About the Galapagos Islands

Galapagos At A Glance

Location: Straddling the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles from mainland Ecuador.

Capital: Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal is capital of Galapagos Province.

Principal City: Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island is the commercial heart of Galapagos.

Area: 19 islands, and dozens of other islets and volcanic rocks have a total land area of 3,086 square miles, spread over an area of sea covering some 20,000 square miles.

Population: About 17,000 residing on 4 of the islands, San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Floreana.

Language: Spanish, although English is spoken by our guides and other travel staff.

Time Zone: The Galapagos is on Central Standard Time.

Requirements: U.S. citizens must present a valid passport for entry; currently no visa or vaccines required.

Currency: U.S. dollars are now the standard currency in Ecuador and on vessels.

Highest Point: Wolf Volcano on Isabela, 5,600 feet high.

Largest Island: Isabella, 85 miles long / 1,800 square miles, has over half the Galapagos total land area.

Government: Ecuador is a democracy, with an elected president.


The Galapagos Islands are located on one of the most active volcanic regions on earth: the Nazca Plate. This plate moves eastward towards South America because of the spreading of the sea floor, at a rate of 2.75 inches per year. This plate moves over a stationary area of intense heat or "hot spot" which "builds" the islands. Thus, the oldest part of the archipelago is found at the east of the cluster.

Marine Currents & Weather

Despite their tropical location, two moving currents affect the islands. The cold Humboldt Current produces the cool and dry garúa season from June to November and the warm marine Panama Current which produces the warm and wet season from December to May.

During the garúa season, cooler waters from the Humboldt Current are driven to the Galapagos by the southeast trade winds, with an average sea temperature of 71°F. As a result, there is warm tropical air passing over cool water. The moisture evaporating from the sea is concentrated in an inversion layer (300 to 600 m above sea level) and the higher parts of the islands, which intercept this layer, receive precipitation in the form of garúa (mist rain). While lowland areas remain dry though cool.

During the warm season the southeast trade winds diminish in strength and warmer waters from the Panama Basin flow through the islands. The average sea temperature rises to 77°F. Warmer waters cause the cool season inversion layer to break up, and Galapagos experience a more typical tropical climate with blue skies and occasionally heavy showers. In some years, the flow of warm water is much greater than normal, and an "El Niño" year results. Surface water temperatures are higher and rainfall can increase greatly. Life on land blossoms but seabirds and sea life, which depend on the more productive, cooler waters, may experience dramatic breeding failures.

The following chart gives temperature averages and details for the Galapagos Islands throughout the year.

Temperatures (F)
Max Air Temp 84 86 88 86 82 78 76 74 76 77 78 80
Min Air Temp 70 74 74 72 72 68 66 64 62 64 66 68
Ave Sea Temp 74 76 76 76 74 74 72 66 68 70 72 74
Ave Rainfall (in) 1 1 2 1.5 0.75 .025 0.5 0.25 0.5 0.25 0.5 0.5


Rules of the National Park

- Do not disturb or remove any plant, rock or animal.
- Be careful not to transport any organic material from island to island.
- Do not touch or handle the animals.
- Do not feed the animals.
- Do not startle or chase any animal.
- Stay on marked trails, doing so will avoid damage to vegetation or cause erosion.
- Do not leave or throw any litter on or off the ship.
- Please, do not buy souvenirs made from native Galapagos products (except for wood)
- Do not smoke on the islands.
- Do not hesitate to show your conservationist attitude.

Arrival, Establishment & Evolution

When the tips of the Galapagos volcanoes first appeared above the sea surface, some three to five million years ago, they were isolated from life. We will never know how colonization occurred, what we do know is that one thousand kilometers separate the Galapagos from the mainland and despite this barrier, a number of species have made it to the islands. Of course, species are present due to their capacity to disperse, whether actively or passively, but also their ability to establish themselves after arrival.

The Galapagos Islands have often been called a "laboratory of evolution" There are very few places in the world where it has been possible to find such a variety of species, both plants and animals that show so many degrees of evolutionary changes in such a restricted area. Oceanic islands can have species that, though related to mainland forms, have evolved in ways that differ from their relatives because of their isolation in a different environment. This is the key factor in island evolution. It is not surprising that Charles Darwin was so struck by the life he found on these islands.

Darwin finches are a classic example of adaptive radiation in birds, which has served generations of evolutionary biologists. Thirteen species evolved within the Galapagos Archipelago from a common ancestor from the mainland. The fourteenth species occurred on Cocos Island off Costa Rica, about five hundred miles northeast of the Galapagos. The original species diverged in 14 species, as they evolved and occupied niches.

The word endemic refers to organisms found nowhere else in the world because they evolved and remained isolated on a given area. Therefore, they developed unique characteristics and today in Galapagos, you will find several species that fall into this classification.

Vegetation Zones

The different altitudes throughout the islands allow for different vegetation.

Coastal Zone
This evergreen zone is based on salt tolerance abilities of certain species at the land/sea interface. The type of vegetation found varies greatly. The mangroves form forest in coves, while on beaches there are vines, grasses and shrubs. Many plants in this zone are adapted dispersal by the sea and few are endemic because of the unstable nature of the environmental and high immigration rates.

Arid Zone
This is the most extensive vegetation zone. It is a semi-desert forest dominated by deciduous trees and shrubs. The plants have adaptations to withstand drought. There are great numbers of endemic species. Lichens are abundant in this zone because they are tolerant of dry conditions and are capable of absorbing moisture from the occasional garúa mist.

Transition Zone
It is intermediate in character between the scalesia and arid zones, but dominated by different species than either of the adjacent zones. The forest is still mainly deciduous. It is much more dense and diverse than forest of the arid zones and it is often difficult to say whether any species is dominant.

Scalesia Zone
The transition zone merges into the evergreen scalesia forest, which is lush cloud forest, dominated by scalesia pedunculata trees. This type of forest occurs only on the higher islands and, being the richest zone in terms of soil fertility and productivity, has been extensively cut down for agricultural and cattle ranching purposes. The scalesia forest is diverse and has many endemic species.

Brown Zone
It is intermediate between the dense Scalesia forest and the Miconia shrub vegetation. It is an open forest dominated by cat's claw, tournefortia pubescens, and aunistus ellipticus. Trees are heavily draped with epiphytes, mosses, liverworts and ferns, which give this zone a brown appearance during the dry season. This zone has disappeared because of colonization by man.

Miconia Zone
The southern slopes of San Cristobal and Santa Cruz are the only places where there is a dense shrubby belt of Miconia Robinsoniana. Native trees are absent from this zone and ferns are abundant in the herb layer. There are also many liverworts than elsewhere.

Pampa Zone
There are virtually no trees or shrubs, and the vegetation consists largely of terms, grasses and sedges. This is the wettest zone, specially during the garúa season, receiving as much as 2500 mm of rain in some years.


Ancient archaeological remains have been found which indicated that the historical inhabitants of the Ecuadorian coast arrived on "Balsas" or floating crafts and a sailing technique, which allowed them to go far out to sea. There are no traces of permanent settlements because they were probably accidental trips and lost at sea; therefore, it was very difficult for them to return.

1535 Discovery
The islands were discovered by Tomas de Berlanga, they found two islands and they saw three more, one of them, the largest, was Isabela. They named them Galapagos because of the similarity of the tortoise’s shell on a Spanish saddle. The lack of water and abundance of rocks caused a negative impression at first.

1561 First Map of the Island
The islands soon appeared on maps. The first was a map from 1561, soon they appeared on the Dutch maps like Mercator (1569) and Ortelius (1570). The name the "Enchanted Islands" appeared on a map by Ortelius of 1589. Guerrit’s map of 1622 shows three islands identified as Isabela, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal.

1680 Pirates & Buccaneers
In the 17th Century The islands continued to be forgotten for more than a century until the English pirates realized they were an ideal base for attacking, (the Spanish trade ships) hiding out, repairing their boats, stocking up on water and tortoise meat for later journeys. The first expedition was that of John Cook and Richard Hawkins (1680). The second expedition in 1684 (Cook and E. Davis) was more intense and prolonged. They traveled the surrounding seas until 1688. The third was by Rogers and Countney who stayed from 1707 until 1711. With these expeditions began the exploitation of the tortoises. 1684 Cowley and the First English Names In the expedition of John Cook in 1684, a long traveled William Dampier, who has left us a long legacy, and Ambrose Cowley made the first comprehensive map of the islands and gave them the English names, which last until today. Dedicating them to several sponsors or friends: The island of King Charles, Crossman, Brattle, Antony Dean, and the Duke of York, Norfolk, Albemarle, and Narborough.

1744 Spanish Exploration of the Islands
Although they didn't give much importance to the Galapagos in the first centuries, they explored them and gave some names, known as "the ancient Spanish names", but without clearly identifying them. Therefore "Isla de la Salud" or "Santa Maria" was probably the island currently known as Floreana; "San Bernabe" the currently Isla Santiago; "Mascarin" was probably Española; "La Isla de Tabaco", San Cristobal. Later the "Isla Santa Isabela" would be identified as Isabela. The "Islas Santa Maria" (Tortuga, Crossman), appear in several French maps. In 1744, the Geographic Source made a clearer map with several Spanish names that haven’t been conserved.

1788-1860 Whaler in Galapagos: Colnett
Several English whalers discovered that the whales migrated to the Galapagos to breed. In 1788, the ship Emilia arrived to England with 140 tons of oil and 888 sea lion skins. Soon after, the Beaver of Nantucket (USA) returned with 1,300 tons of whale oil. It was the beginning of a virtual stampede. In 1793, Captain James Colnett arrived in the H.M.S. Rattler to study the possibilities of establishing a whaling station in the South Pacific. By the end of the century, no less than 40 whalers, English and American frequented the water of Galapagos during the time of the whales to stock up on water, tortoises and sea lion skins. It will never be known how many thousands of tortoise were sacrificed and taken from the islands. 19th Century The First Inhabitant: Patrick Watkins In the beginning of the 19th century, an Irish sailor was abandoned on Charles Island (Floreana), his name was Patrick Watkins and he is considered the first inhabitant of the islands. He cultivated vegetables, which he traded to the whalers for rum to get drunk. Several years later, he managed to take some boats and some men whom he treated like slaves. With them, he took to sea but he arrived in Guayaquil alone. He then went to Patia where he convinced a mulatto woman to accompany him back to the island. He was arrested when trying to steal a ship and he spent the rest of his days. 1832 Ecuador Claims Rights to the Galapagos Although the islands belonged to Quito during the colonial years, after the independence they couldn’t be considered anybody’s land. For this reason the General Jose Villamil, born in Louisiana and residing in Guayaquil, suggested officially incorporating the archipelago into the new Republic. The Colonel Ignacio Hernandez, delegate of the governor, performed the ceremony February 12, 1832 on the island of Floreana, which took this name in honor of the first president of Ecuador, Juan Jose Flores.

1832-1837 The First Colonization
General Jose Villamil organized a colonizing company with the illusion of converting the archipelago into a place of peace (the first town was called "The asylum of peace"), of progress and of the regeneration of criminals and rebel soldiers, by means of work. Villamil moved to the island on October 12, 1832 to try make his dreams come true. In the beginning, everything seemed to prosper but the presence of criminals destroyed the environment and ended up destroying the colony. In 1836, Villamil released domesticated animals (cows, horses, and donkeys) on the main islands. To take advantage of the grass and they reproduced very quickly, together with the wild animals that were left over from the previous colonization (dogs, cats, pigs, and goats) they turned into a danger for the ecology of the islands 1835 Charles Darwin in Galapagos On September 15, 1835, Captain Robert Fitz Roy arrive to the Galapagos on the "Beagle" as part of a trip around the world with the young naturalist Charles Darwin. They first visited Chatham Island (San Cristobal), and later Charles Island (Floreana). They sailed between Narborough and disembarked on Santiago. While the officials on board the Beagle drew a map of the islands, Charles Darwin studied and collected samples of the flora and fauna. His observation of the diversity of species on the islands would be the basis for the later elaboration of the Theory of Evolution. The Galapagos would be seen from under a different light, a virtual laboratory of evolution.

1850-1860 The Prison
After Villamil left the island, the Galapagos was considered an ideal site for a prison, as its distance from the mainland made escape nearly impossible and the inmates would have insufficient food and water to survive. Sometimes the prisoners were without supplies, which prompted the delinquents to commit other crimes. A prisoner named Briones, who captured a whaling boat, escaped with other prisoners to the mainland, and killed 28 men in the entrance to the Gulf of Guayaquil, committed the most famous crime. This incident provoked a strong controversy, because the owners of the whaling ship demanded large payments as compensation from the Government of the United States and threatened to send war ships if they didn’t pay.

1869-1878 Second Colonization
In 1860, a whaler discovered the orchilla lichen, a valuable plant for dyeing. Several businessmen tried to exploit it, among them Mr. Jose Valdizan, a Spanish businessman residing in Guayaquil. He obtained exclusive rights in 1869 and moved to the islands of Floreana where he organized plantations once the business of the orchilla crashed. He believed, against the opinion of everyone that he could take delinquents to work on his properties and win them over with kindness and work. He was treacherously murdered July 23, 1878. The island was abandoned, the domesticated animals and cattle went wild and the workers didn’t want to return because they considered it a "cursed island".

1879-1940 J. Cobo's Empire
Starting in 1879, on the island of San Cristobal, Manuel J. Cobos formed an advanced agricultural center, called "El Progreso", not far from the port. The first products included leather from the feral cattle, oil from tortoises and fishing, while sugar cane plantations were prepared for a factory, which was installed in 1891. Various ships maintained an active trade with Guayaquil. Unfortunately, "El Progreso" turned into a concentration camp with forced labor and where the will of Cobos was the only law. He imposed his own circulation, made decisions regarding the life, death or exile to isolated islands of many of his workers. Camilo Casanova was exiled to the Island of Santa Cruz, becoming an exact replica of Robison Crusoe. M.J. Cobos was assassinated by a group of his workers on January 15, 1904.

1850-1940 Galapagos' Strategic Importance
The strategic location of the islands became very important as the time drew near for the opening of the Panama Canal. Various European and North American powers looked for any way to buy or rent some or all the islands, to be used as a fueling station for Navy ships, or more importantly, for the defense of the Canal on the Pacific side. They even tried to declare the islands "res nullius" (no man’s lands). Ecuador resisted this pressure, but ceded some of the islands to be used for defense during World War II.

1926-1929 The Norwegians
The Norwegians had shown an interest in the Galapagos since 1880 owing to the abundance of fish and opportunities to hunt whales. In 1908, a Norwegian sailboat crashed on the West Side of the archipelago and part of the crew was abandoned on the island of Santa Cruz for many months. Upon their return to Norway, they convinced many of their countrymen to immigrate to the islands. Many groups arrived during 1926 and two colonies were formed on Floreana and Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, the conditions weren’t as they had expected and in less than two years, the majority of the immigrants had returned to Norway. Captain Bruun of the Norwegian marines made a final attempt to colonize the islands, but he died tragically on Isabela in July of 1931.

1929-1934 The Germans in Florena
In August 1929, Doctor Friedrich Ritter and Dore Stranch arrive to the island of Floreana, two lovers anxious to live under their own philosophy, isolated from their decadent civilization. Their writings attracted others with similar ideas, but none of them lasted long except for the Wittmer family (Heinz, Margaret, and Harris) from Cologne. A few months later, an Austrian woman arrived, who introduced herself as the Baroness together with three lovers, and the island was transformed into a small hell, due to intrigues of the new inhabitants. The first lover returned to the mainland after a few weeks. In March 1934, the Baroness disappeared with one of her lovers, Phillipson, and even though Margaret affirms that they went on a yacht to the Pacific Island, no one has given any credit to her story. Margaret convinced Lorenz, the surviving lover, to return to Germany. He disappeared along with another Danish man, Nuggerud, before arriving to the island of San Cristobal. A few months later, Dr. Ritter was poisoned (on purpose or by accident?) by Dore, and died. In December, the mummified bodies of Lorenz and Nuggerud were found on the island of Marchena. Out of the seven colonists four died mysteriously, this mystery has never been solved. However, the Wittmer family still lives on the island. 1936 The First Airplanes William Robinson lived on his yacht in Tagus Cove, studying the flora and fauna of the islands, when he suffered a serious attack of appendicitis and his situation quickly became desperate. Luckily, the tuna clipper the "Santa Cruz" was nearby and contacted the Marines based in the Panama Canal by radio. Once permission was granted, two hydroplanes took off for the islands, followed by the destroyer "Hale". They arrived on time to save his life, and flights to the islands were installed. The first airplane flight, which carried mail from the Canal Zone to the Galapagos, took place on February 6, 1936. A commemorative stamp was created. The first commercial flights arrived on January 3, 1959, with the LIA airlines and later with TAME Ecuador’s airline (June 6, 1963), and once again, booklets of commemorative stamps were created. TAME still has flights to the Galapagos.

1942-1949 Galapagos in WW II
The United States considered the Galapagos essential to the vigilance of the Canal. Since 1928, the US having studied all of the alternatives in case of a war in the Pacific, chose the island of Baltra as the principal base, and accumulated everything necessary in the Canal Zone ("the Galapagos Units"). Aerial vigilance began Five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. March of 1942, operations at the base began: the U.S. built 3 airstrips (the first airplane, a B24 landed in May) the marines had their center in the adjacent "Eolian Cove" and constructed a dock (which is still being used), hydroplane ramps, etc. In total, the Beta Base, as it was called, could house six thousand men. Even though the Beta Base never had to face an emergency, the Union recognized that the Galapagos had played an important role, and for that reason they tried to buy or retain the base after the war. The official turnover took place in 1946, but the last contingents didn’t leave until the beginning of 1949.

1946-1959 Penal Colony
Once again, Ecuador made the error of opening a penal colony on the Galapagos Islands. In 1946, it was used as military installations on an alternative base, which operated during the war. Unfortunately, the situation grew worse and the colony turned into a concentration camp until 1950, when a police chief forced the people of the penal colony to construct a wall. This wall is known as "the Wall of Tears". In February 1958, there was an uprising, an intelligent prisoner named "Patecuco", disarmed police and took "Valinda" the yacht that belonging to an American millionaire and used it to escape to the mainland. No deaths occurred during the uprising, but the incident caused international repercussions and the government shut down the penal colony and stopped sending prisoners to the islands.

1936-1959 First Preservation
Attempts Various scientific expeditions at the beginning of this century sounded the alarm of the killing of the giant tortoise and of the danger of their disappearance. The events of the incorporation of the islands to Ecuador (1932) and of the visit of Charles Darwin (1835) were the occasions when the Ecuadorian government took measures for the conservation of the animals. In 1936, the islands were declared a National Reserve with stricter regulations. Finally, in 1954, a movement was started to protect the species of the Galapagos and to found a center for scientific investigations on the islands. The Ecuadorian government declared the Galapagos Islands a National Park on July 4, 1959.

1968 National Park
In 1968, the National Park Service for the Galapagos was initiated. It started as a part of the Forest Service of the Ministry of Agriculture. 1978 Natural Heritage Site On September 8, 1978, UNESCO declared the Galapagos a Natural Heritage Site for its scientific prestige and to support the conservation efforts of the National Park. The General Secretary visited the islands in 1984 to proclaim it himself.

1998 Interpretation Center
On August 12, 1998, Prince Felipe of Spain arrived aboard the Galapagos Explorer II to inaugurate the Interpretation Center on San Cristobal Island. The center is mainly focused on the interaction between the human populations and the processes of the so-called "laboratory of Natural History", showing that a harmonious relationship between humans and nature is possible if undertaken in the right way. Interactive displays enhance the interpretation. The center is divided in several pavilions, each one with its own theme: geology, evolution, human history and current problems and its solutions, amongst others. Your journey and understanding of Galapagos would be incomplete if you did not visit the Interpretation Center.