It’s a heavenly life on modern-day Isabela Island. Blessed with equatorial sun and divine natural history, the former penal colony has become an escapee’s paradise.
The main town, Puerto Villamil, was built on Utopian ambitions – a model neighbourhood for fishermen and their families. Its idyllic sandy streets and pretty beachfront homes are meticulously maintained.
It surprised me to hear of the human rights abuses that took place here in the mid-20th century. Seven kilometers from the town a colony of convicts were worked to death in the searing heat. They were starved, denied medical attention and forced to build a lasting monument to their suffering – a vast pile of basalt rocks which islanders call the Wall of Tears.
Most of the volunteers who stay on Isabela make the journey to the wall at some point. It is on a limited list of excursions available to tourists – and one of the cheapest. While half-day boat tours generally cost between 30 and 50 dollars per person – running into the hundreds for anything further afield – mountain bike hire is just three dollars an hour.
With two other English girls I test my brakes, tyres and gears and wobble my way out of town. It is some years since I have ridden a bike and although they say you never forget, the relevant muscles do grumble a bit when reminded.
The start of the route runs parallel to Villamil’s enormous white beach. Cycling on sand turns out to be unexpectedly tricky and, with the ferocious afternoon sun on our backs, we quickly begin to struggle.
Fortunately there are plenty of scenic stops along the trail. The Galápagos National Park Authority works hard on this route, providing plentiful signposts, shaded seating areas and well-kept paths snaking off to places of interest.
We stop at a tiny beach ringed with rocks where pelicans and blue-footed boobies perch, watching the waves for fish. A large marine iguana sunbathes on the path and we tiptoe around him politely.
As the trail moves away from the sea, we find a series of small lagoons accessed by boarded walkways. In one the water is salmon pink, in another lime green.
Further still there is a lava tunnel – a common sight on Isabela. Its yawning black entrance reveals a flooded interior swarming with mosquitos. The ceiling is swirled with silver and golden minerals.
Alongside it lies the Playa del Amor (‘The Beach of Love’), where marine iguanas lay their eggs. Some are taking a break from parenthood duties to bask on the rocks. We lie down beside them. They open their eyes briefly but do not stir.
For a coastal bike ride, the Wall of Tears trail is alarmingly hilly. We thought we had it bad on the sandy sections, but as we reach the half-way mark the terrain switches to thick, black volcanic gravel. We have to make frequent stops to extract our sunken front wheels from furrows in the path.
Then, with the trail improving a little, we get cocky and pick up speed. The feeling is euphoric – a forgotten pleasure from childhood.
I think to myself: “It’s amazing how quickly you remember. Not one of us has fallen off yet.”
And as I whizz down a rare downhill section at a daredevil pace, a deceptively deep bed of deep gravel buries my wheels. I lose all control of the bike. It stops dead and I continue, gliding over the handlebars like a flying squirrel. Behind me, my friends screech to stop just inches from the wreckage.
My short flight must have been quite spectacular. I could hear nervous laughter as I lay motionless in the black dirt. I tried to join in but was revisiting another forgotten sensation – of being completely winded, unable to move or speak.
When my friends did eventually succeed in hauling me up, I was missing a fair chunk of skin from each knee, one elbow and both palms. Blood was running down my shins and there was sharp gravel embedded everywhere. When I moved my left shoulder, it made a strange, crunchy noise.
There was nothing to do but laugh and get back on my bike. We still had a good four kilometers between us and the Wall of Tears.
We arrived to find an untidy structure a few meters high, perhaps 20 metres long, built in a seemingly useless location at the foot of a steep hill. And that is the most notable thing about the wall – its pointlessness. It served no function, other than as a demoralising punishment for the island’s prisoners.
My friend and I take it in turns to lift some of the scattered rocks. They are heavy – their weight doubled by the heat and our exhaustion. We feel a distant sympathy for the sunburned, starving convicts.
Two of us decide to climb the treacherous slope that leads upward from the wall. It is a hard scramble, we slip frequently, and on one rapid downhill slide my friend reaches out to grab the nearest static object. As she starts to whimper I see her hands are coated in tiny cactus spines. By some strange twist of fate I have a pair of tweezers on me and we sit for half an hour at the summit, painstakingly pulling the tiny bristles from her skin.
“This is why they call it the Wall of Tears,” I say. I point to my bloody knees.
On the way back, battered and perforated, we stop to climb a hundred or so steps leading to a viewpoint. From here we can see the town of Puerto Villamil in the distance, the vivid blue of the sea and the pink of the lagoons.
Somewhere in the scattered houses along the shore live three surviving men who worked on the wall. We wonder how they feel about its current popularity with bike-riding tourists.
Later, doped up on painkillers, I reflect that the Wall of Tears is not the only human cruelty here. Every Saturday night, our little community of volunteers flinches as scores of islanders cheer and jeer at their weekly cockfight, a few yards from our rooms. Many of the island’s dogs are ill-treated too, cowering as we approach, limping on injured legs, fur covered in paint or marred with mange.
The island may be a naturalist’s dream. It may be virtually devoid of crime, a place of nil stress. No-one here owns a suit, a briefcase or a Blackberry.
But even in this exquisite, laid-back place, people can still be senselessly mean.