Galapagos is one of the most active volcanic regions on the planet. So, no trip would be complete without some volcano adventure thrown in. The spectacular Sierra Negra volcano, on Isabela island, ticks all the right boxes for visitors. Not only does Sierra Negra boast one of the world’s largest craters, it’s also one of the most popular hiking trails at Galapagos. This is definitely one volcano that should be on your Galapagos wish list!
So, let’s check out how to make it happen. Keep Reading for everything you need to know about Sierra Negra volcano, and most importantly, how to plan the perfect visit.
Sierra Negra volcano is lcoated on Isabela island, Galapagos. Isabela is the large, sea-horse shaped mass to the west of the archipelago.
Her wide, imposing crater dominates the sky line of southern Isabela. Sierra Negra is easily accesible, just 13 miles (21 kilometers) from the port town of Puerto Villamil, where most tourists overnight when visiting Isabela.
The good news is that there are multiple, easy ways to visit Sierra Negra Galapagos.
For land visitors to Isabela island, take a guided Sierra Negra day tour from Puerto Villamil town. Both private and group tours depart most days of the week, with naturalist guide, transport and box lunch included. These tours usually run from 07:30 / 08:00am, through to 13:00 / 14:00pm.
Many visitors also choose to include a Sierra Negra tour into their longer Galapagos land tour itinerary.
Happy Gringo offer various popular multi-day land tours, taking visitors to Sierra Negra crater to enjoy panoramic views of lava flows inside. Check out our Galapagos Discovery and Isabela Island Hopper itineraries to see how this day tour can be incorporated into a longer itinerary.
For Galapagos cruise passengers, check your yacht itinerary before booking. Some Galapagos cruise itineraries include Sierra Negra volcano as a point of visit in teh national park. Here are a few options to consider:
Standard Class - Aida Maria (itineraries B & F)
Comfortable Class - Yolita (itinerary 8A)
Luxury Class - Beluga (itinerary 8A) / Treasure of Galapagos (7 day)
Super Deluxe Class – Natural Paradise (itinerary 8B)
Unfortunately, due to the potential risks involved with volcano treking, the Galapagos National Park authority permit only guided visits to Sierra Negra at this time.
During past eruptions, tourists have sometimes been able to enjoy watching the amazing spectacle from a safe distance. Of course, this though depends on whether conditions are safe to do so. Check with your guide or tour company to see if this is possible.
Hands down the most popular Sierra Negra activity is hiking the trail up to the crater rim. The views from the peak are spectacular, both looking into the crater, and enjoying panoramic vistas of Isabela island and beyond.
The trek to the lookout is rated easy-moderate. A 1.5km dirt trail rises steadily from 900m, up to 1,100m above sea level. The only real challenges to confront are the mud (in rainy season), and your own fitness and energy levels.
For an extra dose of adventure, trek beyond the Sierra Negra lookout (mirador), to visit parasitic vent volcano - Volcan Chico. The incredible lunar landscapes are other wordly, while lava ovens, and white, whispish fumaroles let off steam. On a clear day, hikers can also enjoy panoramic views of Darwin Volcano, and Santiago, Fernandina and Pinzón islands.
The 1.5km trail beyond the lookout to Volcan Chico is a little more challenging due to the uneven, rock-strewn surfaces, and hot temperatures without shade. Be sure to carry lots of water and use sun protection here.
If the trek sounds hard work, why not rent a horse up to Sierra Negra lookout. At time of writing the extra cost (on top of the regular tour price) is aprox $30 per person. Jump in the saddle, and enjoy the lush highlands scenery as your horse plods along the trail.
One of the best rewards after a hot hike is to enjoy a picnic under the shade of an old Jaconcillo (soapberry) tree. Close to Sierra Negra lookout, wooden benches provide a welcome rest under the giant branches. Don’t be surprised if native Galapagos birds, like Darwin finches, hop right up to pick at your sandwich crumbs.
The jaboncillo tree species is of interest in it’s own right. The tree’s nuts can be used as soap with sliced open and mixed with water to form a lather. Native Americans and other indigenous cultures throughout the world have used this very fruit for washing over the centuries.
In terms of wildlife, the Sierra Negra trail is of most interest for bird watchers. Mockingbirds and different species of Darwin finch are common sightings, hopping around in bushes and scrub. Eye-catching red vermillion flycatchers and yellow warblers will also sometimes make a welcome appearance.
Also keep your eyes to the sky, occasionally one can spot Galapagos hawks majestically soaring the thermals high above.
Sierra Negra translates to English as Black Mountain, named after the dark and black colorings of the old lava flows inside the crater.
While Sierra Negra’s height of 1,124metres might not be much to shout about, it more than makes up for it in mass!
Sierra Negra has the largest caldera of all of the Galapagos volcanoes, and is one of the largest volcanic craters on the planet. Her circumference measures a huge 30km (19miles), a fact that can be fully appreciated from the Sierra Negra viewpoint. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of the caldera.
Perhaps surprisingly though, Sierra Negra is also the shallowest of the Isabela island volcanoes, measuring in at just 100m deep in places.
It’s fair to say that Sierra Negra Volcano rarely sleeps. Her most recent eruption was in the summer of 2018, and before that in 2005. In fact since the 1950’s there has been on average one eruption every decade. This is good news for tourists, as there are lots of young lava flows (both A’a and Pahoehoe) to see, and usually small smoking fumeroles too.
Sierra Negra is a large shield volcano. It formed through many successive eruptions of very fluid, low viscocity lava. These thin flows spread quickly, far and wide, before they solidify, hence the long and broad shape of the resulting volcano.
Shield volcanoes are so named because they look like a warrior’s shield lying flat on the Earth.
For more information about the geology and volcanic origin of the archipelago, check out our Galapagos Volcanoes blog post.
Geologists estimate Sierra Negra to be approximately 535,000 years old. Calculations are based on volume of the volcano (588 km3), together with historic eruption rates.
Contact us to organise a Galapagos vacation that includes an unforgettable visit to Sierra Negra Volcano. We’ll be happy to send you a free tour quote, with all of the very best Galapagos options for your dream trip.
In conclusion, Sierra Negra is the big daddy of Galapagos volcanoes. It’s also the most accessible and easy to visit. For visitors to Isabela island, Sierra Negra is a great option for an active day tour, and also to learn about the volcanic origins of the Galapagos islands. We highly recommend the trek up to the Sierra Negra crater, for panoramic views and volcanic wonder!