In the latest chapter of Galapagos Travel Planner’s series on the colonization of the Galapagos Islands, today we visit the history of Baltra.
Baltra is often forgotten on the list of islands where the Galapagos National Park allows habitation by the species Homo sapiens.
Of course, it is so obvious that many do not immediately see it. After all, Baltra is the destination that is marked on most Galapagos visitors’ plane ticket. This airport serves tourists who’ll begin their Galapagos explorations from Santa Cruz Island, which lies on the other side of Itabaca Canal.
As the plane approaches Baltra, you’ll see buildings down below around a bay. Then you see only flat, scrub brush-covered lava before the aircraft touches down.
At the airport, those of you scheduled to begin a Galapagos Island cruise will board a bus marked “Muelle”. This will take you to Caleta Aeolian, a broad cove on Baltra’s west coast. This is where the Muelle de Pasajeros Seymour (Seymour Passenger Wharf) is located.
The airport and the harbor are remnants of the military base the US had here during World War II. Base Beta, home of the 51st Fighter Squadron, was established to protect the Panama Canal from Japanese attack. The US Army also had radar installations on San Cristóbal and Isabela islands.
Lovingly called “The Rock” by soldiers stationed there, Baltra (then called South Seymour) was known for its bleak, boring setting. Despite the extra perks like a bowling alley and a beer garden, stints were limited to six months. The only things to do were to go fishing and make friends with the numerous goats.
After the war, Ecuador took over the airport and other installations left behind. The Galapagos Islanders carried off the barracks to Santa Cruz to be personal homes. If you look closely, though, on the bus trip to Itabaca Canal, you’ll see the concrete footings and platforms where buildings once stood.
On Baltra today, you’ll find no hotels and only a few tourist shops at the airport. Other than the unknown number of military personnel at the Ecuadorian naval and air bases, Baltra has no permanent human residents.
The island’s most numerous inhabitants are the almost 2,500 yellow land iguanas that scurry across the barren landscape. These reptiles are products of the Hancock Expedition’s land iguana relocation in 1932, and the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park’s successful breeding program.
Photo credit: A.Davey