The Unique History and Characteristics of The Galapagos Islands

November 1, 2019 09:44

Historical Significance of the Galapagos Islands and What Makes Them So Special

Along with being a spectacular place to visit with a wealth of unique experiences to offer, the Galapagos Islands have a lot of historical significance and unique characteristics you won’t see anywhere else on the planet. From volcanoes and origin stories of natural selection to endangered species, these islands are incredibly special and should be treated with care.

To help you gain a better understanding of the distinctiveness of the Galapagos Islands and what makes them so unique, here are some important facts about the islands to familiarize yourself with if you are considering a trip to Galapagos.

The Geography and Geology of the Islands

Located 906 km (600 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago made up of 13 main islands and nearly 100 smaller islands and islets.

The Galapagos Islands are located at the juncture of three different tectonic plates – moving pieces of the earth’s crust – making the Galapagos Islands one the most volcanically active places in the world.

Situated on top of a volcanic hotspot, the islands were created as the result of millions of years of volcanic activity, and there are currently 13 active volcanoes in the archipelago.  There are several fumaroles (one is accessible as a visitor site), but eruptions only happen every few years. These are not explosive, but rather consist of cracks in the sides of volcanoes opening up and magma squirting out. 

As a result, the Galapagos’ famous turquoise blue waters, lush greenery, and pristine white sand beaches are contrasted by a harsh yet stunning volcanic landscape.

Spectacular Wildlife and Biodiversity

The Galapagos Islands are perhaps best known for their unique biodiversity and impressive array of highly adapted species, many of which are endemic to individual Islands. In fact, 97% of the reptiles and 20% of the marine species found in the Galapagos Islands do not exist anywhere else on earth.

Due to their remote nature, very few mammals were able to make it to the islands – there are only 2 native mammal species there (a small rat and a bat).

But what really makes the animal life on the islands so incredible is that fact that the species have evolved with very little human contact or any major predators for hundreds of years. This means that they are typically not afraid of humans and will often either come close to you, or let you get close to them.

Some of the most distinctive animals from the Galapagos that you can expect to see includes:

  • Marine and land iguanas
  • Seals and sea lions
  • Giant tortoises
  • Green sea turtles
  • Galapagos penguins
  • Flamingos
  • Darwin’s Finches
  • Blue-Footed Boobies
  • Flightless cormorants

Charles Darwin

While the Galapagos Islands are known for being home to an amazing array of unique animal species, many people often do not realize how much historical – and scientific – significance these creatures have.

Back in 1831, famed naturalist Charles Darwin set sail on the H.M.S Beagle on a voyage to South America. By 1835, Darwin landed in the Galapagos Islands, where he spent 5 weeks studying the unique flora and fauna of the islands and collecting geological and biological specimens from the islands for further analysis.

During his time on the islands, Darwin noticed that while certain species such as finches (now known as Darwin’s Finches) were similar from island to island, each had evolved and adapted to their environments in different ways.

Darwin went on to use his observations to help develop his ground-breaking theory of evolution outlined in his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species, and dramatically altered the way people at the time understood the biological origins of life.

Other Interesting Facts About the Galapagos Islands

To help you understand even more about what makes the Galapagos Islands so unbelievably unique, here are some additional facts about the islands that many visitors may not know.

Lonesome George

In 2012, the Galapagos suffered a huge loss when Lonesome George — the sole remaining Pinta Island tortoise and icon of the Galapagos conservation efforts — died, marking the official extinction of the species.

For many years, Lonesome George was the last known surviving Pinta tortoise and considered the rarest creature in the world.

In fact, The Pinta tortoise was thought to have gone extinct in the early 20th century. It wasn’t until 1971 when a scientist discovered that one still remained, who was swiftly brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station where he lived for the rest of his life and was given the name Lonesome George.

While in captivity, efforts were made to have George mate with females of other Galapagos tortoise species but were unsuccessful.

During his time at the research station, George remained in relatively good health and is estimated to have lived to over 100 years old by the time he eventually died of natural causes.

97% of Galapagos Is A National Park

Another factor that makes the Galapagos Islands one of the most unique vacation destinations is that the 97% of the total area of the islands remains uninhabited and is a part of the Galapagos National Park.

Established in 1959, the Galapagos National Park is the oldest national park in Ecuador and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This means that strict measures are in place to protect the islands and minimize the impact of visitors.

As a result, any tourist visiting the islands on a cruise or other tour must be accompanied by Galapagos National Park certified guide.

The Galapagos National Park also collects an entrance fee of $100 USD from each visitor, which goes directly towards conservation efforts along with the protection and management of the islands.

Presence of Penguins

When most people think of penguins, they think of snow, ice, and freezing cold climates. However, the cute, beloved birds can actually be found in warmer climates like the Galapagos. In fact, the Galapagos Islands are home to the only species of penguin found north of the Equator.

These penguins are typically found on Isabela and Fernandina Islands but can also be spotted on Floreana and Bartolome islands.

Galapagos penguins are able to survive in hotter climates by developing ways to adapt to the warm weather, such as walking on land with their flippers over their feet to avoid being burned from the sun.

The penguins are also able to thrive in their tropical habitat due to the cool, nutrient-rich waters of the Humboldt Current that flows north from Antarctica.

Pirates and Buried Treasure

Nearly 200 years before Charles Darwin even stepped foot in the archipelago, the Galapagos Islands once served as a safe haven for English pirates and Buccaneers after attacking and looting Spanish treasure fleets transporting gold and silver from South America to Spain.

The islands provided the perfect spot for taking refuge because they were close enough to shipping routes to serve as a launching pad for attacks on Spanish ships but were far enough from the South American mainland that pirates could make a clean break and hide out and guard their loot.

According to local legend, some of that treasure remains hidden in the Galapagos to this day.

Major Landmarks and Visitor Sites

There are endless things to see and do when visiting the Galapagos Islands, so how do you know where to start?

To give you an idea of what to look for when selecting an itinerary, we’ve broken down some of the most iconic and historical attractions in the Galapagos Islands.

Charles Darwin Research Station

The Charles Darwin Research Station, located in the city of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, is a biological research station operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation along with over 200 scientists and volunteers.

Founded in 1959, the foundation has dedicated its efforts towards the preservation and conservation of the Galapagos Islands along with the many animals and plants that live there.

This includes monitoring the conservation of the islands’ and flora and fauna, caring/rehabilitating for injured and/or endangered animals until they are ready to be released back to the wild, and tracking the movement of sea turtles, Galapagos penguins, and sharks around certain islands.

The Charles Darwin Research Station itself is a popular tourist destination where visitors can witness the famous tortoise breeding center – where Lonesome George lived until his death – and learn more about local conservation efforts and the Galapagos wildlife.

Punta Suarez, Española Island

Punta Suarez is one of just two visitor sites on Española and is home to the Galapagos' only colony of the Waved Albatross – a rare endemic species that can only be seen on Española Island.

The main activity for visitors to enjoy is hiking a 2 km trail through Masked and Blue-Footed Booby colonies and enjoying the spectacular views this island has to offer.

Another highlight of this hike is a lava fissure that has created a blowhole that sprays water nearly 30 metres into the air.

Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island

Located on the largest island in the Galapagos, Punta Vicente Roca is home to the remnants of an ancient volcano that has formed two turquoise coves and is one of the islands’ top-rated snorkelling sites.

Animals that call this spot home include blue-footed and Nazca boobies, flightless cormorants, sea lions, and sea turtles.

Popular activities include taking a panga ride along the cliffs or exploring the partially sunken cave located right at the water’s edge.

Devil’s Crown, Floreana Island

Known as one of the best places for snorkeling in the Galapagos, this visitor’s site got it’s name from a large ring of jagged, volcanic rocks resembling a crown that stick up from the water just off the shore of Floreana Island.

What makes the site so enticing for snorkellers and scuba divers is that the rocks make it an attractive spot for smaller fish, which attract larger fish for feeding, and so on.

Marine life that can be spotted by snorkellers include hammerhead sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, and spotted eagle rays.

There is also a colony of playful sea lions that live among the rocks and along the nearby shore.

Prince Phillip’s Steps, Genovesa Island

Named after England’s Prince Philip, who visited Galapagos in 1965 and again in 1981, this site is a steep, rocky trail leading up a cliff that provides the perfect opportunity to spot a variety and abundance of birdlife including:

  • Red-footed boobies
  • Nazca boobies
  • Short-eared owls
  • Red-billed tropicbirds
  • Galapagos swallows
  • Galapagos doves
  • Finches
  • Mockingbirds

During your time at this area of Genovesa Island, you will have the opportunity to see a small fur seal colony, along with variety of marine life clinging to the rocks, and stunning views of lava plains. 

As you can see, the Galapagos Islands truly are a treasure trove full of history and natural wonder, and are the perfect destination for history, science, and animal lovers alike.

So, when planning your next big vacation, consider a cruise to the Galapagos Islands in order to really experience all that the islands have to offer.

The Most Exciting Things to Do in the Galapagos

September 21, 2019 05:47

Fun Activities to Try When Visiting the Galapagos Islands

Whether you're already booking your trip or still deciding, there are a plethora of activities and endless experiences awaiting you at the Galapagos Islands.

With postcard-worthy views, pristine white, sandy beaches, stunning flora and fauna, it's no wonder these gorgeous islands are at the top of most eco-travellers’ bucket lists.

So, if you are looking for your next travel destination or actively considering taking a trip to the Galapagos Islands, here are some of our top recommendations for the best activities offered around the islands.

See our earlier article on choosing between an expedition cruise and a land-based approach.   We recommend the expedition cruise as the most effective way of maximizing your exposure to the best of what the islands have to offer. 

Activities and Experiences to Enjoy While Visiting the Galapagos Islands

Snorkelling and Scuba Diving

In the brilliant turquoise blue waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands, marine life is abundant and striking, making the Galapagos one of the world’s greatest destinations for snorkelling and scuba diving.

Some impressive creatures you can expect to spot include:

  • Green sea turtles
  • Sharks (hammerhead, black-tipped and white-tipped)
  • Schools of colourful tropical fish
  • Playful sea lions (like underwater puppies)
  • Galapagos fur seals
  • Galapagos penguins
  • Lobsters
  • Several species of rays
  • Seahorses (if you have a good eye)


Kayaking in the Galapagos is a truly magical experience. Not only does this allow you to enjoy the beauty of coastal ecosystems closely, but it’s also a great way to get about without the sound of an engine propelling you about.

This is a great option for those who are not into the idea of snorkelling or scuba diving, but still want to experience the beauty of Galapagos marine life.

Experiencing the Wildlife and Biodiversity

Due to the fact that the majority of the Galapagos Islands remain uninhabited – along with major conservation efforts – Galapagos remains one of the world’s most unspoiled areas in the world, with an impressive and unique array of reptiles, amphibians, and bird species.  In fact, the near-complete absence of native mammals in Galapagos, and with landscapes dominated by reptiles, this is as close as one can get to the age of the dinosaurs!

In fact, 80% of the islands’ land birds, 97% of reptiles and over 30% of plants are unique to the Galapagos islands and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

There are over 200 recorded species of vertebrates that call Galapagos home, including:

  • Marine iguanas
  • Seals and sea lions
  • Giant tortoises
  • Galapagos penguins
  • Flamingos
  • Darwin’s Finches

The unique wildlife living among the Galapagos Islands, particularly the Finches, the Giant Tortoises and the Mockingbirds helped inspire Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking theory on biological evolution and his subsequent publication "On the Origin of Species.”

Which brings us to our next point.

The Charles Darwin Research Station

When Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands for five weeks in 1835, he spent time observing and studying the flora and fauna native to Galapagos. This largely influenced the development of his theory of evolution, and later led to the creation of a foundation named in his honour, along with a research facility known as the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Run by over 200 scientists and volunteers, the station is open for visitors and is a must-see for those who are interested in learning about the Islands’ unique wildlife.

Besides its dedication to research and conservation efforts, the research station also helped establish the Giant Tortoise breeding center, which is accessible to visitors.  It also has a new museum and gift shop – the only place where you can find Charles Darwin Research Station branded gifts. 


For travellers who love a good adventure and enjoy being active, hiking in the Galapagos is an absolute must.

The Galapagos Islands have no shortage of regulated hiking trails with sweeping views. From trails along white, sandy beaches, to forests of cacti, and blackened volcanic rock, you are sure to have many close encounters with wildlife and experience spectacular views.   Most of these are accessible by dedicated cruise ship excursion.  

Lounging on The Beach

If diving and kayaking aren’t your cup of tea, the Galapagos has some beautiful beaches where you can kick back and soak in all the natural beauty that the islands have to offer.

Plus, you’ll have sea lions, iguanas, turtles, and rare, exotic birds to keep you company as you relax on the whitest sand you may ever see.   Though a few are accessible from established towns, the more remote and wild beaches can be visited via dedicated expedition cruises. 

Lava Tunnels

Besides the untouched natural beauty, stunning wildlife, and biodiversity, a defining feature of the Galapagos is its rocky, volcanic landscapes.

The Galapagos Islands sit on a volcanic 'hotspot,' resulting in millions of years' of ongoing volcanic activity.

A product of this is the islands’ conical structures, along with stunning underground lava tunnels found across the islands.

Some of these tunnels are open to the public for exploration and are a must-see when visiting the Galapagos Islands if you aren’t afraid of the dark and don’t mind getting a little dirty.

Picking Up Some Fresh Seafood at a Fish Market

Seafood lovers are in for a real treat when visiting the Galapagos, as the islands have some of the freshest, most delectable seafood you will ever experience.

Rather than dining out at a restaurant, the freshest catch can be found at one of the many fish markets on the islands.

Shrimp ceviche in particular is a common delicacy in Galapagos, as is tuna, lobster, squid, red snapper, and sea cucumber.

The Islands

Galapagos is an archipelago of 18 main volcanic islands and several other ‘minor’ islands, many of which are uninhabited. The most popular of the major islands include:

Santa Cruz Island (inhabited)

Santa Cruz Island is considered a central base for exploration, as it is home to the archipelago’s largest town, Puerto Ayora, and is the economic centre of the Galapagos.

Here are some of the top attractions on Santa Cruz:

  • Charles Darwin Research Station
  • Tortuga Bay beach
  • Dragon Hill
  • Reserva El Chato Tortoise Reserve
  • Los Gemelos
  • Lava Tunnels
  • Rancho Primicias Tortoise Reserve
  • Puerto Ayora fish market
  • Punta Estrada Beach
  • Cliff jumping at Las Grietas
  • Playa De Los Perros

Isabela Island

*Located beside the main town and nearby visitors sites, most of it is accessible by expedition cruise only.

Isabela is the largest island in the Galapagos and was formed around 1 million years ago due to the merging of 6 volcanoes, the majority of which are still active.

The island is mainly known for its stunning beauty along with white sand beaches, blue lagoons, and of course, volcanoes.

Top attractions on Isabela Island include:

  • Sierra Negra volcano caldera
  • Flamingo Lagoon
  • Giant Tortoise Breeding Center
  • The historic Wall of Tears
  • Los Tuneles
  • Las Tintoreras Islet
  • Elizabeth Bay
  • Wetlands
  • Tagus Cove
  • Urbina Bay

Floreana Island (inhabited)

Officially known as Santa Maria, this island is located at the far south of the Galapagos archipelago and is best known for its unique animal inhabitants like flamingos, sea lions, and sea turtles.

Floreana is perhaps the best destination in the Galapagos for those who are interested in snorkelling and scuba diving.

When visiting Floreana, some top destinations and activities include:

  • Snorkelling with sea lions at La Loberia
  • Snorkelling or scuba diving at Devil’s Crown
  • Snorkelling at Champion Islet
  • Visiting the Baroness Viewing Point
  • Checking out the flamingo lagoon at Cormorant Point
  • Hiking to the historic caves at Asilo de la Paz

Espanola Island

One of the smallest islands in the Galapagos, Espanola is unpopulated, but filled with natural wonder and an abundance of wildlife.  

It’s also home to sea lion colonies, iguanas, countless birds, and around 1,500 tortoises, and is the only nesting site for the Galapagos Waved Albatross.

Things you can do while visiting Espanola include:

  • Snorkelling, kayaking, and wildlife watching at Gardner Bay beach
  • Birdwatching at Punta Suarez 
  • Diving at Islote Gardner
  • Diving at Bajo Gardner

Santa Fe Island

Santa Fe is the oldest Galapagos island and is often characterized by its vegetation and thick forest, along with its flat surface compared to other islands.

Visitor points on Santa Fe include:

  • Barrington Bay
  • El Fondeador, La Encanada and Costa Este marine sites

San Cristobal Island (inhabited)

San Cristobal is the closest island to the South American mainland and is known as the most humid Galapagos Island due to underground aquifers and freshwater flows.

The island is also notable for being the first Island visited by Charles Darwin and is where he discovered the first species to form the basis for his Theory of Evolution.

Top attractions and visitor points on San Cristobal Island include:

  • Tongo Reef
  • Carola Point
  • Las Loberias beach (Ideal for sea lion watching)
  • El Junco
  • Punta Pitt visitor site – to see the Red Footed Booby nesting site
  • Cerro Brujo visitor site
  • Tijeretas visitor site – the very first point that Charles Darwin visited on his journey
  • Cerro Colorado visitor site – home of the Tortoise breeding centre
  • Tijeretas Hill

Genovesa Island

*Accessible by expedition cruise only.

Also known as Tower Island, Genovesa is a rocky volcanic caldera north of Santa Cruz that is most known for its abundance of spectacular bird species, making it ideal for bird watchers.

Top points of interest for visitors include:

  • Darwin Bay
  • Prince Phillip’s Steps
  • El Barranco

Santiago Island

*Accessible by expedition cruise only.

This is the island where Charles Darwin stayed the longest and consists of two overlapping volcanoes.

Top things to do include:

  • Seeing the lava flow at Sullivan Bay
  • Snorkelling and swimming at Sombrero Chino
  • Explore deep pools and caves in Puerto Egas
  • Diving at Cousin’s Rock

Fernandina Island

*Accessible by expedition cruise only.

The youngest of the Galapagos, Fernandina is the only island in the world without introduced species and is famous for its volcanic landscapes, and for having the largest colony of marine iguanas.

Top sights to see include:

  • Lava fields of Puna Espinoz
  • Espinosa Point

Bartolome Island

Known as one of the most scenic islands in the archipelago, Bartolomé Island is famous for the Pinnacle Rock, along with its black volcanic formations.

Here are a few things to do when visiting the island:

  • Climb the volcanic spatter cone
  • Take in the view of Pinnacle Rock from the overlook
  • Go snorkelling at the Bartolome diving site
  • Hike the trail leading to the island’s southern beach

Whether you’re an adventure junkie, beach dweller, or an animal lover, the Galapagos Islands truly do have something for everyone. So when planning your next big vacation, be sure to consider a trip to the Galapagos to witness yourself all the spectacular beauty and amazing fun that can be had.