Destination guide: Galapagos, Ecuador
The Galapagos National Park is one of the most attractive destinations in Ecuador and is home to giant turtles, prehistoric iguanas and other unique species. For many tourists, the Galapagos Islands or “Enchanted Islands” as some people call them are a true paradise, where you can find beautiful white sand beaches, lava tunnels and one-of-a kind native flora and fauna.
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Galapagos - History
The Galápagos Archipelago was discovered by accident in 1535, when Tomás de Berlanga, the first Bishop of Panama, drifted off course while sailing from Panama to Peru. The bishop reported his discovery to King Charles V of Spain and included in his report a description of the giant Galápagos tortoises, from which the islands received their name.
It is possible that the indigenous inhabitants of South America were aware of the islands’ existence before 1535, but there are no definite records of this and the islands don’t appear on a world map until 1570 when they are identified as the ‘island of the tortoises.’ In 1953, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl discovered what he thought to be pre-Columbian pottery shards on the islands, but the evidence seems inconclusive. The first rough charts of the archipelago were made by buccaneers in the late 17th century, and scientific exploration began in the late 18th century.
Ecuador officially claimed the Galápagos Archipelago in 1832 and General Villamil was named the first governor – basically in charge of a single colony on Floreana of ex-rebel soldiers. For roughly one century thereafter, the islands were inhabited by only a few settlers and were used as penal colonies, the last of which, on Isla Isabela, was closed in 1959.
The Galápagos’ most famous visitor was Charles Darwin, who arrived in 1835 aboard the British naval vessel the Beagle. Darwin stayed for five weeks, 19 days of which were spent on four of the larger islands, making notes and collecting specimens that provided important evidence for his theory of evolution, which he would later formulate and publish, but not until decades later. He spent the most time on Isla San Salvador observing and, for that matter, eating tortoises.
The truth is that Darwin devoted as much of his attention to geology and botany as he did to the animals and marine life of the Galápagos.
Some islands were declared wildlife sanctuaries in 1934, and 97% of the archipelago officially became a national park in 1959. Organized tourism began in the late 1960s and in 1986 the government formed the Marine Resources Reserve.