Southern islands: Floreana and Española

Floreana and Española are regularly visited islands in the south of the archipelago, and also among its oldest, weather-beaten and eroded over several million years. Floreana, one of the first islands ever to have human settlers – all unsuccessful until the famous Wittmer family of the 1930s – is known for its interesting history, while Española is a favourite for its sea-bird colonies, especially the endemic waved albatross.

Isla Española

In the far southeastern corner of the archipelago, ESPAÑOLA is a remote island featuring regularly on tour-boat itineraries, a favourite for its sea-bird colonies and native wildlife. Isolation has given rise to a number of endemic species: Española’s mockingbirds, lava lizards and colourful marine iguanas are found nowhere else in the world, while the waved albatross, the star of the island when in residence between April and December, has only one other home – even then in small numbers – at the Isla de la Plata off the mainland coast. Española’s giant tortoises were nearly wiped out (down to only fourteen specimens in the 1970s) because of feral goats, which have since been eradicated. Under a long-term, CDRS-run repopulation programme, the thousandth Española tortoise reared in captivity was successfully repatriated to the island in March 2000.

Punta Suárez and Gardner Bay

Española’s two visitor sites offer very different experiences. At Punta Suárez, on the western end of the island, noisy sea lions welcome visitors landing on a small beach. On the rocks, marine iguanas, unusual for rusty colourations that erupt into turquoise and red during the mating season, bask in the sun. Hood mockingbirds, even more gregarious than their relatives on other islands, will hop to your feet and tug at your shoelaces. From the beach, a long, looped trail heads up to a large plateau covered in muyuyo, croton, lycium and atriplex (salt sage), a scrubby costume of plants that bursts into green during the rainy season. The waved albatrosses nests among these bushes from April to December; it’s a giant of a bird that flies alone above the seas for three months, before returning to the island to find its lifelong mate, perform its alluring courtship dance and breed (see Waved albatrosses). When it’s time to hunt, the adults waddle to the high cliffs at the southern end of the island to launch themselves off, unfurling their 2.5-metre wings. Along the cliffs you’ll also find Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls and red-billed tropicbirds; in the west, a blowhole sends a tall jet of spray gushing through a fissure in the lava. The trail then heads back across the plateau, through a field of blue-footed boobies, high-stepping and sky-pointing at each other in a cacophony of whistling and honking.

The second visitor site, Gardner Bay, on the northeast side of the island, holds one of the most spectacular beaches in the archipelago, a lightly curling strip of soft, white, coral sand, lapped by a dazzling blue sea. Bull sea lions energetically patrol the water while their many consorts doze on the sand. As an open site, you can walk the length of the beach without the rest of your group or the guide. It’s a good spot for some swimming, but snorkelling is better around the offshore islets nearby, especially Isla Tortuga, where eagle rays, white-tipped reef and hammerhead sharks can be seen.

Isla Floreana

Arriving at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Patrick Watkins was the first in a long line of colonists to FLOREANA. As the sixth-largest island in the Galápagos (173 square kilometres), and just some 50km south of Santa Cruz, it was favoured for its good supply of both tortoise meat and fresh highland water. General Villamil began Ecuador’s first official colony on the islands, the Asilo de la Paz (“Haven of Peace”), using convict labour in 1832. He gave up after five years, handing the settlement over to the brutal Colonel José Williams, who kept a pack of vicious dogs to keep his unruly charges at bay, but the hounds weren’t protection enough and Williams fled the island after a rebellion in 1841. Almost thirty years later, José de Valdizán sought to rekindle the ill-fated venture, but after eight years his desperate settlers armed themselves and fought each other. Valdizán and several others were killed and the settlement fell apart. All this human interference has not been without effect on Floreana: its tortoise population is extinct, and feral cats so severely preyed on the Charles mockingbird that it’s now only found on the islets Enderby and Campeón, off the northeastern shore.

There’s a small settlement on the western coast of the island, PUERTO VELASCO IBARRA, home to around a hundred people. The Pensión Wittmer (t05/2520150; $51–80), for many years was the only place to stay, and run by Margret Wittmer, one of the protagonists of the Galápagos Affair, but now taken over by her family. As well as providing meals for guests, the Wittmers can give advice on the hikes around the island, including down from the Asilo de la Paz, the site of the island’s only water source; two daily work trucks depart for the highlands (30min; you’ll want the 6am one if you want to explore). Alternative lodging can now be found at Red Mangrove Floreana Lodge (t05/2526564,; over $121 including breakfast; lunch and dinner $30 each), which offers clean but spartan pine cabins with bathroom and space for four, on the lava by the shore about ten-minutes’ walk south of the port on the way to La Lobería, where there’s a sea-lion colony. Apart from this, it’s a very quiet island, with little to see and do, but an unbeatable place to get away from it all. If you’re not on a tour, it’s not straightforward to get to Floreana.

The Galápagos Affair

In the 1930s, a string of deaths and disappearances among a curious group of European settlers on Floreana – which became known as the Galápagos Affair after the book by John Treherne – made the islands more famous to the contemporary world than even Darwin had done a century earlier. The story began with the arrival in 1929 of two Germans, Dr Friedrich Ritter and his mistress Dore Strauch. Ritter, a determined, vain and deliberately compassionless man, was pumped up on the ideas of Nietzsche and Lao-tze, and had pretensions to being a great philosopher, rather than breadwinner in a suburban Berlin household. Dore fell under his spell as his patient, and they eventually conspired to run off to the Galápagos Islands, no easy holiday spot, but the perfect place to found a dark Utopia and play out the roles of “philosopher-heroes”. Seeing himself as one of Nietzsche’s Übermenschen, Ritter refused to bring a supply of morphine with him, welcoming the test of beating pain “by the power of the will”. He had also had his and Dore’s teeth removed, preferring the reliability of a set of steel dentures – which they shared. He refused to show any love to his mistress, leaving her weeping on the lava when she couldn’t carry their supplies; he wouldn’t even clean Dore’s burn wounds after she’d knelt in red-hot coals. Towards the end he even beat her, but Dore claimed her devotion to him never faltered.

The couple lived alone on the island until 1932, when the Wittmer family – Heinz, Margret and their son Harry – arrived from Cologne. They were a far more practical bunch and stayed out of the way of their strange neighbours as much as they could. A couple of months later, a woman armed with a riding crop and a revolver, calling herself the Baroness Wagner de Bosquet and claiming to be an Austrian aristocrat, stormed onto the island with her two German lovers, Rudolf Lorenz and Robert Philippson. Her plan was to build a hotel for millionaires, the Hacienda Paraíso, which she set about doing, but before long it became clear to the previous settlers she was a compulsive liar and a sadistic megalomaniac. She took pleasure in treating Lorenz like a slave and regularly got Philippson to beat him. Soon she was treading on the other settlers’ toes, intercepting their mail left at Post Office Bay, stealing supplies left for them by passing yachts and declaring herself “Empress of Floreana”.

Matters came to a head during the long drought of 1934, when the Baroness and Philippson disappeared. According to Margret Wittmer, the Baroness said a friend was taking them to Tahiti, a story backed by Lorenz, who had managed to escape the household shortly before. But Dore claimed she heard a “long-drawn scream” coming from the hacienda and Ritter seemed unusually sure they had gone for good – even though all the Baroness’s belongings were where she’d left them, including her beloved copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. “She won’t come back. Take my word for it,” he told Margret Wittmer. He was right – neither the Baroness nor Philippson were ever seen again.

After their disappearance, Lorenz grew increasingly desperate to leave the island and persuaded a visiting Norwegian, Nuggerud, to sail him to San Cristóbal. Nuggerud wasn’t keen: the sea was rough, he wanted to get back to his wife on Santa Cruz who was about to give birth to their first child and it was Friday 13th. Nevertheless, he relented; four months later, the desiccated bodies of both men were found on Marchena Island. Only a few days after this, Ritter fell gravely ill after eating a poisoned chicken cooked by Dore, who said she’d also eaten it, but was only mildly sick. His hatred for his mistress was remorseless and, just before he died, he wrote a final message to Dore: “I curse you with my dying breath.” Dore returned to Berlin, where she died, shortly after telling her story in the book, Satan Came to Eden. Margret Wittmer, who was the last survivor of the original settlers, died in 2000 aged 95, but the deaths and disappearances on Floreana are no closer to being solved.

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updated 26.04.2021

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