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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.

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