It’s quite humbling that thirteen scarred volcanic islands, scattered across 45,000 square kilometres of ocean, 960km adrift from the Ecuadorian mainland and defying permanent human colonization until the twentieth century, should have been so instrumental in changing humanity’s perception of itself. Yet it was the forbidding Galápagos Islands – once feared as a bewitched and waterless hell, then the haunt of pirates, and later still an inhospitable pit stop for whaling ships – that spurred Charles Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection, catapulting science into the modern era and colouring the values and attitudes of the Western world ever since.
Three years before Darwin’s arrival in 1835, Ecuador claimed sovereignty over the islands, but attempts to colonize the islands were unsuccessful until the mid-twentieth century, and even then only in very small numbers. It was inevitable after Darwin’s discoveries and the global rise in recreational travel, that the Galápagos Islands’ matchless wildlife would start to pull in large numbers of tourists, money, and then migrants close behind.
A total of about 40,000 people live in just eight main settlements on four inhabited islands. In the centre of the archipelago lies Santa Cruz, site of Puerto Ayora, the islands’ most developed town, serviced by the airstrip on nearby Baltra island, where the majority of tourists begin a visit to the Galápagos. San Cristóbal, to the east, holds the provincial capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, and the archipelago’s other major runway. Straddling the equator to the west of Santa Cruz is the largest and most volcanically active of the islands, Isabela, whose main settlement, tiny Puerto Villamil, has an inter-island airport. Southerly Floreana, with its population of around a hundred people, has very little by way of infrastructure but does have a bizarre history of settlement.
The settled sites represent a mere three percent of the total land area of the archipelago. In response to the damage caused to flora and fauna by centuries of human interference, the rest of the land – more than 7600 square kilometres – has since 1959 been protected as a national park, with tourists restricted to the colonized areas and over sixty designated visitor sites spread across the islands. Most of these sites are reached by cruise boats only, or far less comprehensively by day-trips from the colonized areas, and visitors must be accompanied by a licensed guide. Each site has been chosen to show off the full diversity of the islands, and in a typical tour you’ll encounter different species of flora and fauna every day, many of them found nowhere else on Earth. Some of the remoter sites take longer to travel to, but the extra effort is often well rewarded: Española, for example, is special for its waved albatrosses (present April–Dec), while the flightless cormorant is only found on the coasts of Isabela and Fernandina. Birdwatchers are also bound to want to see the large sea-bird colonies on far-flung Genovesa.
It was also in 1959, the centenary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, that the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) was instituted, which six years later opened the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) in Puerto Ayora, whose vital work includes boosting the threatened populations of unique Galápagos species. In 1978 the archipelago was one of the first places to be made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which declared it a World Biosphere Reserve six years later. Its position was further strengthened in 1986 with the creation of the Reserva Marina de Galápagos, protecting 133,000 square kilometres of ocean within a 40-nautical-mile radius around the islands, one of the largest marine reserves in the world. It’s mainly thanks to the huge conservation effort that the tourists who flock to the islands each year are privy to such incomparable experiences as swimming with Galápagos penguins and turtles, and walking beside boobies and marine iguanas as unique species of finches hop onto their shoes. The animals that have carved out an existence on the dramatic volcanic landscape conjure up visions of life completely devoid of human presence, and their legendary fearlessness only intensifies the otherworldliness of these extraordinary islands.