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Hiking the Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela

This post is dedicated to my good friend Aaron Howard, who due to a late change to Covid-19 restrictions was unable to accompany me.

It was the morning after my second night on Isabela, and I awoke at 6am full of anticipation for what the day held in store. The largest of the Islands of the Galapagos, Isabela makes up around 50% of the land mass of the archipelago and boasts five volcanoes. One of these volcanoes, the Sierra Negra, was to be my destination on this day. I ate a good breakfast of eggs, sausage, bread and coffee and waited eagerly for our transport to arrive. The bus for our trip to the Sierra Negra turned out to be a converted lorry, and I smiled to myself as I clambered up the side ladder into the seating area. It was old, blue and dilapidated, with some of the bolts that held the seats to the flatbed of the lorry missing completely; but this was all part of the charm of the Galapagos Islands, where every last drop of usefulness is squeezed from everything.

We left our hotel and made a circuit of four other hotels in Puerto Vilamil, to pick-up the other adventurous souls who were to be my companions on the volcano hike. Two of those stops had to be repeated as the intrepid hikers had failed to be ready in time for the pick up, forcing us to return after collecting passengers from other establishments.

Once underway, the drive was a little fast for my liking, as we sped out of town I had the impression our driver was trying to make up for lost time. I had to hold on at times not to fall out, as he navigated the switchbacks up the mountainside, passing fields along the way that were covered in ancient black lava flows 8 feet thick.

It was a cold morning and I hadn’t taken a jacket with me as I had wanted to travel light, but as the grey clouds thickened and it began to drizzle I started to regret my Ill-preparedness. Everyone else seemed dressed appropriately with jackets and hiking trousers but all I had on was a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, hat, and my trainers, and I was already feeling cold before we had even began to get into the highlands.

I was glad when we arrived at the entrance of the volcano park as I would have a chance to warm up by walking. The guide explained the route we would take and told us that the hike was a 14km round trip and would take around 5 hours. We set off on the first part of the hike which was not dissimilar to the kind of terrain you will find on a New Forest walk, with heathers, moss and some course grass, with a few trees on either side of the path. I didn’t even notice the drizzle had stopped, as the ground began to climb and our group began to shed layers and stow them away in their backpacks. It was getting warm. The dark grey had given way to a much lighter cloud, broken in places by glimpses of a brilliant blue, yet up ahead the volcano peak remained shrouded in mist.

The first point we stopped at was an amazing view. Around 45 minutes after we set off we came to a fork in the path and headed left away from the main trail. The landscape had brightened significantly and a glance upwards revealed that the sky had been unwrapping above as we made our way up to the crater rim.

The path suddenly opened up before us and we were greeted with a spectacular view. Just a few feet in front of us, sweeping away to our left and right was the edge of the most enormous crater you can imagine. A huge, fairly level surface covered in black volcanic Ah Ah rock stretched away below us for 10km beneath a brilliant blue sky, and I could see tiny clouds on the far side of the crater slowly pouring over the rim and drifting down the slopes to the crater plain below.

The crater was so huge that to my left and right the curve of the caldera was almost imperceptible up close, only appearing to bend far to the left and right, in what looked like an unbroken line of green and brown hills, rising up from the black volcanic plain.

We stood and marvelled for a few minutes, trying to take the pictures that would convey the enormity of the immense natural forces that had shaped the landscape in front of us, before reluctantly moving on. We retraced our steps to the fork in the path and this time took the right-hand fork, following the path around the outside of the crater rim. Eventually, after another forty five minutes walking, we reached a sheltered rest stop where we stopped to take water and a few snacks to sustain us. From here the terrain would become more difficult, and we needed to be fresh.

As soon as we left the rest stop, the path began to veer to the right, away from the volcano rim and we began to descend. We were heading towards a parasite cone on the North-East side of the Sierra Negra which had seen activity as recently as five years ago, and still issued steam when rain had been falling.

The plant-life that had been common on our ascent grew much sparser now, as soil gave way to a scree of tiny lava fragments that left us scrambling for a foothold as it slid beneath our feet. Rust-brown rocks peppered with tiny holes were everywhere now, formed by the gas bubbles forcing their way through boiling lava as it cooled and solidified, crumbling into small fragments as it did so. Fifteen minutes into this part of the hike and the only plants in front of us were the occasional cacti that grew on the surface of the lava rock, where no soil existed for other plants to put down roots. 

As well as the Ah Ah lava which is lumpy, jagged, and painful to walk on, there were the incredible structures formed by Pa Hoe Hoe lava, which builds up in stepped layers, or flows quickly, leaving a smooth exterior surface where the outer part of it cools and solidifies, while the inner core remains hot and molten, pushing the flow downwards and onwards, vacating the solidified exterior behind it and leaving incredible hollow tube structures in their wake.

Here and there, small, roughly formed cones rose a few feet from the hillside resembling the burrows of animals, but by placing your hand inside them you could feel the heat that rose from within, and imagine how close beneath you the barely contained magma must still be bubbling.

At around two hours into our hike, the landscape changed abruptly from rust to a darker brown. This was the most recent of the lava flows and five years after the eruption, nothing yet grew on this barren terrain. We were coming to the first of several parasite cones, and these had brought forth an explosion of colour amidst the pyroclastic flow. Pinks, browns, yellows, oranges and blacks striped these small, irregular cones and everywhere was dusted in a layer of loose basalt gravel that made me fearful of getting too close to any of the crater edges. We traversed slippery ridges, skirting the cones for the best vantage point and the fear of falling was constantly with me, as was the knowledge that there was little prospect of rescue from such a fall.

At last we stood on the far side of the parasite cones and scanned the horizon to the north of us. Our altitude was a little over a thousand metres, but we could sea a great deal from our position. Looking North-West we could see the West coast of Isabela and the island of Fernandina, while to the North Isabela stretched away from us, another volcano rising gently in the distance. To the North-East we could see the East coast, and looking East, Los Cuatro Hermanos, four small islands off the East coast of Isabela.

This was the mid point of our journey and I was amazed to see that we had been hiking (with stops) for around three and a half hours. After ample time to take pictures and drink in the spectacular views, our guide gathered everyone for the return journey. For the first stretch back to the rest stop, we remained together, but once we were on firm ground again those who wished to push on and hike back faster were free to do so. I made it back in around an hour and sat down to review my pictures while we awaited the stragglers. In just over an hour my adventures on Isabela would be be over and I would board the Ferry for Santa Cruz, but I would take with me some incredible memories of a truly unique destination filled with breathtaking vistas, an abundance of wildlife and a people who have learned to live in harmony with their environment.

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