The Galapagos Islands, goofy blue-footed birds, Charles Darwin, and…one of the world’s first post offices?? The Galapagos Archipelago is renowned among the scientific world for research on evolutionary processes, but few are familiar with its rather intriguing postal history; nonetheless, the islands have had a fully functional – although not altogether conventional – mail service since the late 1700s. Learn about the Post Office Bay in Galapagos.
In the 18th century, the Galapagos Islands became a frequent resting point for whalers who would hunt the seas, searching for precious whale oil that was very valuable at the time. Away from home for years at a time, communication (in the days before smartphones) would become quite a problem, and so they devised a clever solution.
The sailors placed a barrel on what is now Post Office Bay on Floreana Island, where the homesick mariners would leave letters, addressed but with no stamp, placing their hopes simply in the kindness of others. Other ships that passed by the islands to replenish their supplies of food and fresh water would stop by the barrel and pick up any letters addressed to their place of destination and hand deliver them. As can be imagined, in some cases the letters would not be delivered for several years; but, with no other alternative, the sailors could only hope for the best.
Post Office Bay is one of the rare, if not only, visitor sites on the islands known specifically for its human history, and is also one of the archipelago’s few man-made sites. Over the years, thousands of ships have stopped by Floreana so that their sailors could visit the barrel to pick up or drop off letters and, interestingly enough, the tradition still continues today, although not for the same reasons.
While the original barrel has been replaced several times, the tradition carries on. When approaching the barrel, it appears to be an unorganized clutter of debris, but the pile of driftwood, placards and other memorabilia covered in graffiti and stickers have been brought by people over the years to forever memorialize their visit. The faithful barrel sits in the middle of all this clutter, perhaps resembling more of a fantastical mailbox on a remote island than it ever did.
Today, Post Office Bay has become a popular visitor site among tourists, and the process of searching through the barrel’s archives can become quite the show. Visitors crowd around the barrel, standing on tiptoes and peering over shoulders to get a peek at the old mailbox, as select individuals unceremoniously shout off the destinations of letters in the hope that someone will be heading that way. Finally, once satisfied that they have discovered all of the letters that can be delivered, they leave their own in place. This is the one location on the islands where the status quo “leave only footprints, take only pictures” does not hold true.
However, thanks to the convenience of the modern mail service, the magic of this tradition is slowly dying. It has become increasingly common for people to grab a letter, simply stick a stamp on it and throw it in the mail, losing the beauty of hand-mailing the correspondence and telling the story of the letter’s voyage. Visitors are encouraged to hand-deliver the mail to maintain the tradition and depth of the communication.
However, the bay, like the entire archipelago, holds much more than just a cluttered barrel. Located not far from the site of the post office is a stunning lava cave. These naturally forming caves are made from ancient lava flows in which the surface hardened into a thick crust, through which the inner molten lava would flow. Long since free of the inner lava, visitors may now descend into the cave by ladder and explore for several hundred yards. Nearby there´s a lookout point known as Baroness Viewpoint, named after a baroness who made a rather dramatic name for herself and her lovers on the islands. Despite the drama, the viewpoint has a remarkable view of the topography of Floreana and also looks over the bay itself. Easy trails lead up to the viewpoint where visitors can observe the flora and fauna that inhabit this area of the island.