When it comes to Giant Tortoises, nobody does it better than the Galapagos Islands.
Far from the busy Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island is the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Isabela Island.
You won’t find Lonesome George or any other famous tortoises here, nor will you find any crowds. On my visit to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre I was the only person there, aside from the workers. It was the perfect, private tortoise experience.
To get there, you need to be staying on the largest island of the Galapagos – Isabela. From the town of Puerto Villamil, it’s an enjoyable boardwalk path around some lagoons and a forest. The walk there is short and simple, about 1km or so. Along the way you’ll see wading and migratory birds, perhaps some flamingos, lava lizards and marine iguanas too.
After the little nature walk, you arrive at the Galapagos Tortoise Breeding Center, which is all business. It is actually quite a large complex, with many different corrals, or holding areas for the tortoises.
Most tortoises here are species from southern Isabela Island and they’re identified by the shape of their shells. Isabela Island has five distinct giant tortoises, each associated with a different volcano and area on the island. Some of them are recognized by their flat, saddleback shells, while others have higher, domed shape shells. The different shell shapes come from the environment they live in and the food available for them to eat.
It is thought that the saddleback shells of the Sierra Negro Giant Tortoises allow them to stretch higher to reach food from the opuntia / prickly pear cactus. Interesting huh?
The feeding time at the center was actually quite amusing to watch. The tortoises gather around large, circular troughs, munching away so you’re left staring at tortoise butts. No stragglers here either, if you’re off in a far away corner at feeding time, you better speed along to get your place at the trough!
When not feeding they’re ambling around with plenty of space, enjoying the good life while the researchers here get them ready for breeding or being sent off into the wild to sustain their populations.
Getting a one-on-one tour around the center and being free to wander around on my own, this was a super relaxed place to enjoy tortoise watching compared to either the Research Centre or Highlands on Santa Cruz. I would say I even enjoyed the tortoise time here more than I did at Galapaguera on San Cristobal Island.
The real highlight was getting to see, and hold, a giant tortoise egg. It was surprisingly light for it’s size and nearly perfectly round. Of course the one I was shown had long since lost it’s chance to become a living tortoise. The researchers at the breeding center take great care in carefully documenting their work here. Even the egg had numbers and markings on it so they knew which tortoise it came from, when it was laid and what other tortoises were hatched from that clutch of eggs.
Now the hatching and incubation areas were largely off-limits here when I visited, but seeing how many tortoises they had already successfully bred and raised and released into the wild was a rewarding experience. If you’re a big fan of tortoises, then I highly recommend spending time on Isabela Island for some private tortoise time.