Many are surprised to know the Galapagos are indeed inhabited. Even though the archipelago is a National Park, some of the biggest islands are not only home to the Galapagos flora and fauna, but to humans. So who lives in the Galapagos? Though it might seem troubling to some, you might find some peace of mind in knowing that only 3% of the islands’ territory is inhabited and those very strict laws regarding new settlers were put in place years ago in order to control the population’s growth. The last census, which was carried out in 2010, estimated their population to be at around 25,000, of which around 12,000 live in Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island), 6,700 live in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristobal Island), 2,000 live in Puerto Villamil (Isabela Island), and around 200 live over in Puerto Velasco Ibarra (Floreana Island). Locals of the islands are known as galapagueños and most of them came from the Ecuadorian mainland, and you will find they are simple, kind, and joyful people.
It was at the beginning of the 19th century that Ecuador began placing several small colonies throughout the Galapagos, more as a point of claiming them as their own territory rather than actually wanting to live there. So desolate and harsh were the islands that Ecuador ended up using the islands primarily as penal colonies once they were fully recognized as a part of Ecuador.
El Progreso led by Manuel J. Cobos on San Cristobal Island and the Wall of Tears on Isabela Island are just some examples of the depressing institutions that were put in place by a despot and the government, respectively.
By the 1950’s there were no longer any penal colonies on the Islands, but many native islanders can trace his or her roots to these convicts.
General Jose de Villamil – leader of Ecuador’s independence movement – started his own colony down in Floreana which consisted mostly of deserters from the Ecuadorian army and convicts. As a group, they subsisted mostly off what farming they could manage on the arid lands of the Galapagos, often times selling or trading whatever excess food they had to pass ships.
Nowadays, the native Islanders of Galapagos are spread out throughout four (and only four) substantial towns on the islands of Isabela, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Floreana. These are economic hotspots that primarily depend on fishing and tourism. Galapagueños also subsist on their own forms of agriculture and, recently, their own coffee.
At the end of the century, the Salasacas indigenous group began making their way to Galapagos from the mainland, settling down in the most populated of islands of the archipelago and forming their own small communities. They are an ethnic group from the Andean region of Ecuador and keep almost entirely to themselves inside their closed communities on the islands, speaking only Kichwa and making use of their own exclusive schools.
Beginning in the late 1920’s, the Galapagos became a destination for a rather unlikely group of settlers: Norwegians. In 1907, Norwegian sailors that were shipping coal from Australia to Panama ended up having to abandon ship after a catastrophic incident. They ended up on Floreana Island at first, then San Cristobal and finally Guayaquil – from which point their romanticized stories of the Galapagos “tropics” diffused out into the world (especially in Norway) and managed to inspire the wanderlust of many. It was only a matter of time before a substantial group of adventurous Norwegians took it upon themselves to jump on the hype train and find out what the islands where all about it.
Most of them, however, didn’t last. They came to the quick realization that the islands were nowhere near what the stories had depicted and packed up and headed back home. Only a couple of families remain to this day.
A handful of Germans happened to coincide with this influx of Norwegians, the most famous of which are the Angermeyers and the Wittmers.
Locals who have been lucky enough to grow or be born here have come to love and respect this magical place. They have grown used to sharing the space with the original Galapagos settlers – the unique, endemic and native wildlife and vegetation. Not to mention, they immensely respect the strict Galapagos National Park rules, often times even acting as unofficial park rangers whenever they see tourists straying from the paths or attempting to touch the animals. Even though the archipelago’s first settlers were not aware of the fragility of the environment they were starting to inhabit, education has played a very important role in creating a collective consciousness within Galapagos society. During your Galapagos cruise, you will be able to exchange experiences with local people, be it with the naturalist guides and staff onboard or the locals on the very islands themselves. So don’t miss out on this wonderful opportunity to learn from the residents of Galapagos and get swept away by their kindness and curiosity!