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A brief history of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Archipelago was discovered by accident in 1535, when Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, drifted off course while sailing from Panama to Peru. The Bishop reported his discovery to King Charles V of Spain and included in his report a description of the giant galapago (tortoise) from which the islands received their name.

It is possible that the Indian inhabitants of South America were aware of the islands' existence before 1535 but there is no record of this. In 1953, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyedahl discovered what he thought to be pre-Colombian pottery shards on the islands, but the evidence seems inconclusive.

For more than three centuries after their discovery, the Galapagos were used as a base by a succession of buccaneers, sealers and whalers. The islands provided sheltered anchorage, firewood, water and an abundance of food in the form of giant Galapagos tortoises which were caught by the thousands and stacked, alive, in ships holds. The tortoises could survive for a year or more and thus provided fresh meat for the sailors long after they had left the islands.

The first rough charts of the Galapagos Islands were made by buccaneers in the late 17th century, and scientific exploration began the late 18th century. The Galapagos' most famous visitor was Charles Darwin, who arrived in 1835, exactly 300 years after the Bishop of Panama. Darwin stayed for five weeks, making notes and wildlife collections that provided important evidence for his theory of evolution, which he was just then beginning to develop.

Ecuador officially claimed the Galapagos Archipelago in 1832. For roughly one century thereafter, the islands were inhabited by a few settlers and were used as penal colonies, the last of which was closed in 1959.

Some islands were declared wildlife sanctuaries in 1934, and the archipelago officially became a national park in 1959. Organised Galapagos tours began in the late 1960's and now an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people visit the islands each year.

Click here to see the itinerary of our 10-day Galapagos Islands trip.

"If you ever get the chance, make it happen..."

“The Galapagos Islands turned out to be everything you hear about and more! My style of travel has never been geared towards tours or trips (EQ Type: Authentic Experiencer), however I signed up for the Tortuga trip last minute to join my parents and couldn't have been more pleased! Being a land-based tour vs. boat tour we were able to support the local economies on the various islands we visited while experiencing the authentic and incredible wildlife and landscapes the Galapagos has to offer. We got to enjoy a variety of local restaurants rather than eating the same buffet meal similar with other tours and stay in a range of different accommodations along the way. Our tour guide Pablo however, really made the trip and I am not sure if it would be quite as amazing without him. The passion, knowledge and love he has for the Galapagos Islands glimmered through every day we were with him and the smile shared with each new experience was priceless. The only disappointment was that we didn't know extra activities, diving in particular, were non-refundable if a illness or anything else comes up last minute - as they often do with diving. Saying this, I would very strongly recommend the Tortuga tour to everyone. If you every have the chance, make it happen and you absolutely will not be disappointed. Each day we were left amazed and utterly shocked at how much we were able to see and do with each activity. I have traveled to some pretty spectacular places around the world but this trip is a once in a lifetime experience.”
Myla Yeomans-Routledge's Review Image
– British Columbia, Canada
Tortuga, December 2016
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