Sitting right atop the Equator, approximately 600 miles directly west of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands had no original inhabitants. They were discovered in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the Spanish Bishop of Panama, when his ship drifted by the islands.
The Galapagos Islands first appeared on maps in the late 16th century, and were named "Insulae de los Galopegos" (Islands of the Tortoises) in reference to the giant tortoises found there.
The first navigation chart of the Galapagos islands was done by the buccaneer Ambrose Cowley in 1684, and he reportedly named the individual islands after some of his fellow pirates, as well as European nobility.
Until the early 19th century the islands were used as a hideout by pirates who pilfered Spanishgalleons carrying gold and silver from South America, back to Spain.
In 1793, James Colnett, an officer of the British Royal Navy, and explorer, suggested the islands could be used as base for the whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean as they offered fresh water, and an almost endless supply of meat.
Consequently, thousands of the Galapagos tortoises were captured and kept on board whale ships as a means of providing of fresh protein. That hunting orgy almost brought the indigenous tortoise close to extinction.
Over the next few decades, whale ships continued to exploit the new whaling ground and the Galapagos Islands became a frequent stop for the whalers.
Ecuador annexed the Galapagos Islands in 1831, and named them the Archipelago of Ecuador. A year later a group of convicts were shipped in to populate the island of Floreana; Spanish name Isla Santa Maria.
The islands became famous around the world after the survey ship HMS Beagle, arrived in the Galapagos on September 15, 1835. On board was a young naturalist named Charles Darwin.
Darwin's subsequent studies of local wildlife noted that almost all of the animals and plants here were endemic to the islands, which of course contributed to his famous theory of natural selection, and put these special islands on the map for the rest of the world to experience.
In 1920's and 1930's, a group of Norwegian settlers arrived in the islands. Ecuador provided them with free land, and no taxation for the first ten years. When word of this deal spread to America and Europe, additional settlers arrived.
The islands became Ecuador's first national park in 1959, and these now aggressively-protected islands and the surrounding marine reserve were both declared World Heritage sites.
Travel to these islands is strictly controlled by Ecuador, and a visit to the home of the giant tortoise, marine iguanas, and Darwin's finches must (should) be done through a professional tour operator, of which there are many operating through Quito and Quayaquil.