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The Galapagos Islands are best known as an isolated wildlife destination, so some travelers might not expect to find much other than blue-footed boobies and iguanas here. But naturalist Charles Darwin wasn't the only one to have fallen in love with these islands -- over the last century and a half, various people have migrated to this locale about 600 miles west of Ecuador.
Explorers, whalers and pirates are a few of the groups that have come and gone on these small slivers of land, but the Galapagos remained uninhabited for most of their history. The first official resident -- an Irishman named Patrick Watkins -- was marooned here in the early 19th century. Watkins eventually returned to the mainland, but shortly after, Jose Villamil established the first settlement on the islands, in Floreana.
Since then, a range of people from fishermen to hoteliers have made the “enchanted islands” their home; currently, nearly 30,000 people live on four islands. Throughout the last 150 years, the Galapagos have hosted a few unusual residents, including the inhabitants of a penal colony and a baroness and her lovers. But less scandalous pursuits are the main attractions here now: tourism and conservation.
The island of Santa Cruz boasts the largest and most developed city on the islands, Puerto Ayora. Cruise ships stop at this seaside town, where visitors can enjoy a bit of modern convenience in the middle of a natural paradise. Charles Darwin Avenue is the main drag, offering hotels, restaurants and local shops.
Conservation of the ecosystem is an integral part of the culture on the Galapagos Islands, as this is the archipelago's most treasured resource. The Charles Darwin Research Station, east of Puerto Ayora, gives travelers an informative look at the unique environment here.
Another town worth exploring is the capital of the Galapagos, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. Less visitor-oriented than Puerto Ayora, this town still offers some hotels and dining choices and is just down the hill from the small village of El Progreso, the oldest surviving settlement in the islands. Other nearby attractions include a great bird-watching spot, Frigatebird Hill, and a popular surfing beach, Punta Carola.