour ferry ride away. “Ferry” is a term used loosely here:

Destiny ferry

Destiny ferry

Yep, that was the boat we and 20 other people were going to crash through waves in during a 2 hour ride just at the time that the weather cooled off a bit and the seas got a little rougher. Lucky us. I prepared with my usual dramamine, acupressure sea bands and soothing music and decided an empty stomach was the way to go. We got to the pier about 6:20 am on Saturday, went through the inspection line to ensure we were not bringing anything organically harmful to another island and caught a water taxi (a blatant, 50¢ shake down, increased to $1 on Isabela) to our ferry and settled in for the ride.

Departure Gate

Departure Gate

And what a ride it was. Tellingly, they hand out barf bags when you embark. Happily, neither Matt nor I used them, and I decided that pounding through waves is actually easier (not easy, mind you) on my stomach than swaying in the waves, but the ride was bone jarring. Not as bone jarring as what was about to come a few days later on our snorkeling trip, but rough on the back. We had a few pukers on board and I realized that an added incentive to not puking was that after you did so, you got to hold your bag of vomit for the rest of the trip.

As we pulled into Isabela we were treated to penguins zooming alongside the boat. That cheered up everyone after the trying ride.

We dropped off our bags at our hotel, the Red Mangrove Isabela Lodge, and walked into town for some breakfast and to shop for tours. The town is loaded with travel agencies all selling the same 3 or 4 tours. We compared prices at 3 of them and then lined up the volcano hike ($35 per person) for Sunday and the Túneles ($85 per person) for Monday morning before our departure back to Isabela. I had read that to dine at the nicer hotels for dinner you need to make a reservation and order your food in advance, so we headed over to the lovely Iguana Crossing hotel to make a dinner reservation. And guess what: we did, indeed, see 4 iguanas crossing the road right at the edge of the hotel property.

We enjoyed the rest of the day hanging out on the hotel patio and snorkeling at the fabulous Concha de Perla. Located near the pier, you head down a wooden walkway through the mangroves to reach the calm bay. On our walk there, 2 young sea lions were napping on the walkway. What a conundrum! In the Galapagos people are required to stay 6 feet away from the animals. We decided the 6 feet rule had exceptions and gingerly walked over the sea lions. Concha de Perla was crowded but well worth the visit. The water was serene and clear and one can easily swim alongside the reef and admire the coral, anemones and striking red-studded starfish.

It was a good thing we relaxed because we were up early for our 7:15 pick up for our Sierra Negra volcano hike. Confusion ensued when a cabbie picked us up, took us to pick up our box lunch only to realize a few blocks later that we weren’t his passengers. We had even showed him our tickets to confirm we were his passengers. He drove us back to the hotel where eventually another cabbie picked us up and took us to get a different box lunch before driving us up to the highlands of the island. Matt and I agreed that the first box lunch looked better than the second.

While we were told that the tour was 16 km, or 10 miles, no one really pointed out that 10 miles up a volcano is a relatively challenging hike. We were fine because we are accustomed to walking, had proper footwear and after hiking at high altitude in Cajamarca, a hike at 3,000 feet isn’t difficult, but others in our group struggled. The first part was through a lush, verdant area. The mist was heavy and the path, muddy.

We got to the rim of the Sierra Negra crater, the second largest in the world, and couldn’t see a thing. The entire crater was covered in fog. We continued hiking along the rim and then left the verdant area and passed through an in-between scrubby area before eventually arriving in a arid area covered by volcanic rock.

Except under this gorgeous tree – it was wet and misty there.

Rainy Respite

Rainy Respite

We hit the volcano field. I had no idea that volcanic rock could be so interesting. Seriously. The colors and patterns were just incredible. Because Sierra Negra is an active volcano, there were many furnaces, which were warm to the touch. We crossed several areas of lava from different eruptions and eventually reached a lookout point where we could see the Isabela coast and Fernandina island.

Well, we could see it momentarily before the fog blew in. We ate lunch at the peak and then began the return to the trailhead via the same path.

Fog Blowing In

Fog Blowing In

Matt, a Portuguese woman, Maria, and I hightailed it in front of the rest of the group. Our guide told us to keep glancing at the crater as we walked alongside it in case the fog lifted, but it never did. Matt and I were feeling pretty proud of our fast pace until we realized that we were in hiking boots and Maria, who was probably a few years older than us, was keeping up with us in Tevas. In any event, the 3 of us beat the rest of the group back to the beginning and were thankful that there was a cab waiting to take us back to town. We were soaked, muddy and ready to relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

The next morning was another early start with the same cabbie confusion. Eventually, the right guy came to get us. Our boat was the Capricorn and we went to the boat’s offices to get our wetsuits and snorkeling gear (Matt and I bring our own snorkel and masks but use the fins the tour companies provide. Wetsuits are on the list for our April visit to the US.). There were 8 other passengers: our new Portuguese friend Maria (who also ended up on the same ferry later in the day), an Italian woman with a French guy, an Ecuadorian family with 2 young children and a high-school aged Colombian boy. We got to the Capricorn and set off. Oh. My. God. Crashing through the waves doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. We were slamming through the waves and there were times the boat was airborne. I was happy that our captain was a cheerful fellow because I figured he didn’t have a death wish. At one point, an enormous  wave was coming toward the side of the boat. I think it was big enough to break over us because suddenly our captain turned on a dime and gunned the engine to mount the wave after which we zoomed down the other side. The ocean was our roller coaster.

After 45 minutes of this excitement (and one puker, not us), we approached another boat bobbing in the waves. We stopped and held too. The captains were waiting for the seas to calm enough to continue the journey to the tunnels. They never did and eventually we gave up and went to what was intended to be the second snorkeling stop of the trip, with the assurance that we would try to go the tunnels later.

Once in the water it became apparent that only 3 of us knew how to swim. The other 7 passengers ended up clutching their life vests, which were the huge, old-fashioned kind that would certainly keep you afloat but that you couldn’t swim in, or the round life saver. Our head guide had to tow several of the 7 in a line. The younger guide would swim around scouting for stuff to see and then the head guy would tow the crowd over. Because you are supposed to stick with your group, the non-swimmers made the trip a bit less fun for us. We were missing wildlife! I finally starting swimming along with the scout guide who would point out things along the way. In fact, I was the first passenger initially in the water and he immediately took me to see a huge sea turtle. He had me swim down to it and took a picture but unfortunately didn’t send us that one. All the same, it was an incredible trip because our guides made sure we saw tons of sea creatures.

It was the first time we saw seahorses. They were tricky to see as they are not always in their curled shape so sometimes they just look like a bumpy stick.

After a long time in the water, we boarded the boat. The captain assessed the situation and determined that it wasn’t safe to go to the tunnels, so we headed back to Isabela. It worked out fine because we had 3 hours on shore before we had to board the ferry. The ferry ride was even rougher on the way home than on the way to Isabela, but, once again, we were not the pukers on board. They pulled a bait and switch on us and we ended up crammed in a different boat that I did not think was as nice as the Destiny. But we made it home. Isabela was a great trip and is on our list to visit again despite the ferry ride.

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