Galapagos’ History?

Learn more with these information from Volcanic Ash to Fantastic Biodiversity.

Galapagos Islands Map


Galapagos’ History: From Volcanic Ash to Fantastic Biodiversity

The islands are relatively young from a geological standpoint; they formed from volcanic action around 5 million years ago. Roughly 2 million years after the initial islands formed, animal life began to migrate to the islands while they were cooling off to a more habitable temperature. These animals came from nearby South and Central America, swept towards the islands on clusters of leaves and branches and naturally forming rafts of vegetation.

When there were occurrences like flooding on the mainland, these “rafts” would find their way to the ocean with different species riding them, and by a stroke of luck some made it to the Galapagos.

These fresh-faced newcomers had to acclimate to this very different environment and climate compared to their native land, leading them to evolve in unique ways to their cousins on the mainland. This process lead to the development of species that have very distinctive features only found on these islands.

It was the diversity of these animals that lead the father of evolution, Charles Darwin, to confirm the belief that species were not immutable in his book On the Origin of the Species. He called the islands a thriving laboratory, and today they have become enormous workshops and observatories for evolution.

Human discovery of the Galapagos

What would you consider to be the first discovery?

  • The first human to step on to an island
  • In 1832, a few centuries later, when Ecuador annexed the islands and gave them their current official names
  • The development of responsible tourism by Metropolitan Touring in the mid-20th century where tours have been carefully designed to showcase the vulnerable wonders and beauty of the Galapagos archipelago while sustaining the natural development of its ecosystem. This is why it is ever so important to choose a travel agency that has these values.

Tomás de Berlanga was the first known human to reach the Galapagos. He was a Spanish bishop from Panama sailing to Peru. His ship was travelling near the shores of Central America on an apostolic mission in February 1535. One day the winds went very still and the boat could not continue further.
It was carried by the Panamá Current south to the previously unknown islands. He wrote of these islands to King Charles V of Spain saying, “Birds are so silly, they know not how to flee”. The official discovery date has been marked as March 1535.
The bishop’s ship returned to the mainland when the winds returned. The islands were reported to the Spanish Empire, but there was no attempt to colonize them due to Berlanga’s unappealing description.
So at 500 years, humans are some of the most recent “species” to set foot on the Galapagos.

Remote and Isolated

The islands first appeared on a map in 1570

From time to time, the Galapagos Islands hide from sight even at short distances, especially in the dense fog of the morning. The waters that surround them are quite cold for the region, producing a dense mist (garúa to the locals) as the cool and warm air mixes. The early morning fog can make it difficult to see, which is why the islands were given the nickname Las Encantadas (meaning ¨The Enchanted¨ or ¨The Bewitched¨). The islands reappear and disappear as the mist appears and disappears.
The islands first appeared on a map of the Spanish New World in 1570, which was created by a Flemish cartographer. This map, which finally showed these deceptive islands given the name Islas de los Galapagos (Islands of the Giant Tortoises), was distributed throughout the Caribbean and into the hands of pirates. These swashbucklers took advantage of the islands’ location for pillaging and plundering the Pacific coast of Central and South America in the 17th century.
From the 1600s to the mid-1700s, crafty pirates used the Galapagos for hiding, repairing their ships, planning raids, and harvesting fresh meat by killing tortoises by the thousands.
Following in the footsteps of the pirates, the whaler fleets came, making the islands their base of operations in the latter part of the 18th century. The whalers would leave, too, when business couldn’t support the long, expensive routes. Their legacy of destruction sadly made a lasting impact with thousands more tortoises killed and the introduction of domestic animals. It is due to these events that strong conservation initiatives have now been launched in the Galapagos.
The Galapagos would remain unclaimed by any government until 1832. Colonel Ignacio Hernandez claimed the islands as Ecuadorian territories with orders from General Jose de Villamil. They were officially named Las Islas Galapagos by the Ecuadorian government and, in 1892, most of the islands were given Spanish names that related to the Discovery of the Americas.

Climate and Weather of the Galapagos Islands

Hot & Dry season

The Galapagos hot season starts in December and runs until May

This is the season when the weather is truly tropical. This is due to the Panama Current bathing the islands. The surrounding ocean is relatively calm, and there is the odd tropical rainfall, leading to verdant green islands. The temperature at this time is hot and humid, averaging around 26ºC-30ºC (79ºF-85ºF), with the water temperature hovering at around 26ºC. In general, underwater visibility is very good at a distance of 20-25 meters (60-80 feet). Aquatic explorers at this time can truly encounter an authentic tropical environment. Walking tours in the middle of day when the weather is hottest is best avoided, especially as the animals are not very active.

The Galapagos Dry season follows from June to November

The Galapagos Dry season follows from June to November. At this time, the southeast trade winds send cooler water around the islands. There is a decrease in evaporation, which leads to a thin cloud cover forming. Slowly, the islands turn into small deserts. Wave activity increases because of the powerful prevailing winds. The islands have been known as the driest place in the tropics with barely any rainfall. Water temperatures fall to 20ºC-23ºC (70ºF-72ºF), which in turn cools down the air temperatures to 23ºC-26ºC (72ºF-79ºF). Keeping these strong winds in mind, the wind-chill factor during late afternoon walks or on ship decks should be taken into consideration. Although, most swimming will occur during the day, we encourage snorkelers to wear wet suits in this season.
Regardless, the weather in the Galapagos archipelago is always quite nice. We recommend that if our guests wish to return, they should do so during a different season from their previous voyage. This way, they can see the islands from another perspective that will produce more wondrous surprises.

The Islands of the Galapagos

Bartolome Island (Bartholomew)

This small island is full of spectacular scenery and animal life, and is next to San Salvador (James) Island. You will find the most photographed view of all the islands here: the famous Pinnacle Rock. There is a wooden staircase that allows visitors to climb to the top without damaging the fragile ground. The island also offers many great activities.
Wildlife Highlights: This Island is very young, and is home to only pioneering species that have conquered and thrived here. Fascinating geology and scenery. Pinnacle Rock is by far the best photographic site.
Visitor Sites: Bartolome’s Walk and Beach

Chinese Hat (Sombrero chino)

Smaller than a quarter square kilometre, Sombrero Chino receives its name because of its shape resembling a Chinese hat. There is trail around the cove that will lead you to see American oystercatchers, marine iguanas, lava lizards and Sally Lightfoot crabs. The 400-metre trail begins with a crescent-shaped white sandy beach and offers wonderful landscape views. There are some great snorkelling and swimming opportunities with the white-tipped reef shark and other tropical fish too!

Española Island (Hood)

This island is the furthest southeast and is fairly eroded, with outstanding cliff-side landscapes and a plethora of wildlife diversity.
Wildlife highlights: Galapagos sea lions, lava lizards, Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, colourful marine iguanas, Darwin's finches, yellow warblers
Unique features: The only island with a Waved Albatross colony (April to December), the largest blue-footed booby nesting colony, mockingbirds and lava lizards endemic to Española, and many unique geological formations including the well-known “blowhole”.
Visitor Sites: Punta Suárez and Gardner Bay

Fernandina Island (Narborough)

This island is the youngest and westernmost of all the Galapagos Islands. It is a giant large-shield volcano which hosts continuous volcanic activity due to seismic processes and fumaroles. You might even get the chance to witness a volcanic eruption. The last one was in April 2009!
Wildlife highlights: densest colonies of marine iguanas, nesting colony of flightless cormorants and penguins, sea lions, Galapagos snakes, intertidal pools.
Unique features: It is considered one of the most virgin islands in the entire world because no mammals were ever introduced here. Intertidal pools are teeming with marine life. Incredible newly-formed black lava flows that have evidence of both “pahoe-hoe” and “aa” lava, offering views of the only sea-going lizards that feed on algae.
Visitor site: Punta Espinoza

Floreana Island (Charles or Santa Maria)

This island is located in the southern part of the Galapagos, sprinkled with parasitic cones, which are evidence of continuous and sustained volcanic activity that is fairly recent.
Wildlife highlights: Sea turtles and rays (seasonal), Galapagos flycatchers, lagoon birds (ducks, whimbrels, stilts, flamingos, and egrets)
Unique features: Endemic "hairy" Scalesia plant, flour-like beach, volcanic parasitic cones, greater flamingos, great snorkelling. Human history of the islands and post office barrel.
Visitor Sites: Punta Cormorant, Champion Islet, Post Office Bay, Baroness Cove.

Genovesa Island (Tower)

The island is shaped like a horse-shoe and has a walled volcanic caldera that collapsed and formed the Great Darwin Bay, surrounded by cliffs. There is young lava flows on the flanks of the volcano, although there is no historic evidence of an eruption. Its large variety of birds gave it the nickname “Bird Island”.
Wildlife highlights: red-footed boobies, nesting colonies of Nazca boobies, tropicbirds, noddy terns, storm petrels, shearwaters, and great frigate birds. Galapagos sea lions and Galapagos fur seals.
Unique features: Greatest seabird diversity: frigate birds, boobies, short-eared owl etc, interesting vegetation such as "spineless" prickly pear cactus from the genus Opuntia and "Palo Santo" forest.
Visitor Sites: Darwin Bay, Prince Philip's Steps

Isabela Island (Albermarle)

On the western side of the archipelago and the largest of all the islands, it consists of six large shield volcanoes (Darwin, Alcedo, Ecuador, Wolf, Sierra Negra and Cerro Azul). Isabela contains the Galapagos’ highest point with Wolf Volcano (1,707 m; 5,600 ft.).
Wildlife highlights: flightless cormorants, Galapagos penguins, marine iguanas, sea turtles, volcanic landscape.
Visitor Sites: Urbina Bay, Punta Vicente Roca, Tagus Cove.

North Seymour Island

A Little island filled with unique and interesting creatures and scenery created by geological uplifts, and covered with local arid vegetation; “Palo Santo” trees and prickly pear cactus.
Wildlife highlights: Nesting colony of magnificent and great frigate birds, swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies. Breeding colonies of Galapagos sea lions and marine iguanas.
Unique features: Land iguanas, white coral heads, endemic "Palo Santo" trees.
Visitor site: Half of the walk is flat and easy walking along the beach, while the other half is rocky and over boulders. Proper traction footwear needed. Snorkelling is possible when conditions are favourable.

Plazas Sur Islands (South Plaza)

The Plaza Sur Islands are small islands just east of Santa Cruz. The South Plaza, one of the two islands, was formed by an uplift of the sea floor and not by volcanic activity. It is teeming with wide-ranging and fantastic Galapagos creatures and landscapes.
Wildlife highlights: swallow-tailed gulls, red-billed tropicbirds, Galapagos land iguanas.
Unique features: home to a large number of species, extraordinary flora. Prickly pear cactus trees, colony of Galapagos land iguanas. Sesuvium ground vegetation (depending on season) which changes color from bright green in the rainy season and to orange and purple in the dry season.

Rábida Island (Jervis)

Rábida is a small island in the center of the archipelago which is exposed to the western upwelling marine currents. It has a distinct red color that comes from the oxidation of the iron-rich volcanic material. Perfect for Snorkeling.
Wildlife highlights: Darwin´s finches, sea lion colony, Galapagos mockingbirds, doves, warblers, brown pelicans, coastal and arid zone vegetation.
Unique features: excellent snorkeling site, seasonal nesting colony of brown pelicans.
Visitor site: Red Beach

San Cristobal Island (Chatman)

This island is in the easternmost part of the Galapagos and one of the largest islands in the archipelago. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a small town that is also the provincial capital, is located on it. It also holds one of the two airports connecting to the mainland.
Wildlife highlights: Darwin's finches, Colony of Galapagos sea lions, lava lizards, marine iguanas, giant tortoises.
Unique features: San Cristóbal lava lizard, San Cristóbal mockingbird, coralline, El Junco (the only permanent fresh water lake in the Galapagos).
Visitor Sites: Cerro Brujo, La Galapaguera, Punta Pitt, Interpretation Centre, Tijeretas (Frigate Hill).

Santa Cruz Islands

Galapagos’ second largest island hosting seven different vegetation zones. It is also the most populated island, with the province’s largest town in Puerto Ayora. This is where you can find all the amenities that are typical to your average city: ATM machines, banks, art, souvenirs, restaurants and bars.
Wildlife highlights: Galapagos mockingbirds, Darwin's finches, giant tortoises, vermillion flycatchers, ducks, herons, egrets, stilts.
Unique features: giant tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station (young & adult), giant tortoises in the wild, vegetation in the highlands including the giant daisy tree of the Scalesia genus, a variety of nature-active options and sports (hiking, scuba diving, kayaking, mountain biking, etc.).
Visitor Sites: Charles Darwin Research Station, Cerro Dragón (Dragon Hill), The Highlands and the Giant tortoise reserve, Bahía Ballena (Whale Bay), Los Gemelos (Pit Craters), Las Bachas beach.

Santa Fe Island (Barrington)

A little island found in the middle of the archipelago. Scholars have suggested that Santa Fe may be the Galapagos’ oldest volcano, the evidence being present in the sub-aerial rocks that date back 3.9 million years. The type of vegetation found here is brush, Palo Santo trees and a wide variety of the prickly pear cactus Opuntua echios. The visitor site here is a wet landing in the lovely Barrington Bay which can be found on the island’s northeastern side. The turquoise water beaches are home to a large number of sea lions.
Wildlife highlights: Darwin´s finches, sea lion colony, giant Opuntia Cacti, Galapagos Hawks, Santa Fe land iguana.
Unique features: It has one of the most beautiful bays, an ideal place for snorkeling. large Opuntia Cacti forest, home for the unique species of land iguana (Conolophus pallidus) in the world.

Santiago Island (James)

This island, resembling a mountain range with hills, valleys and parasitic cones, used to be a large shield volcano. It was settled by Ecuadorians in the 1960’s for salt-mining. Now, the island is uninhabited, but hosts a nice visitor site in Puerto Egas. At Puerto Egas, the visit is combined with a rocky shoreline tour and some time on its dark-colored sandy beach and at Sullivan Bay with its unique lava forms.
Wildlife highlights: the most diverse shorebird activity occurs here; Galapagos fur seals, Galapagos sea lions, Darwin finches, hawks, mockingbirds and marine iguanas.
Unique features: the coastline is rugged and well-eroded consisting of tuff stone and is just above a dark black lava flow. These tuff stones mostly came from a gigantic phreatomagmatic explosion (an abrupt contact between water and magma). The coastline is an incredible habitat that hosts intertidal life and Galapagos fur seals.
Visitor Site: Puerto Egas, Sullivan Bay.

More information


The cluster of islands we call the Galapagos are actually the tops of underwater volcanoes. Plate tectonics explain that the islands sit on top of the larger Nazca plate and, together with the Cocos and Pacific plates, are slowly pushing their way into the South American continent at a rate of approximately 7cm/year (2.756 inches).

The birth of ocean islands begin below the Earth´s crust in places called ‘hot spots’, where heat from the Earth’s core is transferred to the surface by allowing ‘magma’ (molten rocks in the mantle) to filter through cracks and crevices. In the ocean this magma bubbles up, grows and cools as it reaches the surface. Azores, the Canary Islands, Iceland and even Hawaii were all formed this way.

As the plates push their way forward, islands get pushed up into the ocean. In the Galapagos, the islands in the east are older than those in the west, meaning that the ‘hot spot’ actually lies beneath the Isabela and Fernandina islands, the westernmost Isles. Along with age, the islands exhibit their own distinct characteristics such as altitude, erosion, colonization and other geological factors. The Western islands continue to be volcanically active as a result of the moving plates below.

Scientists have determined that Isabela and Fernandina are the youngest of the islands - less than a million years old. The middle islands- Santiago (James), Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) and Bartolome are about 2-3 million years old. Espanola, Sante Fe and Floreana are the oldest, dating back 3-3.5 million years.

Park Rules

The Galapagos Islands National Park was founded in 1959, and the Park Service, which is still active to date, started in 1967. The Galapagos Marine Reserve opened in 1999 to protect the marine life surrounding the islands.

Our environmental policy helps us make our visitors aware of the need to protect such a diverse ecosystem. Our experienced expedition staff encourages all guests to follow environmental standards set by authorities while still being able to enjoy their Galapagos experience.

The Galapagos National Park Service manages all visitor activities and vessel itineraries. All tours within National Park sites and the Marine Reserve are conducted by trained guides. Tourists are kindly reminded that by following park rules and regulations they help contribute to the preservation efforts upheld by our local institutions.

  • Stay on the trails
  • Do not disturb wildlife or remove native plants or rocks
  • Do not carry animals and plants to the islands or between islands
  • Always listen to your Nature guides and do not approach wildlife
  • Animals are not to be fed, especially from water bottles
  • Do not carry food to visitor sites
  • Do not approach animal resting or nesting sites
  • Smoking is strictly prohibited on all islands and on boats. Cellular and satellite phone usage is prohibited in visitor sites.
  • It is prohibited to buy goods made from native Galapagos species (except for wooden products)
  • Conservation is part of everyone’s responsibility. By showing that we care we become Galapagos supporters. Feel free to ask about our conservation programs.

Galapagos Photos

50 Best Galapagos photos