El Junco lagoon, San Cristobal island, Galapagos Islands

San Cristóbal: The Galapagos Islands’ Capital Isle

In Galapagos Travel Planner’s continuing series on the colonization of the Galapagos Islands, we delve into the history of San Cristóbal Island.

The easternmost Galapagos Island is San Cristóbal, also known as Chatham Island. Despite being capital of the Galapagos Province since Ecuador’s acquisition of the archipelago in 1832, San Cristóbal has a relaxed, small-town feel to it. Most of the island’s approximately 6,000 residents live in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.

San Cristóbal has El Junco lagoon, the Galapagos Islands’ only permanent source of fresh water. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the island was a necessary stop for pirate and whaling ships. And accompanying this chapter in the island’s history are legends of secret maps and buried treasure.

San Cristóbal was the first Galapagos Island at which Charles Darwin stopped on his whirlwind visit through the Galapagos Islands in 1835. On his itinerary were Stephens Bay (Bahía Stephens) and Cerro Tijeretas.

During the latter 19th century, San Cristóbal had a penal colony. Some of the inmates worked on El Progreso, where one of Galapagos’ most horrifying historical events occurred. El Progreso was a large coffee and sugar cane plantation owned by Manuel Cobos. As punishment, Cobos sentenced prisoners to hundreds of lashes or marooning on a waterless island. After a prisoner died in 1904, the workers (in reality, slaves) rose up, murdered Cobos, commandeered a cargo ship and escaped to the mainland.

In the 1920s, Norwegians came to join San Cristóbal’s growing population. During World War II, the U.S. military had a battlement stationed on Cerro Tijeretas. After the war, the Ecuadorian Navy used it for maneuvers until 1970. As well, a fishing enterprise operated near the hill, from 1952 to 1960. Until the 1960s, San Cristóbal was the most populous Galapagos Island.

The centuries of human presence on San Cristóbal has made its mark. The local species of giant tortoise is critically endangered, and introduced guava and blackberry are a plague that covers the landscape. On several occasions, the exotic tilapia fish has been found in El Junco.

If you are interested in learning more about the human history and impact on San Cristóbal, visit the Interpretation Center which has a section explaining the island’s history. The provincial branch of the Ecuadorian House of Culture is an excellent window into the island’s artistic expressions.

Have you visited San Cristóbal island? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.


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Photo credit: Danielle Golon

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