I’ll be honest, before journeying to the Galapagos Islands, I had never heard of Volcán Chico or Sierra Negra. Even when I found out about their existence, I wasn’t sure that the Sierra Negra Volcano Hike was going to find its way into my Ecuador itinerary. After all, there is so much to see and do on these islands that time (and money) is really precious!
Despite my initial reservations, this one day Sierra Negra Volcano tour turned out to be one of the best things I did in Ecuador. For anyone else looking to explore Galapagos’ most barren land and especially those who might be concerned about safety, allow me to tell you everything you need to know about this epic adventure.
Where in the Galapagos is Sierra Negra Volcano?
Sierra Negra Volcano is one of the six volcanoes located on Isla Isabela. This island is the youngest in the Galapagos archipelago and the one with the most volcanic activity.
Is Sierra Negra Volcano Active?
Sierra Negra is an active volcano which last erupted on 27th June 2018, just five months before I visited. Although this sounds scary on the surface (it is), the volcano is monitored closely and authorities have a successful track record of evacuating people when the volcano is in periods of high activity.
When the volcano is considered dangerous, all Sierra Negra Volcano tours stop and the area is off-limits until experts deem it safe once more. Although I felt a certain level of apprehension about the visit, everyone assured me the odds of dying in a volcano were very low. After googling this claim and finding it to be correct, I decided to go against my nervous nature and go for the tour.
What is Volcán Chico?
Whilst you may be familiar with Sierra Negra Volcano, many people will have never heard of Volcán Chico.
Although you could be forgiven for assuming that Volcán Chico is a volcano in its own right, it is actually just part of Sierra Negra and is considered to be a parasitic cone. In simple terms, this means it is another way for lava to exit the main volcano.
When can I do the Sierra Negra Volcano Hike?
This hike is open all year round, assuming that the volcano is not in a period of high activity. During these times, Sierra Negra tours will be postponed until the danger passes. This can take weeks or even months.
How Can I Arrange My Volcán Chico and Sierra Negra Volcano Hike?
The only way to access both Volcán Chico and Sierra Negra is via guided tour. Tourists are not allowed to visit the area without a guide and the Galapagos authorities are very strict about this.
Tours can be booked online in advance (recommended in high season) or arranged upon arrival on Isabela in the low season. When I visited the Galapagos, I was able to book the Sierra Negra Volcano tour for just $30 for the very next day.
In order to sell a tour on the Galapagos Islands, you have to be a registered tour agency. The tour providers (who actually run the tours) will then work with the agencies to fill spaces. This means that regardless of which company you book with, you will likely end up in a group of people who have all been sold the same tour from different agencies across the island.
Whilst the price varies dependent on season, you shouldn’t really be paying more than $50 per person for the one day Sierra Negra Volcano tour.
The Sierra Negra Volcano Hike
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Length: 16 km
- Duration: 5/6 hours
- Terrain: Mostly flat with a gradual ascent, uneven ground near Volcán Chico.
We were picked up bright and early the morning of our tour from Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island. From here, we were driven to the starting point of the Sierra Negra Volcano hike. I was excited to get going, partly because I couldn’t wait to hike an active volcano and secondly because we hadn’t done much Galapagos hiking so far.
I was surprised to see that we were in a fairly large group. Only a select number of tours leave to do the Sierra Negra Volcano hike every day and tour companies bundle people together to make up the numbers.
No sooner had we arrived, the rain kicked in. This wasn’t a huge issue because Tim and I had planned ahead and brought our rain jackets. However, I was concerned about the amount of mist hanging around – at this rate, we wouldn’t even be able to see Sierra Negra or Volcán Chico.
Hiking Galapagos Volcanoes: Here We Come!
Our guide explained to us that we would be hiking 16 km on the tour and I was shocked to hear people groan. Naturally, I couldn’t understand who would go on a hiking tour if they didn’t like hiking?! It made no sense to me.
I later found out that many of these people had not been told by the tour companies that sold them the trip that there was a lot of hiking involved. Heed this warning friends, this trail is the only walking route to Volcán Chico. It is 8 km each way. Do not come wearing flip flops or sandals.
Those who struggle to walk long distances will be pleased to hear that mule rental is available (up until just past the Sierra Negra caldera) for a fairly reasonable but additional cost. This can be arranged with your guide on the day of the tour.
Sierra Negra Caldera
We hiked the first few kilometres through a cloud and when the time came to stop at the first viewpoint, we could see next to nothing. The guide had warned us that this could happen because the weather changes so quickly here. Despite this early caution, the vast majority of people in the group still seemed very disappointed by the views.
Luckily, by the time we had got to the second viewpoint, the mist had started to clear and when we reached the third, we could see the Sierra Negra caldera in all of its glory. This is the second-largest volcanic crater in the world and spans an incredible 7.2 km by 9.3 km!
Although I have included photos in this post, they do not do justice to this scene. You really have to see it to believe it! The expanse of nothingness was awesome albeit a little out of place next to the lush green bushes surrounding us.
We took a while to soak in the view of the almighty Sierra Negra caldera before continuing our hike upwards towards Volcán Chico.
The Galapagos Hawk
As we approached a bare looking tree, our guide turned around and put his finger to his lips before pointing at a majestic looking bird. It was a Galapagos Hawk, a rare and special creature even in these parts. We poised our cameras, ready to capture some Galapagos photos to remember our trip by.
Our guide was genuinely excited and between snapping his own photos of the bird, told us that there are only 150 breeding pairs left. It was a magical moment and one which silenced every member of the group.
The hike had been pretty easy until this point, consisting of a long but steady ascent. However, things now began to get interesting. Although the terrain was still easily manageable, the ground was full of cracks and holes which posed new issues.
I was particularly pleased I had bought some decent hiking shoes with me as some were attempting the hike in just converse. They also had to keep stopping every few metres to dig stones and gravel out of their shoes so I definitely made the right choice.
As we made our way over the blackened ground, I had to pinch myself. I could see the hardened lava flows from the previous eruptions below my feet. Although I have heard some liken the experience to walking on the moon, it was less like Valle de la Luna and more like walking on Mars. Our guide explained to us how they date the lava flows by colour, making it possible to identify which ones were created in each eruption.
The barren landscape was made up of blacks, rusty browns and reds, which only made it feel more alien. There were deep pits and craters in the ground which still had hot air escaping from them. Both Tim and I lent over to feel the thermal vents and were surprised by just how hot they actually felt!
Unlike the earlier parts of the Sierra Negra Volcano hike, there was hardly any foliage in this area as the ground is too damaged and dry to play host to flora. There was no shelter at all near Volcán Chico and we suddenly all became very hot and sweaty. It was hard to believe that just a couple of hours ago we were all donning rain jackets as we walked through the clouds!
After we had explored on foot, Tim and I sat down to enjoy the views from Volcán Chico over to the stunning Elizabeth Bay. The ocean provided quite a contrast to the dry landscape we were currently sitting on (it was every bit as uncomfortable as you would expect)!
The Return Journey
Although part of me could’ve stayed marvelling at nature forever, it was all too quickly time to make the return journey. Part of me was sad to leave as I knew this had been a potentially once in a lifetime experience. However, the sun was beating down hard and I could feel myself beginning to burn, despite the suncream.
We headed back the way we came, doing the Sierra Negra Volcano hike in reverse, praying for the light spits of rain to cool us down. We passed by the caldera again and were treated to even more impressive views than the first time we had seen it.
The next part of the hike was long but as we headed back to the start point, I knew it had been well worth the achy legs.
The Galapagos is not really known for its hiking trails but Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico offer a truly unique and breathtaking trek that you will never forget.
What Should I Bring on my Sierra Negra Volcano Hike?
- Sturdy walking shoes
- Water (although some is provided)
- Light waterproof jacket
- Dry bag for electronics
Fancy doing the Sierra Negra Volcano hike?