Shafik Meghji has just returned from the Galápagos Islands during his research trip for the new edition of the Rough Guide to Ecuador. Here he explores some of the archipelago's fascinating history.
In the late eighteenth century British whalers sailing through the Galápagos Islands - considered at the time to be a forbidding place of ghouls and spirits - came up with a novel way to keep in touch with their loved ones back home. A large wooden barrel was left on a beach on Isla Floreana inside which letters were deposited, to be picked up later by ships heading for the UK.
The whalers and the original barrel have long gone, but the tradition continues at what has become known as Post Office Bay. At a site marked by wooden boxes, planks, animal bones and driftwood, tourists drop off postcards (without stamps) and pick up those left by other travellers, which they then mail when they return home. Sometimes the Ecuadorian Navy even helps out with deliveries, and although the process may take months, or even years, most postcards are eventually delivered - often by hand.
Post Office Bay helps to highlight the fascinating human history of the Galápagos Islands, which - with the notable exception of Charles Darwin and The Voyage of the Beagle - remains little known to many travellers. Pirates, authors, castaways, soldiers, convicts, prostitutes, entrepreneurs, fantasists and utopians - as well as whalers - have all left their marks here.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the area was a haunt of British privateers, including John Cook, who used the islands as a base to pick off passing merchant ships. Another famous privateer, Alexander Selkirk - the Scottish sailor who inspired Robinson Crusoe - also passed through the islands, shortly after his rescue from the Juan Fernández Archipelago off the Chilean coast. Today many cruise boats visit the atmospheric Buccaneer Cove, on Isla Santiago, which was once a favoured pirate hideout.
Later whalers - including Moby Dick-author Herman Melville, who described the islands as "five-and-twenty heaps of cinders" - arrived. They not only killed innumerable whales, but also devastated the giant tortoise population - it is estimated that around 200,000 tortoises were killed for food during the whaling era.
Among the early settlers on the Galápagos were an unbalanced Irish sailor named Patrick Watkins, eighty Ecuadorian soldiers found guilty of mutiny, and a motley crew of convicts and prostitutes sent over from mainland Ecuador. In the 1870s, businessman Manuel Cobos founded the ironically-titled town of El Progreso on Isla San Cristóbal, using convict labour to farm sugar cane and operate a mill. His rule soon descended into a brutal tyranny - workers were paid in an invented currency only redeemable at Cobos's own store, and anyone who stepped out of line was flogged (often to death) or dumped on a deserted island.
Eventually, however, Cobos received his comeuppance - in 1904, he was hacked to death by a group of workers. Today El Progreso is a peaceful place of wooden cabins raised on stilts, with the only sign of its tempestuous history a scattering of orchards and fruit plantations. It's also home to perhaps the most peculiar hotel in the Galápagos, La Casa del Ceibo (+593 5 301 0160), a rustic tree house perched 14.5m up a 300-year-old ceibo tree.
Thirty years after the death of Cobos, another island in the archipelago - Isla Floreana - gained infamy around the world for the bizarre "Galápagos Affair", which involved a violent and delusional German doctor and his mistress, a loony Austrian Baroness who declared herself "Queen of Floreana" and had two younger lovers, and several highly suspicious deaths and disappearances that to this day remain unsolved - there's an excellent book on the saga, The Galapagos Affair by John Treherne.
Caught in the middle of this intrigue were Heinz and Margret Wittmer, and their son Harry, who had emigrated to Floreana from Cologne in 1932. Margret died in 2000, but a few of her descendants remain on the island where they run the wonderfully secluded Pensión Wittmer guesthouse, as well as one of the leading cruise companies (www.rwittmer.com) in the Galápagos.
Floreana is still only home to around 100 permanent residents, and if you stay a night or two at Pensión Wittmer it is easy to imagine the hardships suffered by the early settlers and how dramatic intrigues could so easily develop.