Is paradise a destination or an idea? If your idea of paradise is a tranquil powder puff white sand beach lined with palm trees set next to a small sleepy village with just enough services and comfort levels to remind you of civilization then Puerto Villamil is your paradise.
There are no beach hawkers here, yet. No tuk-tuks and informal sellers. But you may be accosted – by local children wanting to show you the way to your hotel or their mom’s café. Even by Galapagos standards, Puerto Villamil is remote; it is the farthest settlement from the Ecuadorian mainland and if you consider sailing westward you’d better be well prepared because as land fades from sight your next stop is the Marquesas Islands some 4,000 miles away. To put that into context New York is closer to Poland.
But, the good news is that the sandy streets and to-die-for beach are just a 2-hour launch ride away from the ‘bustling metropolis’ of Puerto Ayora; comparatively speaking of course. The cost is roughly $30 each way or if you don’t like skimming across the waves you can catch an inter-island prop plane from either Puerto Ayora or Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. You’ll land at possibly the smallest airport ‘terminal‘ you’ve ever seen, then catch a very cheap taxi or walk twenty minutes ‘downtown’.
Although fishing was the traditional profession of the Islanders, tourism is rapidly catching up so there is a better hotel and restaurant choice than a dozen years ago. Even though the choice is not as good as you’ll find in Puerto Ayora most people are going to find something suitable.
The better hotels range from the new minimalist design Iguana Crossing right in front of the beach to the Albemarle, also on the beach, which has Portuguese Mediterranean architecture – that was a crazy idea! – … which creates a peaceful ambience. A medium budget hotel is La Casa de Marita, a boutique hotel in front of the beach; it has an outside Jacuzzi with ocean views and siesta-encouraging hammocks. Hostal Cerro Azul is away from the beach and is probably your best budget option yet it still has hammocks, A/C and Wi-Fi.
If you guessed that Puerto Villamil has more seafood restaurants than, say, French restaurants then be happy because you’re powers of intuition are at least developed to a basic level. Food is not cheap in the Galapagos and restaurant food even less so. So restaurant food in the remotest town can be pricey compared to the Ecuadorian mainland.
Coco Surf has tasty seafood dishes and sometimes live music. Oasis has my favorite encocado dish which is a coconut flavor sauce with your choice of prawns, lobster or fish. El Encantado de Pepe is a great grill restaurant with very reasonable prices for a set meal of main course plus rice and juice. You can also find pizza, shwarma wraps, and a local bakery.
Nightlife is limited which may not be a bad thing when you can stroll along the sand beach star-gazing and/or sipping a beer or cocktail listening to the waves quietly breaking on the shore.
But in truth this sleepy paradise is best appreciated after you have been active during the day. You can make a strong case that Isabela Island has the most wildlife variety in the Galapagos and Puerto Villamil is your idyllic base for exploring further afield.
Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos and it’s not covered with any kind of road network so any day trips you do from Puerto Villamil will be limited to the attractions at the southern end of the island. Sites on the west and north side of the island are best visited during a 7 or 8-night cruise. Saying that there’s a lot to see close at hand.
Your first port of call could be Las Tintoreras, a crop of lava-rock islets hardly a stone’s throw from the quay at Puerto Villamil. There is so much to see that we recently wrote a blog article dedicated just to these islets but the synopsis is that you can see an amazing amount of wildlife in a short period of time ranging from harmless white-tipped sharks, marine iguanas, Galapagos Penguins to blue-footed boobies. A launch with a guide will whisk you over to the islets and you’ll have time to snorkel where you can see sea lions and turtles underwater.
Behind Puerto Villamil is a large lagoon leading to the ominous sounding wetlands which is a surprising feature to find on a dry volcanic island. The largest concentration of flamingos in the Galapagos hangs out here as well as whimbrels, pintails and sometimes blue herons. There is a boardwalk through the lagoon and mangrove trees.
On the way to the lagoon on one of the sandy tracks leading out of town, you come across an Iguana Crossing. There is actually a somewhat redundant road sign that warns drivers and probably cyclists too to watch out for the Galapagos Marine Iguanas crossing from the lagoon to the beach.
At the end of the boardwalk is a tortoise breeding center that protects the five species of Galapagos Giant Tortoise that live on Isabela. Because non-native introduced animals such as domestic goats and cats disturb and prey on tortoise eggs the breeding center hatches the eggs and keeps the young tortoises safe until they are large enough to be safely released into the wild.
Another lagoon slightly to the north of Puerto Villamil is called Concha de Perla. You can reach it by walking along another boardwalk at one end of the beach and it won’t disappoint. This superb visibility lagoon is perfect for snorkeling and you’ll likely see sea turtles, sea lions, iguanas, frigate birds, flamingos and a variety of tropical fish – maybe even a manta ray.
A longer trip will take you to The Lava Tunnels, these are caves formed by lava flows to the sea. Snorkeling here is incredibly rewarding and again, you can see penguins, sea lions, sharks and rays, turtles and an incredible variety of tropical fish.
If you need a change of pace and scenery after all that water and snorkeling, how about a hike to the nearest volcano to town? Sierra Negra can be seen in the far distance beyond Puerto Villamil and once you are at the summit you’ll be rewarded with stunning views over the island and back out to the Pacific Ocean and also a view of the largest crater in the Galapagos. The more observant visitors can see many different types of finch flitting from tree to tree on the lower slopes.
Puerto Villamil and Isabela haven’t always been a paradise. Long before the first cruise boats heaved into view unfortunate state prisoners were shipped to Isabela when it was considered an inhospitable outpost due to its lack of facilities and remoteness. The prisoners were put to work building a wall, The Wall of Tears, using large local rocks and the wall is up to 20 meters high in places. Hundreds of prisoners are thought to have died working here between 1945 and 1959. It’s only a short walk from town and an interesting slice of local history.
Four thousand miles away in French Polynesia the locals have a word – Saudade – for the feeling of melancholy nostalgia; wishing for things to be how they used to be after so many changes. Those changes, by and large still haven’t affected Puerto Villamil so be sure to visit the sleepy paradise before it wakes up.