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The Galápagos Islands are one of the world’s great tourism destinations, thanks to their unspoiled nature and unique wildlife. The South American archipelago consists of 19 large islands and dozens of smaller islands and islets, four of which are inhabited. Together, the islands form a UNESCO World Heritage Site that draws visitors from across the globe. Charles Darwin popularized the Galápagos Islands when he famously proposed his theory of natural selection after visiting in 1835. But how much do you really know about the Galápagos? Here are some surprising facts about this remote travel destination.
It Has Frequent Volcanic Eruptions
The Galápagos Islands lie on the Nazca Plate at a triple junction where the plate meets the Cocos and Pacific Plates. As a consequence, the islands have a number of active volcanoes. Wolf Volcano is a shield volcano and the islands' highest peak, measuring 5,600 feet tall. It last erupted in 2015. La Cumbre, a shield volcano on uninhabited Fernandina Island, erupted most recently, in 2020. And when Sierra Negra, a volcano on the inhabited island of Isabela, erupted in 2018, it was a reminder that no one should underestimate Mother Nature’s power in the Galápagos.
Its Islands Formed Just Like Hawaii’s
Like Hawaii, the Galápagos Islands are located on top of a volcanic hot spot. This is where extra hot magma melts the Earth’s crust to form what’s called a magma plume. Hot molten rock rises to the surface to create new islands. The oldest molten rocks sink back into the ocean and eventually become seamounts — land hidden beneath the surface of the water — while the youngest molten rocks rise to form new land. Fernandina Island is the youngest of the Galápagos Islands at an estimated 700,000 years old, while South Plaza and Espanola are around 4.2 million and 3.2 million years old, respectively.
It Was Almost a U.S. Territory
Today, the archipelago forms part of Ecuador, but there was a time when it very nearly changed hands. Strapped for cash in the early 20th century, the Ecuadorian government repeatedly discussed selling off the islands to pay off some of the national debt. In their sights was the United States. They imagined a military base on the islands might help protect the Panama Canal. Though the sale was never finalized, Ecuador authorized the U.S. to establish a temporary naval base on Baltra Island during World War II. For a brief period after the islands’ American occupancy, Ecuadorian authorities used the Galápagos as a penal colony. However, they couldn’t ignore the potential of the archipelago as an ecotourism destination, and in 1959, the islands were designated as a national park.
It’s the Only Place to See Penguins in the Northern Hemisphere
Considering the islands’ position close to the Equator, you might wonder why penguins are there, given that they typically prefer to inhabit places much farther south. Penguins love the Galápagos because of the Humboldt Current, which delivers cold water to the islands despite their tropical latitude. As a result, a small population of penguins manages to survive in the Galápagos Marine Reserve, mostly on Isabela and Fernandina Islands. They are related to African, Humboldt, and Magellanic penguins — all of which typically burrow into the ground. This is impossible in the Galápagos due to the harsh lava landscape, so instead the penguins live in caves and crevices near the sea.
It’s Home to a Bird With Blue Feet
It’s not just penguins that attract visitors to the Galápagos. One of the most popular species of bird in the Galápagos is the blue-footed booby. As a member of the gannet group, the blue-footed booby gets its blue feet from carotenoid pigments obtained from a diet of fresh fish — mostly sardines. Accompanying these birds on the islands are the red-footed booby and the larger Nazca booby, whose feet are gray. The curious name "booby" comes from the word “bobo,” which means foolish in Spanish, as the birds’ high-stepping mating rituals make them look silly.
It’s Home to an Iguana That Swims
Many of us have seen iguanas on our travels, but probably on dry land. In the Galápagos, however, you can spot marine iguanas. The marine iguana is the only iguana species that knows how to swim. Naturalists believe that iguanas from the South American mainland probably drifted out to sea millions of years ago on logs or other debris, eventually winding up on the Galápagos.
Over time, they adapted to their new environment and fed on underwater algae and seaweed. Before long, they developed blunt snouts and sharper teeth to scrape algae from rocks, and flatter tails to help them move through the water more easily. On land, their dark gray coloring absorbs heat more quickly, which helps them warm up after a swim. They also have salt glands to efficiently expel the excess salt they ingest — an action that looks kind of like a sneeze.
Its Famous Giant Tortoises Weren’t Always Protected
In Old Castilian, the word “galapago” meant "riding saddle." Take a closer look at the giant tortoises that amble about on the islands and you’ll notice their shells could definitely have provided the inspiration for the name. Many of the tortoises live up to 100 years. A few even reach celebrity status, such as Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise in existence until his death from old age in 2012.
In Darwin’s day, giant tortoises were an important source of food for sailors. They can survive for long periods without food and water, which unfortunately made them an ideal food source for getting fresh protein on long voyages. Darwin would have eaten them, though it’s unlikely he would have joined in a hunt. More shocking is the assertion that he rode giant tortoises (or at least tried to stay on their slippery backs) even though he was a naturalist. Fortunately, times have changed and today’s visitors show more respect to these gentle creatures.
It Has an Unusual Post Office
One tradition from the days of Darwin has managed to survive, however. In the 18th century, sailors and whalers wishing to send word to loved ones back home would have popped a letter into a barrel that serves as a post office on Floreana Island. Today, visitors leave notes and postcards for their own loved ones inside the barrel and collect those they find that are addressed to strangers in their hometown or a place they intend to visit in the near future. Stamps are considered cheating!