A History of the Galapagos – In a Nutshell

The Galapagos Islands are located approximately 559 miles off the coast of Ecuador, delicately hugging the equator. They have been forming, erupting and evolving for millions and millions of years; however it is only recently that mankind began to form its story in the Galapagos. There are currently over 25,000 residents in the archipelago, a number that has grown exponentially in the 21st century. Indeed, they were only made famous in 1835 with the arrival of the HMS Beagle and its world-renowned passenger, Charles Darwin. Nevertheless, the islands have developed a rich and intriguing history through this relatively short period, almost as captivating as the natural history they are so well known for. The Galapagos Archipelago is a bucket-list destination among divers, nature-lovers, scientists and volunteers alike thanks to its rich geological and biological history; however, human history of the Galapagos is not one to miss out on.

Taken from Cruise Critic’s article ‘So Far from Mass Tourism’: How the Galapagos Islands Could Help Restart Cruises:

“One company has already quietly restarted its operations in the Galapagos. Ecuadorian-based Metropolitan Touring resumed its first post-shutdown operations aboard the 48-passenger La Pinta on August 2, 2020, and has committed to operating every sailing — even if only one passenger is onboard.”

Interested? Read more here.

Galapagos Landscape Beach.
Beautiful Galapagos Beach.

History of the Galapagos – Discovery by Man

According to the history of the Galapagos, the archaeological evidence tells us that the archipelago was discovered in pre-colonial times, but the Bishop of Panama, Tomas de Berlanga, was the first known person to step foot on the Galapagos Islands in 1535 when he was blown off course while sailing to Peru. It was still some time after that the Galapagos appeared on a map (1570), in which Abraham Ortelius and Gerardus Mercator called the islands the Insulae de los Galopegos, or Islands of the Tortoises, and it took more than two centuries for the first permanent resident to find his way to the Galapagos. Patrick Watkins was marooned on Floreana Island in 1807; however, it seems like as many who visit modern-day Galapagos, he was quite taken by what he found. He chose to stay in the islands for several years, raising vegetables and even selling them to the crews of whaling ships.

Tomas De Berlanga.
Monument To Fray Tomas De Berlanga In Galapagos.

The Beginning of the Island’s Exploitation

Following the arrival of Tomas de Berlanga, over the next three centuries pirates, buccaneers and whalers made their mark in the history of the Galapagos’ books. Located close enough to the continent to raid Spanish ships transporting valuables for the Spanish Empire, but far enough away to ensure a safe escape, the Galapagos proved to be the perfect place of refuge for pirates and buccaneers. It is because of the history of the Galapagos that locations such as Buccaneer Cove on Santiago Island can be visited by tourists today.

Galapagos Sea Lion In Buccaneers Cove In Santiago Island.
Galapagos Sea Lions Resting In Buccaneers Cove In Santiago Island.

However, once whale fat was discovered to be an excellent source of fuel in the 19th century, whalers flocked to the islands, like the pirates, using the archipelago as a place of refuge while they scoured the ocean for their treasures. In addition to the islands’ location directly along the migration routes of sperm whales, the Galapagos archipelago was cherished for its relatively large reserves of fresh water (once you know where they are), sheltered anchorage sites, and the large supplies of fresh meat, making for an excelling resting spot after months on the open sea. Giant tortoises can survive for up to one year without fresh food or water, and the whalers were certain to take advantage of it. They captured the tortoises by the thousands to store them below deck as they made their long voyages back to New Bedford, Nantucket and other whaling ports (around the same time, tortoises were also taken by gold hunters on their way to California). Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, also visited the Galapagos Islands in the 1800s as a whaler, providing him inspiration for his world-renowned book.

Charles Darwin

However, the 19th century also brought the Galapagos Archipelago their most famous visitor, Charles Darwin. Darwin arrived to the Galapagos in September of 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle as it sailed around South America charting unknown territory. He was not allowed as much time as he would have liked to explore the Galapagos, but he was still able to take numerous geological and biological specimens while exploring Floreana, Santiago, San Cristobal and Isabela islands, upon which Charles Darwin later based his theory of evolution by natural selection, forming the framework of modern-day evolutionary thought.

Settling the Islands

When Charles Darwin arrived to the Galapagos Islands, in addition to the blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas, he was also welcomed by a small community that had been settled just a few years earlier in 1831 by General Jose de Villamil, who was also the town’s first governor. The new settlers worked the land, cultivating crops and raising animals such as pigs, goats and donkeys. The settlement did not last long and was deemed a failure in 1852, but even more unfortunately, the introduction of these domestic animals began some of the most severe invasions of foreign species that the islands had ever seen, devastating species such as the giant tortoise. Several attempts were made to colonize the islands following Villamil, which included fishing, canning and salt mining projects, and even a jail, but the majority of these were unsuccessful. The most successful communities were on San Cristobal Island, making it the most populous island until the 1960s, which is why the administrative capital of the archipelago, to this day, is Baquerizo Moreno. However, of all of these projects, one of the most successful was the horribly brutal prison system that was present in the Galapagos Islands for 125 years. The history of this prison is forever preserved in the Wall of Tears in Puerto Villamil.

The Galapagos Today

Today, the Galapagos Islands are home to multiple thriving communities that largely live off of tourism and fishing. However, these communities are careful to keep their lifestyles in line with the natural life that makes these islands so unique. The first wildlife sanctuaries were declared in 1934 and the Galapagos National Park was formed 25 years later with the aim of preserving the stunning flora and fauna that inhabit the archipelago. Shortly after, the Charles Darwin Research Center opened its doors in 1964, which currently serves as an important point of research for hundreds of scientists and conservationists from around the world. Thanks to the work done by these entities to conserve the precious and delicate Galapagos ecosystems, the archipelago was officially classified as a Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Visit The Charles Darwin Research Station.

Does your Galapagos cruise include a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station? Be sure to check!

If you’re interested in finding out more about this remarkable archipelago, be sure to take a peek at our Galapagos Information page!

And take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity NOW!

Updated:May 10, 2023

Published:November 23, 2016


Machu Picchu & Galapagos Islands Tour 2024 Package: 12 days / Quito, Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu / From USD 9,598 per person



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Condé Nast Traveler ONLINE

This small, secret rooftop of the restored Casa Gangotena mansion peers over Plaza San Francisco in the center of Quito’s colonial Old Town, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Order a Cedrón Spritz, a refreshing mix of rum, lemon, sparkling wine, and fresh lemon verbena (cedrón) syrup and leaf, then revel in the mesmerizing, real-time montage of daily life in Ecuador’s capital as it parades past.

National Geographic Traveller

A Font of information, Klaus has spent decades in the field, leading tours in the Amazon, Andes and Galapagos Islands. He hung up his guiding boots a few years back and now creates itineraries for the tour operator, Metropolitan Touring. Adrift in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from mainland South America, Galapagos is one of the most biodiverse locales on Earth.

Cruise Critic

Santa Cruz II is a replacement for the much-loved Santa Cruz, which plied the waters of the Galapagos for 36 years. It is not a new ship; it was built in 2002 and sailed as Mare Australis under the Australis cruise brand, operating expedition cruises around Cape Horn and to Antarctica. Metropolitan Touring bought the ship in 2015 and completely refurbished it, launching it as Santa Cruz II in October 2015.

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When this modern, minimalist, glass-walled jungle lodge opened in 2012, it changed the accommodation game in South America. Arquitect Alfredo Ribadeneira’s “protective cocoon” would impress in a modern city; in the depths of an Andean cloudforest, it is wild, audacious and beautiful. Though only 70 miles from Quito, Maspi Lodge sits in splendid isolation, perched on a cliff at the end of an unsealed road.

Terms and Conditions

Itinerario de 5 días / 4 noches: Basado en la tarifa regular (4214 USD + impuestos por persona)
Itinerario de 7 días / 6 noches: Basado en la tarifa regular (5672 USD + impuestos por persona)
No reembolsable. Aplica únicamente para residentes ecuatorianos en nuevas reservas directas realizadas, hasta el 30 de junio del 2022, con un ejecutivo de ventas del hotel. Válido para estadías hasta el 31 de agosto de 2022. No puede ser combinada con otros descuentos, promociones u ofertas. El descuento no aplica para otros servicios. El precio no incluye recargo de combustible de $20 por noche de crucero.

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