For decades now, the Galapagos Islands off the mainland of Ecuador have drawn visitors, scientists and… animals, birds, insects — you name it — to the shores of one of the world’s most enchanting places. And while you think may have heard it all, there are so many sides to this World Heritage-listed archipelago still to be discovered.

1. Dry and dusty

Cactus being part of the flora and fauna of Galapagos Islands — © Instituto Superior de Español.
Cactus being part of the flora and fauna of Galapagos Islands — © Instituto Superior de Español.

‘Island’ and ‘tropical’ are near synonyms nowadays, but have we been watching a little too much television, a few too many Brazilian telenovelas? The answer’s a big yes if we take the Galapagos Islands as an example. Far from palm trees and coconuts, the Islands you’ll come to love are comprised of four types of ecosystems:

  1. Arid lowlands and forests of cacti
  2. Dense forests at high elevations
  3. Forests… dense and not so dense, and lower down
  4. Barer areas with ferns and grass

2. G..G..G…Galapagos

Giant Galápagos tortoise — © Instituto Superior de Español.
Giant Galápagos tortoise — © Instituto Superior de Español.

Doesn’t “Galapagos” just roll off the tongue? There’s a reason… The archipelago’s official name is ‘Archipiélago de Colón’, which we might guess is why the informal version has stuck. The term comes from the Spanish word for tortoise, Galápago, and was a nickname given to the islands by Tomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, who sailed through the area 300 years before Darwin in 1535.

3. It’s all in the name…. Darwin!

Statue of Charles Darwin — © Instituto Superior de Español.
Statue of Charles Darwin — © Instituto Superior de Español.

Berlanga should have stayed a bit longer! When Darwin did finally reach the Galapagos Islands what he found was a treasure trove of scientific wonder, which led him to publish his theory of Evolution and become a lauded figure the world over. Berlanga, who? What’s more, today, over 120 species from nine genera are named after Darwin, including darwinii and darwiniensis.

4. Vampire finches?

You heard right, these blood-sucking little finches peck at the tail of another curiously named animal, the blue-footed booby, to drink its blood. Found on Wolf and Darwin islands; watch out for bloody beaks… seriously!

5. A volcanic separation

So we now know they’re not really called the “Galapagos Islands”, we understand they’re not just tropical, and Darwin wasn’t the man who discovered them. But were you aware the Galapagos Islands were never part of mainland South America? Most scientists say the archipelago, which today forms part of the Republic of Ecuador, was never geologically connected to the mainland, and instead resulted from rampant volcanic activity around five million years ago.

6. Beware! The currents!

Not only do the Galapagos Islands lie on one of the world’s hottest hot beds of volcanic activity, they’re also at the heart of five converging currents: Humboldt, Panama, Cromwell, north Equatorial and south Equatorial. These currents give life to the archipelago’s fascinating biodiversity and explain why some of the islands’ marine creatures for example, can survive on the Equator in cold water like that of the Humboldt Current.

7. Fast, fun figures

Diving in the Pacific Ocean — © Instituto Superior de Español.
Diving in the Pacific Ocean — © Instituto Superior de Español.

For some, understanding a place as complex as the Galapagos Islands is best done through nice, neat numbers. So here they are…

  • There are 13 large islands on the Galapagos
  • They’re comprised of 3,000 square miles of territory, spread across 36,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean
  • The archipelago is 620 miles from mainland South America
  • Around 50 eruptions have taken place on the Galapagos Islands’ active volcanic area in the last 200 years
  • 1,900 endemic species can be found on the islands, including unique species of cotton, guava, passion flower, pepper and tomatoes, 40 endemic species of fish and 26 species of birds

8. Mind your step

Starfish at the Galapagos Islands — © Instituto Superior de Español.
Starfish at the Galapagos Islands — © Instituto Superior de Español.

This is no Southeast Asian party resort or hyped-up Hollywood getaway in the Caribbean. No, the Galapagos Islands are highly protected by Ecuador’s strict environmental protection laws, which mean that around 97 percent of the archipelago’s land mass has restricted access, with only a slight fraction of that actually being open to visits by tourists.

9. Humans, too?

The human species, wherever it goes, tends to ruffle feathers. On the Galapagos Islands, especially, the estimated 40,000 or so people permanently living on the islands have caused alarm in recent years about finding a balance between employment in a country with high levels of the contrary, and nature, in one of the world’s most pristine ecosystems. Five of the islands on the Galapagos Islands are inhabited: Baltra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz. But beware; unlike the flora and fauna, you’ll have to ask permission to get a photo with this Galapagos Islands species!

Want to find out for yourself what it’s really like on the Galapagos Islands? Enroll into our Traveling Classroom and we’ll show you more!

Originally published on Ailola by Jayson McNamara on August 24, 2019.