Having finally received the new bearings for the rudders, we were keen to leave Santa Cruz as quickly as possible. Lou phoned our agent, Irene and an hour later we were stood in front of the Immigration man who cleared us out of Ecuador. We needed to clear out from Santa Cruz as Isabela, although the most obvious island to leave from, 60 miles W of Santa Cruz, doesn’t have any Customs or Immigration facilities. We also got our Zarpe from the Port Captain, allowing us to move to Isabela. It is a bit of a strange system. Officially we have left the country but we have as much time as we really want in Isabela as long as Isabela was on the original Autografo. Some people without agent are given a time limit of just a few days by the Port Captain. We, with the excellent James Hinkle acting for us, Bolivar Pesante’s island representative, are treated a little different, I fear simply because money is seen to be going into someone’s pocket on the island.
We decided to travel overnight and had a tedious motor-sail into about 5kts of wind. It was very very dark with no moon and only the occasional glimpse of stars. We woke to the islands showing the form of a huge largely sunken caldera with boobies dive bombing around us.
We arrived at Puerto Villamil at 1115hrs, parked up beside Taranga and in front of Jade. The Port Captain’s representative was on board within 10 minutes. After a little bit of confusion, we fed him coffee, James spoke to him on the radio and we promised to bring all the paperwork ashore for James to present to officialdom. James is an American, who, having driven to Ecuador in the 1960’s, became one of the first Darwin Guides and married a local. After raising his family in the USA, he and his wife have retired back to Isabela. They are a lovely couple and of great help to us both here and in helping with some pushing of FEDEX when we were back in Santa Cruz.
A quick word on the anchorage here. Having got used to the surge and roll of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, it was a delight to anchor in 5m of water in a wonderfully sheltered bay, protected by low islands and reefs. We have not had more than 10 boats in at any one time.
It is the best anchorage we have been in for months with no swell at all and even the monohulls sit unmoving beside us. It is also beautifully picturesque. Strangely, it reminds me strongly of some anchorages in Scotland. It is the only official anchorage that Charlie’s Charts doesn’t have a picture off. Trying to keep people away? Maybe. The other delight is the lack of traffic here. There are few tourist boats operating here and only the occasional taxi so there is very little wash.
The anchorage is full of life. Turtles, baby sharks, sea-lions and penguins. Tiny little things but real penguins. And Manta Rays. Great big enormous wonderful Manta Rays. One we caught a glimpse of, decided to have a tour around the anchorage. No photos yet but we are still hopeful.
As with all the islands, you are restricted from doing most things sensible with your boat. You may snorkel around your boat (but not clean it) but may not go across to the reef to where the iguana and penguins hang out as this is the main snorkel area for the locals to bring the tourists. If you want to go there, you need to pay. However, no one seems to bother you if you use a canoe. There are a couple of beaches ashore by the harbour that you can snorkel off which are well used but full of iguana, turtles and seals. The main beach which starts at the town and heads W is great. White sand, good surf and there is a good play park too. Close to the play park and across the road from the Captain’s office are public showers. The water gets switched on to them around 1700hrs daily for people to rinse off from the beach.
There is a dinghy dock here so you can get yourself to shore without the need of the rather expensive water taxi ($2 a head each way – for comparison, Santa Cruz was $0.80). Advise is to make sure you lock everything up and take the fuel hose with you. Our friends on Tika came back to find theirs had been stolen. Not impressed. Make sure you tie up on the inside of the dinghy dock too. The locals use the dinghies as big fenders as they crash in. Not real friendly. Returning to your yacht after night fall is a challenge as there is a reef, rocks and a sandbar between the dock and the anchorage. Make sure you take a BIG torch to allow you to spot the infrequent buoys marking the safe route and I’d advise having a good look at the route in daylight hours before you try it at night. Lots of people have either ended up crunching their propellers or running aground.
The town is a bit sleepy but I love the fact that other than a pompously wide road from the dock which stops short of town, the rest of the roads are either sand or volcanic gravel. There is a good selection of restaurants which are reasonably priced, particularly for lunch, and have a great selection of sea foods.
One note on money. There are no ATMs on the island so you will need to load up with cash before you reach here. The bank is a basic one and for locals to use, not tourists. Beware also the bars and restaurants with signs up saying that they can take credit cards. They can but there will be a service charge of 22%!! They know they have you over a barrel if you haven’t brought cash………
The girls have had an active social life here. We have had a couple of sleep overs and birthdays too. Grace and Evie, two UK girls travelling with their parents Adrian and Christine, by land around the world came for a stay. Evie turned 7 and had a birthday party of pizza and far too much sugar!
Then, having had Meriel stay (the girl with the interesting choice of headwear) the girls had a return night with her and Nerana, her sister, on Persevere. They had a couple of film nights there as well, watching on their huge TV – a 60” beast!
Then we continued the surfing education at a birthday party for Arsene off Quatra who turned 10. Audrey, his mum surprised us with a fantastic birthday feast on the beach.
The S end of the island can be explored by bicycle and although the sand tracks are hard work, it is great fun. We were joined on this trip by Pickles, Gill from Starcharger’s ever present childhood bear, who Hannah carried and introduced to a number of new friends! Watch out for him in the photos.
There are tourist trips to The Tunnels (volcanic tubes – now flooded) but you aren’t allowed to snorkel in them and we thought $80 a head was a bit steep. However, on the bike route we found a tube running down to the sea that we could explore for free.
We also visited the Wall of Tears, built by political prisoners between 1945-59 as something meaninglessly tedious to do. The island had a fearsome reputation and many prisoners died here. The wall is huge. Roughly 10m high, about the same wide and it is about 300m long.
The climb above the Wall of Tears to the three viewpoints is hot, long but worth it. We nearly broke the kids! You get a spectacular view along the S coast of Isabela and inland to the highlands. The gentle breeze at that height is a life saver too.
Having cooked on the bike trip to the Wall of Tears (there is a lot of uphill riding required), we were all ready to cool down. We visited two gorgeous beaches, Playa del Amor and La Playita, that we shared with more marine Iguanas than we have seen before and an awful lot of land crabs.
Although there is a “official” flamingo lake, a inland brine affair, the birds don’t like it! We were pointed to a pit near to the Tortoise Sanctuary just N of the town as a better place to go to see these pink marvels. We also saw some lovely little birds showing no fear of us at all. Twitchers – over to you to name them please.
Hannah found us a wild Tortoise, a rare find, dozing under a tree whilst she was looking for some shade on the bike ride out and it was still there on our way back to the beaches. By its size, we think it was about 50 years old. We also stopped in at the Tortoise Sanctuary to look at the work being down there. Currently there are about 800 turtles being raised, a mix of the five species of Tortoise present on Isabela. The great difficulty that the tortoise have is that rats, introduced from ships visiting in the past, eat the eggs and it has become more and more difficult for tortoise to survive to hatching, let alone the first few years. The Sanctuary raises the tortoise until their size can give them the protection they need.
We were recommended a good snorkelling site, El Eskro, by Gem, a London lass working at at the Surf and Bike shop. However, try and go at low water. There is too much surf at anything more than half water. We rented both surf boards and bikes from that shop and were impressed with the price and quality of kit. A handy map of the area is below.
We made the boat ready for the crossing with the last of the provisioning done in the small supermarkets here. The Farmer’s Market, held on a Saturday, was a disappointment with little in the way of offerings and poor quality. The problem is lack of rain. Produce just isn’t growing either as large or as plentifully as is the norm. Hopefully once El Nino has cleared things will improve.
With a significant amount of help from fellow OCC members, Starcharger (Alisdair, Gill, Jane and Alex) we tried but failed to fix the rudders. After all the palaver of waiting for the rudder bearings, once we dropped the rudders out to be able to get at the bearings, we found that replacing them correctly in alignment was near impossible without lifting Skylark out of the water. Further, the bottom bearing had been epoxied in and the top actually had a layer of fibreglass over it so even digging them out is a major endeavour. Foutaine Pajot’s name was taken in vain several times. In the end, we replaced the rudder and have tightened everything up as much as we could. There will remain a little movement in the stock and we will just need to monitor it and baby it as necessary until the Marquesas. We commiserated our failure with an excellent chilli and far too much rum.
We have our Zarpe to allow us to leave 24hrs either side of 9th May and we think we have prepared as much as we can. We are due light winds for the first couple of days but thereafter we should be in the trades. All being well our next post should be from The Other Side of the World.