This place feels much more remote than Santa Cruz – even slightly abandoned, which is a welcome thing.
With its squarish, concrete structures (many half-finished) and radio towers, however, Puerto Villamol is not especially charming at first glance. The roads around the town square are dirt while the park is paved. Go figure. Just a block or two away there are barren lots strewn with cinderblocks and plastic tubs, which reminded me of deep West VA, except instead of dirt, the ground is covered in black volcanic gravel like a rustic parking lot. Opposite a flamingo pond is what appears to be a 1950’s style power plant.
But the island holds many lovely surprises, such as Concha de Perla, a wooden walkway where sea lions snooze (you have to step over them!) through a mangrove swamp to a bay which is home to marine iguanas and giant tortoises.
There is also a long stretch of beach with turquoise green water, the softest sand ever, and pleasant beach cafes.
The restaurants that looked run-of-the-mill by day light up at night from the glow of lanterns. The seafood is also excellent. We took advantage of ubiquitous $8 set menu options and sampled the grilled fish, lobster, and fish soup and (apart from a mushy seafood spaghetti) enjoyed every bite.
Elise adores pools, and I wanted to give her a special experience during our final days in the Galapagos, so I booked a stay at The Wooden House (3x our normal budget) based on the photos of its big pool. But while the rooms were lovely and Zen-like, the pool ended up being teensy tiny (trick photography).
After one night we switched to another hotel with spacious rooms, gleaming floors, and hammocks on a breezy top-floor terrace. Having essentially won back some of our budget, I looked into guided tours. The options depicted in faded photos at the travel agencies, however, left a lot to be desired. There were tours of the Tuneles, Volcanes, and Tintoreras, but travelers we met said the volcano tour was not worth it, and it was much better to see the other sites yourself. So we rented snorkels ($6 for 2 of us for the afternoon) and swam in the bay with marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and many colorful fish (my favorite was a black fish with electric blue eyes and a yellow mouth), and then rode mountain bikes to see flamingos and tortoises at a conservation center where Elise was allowed by an enthusiastic guide to touch a highly interactive tortoise! It was amazing looking into this 100+ year old creature’s eyes, who shrunk back into his/her shell any time we gestured too wildly.
We then rode a 5k path along gorgeous coastline which eventually turned inland.
There were various scenic lookout points marked with large signs for “Green Ponds”, “Round Pool”, “Hidden Pool” etc (was like shopping for sights at a supermarket), as well as a high platform with 360 degree views of the island.
Elise decided to forego the climb in favor of having a snack, which she shared with two little birds. As a gearhead, I was absurdly pleased to be able to offer her one of our tiny, ultralight camping chairs for the first time.
From the lookout platform, there was sea as far as the eye could see in one direction, and uninhabited, scrub-covered land in the other that disappeared into a wall of fog. I felt the desolation of the place and had a flicker of melancholy.
The path ended at the towering 100m long Wall of Tears, which was built by convicts under abusive conditions at the time of the island’s penal colony (1946-59). The wall appeared to be made entirely of volcanic rocks and was in the middle of nowhere, separating nothing. It provided us with the opportunity to discuss human rights and capital punishment. Without prompting, Elise told me that she believes that even convicts should not be abused since they are already paying for their crimes by being locked up, and that we do not have the right to kill other human beings – even murderers. (Brava Elise! I am less certain about how society should punish child molesters/murderers).
But our visit to the island wasn’t all about heavy discussion. The next day, Elise tried body boarding for the first time. The surf was great and she managed to ride a few waves all the way to the shore. Since this is the precursor to surfing, her surfboarding cousin Nele will be proud!
As we sped away from Isabella, the shape of the island revealed itself. The day we’d arrived, there was heavy fog obscuring the coastline. Elise thought she’d caught a glimpse of mountains behind the clouds, but wasn’t sure. Indeed, we saw a giant, gently sloping volcano as we sped away, one of six that form Isabela’s seahorse shape. There were also smaller islands that came into view – strange, unfamiliar shapes that formed no pattern in my mind. How do the children growing up on Isabela view those same shapes? What stories do they have to describe them?
During the two-hour ride, I held Elise tightly on my lap because she felt a bit of seasickness. I was unable to write or listen to my university courses or read my Kindle as I usually do during commutes, so I spent the time thinking about what we’d experienced. I was pleased that Elise had had a number of firsts – snorkeling, body boarding, mountain biking – and that the island had offered a few terrific science lessons – tortoise breeding and conservation, the function of mangroves and coral, how life can take root on a barren volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, daily rhythms of sea lions and iguanas, and how heritable traits may give offspring an advantage in a particular ecological niche (eg tortoises on the Galapagos developed especially long necks to be able to eat cacti). Elise had also learned a bit about history (European colonization), ethics, sociology (none of the merchants on the islands undercut the competition, and they refused to let newcomers invest in the island without first living there for two years), and even economics (given scarcity and the cost of transporting goods, prices were higher on the island). All good stuff.
I also reflected on the fact that I felt completely comfortable being tossed about by the waves – even though it sometimes felt like a roller coaster ride. I suffer from claustrophobia (made worse when confined spaces are crowded) and misophonia (eating noises, inane TV, etc), but not at all from motion sickness or aquaphobia, acrophobia, aviophobia (alektorophobia, consecotaleophobia, or arachibutyrophobia, lol), or anything else really, so with a wide view of the silvery sea and the roar of the waves drowning out any other sound, I found that I was extremely content and relaxed right up through our arrival back in Santa Cruz.
But now…my imagination is all fired up by the prospect of visiting the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru!