As I disembarked the tiny airplane that escorted me from Guayaquil to the Galapagos Islands, I felt as if I had arrived on another planet. The equatorial sun beat down, and the flora and foliage were far from what I envisioned. The “enchanted islands” I had imagined while learning about Charles Darwin were lush, but my view from the tarmac on San Cristobal seemed to have more in common with Mars. Nevertheless, I quickly learned the beauty of those magical islands, which never ceased to amaze me.
At first glance most of these nineteen islands look deceivingly similar, but they each hold distinct characteristics (and each has much more to offer than a group of Galápagos tortoises, the namesake of the islands). After a great deal of time talking to locals, friends, and other tourists, I constructed the perfect weekend itinerary at the archipelago’s largest—and youngest—island: Isabela. Fortunate enough to stumble upon a tiny tour agency on the outskirts of town, I turned in early for a weekend filled with exhausting activities.
Isabela is renowned for its geologic features, especially volcanos. Therefore, I felt obligated to hike Sierra Negra, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Although it was unbearably hot and I slipped on the rugged terrain more than a few times, the views from the top were well worth the scratches and misery from the ascent.
The one common recommendation I received was to go snorkeling at Los Tuneles. I was skeptical that such a destination could top the incredible views from the top of Sierra Negra. However, as our boat arrived at the destination, my lofty expectations were quickly realized. Created by lava, time and erosion, the jagged rocks morphed together to make a collection of incredible formations on the surface: some connected, others alone. While the views from the boat were mesmerizing, the true beauty of these arrangements rests underneath the surface. Upon diving in, we discovered that the tunnels underwater created an unseen network of structures resembling an underwater city home for thousands of different animals. I swam behind our guide astonished by the creatures that whirled alongside us. One minute I was following a sea turtle while being tailed by a group of penguins. Next, I found myself above manta rays, and caught myself in the path of a group of white reef sharks moving from tunnel to tunnel. I was a part of a massive school of fish and was circled by sea lions. I was no longer a tourist observing the marine biology; I was one with the ecosystem and the island.
Isabela personified my elementary textbook paragraphs about natural selection, and brought the magic of these “enchanted islands” to life. I can’t wait to go back to beauty of Isabela to be reunited with the wildlife, the plantains, and most importantly, the papi pollo.