Uncover the ‘enchanted isles’: an island paradise of endemic wildlife, untouched landscapes and unique history.
For a period in history, the Galápagos Islands were known as the ‘Enchanted Isles’ owing to the countless of unique species that have evolved and adapted over centuries. Located approximately 1,000 km (600 mi) west coast of Ecuador, delicately hugging the equator, the islands have been forming, erupting and evolving for millions and millions of years; however it is only recently that mankind began to form its story in the Galápagos.
There are currently approximately 26,000 residents in the archipelago (occupying only four of the islands), a number that has grown exponentially in the 21st century, and all of whom are directly or indirectly involved in tourism. Even residents of Ecuador are limited to a three-month permit and all travellers’ passports are stamped through immigration.
Made famous in 1835, the islands have developed a rich and intriguing history through this relatively short period, almost as captivating as the natural history they are so well known for. The Galápagos archipelago is a bucket list destination among divers, nature-lovers, scientists and volunteers alike thanks to its rich geological and biological history.
There is no doubt the Galápagos archipelago is a living laboratory, for scientists, naturalists and passionate travellers, and their history has played an important role in understanding the Galápagos today and the many weird and wonderful creatures that call it home.
The discovery of the Galápagos Islands
According to history books the archipelago was first discovered in pre-colonial times, in 1535, when Father Tomas Berlanga, the bishop of Panama sailed to Peru to settle a dispute between Francisco Pizarro and his lieutenants after the conquest of the Incas. The bishop’s ship was apparently blown off course and into the Galápagos.
His account of his adventure contained many facts about Galápagos: he described the harsh, desert-like condition of the islands, their trademark giant tortoises, marine iguanas, sea lions and the many sea birds.
Follow in Darwin’s footprints
However, the 19th century also brought the Galápagos archipelago their most famous visitor, Charles Darwin. He was a young student at the time, just out of university, and was the naturalist on a round-the-world scientific and geographical voyage on board HMS Beagle (1831 – 1836).
The first recorded person to make a scientific study of the islands in 1835, Darwin was able to take numerous geological and biological specimens while exploring Floreana, Santiago, San Cristobal and Isabela islands.
In later life, Darwin maintained that the islands and the facts about Galápagos he observed, particularly on Darwin Finches, were the source of all his ideas and research, and the discoveries he later based his theory of evolution by natural selection, forming the framework of modern-day evolutionary thought.
Of all the travellers there, the Galápagos are today most closely associated with Darwin.
The Galápagos Islands today
Today, the Galápagos Islands are home to multiple thriving communities that largely live off of tourism and fishing. However, these communities are careful to keep their lifestyles in line with the natural life that makes these islands so unique. The first wildlife sanctuaries were declared in 1934 and the Galápagos National Park was formed 25 years later with the aim of preserving the stunning flora and fauna that inhabit the archipelago.
Shortly after, the Charles Darwin Research Centre opened its doors in 1964, which currently serves as an important point of research for hundreds of scientists and conservationists from around the world. The Darwin Station conducts scientific research and conservation programs, and is currently breeding and releasing captive tortoises and iguanas.
Thanks to the work done by these entities to conserve the precious and delicate Galápagos ecosystems, and in an effort to preserve the islands as they were centuries ago, the archipelago was officially classified as a Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001.
Today, the Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station jointly operate the islands. The Park Service provides rangers and guides, and is responsible for overseeing the many tourists who visit each year. Guides are well versed in the area’s history and they do a fantastic job in bringing Darwin’s theory of natural selection to life.
Each year, an estimated 225,000 travellers visit the world-famous islands. For this reason, rules are strict and itineraries are inflexible, but this does mean you will see few other people. On arrival in the Galápagos, guests must pay an entrance tax and purchase a transit control card, which aids authorities in protecting the precious environment (this is all pre-arranged by your &Beyond travel specialist).