This post is part 10 of 13 in the series Galapagos Islands Travel Guide

Isabela Island is the largest island in the Galapagos Islands archipelago in Ecuador. There’s so much to see and do on Isabela–active volcanoes, a top snorkeling spot, tortoises on the trail–that many boat itineraries include two days of exploration on Isabela. Here are highlights (and video!) from four of the most popular travel destinations on Isabela Island including Bahia Urbina, Elizabeth Bay, Tagus Cove, and spectacular Punta Vicente Roca.

Galapagos color

Approaching a colorful stretch of coastline on Isabela Island in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

Exploring Isabela Island in the Galapagos

This seahorse-shaped island, which joins six active volcanoes, is one of the youngest islands in the Galapagos and the largest island of them all at 1,771 square miles (4,855 square km). Unlike most of the islands in the Galapagos archipelago, humans live on Isabela Island. The town of Puerto Villamil, on the southernmost end of the island, has more than 1,800 residents, mostly fishermen and people involved in tourism. There’s even a small airport on Isabela Island.

Urbina Bay Isabela Galapagos

A zodiac taking travelers to Bahia Urbina on Isabela Island.

Much of Isabela Island is closed to tourism. However, there are about a dozen areas of the expansive island that travelers can visit. Isabela Island is too far from Santa Cruz Island or San Cristobal Island for day trips, so the only way to explore this spectacular place is to stay in Puerto Villamil and explore from there or explore Isabela Island as part of your itinerary on multi-day cruise boat trips. We visited four Isabela Island destinations while onboard the M/Y Grace with Quasar Expeditions and during our trip on the M/V Eric with Ecoventura.

Trampled by tortoises at Bahia Urbina

We’d barely completed our first steps on the loop trail that travels inland from Bahia Urbina (Urbina Bay) when we saw Galapagos giant tortoises–and that was just the beginning. As we walked, we saw mating tortoises, tortoises under thick brush, old tortoises, young tortoises, tortoises in a hurry (they’re surprisingly fast), tortoises practically underfoot, tortoises everywhere.

glapagos ggalapagos giant tortoise isabela islandiant tortoise

While hiking the loop trail inland from Bahia Urbina on Isabela Island we saw Galapagos giant tortoises everywhere including on the trail, wedged under some bushes, getting frisky, and more. The shell of the young tortoise in the upper lefthand corner was particularly beautiful because it hadn’t been roughed up by life yet.

Many of the tortoises were busy eating small, bright green poisonous apples. Our guide told us that the apples don’t bother the tortoises. In fact, they help the tortoises digest cactus spines and other tough stuff that they eat. Our guide also told us that Galapagos giant tortoises can weigh more than 440 pounds (200 kilos) and live for 130 years.

young Galapagos Tortoise

Galapagos travelers slowly skirt around a young Galapagos giant tortoise on the trail at Bahia Urbina on Isabela Island.

The tortoises on Isabela Island are so giant because the cactus here grows edible paddles way up high on their tree-like trunks. Tortoises eat those cactus paddles and to survive they must grow big enough to reach them.

Land iguana Isabela island

The land iguanas on Isabela Island were the largest ones we saw in all of our time in the Galapagos.

The land iguanas on Isabela Island also seemed to be supersized. We saw one that was at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) long from snout to tail tip–far larger than any other land iguanas we saw in the Galapagos. While hiking we also saw a Galapagos hawk, a top predator in the Galapagos, being bullied by much smaller Galapagos mockingbirds. Our guide noted that the hawk had returned to its old nesting site which was a type of behavior he’d never seen the hawks do before.

We also visited an area on Isabela Island that had very short and sparse ground cover. Our guide told us it was a camp used by sea cucumber poachers who cleared the land and poisoned the area with fuel and other contaminants used as they cooked the contraband cucumbers which were then sold to people in Asia who consider them to be aphrodisiacs.

The poachers were forcibly removed by the military many years ago (our guide said two of his friends were shot during the operation), but the land is so contaminated that it still hasn’t revegetated.

galapagos penguin bahia urbina

Galapagos penguins may not be able to fly in the air but they certainly fly underwater.

After the hot, dusty hike it was a pleasure to get into the sandy bay for a bit of snorkeling with Galapagos penguins (pictured above) and brown pelicans.

We visited in: March and December

Activities: dry landing, hiking, snorkeling

Animal highlights: On land, we saw many Galapagos giant tortoises, enormous land iguanas, a Galapagos hawk, yellow warblers, and Galapagos mockingbirds. While snorkeling we saw Galapagos penguins and brown pelicans.

Part of: the western group of islands

Pro tip: We saw many more Galapagos giant tortoises during our visit to Bahia Urbina in March than we did during our visit in December. This may be because March is within the tortoise mating season which brings more of them down from higher elevations on the island to look for a mate.

Don’t miss the tortoise mating footage (and much more) in our Galapagos travel video, below, from Isabela Island.

 

Boating around Elizabeth Bay

Landings are not allowed in Elizabeth Bay, so our tour of the area was done exclusively in a zodiac. First, we slowly patrolled the shoreline and circled a rocky outcrop in Elizabeth Bay where we saw Galapagos penguins, blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, and marine iguanas. Golden rays are sometimes seen in the clear water here, but we did not spot any.

elizabeth bay galapagos

A zodiac full of Galapagos travelers slowly patrols the shoreline around Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island.

Then the zodiac took us to Elizabeth Bay Inlet which is ringed with mangroves. This place is a haven for green sea turtles and we saw many.

We visited in: December

Activities: boat tour

Animal highlights: We saw blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, green sea turtles, flightless cormorants, a juvenile striated heron, lava herons, Sally Lightfoot crabs feeding, and Galapagos penguins.

Part of: the western group of islands

Here are more photos from Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island.

juvenile galapagos penguins

Young Galapagos penguins around Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island.

sally lightfoot crab elizabeth bay

Sally Lightfoot crabs sharing a meal in Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island.

lava heron isabela island

A lava heron on the hunt in Elizabeth Inlet on Isabela Island.

juvenile straited heron

A juvenile striated heron in Elizabeth Inlet on Isabela Island.

Blue-footed booby Isabela island

Blue-footed boobies around Elizabeth Bay on Isabela Island.

Two sides of Tagus Cove

This cove was frequented by pirates and whalers who started a tradition of inscribing the names of their ships near the cove. After our zodiac landed at Tagus Cove, we walked to the inscription spot to see the names of ships that had visited in the past. The oldest inscription that’s still visible dates back to 1936. The inscription from the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin to this spot in 1835, has been removed for preservation.

Many walks in the Galapagos Islands are relatively flat. However, Isabela Island is made up of six volcanoes which means that this island has more hills than usual. After looking at the ship inscriptions, we walked up to a crater lake that Charles Darwin visited in search of fresh water. Unfortunately, the crater lake, now called Darwin Lake, is full of salt water.

Darwin lake tagus cove galapagos

This crater lake on Isabela Island is named for Charles Darwin who visited it in search of fresh water.

There may not be any fresh water up there, but the views from Darwin Lake down onto Tagus Cove are lovely. Fun fact: our guide told us that the water level in Darwin Lake is always at the same level as the ocean.

tagus cove galapagos

A zodiac takes Galapagos travelers to Tagus Cove on Isabela Island.

After climbing back into the zodiac, we motored around the shoreline spotting Galapagos penguins before grabbing masks and fins for a snorkel in Tagus Cove which is an iconic Galapagos snorkeling spot for a reason.

sea turtle tagus cove

One of many green sea turtles we saw while snorkeling in Tagus Cove.

During our snorkel, we saw intricate coral formations, lots of aptly-named chocolate chip starfish, vibrant reef fish, and small schools of barracuda. We also saw a very large boxfish, at least four seahorses (a very rare sight), lots of green sea turtles, and a fishing cormorant. We’d grown used to the curious and playful presence of sea lions whenever we were in the water, but we didn’t see any during our snorkel in Tagus Cove.

kayak tagus cove

Our kayaking excursion in Tagus Cove was made more adventurous by wind and chop.

During one of our two visits to Tagus Cove, we also had the chance to kayak in the bay. A bit of wind and chop added to the adventure during which we saw leaping dorado fish and Galapagos penguins on the shore.

We visited in: March and December

Activities: dry landing, hiking, snorkeling, kayaking

Animal highlights: While snorkeling we saw seahorses, Galapagos penguins (on the shore and a few darting around in the water), chocolate chip sea stars, green sea turtles, a boxfish, and flightless cormorants (including one fishing).

Part of: the western group of islands

Here are more photos from Tagus Cove on Isabela Island.

galapagos penguin tagus cove

A Galapagos penguin and a Sally Lightfoot crab share a rock in Tagus Cove on Isabela Island.

great blue heron tagus cove

A great blue heron in Tagus Cove.

Stellar snorkeling around Punta Vicente Roca

From Tagus Cove, it’s a 2-hour boat journey through open ocean to Punta Vicente Roca which juts out of the northwestern end of Isabela Island. Along the way, we saw a large group of mobula rays which also lept out of the water with amazing force in a stunt that helps shear parasites off their skin.

dolphins isabela island galapagos

Just a few of the hundreds of common dolphins we saw as our boat took us through open ocean from Tagus Cove to Punta Vicente Roca.

We also saw a pod of 200 or more common dolphins (their white inset side panels reminded us of the design of some vintage vehicles like Corvettes). They lept and played as if showing off just for us, though they were probably feeding.

Then we noticed the odd vertical fin of a sunfish which is a very, very rare sighting. We saw at least eight of these odd creatures (Google it, it was impossible to get a good shot from the moving boat) before we reached Punta Vicente Roca.

punta vicente roca galapagos

Approaching Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island.

After loading into a zodiac, we left the main boat and toured the shoreline around Punta Vicente Roca, including nosing carefully into a small cave. The cave was dramatic, but the most thrilling moment of the zodiac tour came when we spotted the fin of a big Galapagos shark as it broke the surface of the water near our zodiac.

cave punta vicente roca

A zodiac takes Galapagos travelers into a natural cave in the shoreline near Punta Vicente Roca.

The very cold Cromwell Current dominates around Punta Vicente Roca which brings in a lot of small food sources into the area. Larger marine creatures follow and feed in the rich water. The Cromwell current also means we put on wet suits before jumping in the water to snorkel around Punta Vicente Roca.

While snorkeling, we saw dozens of hunting penguins that darted past us like bullets. There were plenty of playful sea lions, many green sea turtles, diving cormorants, and lots of bright reef fish too. We also saw three scorpionfish (one of which was eating another fish) and an octopus. At one point Karen raised her head above water and a skimming lava gull nearly crashed into her.

Punta Vicente Roca delivered the most sea life (thanks Cromwell Current), most gorgeous surroundings, and overall most breathtaking snorkeling experience we’ve ever had. It was like being inside an elaborate, well-stocked enclosure at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There was so much wildlife here that by the time we returned to the main boat our necks were sore from looking around at so many wonderful things.

We visited in: March and December

Activities: zodiac tour along the coastline and into a cave, snorkeling

Animal highlights: While traveling to Punta Vicente Roca we saw common dolphins, mobula rays, and some sunfish in the open sea. At Punta Vicente Roca we saw Galapagos fur seals and a Galapagos shark. While snorkeling around Punta Vicente Roca we saw Galapagos penguins, sea lions, scorpionfish, flightless cormorants, an octopus, reef fish, and green sea turtles.

Part of: the western group of islands

See more of the spectacular underwater show at Bahia Urbina, Tagus Cove, and Punta Vicente Roca in our Isabela Island snorkeling video, below.

 

Here are more photos from Punto Vicente Roca on Isabela Island.

Galapagos penguins isabela island

Galapagos penguins near Punta Vicente Roca.

blue footed booby vicente punta roca

Blue-footed boobies on the shore near Punta Vicente Roca on Isabela Island.

punta vicente roca sunset

Sunset over Punta Vicente Roca after another wildlife-filled day in the Galapagos.

More Galapagos travel tips

 

Here’s more about travel in Ecuador

Here’s more about Island Travel

Here’s more about Galapagos Travel

 


Series Navigation:<< Highlights of Visiting Santiago Island – Galapagos Islands, EcuadorHighlights of Visiting Fernandina Island – Galapagos Islands, Ecuador >>

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