The Galápagos Islands Travel Guide

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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.

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Conservation in the Galápagos

No species has done more to upset the delicately balanced ecosystem of the Galápagos than humans. In one study of thousands of fossil bones, it was found that nearly every extinction of native species followed the arrival of Tomás de Berlanga, the first recorded visitor, in 1535. From that point onwards, the hunting of tortoises, fish, whales, fur seals and other animals has brought populations to the brink. Although our depredation of native species within the park has ceased, and fishing in the marine reserve is strictly controlled, a concerted conservation effort will always be needed to offset the impact of human colonization.

The introduction of foreign species

By far the worst human legacy on the islands has been the catastrophic introduction of alien species. When settlers arrived they brought with them plants, and domestic and farm animals that soon went wild, overrunning the islands and out-competing native species. Pigs trample vegetation, snaffle up land bird hatchlings and young tortoises and devour turtle eggs. Packs of feral dogs have attacked land iguanas, killing hundreds at a time on Santa Cruz and Isabela, and black rats, thought to be responsible for the extinction of endemic rice rats on four islands, killed every tortoise hatchling on Pinzón for most of the twentieth century. Wild goats are regarded as the biggest threat, denuding entire islands of vegetation, causing plant species to become extinct as well as depriving native species, particularly tortoises, of food, and encouraging soil erosion. Among some 490 accidentally introduced insect species are about 55 highly invasive types; these include two species of wasp, which eat indigenous butterfly and moth larvae, and the fire ant, only 2mm long and easy to transport unwittingly to new islands, which is having a devastating effect on native insects as well as attacking hatchling and adult tortoises. Introduced plants are also a major threat, disrupting the food chain from the bottom up. About ninety percent were introduced through agriculture, including guava, blackberry, red quinine and elephant grass, which are out of control on several islands, squeezing out native plants such as tree ferns, scalesia, guayabillo, cat’s claw and others; sixty percent of native plants are thought to be under threat.

The Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS) and the CDF have been following a three-pronged approach to the problem of introduced species. Eradication programmes have done enough to allow some threatened native species to recover. Feral pigs, donkeys and goats have been eliminated from Santiago, and goats have been eliminated from six of the islands and islets. On Isabela, trained dogs kitted with leather boots to protect their paws from the lava surface are being used to track goats down; captured goats – the so-called “Judas goats” – are radio-collared and released, eventually leading hunters back to the herd. The second vital strand of the conservation effort are repopulation programmes, such as the one for giant tortoises, where eggs are gathered, incubated, hatched and raised until large enough to survive predatory attacks before being repatriated. Land iguanas and rice rats have undergone the same treatment, with positive results. A quarantine system in ports and airports has inspectors checking incoming cargoes for alien pests and seeds and the usual stowaway frogs, rats and insects.

Friends of Galápagos

The best thing you can do as a visitor to help the conservation effort is to join the Friends of Galápagos, a network of international conservation organizations. Membership entitles you to detailed news bulletins about the islands and ongoing conservation work, and information on events and appeals. The Friends provide vital funding for the CDRS and the GNPS, both at the heart of Galápagos conservation. In the UK, contact the Galápagos Conservation Trust (GCT), 5 Derby St, London W1J 7AB (t020/7629 5049, galapagosconservation.org.uk); in the US, contact the Galápagos Conservancy, 11150 Fairfax Blvd, Suite 408, Fairfax, VA 22030 (t703/383-0077, www.galapagos.org); check the GCT website for other national Friends organizations or join up in the islands at the CDRS.

Geography and geology

The thirteen large islands (more than 10 square kilometres in area) and over forty small islands, islets and rocks (many of them unnamed) making up the Galápagos Archipelago cluster around the equator some 960km west of mainland Ecuador. The total land area of the archipelago is 7882 square kilometres; Isabela, the largest island, consisting of six separate volcanoes joined together by lava, takes up well over half of this. It also has the highest point on the archipelago, Volcán Wolf, at 1707m, bisected by the equator line.

The origins of the islands

The archipelago is purely volcanic in origin, and remains one of the most volatile such regions on the planet; the most recent eruption was La Cumbre on Fernandina in 2009. Unlike most of the world’s volcanic areas, the islands don’t lie on the borders of two tectonic plates, a fact that has puzzled scientists. The hot spot theory, in which a fixed area of extraordinary heat in the magma occasionally bubbles up to form a volcano, offers the most plausible explanation for this. The archipelago sits on the Nazca plate, which is moving eastwards and downwards to South America at a rate of 3.4cm a year: as the plate shifts, the volcano comes off the hot spot, becomes extinct and is eventually eroded by the elements and submerged beneath the sea. Meanwhile, new volcanoes appear over the hot spot. This would explain why the most easterly islands are the oldest and most weathered; San Cristóbal is thought to be between 2.3 and 6.3 million years old. In the west, Isabela and Fernandina are thought to have been created less than 700,000 years ago and are the most active and clearly volcanic islands. Two chains of extinct and eroded underwater mountains and volcanoes – the Cocos and Carnegie ridges, which extend for hundreds of kilometres northeast and east respectively of the Galápagos – are evidence the hot spot has been working for millions of years.

Volcanic formations

The beautiful volcanic formations you’ll see on the islands are often quite different from those found on the mainland. This is due to basaltic lava which, rather than producing high cones such as Cotopaxi, makes shield-shaped volcanoes, such as the one at Fernandina. The broad tops of these can collapse into empty magma chambers below, leaving enormous calderas, huge depressions many times the size of the original vents, or craters, circular basins rimmed by lava walls at the volcano’s summit; Volcán Sierra Negra on Isabela has a crater 10km across, one of the largest in the world. Like steam vents on the volcanoes, sulphur-encrusted fumaroles send puffs of gas into the air, as at Volcán Chico on the north side of Sierra Negra.

Much of the Galápagos landmass consists of lava flows, and you’ll find two particularly interesting types on several islands. Pahoehoe lava, from the Hawaiian word meaning “ropey”, describes the rippled effect caused when molten lava in contact with the air begins to solidify, but is then ruffled up by molten lava passing beneath it into tongue or rope-like shapes; Sulivan Bay, at Santiago, has excellent examples of this. Aa lava, named after the Hawaiian for “hurt”, occurs when the surface of the lava flow buckles, breaks and then gets bulldozed by the continuing movement of the flow, resulting in layers of small, sharp rocks that can be very difficult to walk on. It can form a natural barrier to animals, as at the Perry Isthmus on Isabela, and castaways and buccaneers told of how this lava shredded their boots. If a lava flow hardens on the outside, and then the strength of the flow decreases, lava tubes are sometimes formed; there are several large enough to walk down on Santa Cruz.

Cones of various sizes and types frequently appear on the islands: hornitos (less than 1m high), resemble burst pimples solidified on a lava bed; the larger spatter cones give Bartolomé its spectacular lunar landscape; and the impressive tuff cones are often made up of stripy layers of rock-hard compacted ash. The uplift at Urbina Bay, on Isabela, is one of the more startling products of volcanic activity. In 1954, a five-kilometre stretch of reef was shunted 4m into the air by movements of magma beneath the crust, leaving its marine inhabitants drying in the sun. Islands including Plazas, Baltra and Seymour Norte are entirely the result of uplifts.

A history of the islands

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Galápagos Islands were thought to have been out of reach of the prehistoric coastal peoples of the continental mainland. In 1947, explorer and archeologist Thor Heyerdahl proved otherwise with his famous voyage from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa raft, the Kon-Tiki; in 1953 his excavations on the islands revealed over 130 shards of pre-Columbian pottery from coastal Peru and Ecuador, but no signs of permanent settlements, leading him to theorize the islands were used as a seasonal fishing base. Other early visitors could have included the great Inca Tupac Yupanqui, grandfather of Atahualpa; according to the early Spanish chronicler Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, Yupanqui may have journeyed to the islands in about 1485 following reports that they held gold, returning almost a year later with “some black men, much gold, a chair made of brass and the skin and jawbone of a horse”. This unlikely plunder casts doubts on the story’s veracity, handing the prize of first documented visitor to Tomás de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama, whose ship ended up here after being swept off course en route to Peru in 1535. He and his men spent a desperate week on the islands, having to chew cactus pads for their water, before the winds picked up so they could set sail again. He later wrote about how water from a well they had dug “came out saltier than that of the sea” and remarked the earth was “like dross, worthless” and the birds “so silly that they do not know how to flee”. He also noted the islands’ “many seals, turtles, iguanas, tortoises”, references picked up by a Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, who named the islands “Galápagos” (Spanish for “tortoises”) on his 1574 map, Orbis Terrarum. The islands’ other name at that time, Las Encantadas (“enchanted” or “bewitched”), came from the strong currents and swaths of deep mist that made landing here so difficult, as if the shore itself was being moved by unearthly powers.

Darwin, the Galápagos and evolution

When Charles Darwin began his five-year voyage around the world in 1831, he was little more than an enthusiastic amateur naturalist set on a career in the clergy. His formative years had been directionless, and at Edinburgh University he found the lectures stultifying; even those in geology – a subject that became a passion in later life – he described as “incredibly dull”. At Cambridge, studying divinity, he only just scraped through without honours. Yet it was there where he met Professor of Botany John Henslow, who recognized in the 22-year-old a talented mind with a flair for science. Henslow immediately recommended Darwin to Captain FitzRoy, who was seeking a naturalist on an expedition to chart the coast of South America. They set sail on HMS Beagle in December 1831.

Darwin suffered from terrible seasickness; whenever he could, he stayed on land and in the five-year voyage spent only eighteen months at sea. On September 15, 1835, the Beagle arrived at the Galápagos. “Nothing could be less inviting,” he wrote, “the country is comparable to what one might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be.” In the five weeks spent in the archipelago, he feverishly set about collecting samples and was taken aback by the “tameness” of the islands’ creatures.

Darwin noticed countless things previous visitors hadn’t. Still, it’s clear his experiences on the islands only planted the seeds of ideas that were to blossom on his return to England. Indeed, already exhausted from four years of hard travel, Darwin’s normally fastidious sampling was somewhat slapdash in the Galápagos. He failed to label the source islands of his bird collections (“it never occurred to me that, the productions of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar”), and even misidentified the now celebrated Darwin’s finches. It wasn’t until his return to London, after the taxonomist John Gould had examined Darwin’s samples and told him about the thirteen closely related species of finch, that the penny dropped. Despite giving acclaimed lectures about his geological discoveries and publishing the Voyage of the Beagle in 1839, he only hinted at the big ideas troubling him. For example, about the finches, he writes “there is not space in this work, to enter on this curious subject”.

Instead, he set about working over his ideas in near secret in his famous Transmutation Notebooks, the first of which begins: “Had been greatly struck… on character of South American fossils and species on Galápagos Archipelago. These facts origin (especially latter) of all my views.” He saw the volcanic islands were relatively new and that life on the islands bore a resemblance to species in South America but were different in crucial ways. Darwin also realized life had come to the barren islands by air or sea and had adapted to the harsh environment through a process he termed “natural selection”. In this, he maintained that at a given time certain members of a species are more suited to their surroundings than others and are therefore more likely to survive in it, so passing on their advantageous characteristics to their offspring. Over the course of time an entire population would come to develop those special features, eventually to such a degree as to become a new species – what Darwin called “descent with modification”, rather than “evolution”, which implied progressive movement towards the highest point of development. In his groundbreaking model, change was without direction and could result in a number of new species coming from a single ancestor.

It pained Darwin to know his ideas would upset the public and the Church, and he sat on his theory for nearly twenty years, quietly amassing the information to back it up. It took a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, who had arrived at a similar conclusion (though without Darwin’s intellectual rigour), to jerk him into action. In 1858 they offered a joint paper on their findings to the Linnaean Society in London and a year later Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which sold out in a day. It sent shockwaves throughout the Western world and opened up to science areas that had previously been the province of philosophers and theologians. Intense debate followed, but by the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, the notion of evolution was well established. The most important, original and far-seeing part of his theory – natural selection – was still highly controversial; it was only in the 1930s that it received the full recognition it deserved, forming the basis of modern biology and forever changing humanity’s view of itself.

The names of the Galápagos Islands

Over the years most of the Galápagos Islands – officially known as the Archipiélago de Colón – have come to own at least a couple of names, usually one given by English pirates, and another official Spanish name given in 1892, marking the fourth centenary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Many islands have also picked up a number of other names along the way, with some boasting as many as eight. The official names are listed first below, followed by any other commonly used names in brackets; the most frequently used name – which is what we’ve adopted throughout this chapter – is in bold. Islands that have only ever had one name, such as Enderby, Beagle and Cowley, are not listed.

Baltra (South Seymour)

Darwin (Culpepper)

Española (Hood)

Fernandina (Narborough)

Genovesa (Tower)

Isabela (Albemarle)

Marchena (Bindloe)

Pinta (Abingdon)

Pinzón (Duncan)

Rábida (Jervis)

San Cristóbal (Chatham)

San Salvador (Santiago, James)

Santa Cruz (Indefatigable, Duke of Norfolk)

Santa Fé (Barrington)

Santa María (Floreana, Charles)

Seymour Norte (North Seymour)

Sin Nombre (Nameless)

Tortuga (Brattle)

Wolf (Wenman)

Important rules of the Galápagos

  • Do not touch, feed, disturb or chase any animal.
  • Do not move plants, rocks, shells or any natural objects.
  • Do not take food onto the islands.
  • Make sure you’re not carrying soil or seeds from one island to another on your clothes or shoes.
  • Never throw litter overboard or on the islands.
  • Do not buy souvenirs made of plant or animal products from the islands.
  • Declare any organic products in your possession to the quarantine services on arrival.
  • Plants, fresh flowers and live animals may not be brought to the islands.

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Rough Guides Editors
9/11/2020
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