But for Charles Darwin's voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, we would probably never treasure the Galápagos archipelago as we do today. It was here that the Father of Evolution observed the islands' numerous endemic species and drew up the fundaments of his game-changing theory of evolution by natural selection, which he published in 1859 as the iconoclastic treatise "On the Origin of Species". Lying 973 km off the coast of Ecuador, the 18 major islands straddle both hemispheres, being scattered both north and south of the Equator. The archipelago encompasses three smaller islands as well as 107 rocks and islets. Many centuries before Darwin's visit, the islands were described to the Western world in 1535 by the Dominican friar Fray Tomas de Berlanga, who landed there by accident, blown off course on a voyage from Panama to Peru. It was De Berlanga who first described the islands' unique landscape and fauna. Interestingly, credit for charting the first navigable course to the islands is owed to the 17th century English pirate, Ambrose Cowley. Today the islands, with a primarily Spanish-speaking population of over 25,000, constitute an exclave of Ecuador. It is both a national park and a biological marine reserve, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The islands are rich in marine wildlife and seabirds, as well as species unique to the region including the Galapagos Land and Marine Iguanas, Waved Albatross, Galapagos Giant Tortoise, Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Sea Lions and the curious Flightless Cormorant. Whales use the islands as a migration corridor. In recent years, environmental threats in introduced plants and animals have endangered the ecological stability of the islands, and for this reason they are closely monitored and protected.
But where do the islands get their curious name from? Theories abound. Some credit De Berlanga with naming the islands after their unique inhabitants, the giant tortoises, with the Spanish word for saddle, galápago, describing the shape of their enormous shells. Others trace the name to the Flemish mapmaker Abraham Ortelius, who in 1570 published his Atlas in which he referred to the islands as Insulae de los Galopegos, or Islands of the Saddlebacks. On the official records of the Republic of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are known as Archipiélago de Colón, or the Archipelago of Columbus. A folly of officialdom, actually, because the Spanish explorer never came anywhere close to landing here.
Until 1969, the only way to visit the islands was by private or chartered boat. Today, aircraft of various sizes fly into San Cristobal and Baltra islands. Hotels are available on the inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela, from where water-taxis ferry visitors in small guided groups on 2-4 hour shifts daily to limit impact on the ecologically sensitive area.