The Galapagos were born of fire. New islands emerge from the sea after they are birthed over a volcanic hotspot. Over time, each island slowly erodes back into the ocean after moving away from the hotspot and making room for the birth of a new island.
Darwin credited this unique archipelago for inspiring him to discover the theory of evolution. The islands are just close enough to the mainland so that species could occasionally float, fly, or swim over, but far enough away so those species could evolve separately into entirely different beings. Furthermore, each island is far enough away so each species can evolve differently on each island.
As a result, 12 different subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoises have evolved here, all of which look significantly different. The islands were actually named after these tortoises. The name comes from the Spanish word for saddle, galapago, after the shells of the saddle-backed Galapagos tortoises.
The total land mass is over 8,000 square kilometers of which 97% is National Park, only accessible with a required, certified National Park Service guide. The 70,000 square kilometers of ocean around the islands is a recognized whale sanctuary, populated by humpback whales, sea turtles, sea lions and a breathtaking diversity of sea life. The islands are populated with unique varieties of endemic animals and birds that show an amazing nonchalance when interacting with humans.
The islands have been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve. As of June, 2007, the Galapagos have been added to the UNESCO In Danger List due to the negative effects of tourism on the delicate ecosystem.
There are no direct international flights, so visitors generally stay overnight in Quito or Guayaquil before taking the short hop to the islands. Airports are located on Baltra Island, off the north coast of Santa Cruz Island, and St. Cristobal. The currency throughout Ecuador is the U.S. dollar.
Two seasons divide the year, a hot and wet season from December to May with average temperatures 25 ºC / 77 ºF, and a cool and dry season from May to December with temperatures averaging 18 ºC / 64 ºF. The water temperatures range around San Cristobal is 19-26 ºC / 66.2-78.8 ºF with the average being 22-23 ºC / 71.6-73.4 ºF.