During World War II, the Galapagos Islands held a great secret: Base Beta – not-so-affectionately nicknamed “The Rock” by U.S. military personnel.
This was a U.S. military base, established to protect the western access of the Panama Canal.
Since the early 20th century, the U.S. had been in negotiations with Ecuador for a military base in the Galapagos Islands. With war looming in Europe and Asia, pressures intensified. In 1938, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the Galapagos. In 1940, local islanders reported seeing German U-boats in Galapagos waters. By 1941, Ecuador and the U.S. came to an agreement.
Because of its flat landscape and geographic location (in the center of the Galapagos archipelago), South Seymour Island (Baltra) was chosen. The base’s construction began in 1942. Within months, Base Beta had two air strips and 200 buildings, including barracks, offices, hangars, cinema and beer garden. It was home to over 2,400 servicemen and 750 civilians. The base’s demand for water, fish and other supplies provided jobs for local Galapagans.
The air strip where your plane lands, is part of that former facility. As your bus takes you to the Canal de Itabaca, watch for the concrete pads of the old buildings. And while wandering around Puerto Ayora, keep an eye out for the reconstructed barracks. You might just spy one.
In 1487 two poor agricultural workers gave birth to Tomas Gomez in the rural village of Berlanga. It was an inauspicious entrance to the world for Tomas de Berlanga who went on to be the first ‘western’ person to see and set foot on the Galapagos some 47 years later in 1534.
In the 300 odd years between Berlanga’s arrival and Watkins’s short stay, the islands were used as a base by British pirates who attacked Spanish galleons laden with gold and silver en route to Spain from Peru. Later on, whalers and fur traders hunted the very numerous sperm whales in the seas around the Galapagos and the Galapagos Fur Seal.
The newly formed nation of Ecuador couldn’t ignore territory on its doorstep so they annexed the islands in 1832 and like remote islands throughout history the first obvious use was as a penal colony for the worst and most disliked criminals on the mainland.
The penal colony needed a governor and that duty fell to an influential army general called Villamil (Puerto Villamil, the largest village on Isabela Island is named after him) and the convicts and the General were joined by farmers and tradesmen. These in truth were the first inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands.
According to the memoirs of Villamil, the Galapagos became a dangerous location because of the criminals and the numbers of people living there diminished in the coming years. Villamil by all accounts was an extraordinarily energetic man involved in armed conquests, business ventures, and political intrigues.
He wrote that the Galapagos “…has a delicious temperature, abundant and good water with a spring that produces 80 gallons an hour, there are currently about 400 people living here and I estimate that this fertile land could support up to 12,000 inhabitants.”
During this era the Galapagos Island’s most famous visitor, Charles Darwin visited in 1835. His stay was short, just 36 days, but ta-dah >>> ‘the rest is history’!! Without the animals, the Galapagos wouldn’t have become the ‘trip of a lifetime’ destination that they are now, but equally without Charles Darwin’s contribution to science and history then the endemic animals wouldn’t be so famous.
At the start of the 20th-century Ecuadorian businessmen tried to establish sugar cane plantations on San Cristobal and Isabela islands with varying degrees of success. Before the Second World War Norwegian and German settlers arrived on Floreana and then moved to San Cristobal and Santa Cruz. During the Second World War Ecuador allowed the U.S to create a naval base on the island of Baltra.
Galapagos World War II
These were remote islands still and just getting there was difficult much less carving out a life on these islands. Just 60 years ago back in 1959, it’s estimated that between just 1,000 and 2,000 inhabitants called the Galapagos home, most living on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal where there is more potable water.
Wall of Tears - Galapagos
By the 1980s there were 15,000 people living in the Galapagos and now it is estimated that there are up to 30,000 inhabitants in the Galapagos. That might not seem a lot but in an ecosystem as fragile as the Galapagos this number of permanent inhabitants can add a real strain to the sustainability of the island’s ecosystem.
This explosive increase in inhabitants, tenfold in 40 years, has occurred because the tourism numbers have risen exponentially as well. There are now 100,000 visitors a year of whom 80,000 are tourists and the remainder business people or visiting friends and family.
Five islands are inhabited now; Floreana, Isabela, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal and Baltra. The 2 largest towns are really no more than large villages; Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. To be sure there are hotels, restaurants and gift shops but sea lions still hang out on the benches and it’s easy to walk to the edge of ‘town’ and contemplate the natural beauty all around.
It is agreed between all invested parties that tourism is the motor that drives the economy but also that the pristine unique environment that attracts tourists and leads to population growth could be a risk factor if not properly controlled.
With new laws introduced in 2007 by President Correa, it seems finally that the number of Galapagos inhabitants is being well controlled and that, for now at least, the future of the Galapagos as a spectacular international tourist destination is secure.