A day trip to Los Túneles is one of the best things to do on Isabela in the Galapagos Islands (the area is also known as Cabo Rosa). It was absolutely one of the highlights of our entire trip. Tour boats leave routinely from Puerto Villamil and should last 5-6 hours. Los Túneles had the best snorkeling we experienced on our trip, with countless sea turtles swimming in close proximity to us, as well as a stop at one of the most striking landscapes that we saw in the Galapagos Islands.
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What to expect on a tour to Los Túneles
Our Los Túneles snorkeling trip started with a pickup from our hotel for the quick ride to the tour office. Puerto Villamil is very small, so if your tour does not include pickup, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to walk to the company’s office or to the docks depending on where your specific group meets up. One nice thing about the Los Túneles tour is that it’s not quite a full day so you can usually choose a start time of your preference unlike many Galapagos tours that only begin super early. I don’t regret a single one of our tours in the Galapagos Islands, but days like our 5:30 am wakeup to go swimming with penguins were rough for this night owl. You do have the option to go first thing in the morning if that’s your thing or a bit later depending on your chosen operator’s schedule. We had the latest tour I could find, starting about 11:00 or 11:30, which was nice because we got to sleep in and have a relaxing breakfast in town.
After we arrived at the tour office, we got fitted for snorkel gear. This was one of the few tours that actually had flippers big enough for my husband who turned out to be too large for everything in the entire country of Ecuador. Note: If someone in your travel group is very tall, they may want to bring their own gear because finding flippers that fit my husband in Ecuador was very difficult. At the office, we joined up with a family that was part of our small group tour with us and everyone got suited up. Wet suits were optional and we chose not to use them because thanks to our Midwestern blood, we found the water to be incredibly warm and pleasant. We were there in March and our guides told us that if you visit during the colder season (June to November or December), you are going to experience much colder water temperatures and wet suits made by be advisable then. It seriously felt like bathwater when we visited though.
Once everyone had all their gear selected, we hopped back in the truck to go down to the docks. Unlike many of our other tours, we were able to board the boat right at the dock without having to take a dinghy out to the launch. We quickly got settled and set off sailing along the southern coast of Isabela enjoying its volcanic scenery. The boat was open on both sides and the back so everyone had great views while also being mostly shielded from the wind. This part of the tour took about 45 minutes sailing at a pretty fast clip.
Cabo Rosa snorkeling
Our first stop was in a protected inlet for snorkeling. The water was absolutely perfect and on the day we were there, we hardly felt any waves or current so it was almost like swimming in a big pool. This, of course, depends on the weather conditions on whatever day you happen to go, but the area is somewhat sheltered from the open water so it’s likely calmer most of the time. We started out staying close to the boat and saw lots of fish.
Our guide also pointed out several little nooks in the rock where octopi had curled up inside. They’re almost impossible to see unless you really know what you’re looking for and even after he pointed them out specifically, it was often hard to even spot them. We also got to see some of the tintoreras sharks, also known as white tip reef sharks, that frequent the area. Several of them were sleeping below some rocks under the surface and her guide actually dove down to take photos right in the cave.
The real highlight of our snorkeling time was the sea turtles. When our guide said we’d probably see turtles before we got in the water, I figured it was likely, but I thought they would be kind of off in the distance. There were, in fact countless sea turtles just hanging out and swimming in the area completely oblivious to our presence. If not oblivious certainly unbothered by all of us gawking at them. I dove below the surface to swim alongside them several times. It was absolutely magical. Seriously – I can’t stop gushing about how incredible this experience was.
Exploring Los Túneles
After we finished snorkeling here, we hopped back on the boat for a few minutes and headed to the lava flow area known as Los Túneles, which gives this Isabela tour its name. It takes a decent amount of skill to navigate the boat into this area, and you’ll definitely appreciate your captain as they steer. Because of the shallow, rocky landscape here, there’s a chance that sea conditions could prevent you from accessing it. About half of our tour group went in the water for a quick bit of snorkeling here as well, with the rest choosing to remain on the boat. This was a very different experience as we didn’t see many sea creatures. Instead, we swam through lava tunnels, forming huge arches and almost cave-like structures. Some of the pillars were so towering that they reminded me of beams in an old cathedral. After returning to the boat, we had a little bit of time to change out of our bathing suits before being served lunch. Though we hadn’t seen a lot of marine life under the water, we were treated to our best view of the Galapagos Islands’ famous blue footed booby hanging out on a nearby rock as we got ready to eat and there were lots of sea lions resting on the rocks.
Our tour included a homemade portion of slightly room temperature chicken and rice. I will admit that I was a little concerned about the food safety of it, but it was actually quite tasty and we were totally fine. The tour operators also gave us snacks at different points and we got to try some candy we’d never seen before as well.
After we ate, we put our good shoes on so we could hop off the boat onto the rock formations of Los Túneles. It’ll be tempting to just bring flip flops or water shoes on this tour since you spend most of your time on a boat or swimming, but you definitely want to bring a pair of good shoes for walking on the lava tunnels. The rocks are very uneven and even a little bit sharp in places and it would be extremely uncomfortable in anything that doesn’t have a sturdy sole. I took a dry bag like this with me and it kept everything, including my good camera, nice and dry.
This incredible landscape was formed by lava tubes that collapsed into the water. Walking around, it truly felt like we were on another planet. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in all of my travels. We didn’t get to spend a ton of time exploring here, but our small group was the only one in the area, which added to the feeling of being out of this world. Our guide had us walk out on top of a natural archway over the water to take pictures, which ended up being some of my favorites from the whole trip. With his coaching, I even did a jumping picture that didn’t look terrible for the first time in my life.
Union Rock Visit
Once we finished exploring the area, we hopped back on the boat to return to Puerto Villamil. On the way, we made a couple quick laps around a rocky outcropping poking up out of the open water known as Union Rock. It’s a spot that’s popular with blue-footed boobies and nazca boobies, as well as sea lions that like to nap on the rocks. It was a cool chance to view some more of these incredible native birds and seeing the bright blue feet of the blue footed boobies never gets old.
After that It was smooth sailing back to the harbor in Puerto Villamil. We had some time to enjoy the sea breeze and admire the scenery on our return trip, though I have to admit that I was already combing through the incredible pictures on my underwater camera to pick which ones I wanted to transfer to my phone. Our guide also transferred all the photos he had taken in the water to one of our phones which was awesome. Our tour ended with a ride back to our hotel in the same truck that had picked us up in the morning.
Where to book your tour to Los Túneles
There are several offices for tour operators located right along the main area of Puerto Villamil – it’s such a small town you won’t be able to miss them. You’ll get a much better rate if you book directly with one of the tour companies on site. This might be a good idea if you’re there during the slower season and you have some flexibility in your schedule. We only had one full day on Isabela, so to avoid missing out, we booked ahead of time on Viator. It cost a bit more, but we had the security of knowing that we would have spots on the tour on the day we needed them, though in hindsight we could’ve easily just booked once we arrived the day before.
Note that you need to spend at least one night on Isabela to do a tour to Los Túneles. You cannot visit on a day trip from Santa Cruz. If you take the morning ferry from Puerto Ayora, you will most likely make it in time to do one of the later departures for Los Túneles, or if you do the earliest tour, you should be back in time to catch the afternoon ferry, but you will be cutting it a little close. I would definitely recommend spending at least two nights on Isabela, not just because of the tour schedule – it was my favorite one of the islands in the Galapagos.
What to bring on a day trip to Los Túneles
- Bathing suit
- Rashguard (optional) – This saves some sunscreen application if you’re prone to burning (like I am).
- Clothes – I wore my bathing suit under my clothes in the morning and put the same clothes back on after swimming with dry underwear and a sports bra.
- Water shoes
- Hiking shoes or sturdy sneakers
- Sunglasses – Everything seems 10x brighter out on the water.
- Reef safe sunscreen
- Underwater camera – I used an Olympus T-6 that three of our guides raved about as their favorite underwater camera. I was very pleased with it compared to my old GoPro.
- Dry bag
- Bottled water – Even though the boat provides some, it would not have been enough us.
- Anti-fog spray – Some of the tours provided it, but it’s good to have handy in case the boat doesn’t have any.
Don’t forget to save this post about Los Tuneles in the Galapagos Islands for later on Pinterest! You won’t want to miss this tour.