The Galapagos Islands is a province of Ecuador, lying about 600 miles west of the mainland. There are about 13 main islands, and currently 4 inhabited islands – Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana.
Over 95% of the Galapagos Islands’ land area is a designated protected area – the Galapagos National Park. Visits to the uninhabited islands are strictly controlled and permitted with a guide only. The most popular way to explore the islands is on a multi-day cruise, which allows visitors to see many of the islands and to experience the rare and wild species that inhabit them.
A large percentage of species in the Galapagos are endemic and can be found nowhere else on earth. The Galapagos marine iguana, which survives on both land and water, is the only known of its kind. The Galapagos giant tortoises are especially ancient, and particularly important to the Galapagos. Today giant tortoises can only be found in only two places in the world, the Galapagos Islands being one of them. The tortoises of the Galapagos were once exploited for their meat and oil, though today their habitat is strictly protected.
The bird life of the islands includes Galapagos Penguins, flamingos, Blue-footed Boobies, the Swallow-tailed Gull, red-breasted frigatebirds, and the rarely seen Red-footed Booby.
The wildlife of the Galapagos is surely a main draw for visitors, as is the opportunity to escape to an island paradise with few human inhabitants. Though the population of the Galapagos has increased dramatically since the mid twentieth century (the population in 1940 was only 1,000), human habitation is still strictly limited and will likely remain so as conservation is a main focus of the province.
The first recorded discovery of the islands was in 1535 by Dominican friar from Panama. Subsequent years brought whalers, explorers, and pirates all of whom exploited the natural resources of the islands. The islands are perhaps most famous for being the location upon which Charles Darwin based his theory of evolution. After a five week visit to the Galapagos in 1835, Darwin developed this theory which he explains in detail in his historic book On the Origin of Species. Today the islands are closely monitored by scientists and conservationists, are inhabited by about 25,000 permanent residents, and are visited by a growing number of tourists each year.
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