The Galpagos straddle the equator some 600 miles from Ecuador's mainland. They comprise 13 large islands, six small ones, 42 islets, and innumerable pieces of stone blasted from the floor of the Pacific Ocean through centuries of volcanic eruptions. In geologic terms, these islands - set between 15 and 40 miles apart - are infants, having appeared less than 6 million years ago.
More that 5,000 species of birds, reptiles, fish, insects, and plants call these islands home. Before man, goats, horses, cattle, donkeys, pigs, dogs, cats, and rodents came - deliberately, or otherwise - sea lions were the only mammals here. Galpagos boasts the highest proportion of indigenous species in the world.
In 1959, 97 percent of the total land area was declared a national park by Ecuador and is now under the protection of the government. Although most of the islands are uninhabited, there is a population of about 17,000 Ecuadoreans among three islands. The government has restricted further immigration of mainlanders here. Tourists pay a $100 US tax, which goes to the park and toward its protection. All visitors must be accompanied by a guide approved by the national park.
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