Bishop Tomas de Berlanga discovered the islands in 1535. Ecuador conquered the islands in 1832 and colonized them throughout the 1800s. In 1835, Charles Darwin observed nature on the islands, an experience that later helped him theorize about evolution. In the 1990s, tourism flourished on the islands, bringing the small population to its current size of 28,000 people.
Galapagos' 13 major islands and six smaller islands are about 600 miles west of Ecuador's Pacific coast. The total land area is about 5,000 square miles. Travelers can fly local airlines in Ecuador directly to the islands.
Because of rapid population increases, the islands' residents suffer from unemployment. Residents also grieve a poor education system. Fishermen have protested eco-conscious restrictions in recent years, demanding that their livelihood be valued as much as the animals around them.
Illegal poaching, harvesting and tourism (which brings over 100,000 visitors to the islands each year) have severely damaged ecosystems on the islands. At the same time, 95 percent of the islands' original biodiversity remains and the destination continues to draw such outdoor lovers as hikers and backpackers, as well as scientists.
To protect the environment, every tour on the islands is required to have a naturalist guide, and tourists are not allowed to remove anything from the islands. Tours are led by boat and on foot.
Animals and Wildlife
Darawin made the Galapagos Islands famous for their 13 types of brown finches and giant tortoises. The islands also are home to sea lions, land and water iguanas, at least 1,600 species of insects, and over 300 species of fish. Hundreds of types of plants, from tree daisies to prickly pear cacti, are a beautiful sight for travelers as well as subjects of research.