The Galapagos is an archipelago of volcanic islands located about 1000 km west of the Ecuadorian coast, directly on the equator. After the break-through science that resulted from Charles Darwin’s visit in 1835, they remained mostly unused except by scientists until quite recently.

There had always been a small colony of settlers on the Galapagos, ever since the islands were first visited by the Portugese and Spanish in the 16th century, although records of those visits suggested even earlier indigenous settlements. The famous English pirate, Richard Hawkins, established a military outpost on the island in 1593 and probably led to the creation of the Robinson Crusoe stories. In 1832 Ecuador officially annexed the islands, using it as a penal colony until 1946. In 1959 the census showed less than 2,000 inhabitants, and in 1972 it was only 3,488. Today there are more than 40,000 permanent residents.

The islands began developing for tourism in the 1950s, although very slowly until the 1960s when the Ecuadorian navy placed one of its older ships at the islands for regular tourist excursions. Tourism boomed, and today, the Galapagos are one of the most visited natural history sites in the world.

There are 13 principal islands, 6 smaller islands, and a collection of protruding volcanic outcrops known as islets, a land mass of just over 17,000 sq. miles. The archipelago is the result of sitting atop the “Galapagos Hotspot,” a mantle plume in the earth’s crust that creates undersea volcanoes. Island formation still occurs continuously: in May, 2008, the 5,000′ high Cerro Azul peak on Isabela island spewed forth new lava.

The geographical isolation of the islands, and their lucky situation on the fecund but finicky Humboldt current, is the reason they provide some of the finest evidence for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Many of the non-bird species like the marine iguana and tortoise, as well as many plants and smaller animals and insects, are found nowhere else on earth. Many of them have easily recognized ancestors. Some of the smaller bird species, like the finches whose arrival and departure from the islands is limited, have evolved together with the climatic history of the islands as a whole, again providing exceptional evidence for evolution.

Because of the life-bringing Humboldt current, a variety of unusual seabirds nest here, including several boobies and the unusual waved albatross, as well as the unique Galapagos penguin and endemic sea creatures like the dolphin, sea lion and green turtle. Global warming has seriously endangered this dynamic, though, and when the Humboldt moves away from the islands, so do these headliner birds and animals.

The weather of the Galapagos is essentially that of a desert, with none of the area averaging more than 10 inches of rain annually. Almost all of that falls on the northwestern area of the archipelago as a result of the prevailing southerly winds, resulting in a few areas like Seymour Island with extremely unique desert plants that explode in bloom with unusual rains.