Seen from space, Isabela Island—the largest island of the Galápagos archipelago— reminds me of a giant seahorse facing the great blue yonder of the Pacific Ocean. As one approaches land, the cap of thin white clouds dissipates. Isabela’s majestic landscape is a perfect alignment of shield volcanoes, rising above 1,000 metres, which stretches from the southeast to the northwest. Among them, Wolf Volcano reaches 1,700 metres.
Straddling the Equator, it is the highest summit of the Galápagos group. Over the last 700,000 years, the six volcanoes of Isabela Island—Cerro Azul, Sierra Negra, Alcedo, Darwin, Wolf and Ecuador—have evolved into gigantic calderas. Following successive rises and falls of magma, the rim of a volcano collapses into the crater. With a diameter exceeding 10km, Sierra Negra is by far the largest of the island’s calderas.
The Galapágos are a renown hotspot of the east Pacific, and Isabela is the most active volcanic island. The last eruption dates back to 2005. An incandescent lava flow filled the crater and turned into a fascinating experience for the locals, who witnessed the show at sundown.
Daily flights on EMETEBE’s Twin Otters from Baltra to Puerto Villamil take only 30 minutes. Upon final descent, the small propeller airplane flies over Los Islotes Cuatro Hermanos—aka The Four Brothers. These tuff cones of pale brick red color have been eroded by wave action of both the South Equatorial Current and the Cromwell Current. Two of the islets have been chiseled into moon crescents gaping towards the south. Easily accessible by boat from Puerto Villamil, the ‘4 Hermanos’ islands—as they are called locally—offer a number of good dive sites.
On the port side, one marvels at another huge crescent fringed by a ring of white surf. Tortuga Island, also known as ‘Brattle’, is a refuge for seabirds. Nazca boobies, tropicbirds [ed.— family of tropical pelagic seabirds of the Phaethon genus] and large frigate birds nest on the outer slopes of the crater.
A stone’s throw away to the north, La Viuda (The Widow) juts out of the ocean like a grim stoney finger pointing to the sky. That is all that is left of a tuff cone totally destroyed by the elements. In its formidable solitude, it doesn’t look like much, but somehow, it is one of the best dive sites—only 20 minutes away from port. A resting place for blue-footed boobies, it also attracts a few sea lions basking lazily in the golden light of the afternoon sun.
As the avioneta, or light aircraft, does its final loop above the bay of Puerto Villamil, one is thrilled by the pastel green and emerald colors of the waters, fringed by the black lava.
Successive trains of waves come towards the shore only to fall apart into snow white foam upon this tormented coastline. A long sandy beach stretches west towards the dark hills, once the site of an infamous penal colony (1946-59). This is an arid, hostile landscape where the vegetation is composed of palo santos trees, opuntia and candelabra cacti, and spiny shrubs.
Everything here forecasts extreme conditions, a sharp contrast with the idyllic cliché found on Isabela Island. Welcome to the ‘Enchanted Islands’ where the hidden side of paradise reminds one of the ruthless reality a world apart and its fabled history.
In 1897, Don Antonio Gil Quezada built a hacienda in Santo Tomas in the highlands of Isabela Island. He had earlier made the unfruitful attempt to establish a colony on Floreana, an island further south, which had the advantage of a freshwater spring. In the old days, sulphur deposits of the Sierra Negra Volcano were exploited and brought to the coast on the back of donkeys.
After WWII, the Ecuadorians retrieved the installations of the U.S. Army, who had created a radar base behind Cerro Orchilla. One morning in 1946, the penal colony, Colonial Penal de Isabela, opened its gates to 300 convicts who disembarked from the BAE Abdon Calderon of the Ecuadorian Navy, escorted by 20 policemen and ten officers. These men were sentenced to hard labour under the hot sun in what would become known as the harshest prison of the Galapágos.
Criminals, political prisoners, petty thieves and other unwanted citizens assembled under the unforgiving whip of the guards. The convicts were forced to build a stone wall of volcanic dry blocks, which grew to 80 metres long, 8m wide and 8m high. It would eventually close the perimeter of their confinement. Many were said to have died in the building of this wall. Later, two camps were established in the highlands.
One morning on 9 February 1958, 22 convicts, who were bringing supplies to Camp Alemania on the slopes of the Sierra Negra Volcano, fooled the guards, getting them intoxicated with sugar cane alcohol. They took their guns and then attacked Camp Alemania and Camp Santo Tomas. They did the same at Camp de la Playa.
The mutineers were under the command of Pate Cucu who had declared: “I want an escape with no death.” Nevertheless, they did commit a number of rapes on their way to Puerto Villamil. “All that we want is to be free and leave these infamous islands and this dreadful prison,” the convicts said.
Finally, they seized two fishing boats and went on to James Bay on Santiago Island where they hijacked the American sailing vessel, Valinda. From there, they sailed to Esmeraldas on the Ecuadorian mainland. The penal colony was closed in 1959 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s publication, Origin of Species.
Diving Isabela is a different experience from diving Santa Cruz or San Cristobal islands. Isabela is the ‘far west’ of the archipelago in every sense of the word. The islets south of Puerto Villamil are at the crossroads of two major currents, meeting each other head on. The South Equatorial Current (also known as the Humboldt Current) moves from east to west during the dry season, with the help of the southeast trade winds, which blow from May to December. These cool waters have mean temperatures ranging from 18°C to 22°C.
Originating from the Central Pacific, the Cromwell Current flows along the Equator, from west to east, at a depth of 300 metres. With a core temperature of 13°C, it creates an upwelling on the west and south coasts of Isabela and Fernandina islands. Nutrient-rich waters come up from the deep to the surface attracting a profusion of fish and gorgonians, 66 percent of which are endemic ...
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