They became internationally famous after being visited in 1835 by British naturalist CHARLES DARWIN; their unusual fauna, including the giant tortoise (Spanish galapago), contributed to his ideas on natural selection. Ecuador made the Galapagos a wildlife sanctuary in 1935 and a national park in 1968; in 1978 they were designated a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.
The Galapagos Islands are a small archipelago of islands belonging to Ecuador in the western Pacific Ocean. The islands are quite remote and isolated, lying some 1000 km (620 miles) west of the South American continent. The Galapagos archipelago consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller isles, which together embrace some 50,000 sq km (19,500 sq miles) of ocean.
The Galápagos archipelago is world-renowned for its unique and fearless wildlife - much of which was inspiration for Charles Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection. The islands are therefore very popular amongst natural historians, both professional and amateur. Giant tortoises, sea lions, penguins, marine iguanas and different bird species can all be seen and approached. The landscape of the islands is relatively barren and volcanic, but beautiful nonetheless. The highest mountain amongst the islands is Volcán Wolf on Isla Isabela, 1707 m (5600ft) high.
The Galápagos were claimed by newly-independent Ecuador in 1832, a mere three years before Darwin's visit on the Beagle. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the islands were inhabited by very few settlers and were used as a penal colony, the last closing in 1959 when the islands were declared a national park. The Galapagos were subsequently listed as a World Heritage Site in 1978.
Strict controls on tourist access are maintained in an effort to protect the natural habitats and all visitors must be accompanied by a national park-certified naturalist tour guide. The islands currently receive an average of 60,000 visitors per year.
Flights to the Galapagos are relatively easy to arrange and depart from Quito and Guayaquil on a daily basis for the Isla Baltra airport, about two hours by public transport from Puerto Ayora, the main settlement of the Galapagos, on the central island of Santa Cruz.
Seeing the sites and wildlife of the Galapagos is best done by boat. Most people book their place well in advance (as the boats are usually full during the high season). Booking a boat tour with a company in your home country will usually be the most convenient, but is often considerably more expensive.
Boat tours can also be arranged from Guayaquil, Quito, and even from Puerto Ayora. While it is possible to get a last-minute deal, be aware that many budget tours may spend extra time in Puerto Ayora, might not always be on the best boats, and may only visit the inner islands.
Snorkelling and scuba diving a very popular activities as the sea life is so rich and colourful. You tour boat should be able to provide you with snorkelling equipment if you don't have any (but check first). You may also want to bring a waterproof camera. Remember to wear at least a T-shirt and suntan lotion if you are snorkelling, as it is all to easy to get sunburnt in the strong sun.
Scuba diving in the Galapagos is incredible as noted by Rodale's Scuba Diving magazine. Ranked as the best dive destination in the world in the categories of Healthiest Marine Environment, Best Big Animal Dive and Best Advanced Diving.
The animal life in the islands is mostly docile with the exception of the large bull sea lions. These animals will vigorously protect their harems, and can inflict dangerous and potentially deadly bites. Do not snorkel close to sea lion colonies. If a bull sea lion approaches you, swim away from the nearest colony. Note that it is only the bulls that are dangerous; swimming with juvenile sea lions can be one of the most exciting parts of a trip.
In addition to sea lions, there is a minimal danger from sharks. In general sharks will not attack unless provoked, although attacks can sometimes occur in murky water when sharks mistake humans for other animals. However, by exercising simple common sense experiences will be almost always be positive.
The park is strictly regulated. Outside of the towns visitors must be accompanied by guides, and visitors are only allowed on land from sunrise until sunset. Itineraries must be registered with the park prior to embarking on a trip, and animals should never be disturbed; while the wildlife in the Galapagos will usually ignore your presence, a general rule of thumb is that if an animal notices your presence then you are too close. Two meters is generally given as a minimum distance to keep away from animals; you will find that if you are calm and respectful that many animals will walk right up to investigate you.
One of the greatest dangers to the islands is introduced species. The park service is trying to eliminate goats, rats, cats, dogs, and introduced plant species on many of the islands, but it is a difficult battle; after evolving for thousands of years without predators, the Galapagos wildlife is not adapted to handle these new species. When traveling to the islands, do not bring any plant or animal life with you, and be sure to always clean your footwear when traveling between islands to avoid accidentally transferring seeds.
San Cristóbal (Chatham) It bears the name of the Patron Saint of seafarers, "St. Christopher" its English name was given after the English nobleman Count Chatham. It has an area of 558 km2 and its highest point rises to 730 metres. This islands hosts frigate birds, sea lions, giant turtles, blue and red footed boobies, tropical birds, marine iguanas, dolphins, swallow-tailed seagulls. Its vegetation includes Calandrina galapagos, Lecocarpus darwinii, trees such as Lignum vitae, Matazarna. The largest fresh water lake in the archipelago, "Laguna El Junco" is located in the highlands of San Cristóbal. The capital of the archipelago, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, lies at the southern tip of the island.
Española (Hood) Its name was given in honor of Spain. It is also known as Hood after an English nobleman. It has an area of 60 km2 and a maximum altitude of 206 metres. Española is the nesting place of the albatross and also hosts Galápagos Hawks, marine turtles, masqued boobies, marine iguanas, sharks, sea lions, swallow-tailed gulls, finches, Galápagos doves, giant turtles, tropic birds and blue-footed boobies. A lava fissure on the shore has created a blowhole where water spurts high in the air when the waves hit the wall. It is the southernmost island of the archipelago hosting a large proportion of endemic fauna.
Santa Fé (Barrington) Named after a city in Spain, has an area of 24 km2 and a maximum altitude of 259 metres. Santa Fe hosts a forest of Opuntia cactus, which are the largest of the archipelago, and Palo Santo. Weathered cliffs provide a haven for swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropic birds, shear-waters petrels. Santa Fe species of land iguanas are often seen, as well as lava lizards. There is a picturesque turquoise lagoon and calm waters where snorkeling can be done along with sea lions.
Genovesa (Tower) The name is derived from Genoa, Italy where it is said Columbus was born. It has an area of 14 km2 and a maximum altitude of 76 metres. This island is formed by the remaining edge of a large crater that is submerged. Its nickname of “the bird island” is clearly justified. At Darwin Bay, frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls, which are the only nocturnal of its species in the world can be seen. Red-footed boobies, noddy terns, lava gulls, tropic birds, doves, storm petrels and Darwin finches are also in sight. Prince Philip´s Steps is a magnificent bird-watching plateau with masked and red-footed boobies. There is a large Palo Santo forest.
Floreana (Charles or Santa María) It was named after Juan José Flores, the first president of Ecuador, during whose administration the government of Ecuador took possession of the archipelago. It is also called Santa Maria after one of the caravels of Columbus. It has an area of 173 km2 and a maximum altitude of 640 metres. It is one of the islands with the most interesting human history and one of the earliest to be inhabited. Pink flamingos and green sea turtles nest (December to May) in this island. The "joint footed" petrel is found here, a nocturnal sea bird which spends most of its life away from land. At Post Office Bay, since the 18th century whalers kept a wooden barrel that served as post office so that mail could be picked up and delivered to their destination mainly Europe and the United States by ships on their way home. At the “Devil´s Crown”, an underwater volcanic cone, coral formations are found.
South Plaza It is named in honor of a former president of Ecuador, General Leonidas Plaza. It has an area of 0.13 km2 and a maximum altitude of 23 metres. The flora of South Plaza includes Opuntia cactua and Sesuvium plants, which forms a reddish carpet on top of the lava formations. Iguanas (land and marine and some hybrids of both species) are abundant and there are a large number of birds that can be observed from the cliffs at the southern part of the island, including tropic birds and swallow-tailed gulls.
Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Named after the Holy Cross, its English name was given after the British vessel bearing this name (HMS Indefatigable ). It has an area of 986 km2 and a maximum altitude of 864 metres. Santa Cruz is the island that hosts the largest human population in the archipelago at the town of Puerto Ayora. The Charles Darwin Research Station and the headquarters of the Galápagos National Park Service are located here. At the CDRS operates a tortoise breeding center where these chelonians are prepared to be reintroduced to their natural habitat. The Highlands of Santa Cruz offer an exuberant vegetation and are famous for the lava tunnels. Large tortoise populations are found here. Black Turtle Cove is a fantastic site surrounded by mangrove which sea turtles, rays and small sharks sometimes use as a mating area. Cerro Dragón, known for its flamingo lagoon, is also located here, and along the trail one may see land iguanas foraging.
Baltra (South Seymour) The origin of its name is unknown. It has an area of 27 km2 and a maximum altitude of 100 metres. The main airport of the archipelago is located here and was built during WWII by the United States Navy to patrol the Panama Canal. Land iguanas were reintroduced after the native population became extinct during the time when American soldiers were posted in this island, and marine iguanas and marine turtles can also be seen here.
North Seymour Its name was given after an English nobleman called Lord Hugh Seymour. It has an area of 1.9 km2 and a maximum altitude of 28 metres. This islands is home to a large population of blue-footed boobies and swallow-tailed gulls. It hosts one of the largest populations of frigate birds, with their magnificent red pouches.
Marchena (Bindloe) Named after Fray Antonio Marchena. Has an area of 130 km2 and a maximum altitude of 343 metres. Sparrow hawks and sea lions inhabit this island.
Pinzón (Duncan) Named after the Pinzon brothers, captains of the Pinta and Niña Caravels. Has an area of 18 km2 and a maximum altitude of 458 metres. Sea lions, sparrow hawks, giant turtles, marine iguanas and dolphins can be seen here.
Rábida (Jervis) It bears the name of the convent of Rábida where Columbus left his son during his voyage to the Americas. Has an area of 4.9 km2 and a maximum altitude of 367 metres. The high amount of iron contained in the lava at Rábida give it a distinctive red color. Flamingos and White-Cheeked Pintail Ducks live in a salt-water lagoon close to the beach, where brown pelicans and boobies have built their nests. Nine species of Finches have been reported in this island.
Bartolomé Named after Lt. David Bartholomew of the British Navy. Has an area of 1.2 km2 and a maximum altitude of 114 metres. Famous for its Pinnacle Rock, which is the most representative landmark of Galápagos. Here the rare Galápagos Penguins and Sea Lions can be seen. There are amazing lava formations and spatter cones left untouched since the last eruptions.
Santiago (San Salvador, James) Its name is equivalent to Saint James in English; it is also known as San Salvador, after the first island discovered by Columbus in the Caribbean Sea. This island has an area of 585 km2 and a maximum altitude of 907 metres. Marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, land and sea turtles, flamingos, dolphins and sharks are found here. There are a large number of goats and pigs, animals which were introduced by humans to the islands and have caused great harm to the endemic species. Darwin Finches and Galápagos Hawks are usually seen as well as a colony of Fur Seals. At Sullivan Bay a recent pahoehoe lava flow can be observed.
Pinta (Abingdon) It got its name from one of the caravels of Columbus. Has an area of 60 km2 and a maximum altitude of 777 metres. Swallow-tailed gulls, marine iguanas, sparrow hawks, fur seals can be seen here.
Isabela (Albemarle) This island was named in honor of Queen Isabel who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. With an area of 4.588 km2, it is the largest island of the Galápagos. Its highest point is Wolf Volcano with an altitude of 1,707 metres. The island's shape is the product of the merge of six large volcanoes into a single landmass. In this island penguins, cormorants, marine iguanas, boobies, pelicans and Sally lightfoot crabs abound. At the skirts and calderas of the volcanos of Isabela, Land Iguanas and Galápagos Tortoises can be observed, as well as Darwin Finches, Galápagos Hawks, Galápagos Doves and very interesting lowland vegetation. The third-largest human settlement of the archipelago, Puerto Villamil, is located at the south-eastern tip of the island.
Fernandina (Narborough) The name was given in honor of King Fernando of Spain, who sponsored the voyage of Columbus. Fernandina has an area of 642 km2 and a maximum altitude of 1,494 metres. This is the youngest and westernmost island of the Archipelago. In May 13, 2005, a new eruptive process began on this island when an ash and water vapor cloud rose to a height of 7 kilometers and lava flows descended the slopes of the volcano on their way to the sea. Punta Espinoza is a narrow stretch of land where hundreds of Marine Iguanas gather in large groups on black lava rocks. The famous Flightless Cormorant inhabits this island and also Penguins, Pelicans and Sea Lions are abundant. Different types of lava flows can be compared and the Mangrove Forests can be observed.
Wolf (Wenman) This island was named after the German geologist Theodor Wolf. It has an area of 1.3 km2 and a maximum altitude of 253 metres. Here fur seals, frigates, masqued and red footed boobies, marine iguanas, sharks, whales, dolphins and swallow-tailed gulls can be seen.
Darwin (Culpepper) This island is named after Charles Darwin. It has an area of 1.1 km2 and a maximum altitude of 168 metres. Here fur seals, frigates, marine iguanas, swallow-tailed gulls, sea lions, Whales, marine turtles, dolphins, red footed and masqued boobies can be seen.