Life in the Galápagos Islands

General Setting of the Galápagos

The Galapagos islands consist of 13 major and over 100 smaller islands out of which only five are sparsely populated by humans: Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, Floreana and Baltra.

"Unknown to most people, there are also some 13,000 human inhabitants living on the islands. Even in some major encyclopaedias, this fact has been overlooked. These inhabitants, of various geographical origins, have spread out over the 4 islands that have special areas set aside for human occupancy. Their main sources of income are ... tourism, agriculture and fishing."

Five of the islands, Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristobal and Baltra are inhabited, with Puerto Ayora (population of 10,000) on Santa Cruz and Baquerizo Moreno (around 9,000 people) on San Cristobal, the main population centers. All together a little more than 20,000 people live on the islands

Population, 1990 estimate: 12,000 people. Major settlements: Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz), 4,000 people; Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristobál), 2,800 people; Puerto Villamil (Isabela), 1,000 people; Puerto Velasco (Floreana), 700 people.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is geographically in the centre of the Galapagos archipelago, and the second largest island at 986 square kilometres (equivalent to a circle of 35 km = 22 mile diameter).

Today, Santa Cruz has the greatest population of the islands (about 6,000), due to the tourist-boom from the 1970's and onwards, its easy access via the airport at Baltra (military base and airport, a short ferry from Santa Cruz. Most visitors arrive here to see the rather barren featureless island with very little vegetation except a few cacti, Palo Santo trees and some grasses), as well as the establishment of the Charles Darwin Research Station, located in the outskirts of Puerto Ayora. A more or less paved road passes through the island from the ferry connection to Baltra and the airport in the north, through the small villages of Santa Rosa (population about 300) and Bellavista (about 500) in the highlands, and to Puerto Ayora (about 5,000) on the south coast. There are also various smaller unpaved roads that lead to smaller settlements and farms on the island. Small footpaths all around the islands are used by hunters, farmers, scientists, tourists and National Park wardens. Much of the forests inside the National Park zones are almost impenetrable because of all the thorns, shrubs, cactus-trees and dense vegetation. This is where the wild pigs are found, and thus where the most popular hunting is done.

When the first colonists, also Norwegian, arrived on the island in 1926, it was still almost entirely uninhabited apart from a handful of plantation workers from San Cristóbal who were working on an old and small plantation in the highlands, and only wanted to get away, and an old Mexican who had lived nearby for 15 years, in solitude (Hoff 1985:76). The Norwegians built a cannery, a stone landing that’s still in use, blasted a channel into the protected Nymph lagoon, and lay down a pipe for the brackish water from the well in Pelican Bay (Lundh 1996), in the process founding what was to become Puerto Ayora, the largest and economically most important town in the Galápagos.

"But here, I only encounter apathy!". He wasn't the only one complaining about the apathy of the locals. This was a common theme in conversations with people. Some commented that although there were riots and uprisings on the continent due to the economical situation in the country, on Galapagos nothing happened. "People here are stupid and repressed", one of my acquaintances told me, "and that's how it's preferred. The more stupid and repressed they are, the better it is. Man is the species that is least protected here! They are being manipulated." He claimed that the islands were a goldmine to both the Ecuadorian government and to many influential individuals. But to keep it that way, it was important that the people remained out of the public view. Galapagos had to be seen as natural, with no culture. It was after all the Last Paradise... A person who was born and raised on Galapagos and currently worked for the Park, confirmed this theory:

"The problem on Galapagos is not the Station", he said, "not the Park, not the tourists, not the INGALA, not the fishermen, not el pueblo [the village, meaning the population]... The problem is that people are stupid! When I came out of the primary school, I could barely read and write! The educational level is so low here. Even the naturalist guides are educated in 10 weeks. Only at the Station you'll find people with good education. So the problem is a neglect on part of the authorities on the mainland. And with the New Law, only the permanent residents are going to get the jobs, which means it's going to be even worse. No competence from the outside. There's going to be four or five Galapageñan biologists that don't know anything!"

San Cristóbal (the island for surfing)

Galapagos Oil Spill, January, 2001

"Most of the cargo of a quarter of a million gallons of diesel and bunker fuel are now in the sea. This is a major oil spill ... and extremely serious in a place as unique and rich in wildlife as Galapagos. Fortunately, several factors have combined to reduce the impacts of the spill and make us confident that the ecosystem will recover fully.

... The currents and winds have so far taken the oil west and north, away into deeper waters. Had the oil moved the other way, the shores of San Cristobal Island, where the ship foundered, would have been devastated. The oil is thus being dispersed ... over a wide area of ocean, including the islands of Santa Fe and Santa Cruz. ... We therefore expect the impacts to be widely scattered over the coasts of the three islands but of low intensity.

Young Scientists on San Cristobal

Students from Alejandro Humboldt High School are working with the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) and Colorado University, USA, to study the chemistry and evolution of the surface ozone (O_) of San Cristobal [easternmost inhabited] Island, Galapagos.

San Cristóbal was one of the first islands to be colonized, and until recently, it had the largest population. Its present population is around 2500 inhabitants, most of them in the capital of the Galápagos, Baquerizo Moreno, and a new airport is nearby.

Isabela (Albemarle)

Puerto Villamil, a small fishing village with about 500 inhabitants, is the only human settlement on Isabela Island.


Puerto Velasco Ibarra, the small village of around 70 people

"The pepineros came over for a chat after a long day of diving and processing sea-cucumbers. Some of them were very engaged in the conflict between the Park/ Station and the locals. They complained that a general ecological doctrine was missing on Galapagos. The Park and the Station had been active for over 40 years without succeeding in getting closer to the fishermen and the local population, they maintained. What they wanted was less sectorising and an overall ecological doctrine that would be equal for all parts. "The people from the Station are into illegal fishing themselves", they asserted, and explained that fishermen from the continent kept on fishing while the local fishermen were left to observe. It was a bad situation for them. That's why they were into all this "piratismo", the illegal fishing, they had to do something....

"Another person I met was employed by the Park in a project in the highlands. He was bored out of his mind on Floreana, and enjoyed a conversation. He claimed that the fishermen made big money on the sea-cucumber fishing, but they spent it all on booze, drugs and prostitutes, and had nothing left to pay their bills and support their families. "The only one that gets rich on the sea-cucumber fishing, is the owner of the brothel in Puerto Ayora", he said. He also related that the people on Galapagos nowadays watch so much Peruvian TV that a kid, when he was asked who was the president of Ecuador, had answered "Alberto Fujimori"- the president of Peru.

"One day one of the inhabitants approached our captain to ask if he would transport some pigs over to Santa Cruz. This kind of inter-island transportation is illegal, and probably due to my presence, there was no deal. In general, there was no sympathy for the conservation work of the Park.

"Although most people complain about the changes in Puerto Ayora, that there is too much noise and pollution and too many people these days, most people wouldn't want to live on Floreana either. Only some 70 inhabitants choose to live there, on the poorest island on Galapagos. "Look at the island", our captain said, "not a single person to see! It is a ghost-island! [Una isla fantasma!]."

Pinta Island (uninhabited)

In 1967, it is believed that fishermen introduced three goats to Pinta Island to provide a food source for their future landings. Between 1971 and 1975, the descendants of these goats were eradicated in a Park Service hunting program -- 38,000 goats were killed.

Another source says goats were released by fishermen in the 1950's as an alternative food source. The goat population skyrocketed from three to thirty thousand in less than fifteen years. "Several years ago, we thought that the last goats had been removed from Pinta. Unfortunately, that conclusion was premature, and the few goats that remained have begun to multiply, and while the vegetation is not immediately threatened, we must act quickly and decisively to COMPLETELY remove the goats this time.


The Last Paradise: Man-Animal Relationships on Galapagos, by Eugene Guribye, thesis submitted for the degree of cand. polit., 2000-07, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, Norway.