Standing in the middle of the main intersection of Puerto Velazco Ibarra on Floreana Island, in the Galapagos archipelago, I turned in a full circle, taking in the remoteness of the island.
The large roads spanning the entire town are a mix of gravel and volcanic rock; you can see from end to end as well as the small bungalows and solar streetlights. In the distance stands the volcano Cerro Pajas, the highest point on the island. It was the dry season when I visited the small island, and you could see the stark white of the Palo Santo Trees in contrast to the black gravel.
Floreana is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the Galapagos, with only 100 people calling the island home. Its history stretches back to the days of pirates and whalers due to the only freshwater spring within the Galapagos archipelago.
Floreana holds its history dear to its heart as it now survives on the limited tourism industry.
The history of the island is a story of people. The first post office, now located in Post Office Bay was established by whalers back in 1793. The Galapagos Conservancy states that the first resident was a “bold Irishman named Patrick Watkins” who lived there for only two years.
After World War I, a German couple, Margaret and Heinz Wittmer arrived and lived off the land. Shortly after the couple arrived, they built a house. The couple had the first person born on the islands: Rolf. Margaret turned her story into a biography titled Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos. The couple opened a hotel on the island, and their descendants still run it.
Lore and mystery surround history with the story of an Austrian baroness who arrived in the 1930s with her three lovers. All ended up dead.
Now, Floreana remains tied to its history of farming. It is one of the few islands with a reliable supply of fresh water, a small spring in the highlands. However, drought can be tough for the small population that make up the island today.
With only 100 people that live on this island, tourism plays a huge part of the local economy. Some accommodation options include a few hotels, including the famous Puerto Velazco Ibarra Hotel, or homestays.
I stayed in a homestay owned by Santiago. The older man was excited to share his home with us, and we spoke in broken Spanish and English. He has been living on the islands for over 55 years, 19 of them right here in Floreana.
He introduced us to his neighbours that run one of the three or four restaurants on the island. We sat at the tables, enjoying a cold drink, while three children watched Maleficent on Netflix. It was a testament to the reach of the internet.
The following morning, the family that ran the restaurant made us a hearty breakfast including eggs, fruit, yoghurt and for non-egg eaters like me, fried plantains.
One younger man ran the dive shop with a closet full of wetsuits for rent. Another woman coordinated tour groups and their home stays, her husband and their young son Thiago smiling and tailing along. Dancing and giggling as we tried to communicate with him.
At the Puerto Velazco Ibarra Hotel, on the edge of Playa Negra, you can purchase a tiny bottle of wine for $10 (pricey – but worth it) and a plastic wine glass and watch the sun set predictably around 6pm over the Pacific Ocean.
As our group readied to leave the island, children ran past us to get to school, a one-story square building in the middle of the town.
These people make up the life of the island, which is an easy-going, friendly place. When I set foot on the concrete pier and saw the remote island for the first time, I knew I would fall in love with Floreana for the people and the animals that call this place home.
The first greeters of Floreana are the lazy Galapagos Sea Lions that laze about on the pier and the beaches before returning to the water the hunt.
These beasts – or what I call dog mermaids – are hilarious to watch as they lumber awkwardly over land. As soon as they enter the water, the transform into graceful, playful beings.
While in Floreana, just a short hike from Puerto Velazco Ibarra on a peninsula called Sea Lion Island, you can watch the pups play in the shallows or whimper on the beach as their mothers look for food.
I could have sat there all day as two sea lion pups tussled and splashed just off shore.
Before leaving Floreana’s pier, you will run into the second greeter – the Marine Iguana, the silent, camouflages reptile that gets its name from its amphibious nature. You can spot hundreds of these creatures plastered to the warm black volcanic rock that is piled on the shore. Once in the water, the Marine Iguanas use their tails to navigate the ocean currents in search for algae. This food source turns the males, which are almost double the size of females, green and red during mating season.
The marine iguanas are perfect photograph subjects. Most of the time they are still and allow you to get close. If you get too close, however, the males shake and rattle their heads as a warning. The big males use their bumpy heads and battering rams when fighting over territory and with snort out salt at defence mechanism.
Further inland, visitors to Floreana have the chance to watch giant tortoises roam in a breeding corral. The tortoises were one owned by the residents of Floreana, but not are more or less wild.
In 2008, scientists were able to use research and field work to discover that the Floreana Galapagos Giant Tortoise species, which was thought to be extinct, was found living on Isabela Island. This led researchers to bring the species back from extinction.
What to see on Floreana Island
Post Office Bay
Wooden barrel decorated haphazardly are found at the Post Office Bay. The first barrel was placed in 1793 and became a post office for travelling sailors, leaving letters in hopes for them to be hand delivered by the next seaman to come along.
If you can’t get to the north end, there is a replica post office barrel posted in Puerto Velazco Ibarra for tourists to experience hand delivered mail. Look through the postcards and see if any are close to home.
Highlands –Asilo de la Paz
From town, you can see the volcano Cerro Pajas, rising 640 meters above sea level. Deep into the island, the temperature cools as you step higher in elevation. A 45-minute ride from town will take you to Asilo De La Paz, a historical site where pirates carved out caves. The rock is soft and is easily carved. One such graffiti is dated 1907. The breeding corral is located nearby as well as the natural spring where Floreana people get their water.
If you have the opportunity to jump into the waters surrounding Devil’s Crown, a small outcrop of rock off the northern coast, you will be treated to an underwater masterpiece.
The volcanic crater had become an oasis for marine animals and fish, including the sea lion, white-tipped sharks, eagle rays, hammerhead sharks and sea turtles. Above water, the rocks are a haven for seabirds like the famous blue-footed boobies, pelicans and frigate birds.
There are many points on the island to take your mask, snorkel and fins to explore what lies below the water’s surface.
A short walk from Puerto Velazco Ibarra is a small bay where sea turtles are within arms-reach, happily grazing in the shallows. I also saw puffer fish, sting rays, eagle rays, and countless fish.
Floreana Island can offer everything you expect out of a trip to the Galapagos: volcanic activity, up close interactions with wildlife, fantastic snorkelling and a remoteness that exists only here.
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