Elements of Galapagos' cultural heritage

The traces of the islands' memory

Elements of Galapagos' cultural heritage



Godfrey Merlen took the picture above in Santa Cruz Island, in the current Charles Darwin Av., back in the mid-70s. This kind of images are part of the cultural heritage of the Galapagos Islands. A heritage that is comprised by many different elements, produced from a number of different contexts and spaces.

Initially in their history of human occupation, the Galapagos Islands were a space for travel and exploration. One of the best elements expressing that quality are the many graffiti still found in the rocks of the archipelago’s coasts, especially near the landing sites. They can be used to track down the history of navigation in the islands, and, even if they can be considered as an invasive trait or a damage to the environment, they also codify the human presence in Galapagos at least since the late 18th century. Graffiti and other elements related to travelling (docks, anchors, wrecks, etc.) are part of the islands’ tangible cultural heritage and represent an important part of the Galapagoan history.

In many cases, travelling led to colonization: the archipelago has been (and still is, actually) a space of colonists who have left traces almost everywhere. From the caves in the highlands of Floreana Island to the early houses and crop fields in Santa Cruz or the "Wall of Tears" in Isabela, all of them represent an invaluable tangible heritage.

Industry has been a vital part of the occupation and colonization process. Hence, the islands have also been an industrial space. The ruins and remains of the "haciendas" in San Cristobal’s highlands, the salt mine at Santiago or the saltworks near Puerto Ayora, in Santa Cruz Island, as well as many other marks and scars left on the territory by humans, are part of a very important industrial heritage that explains the attempts for survival and progress of the local populations throughout time.

War has influenced the landscape in the Galapagos. The presence of the US military base at Baltra has left several buildings and structures, both in that island and in the neighboring ones. There are abandoned war-related elements in southern Isabela, and "Baltra pine" (the wood from the disassembled American barracks) is still a building material in many old Galapagoan houses. Baltra’s airport and harbor are themselves remnants of the American presence, as well as the water distribution system in San Cristobal. Although is a weakly preserved heritage, it is still an important part of the islands’ history and memory.

Last, but not least, is the scientific heritage. During the last two centuries, Galapagos has been one of the spaces most intensively occupied by scientists in the world. The presence of researchers, explorers and, in general, academics in the islands has been continuous since the late 18th century. And although the tangible signals of such a presence are not as evident as those belonging to other heritage categories, they are important. From the first scientific station created by Norwegian Alf Wollebaek in Floreana Island to the premises of the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz, all of them give account of the scientific activities in the archipelago.

Associated to those different spaces in terms of tangible heritage, there is a massive intangible one: from oral tradition regarding travelers, colonists, workers, soldiers, and scientists, to the photographs and videos documenting landscapes, persons and buildings, and the many articles, books, and diaries collecting all the produced knowledge.

Cultural heritage in Galapagos is undoubtedly multifaceted. The stronger the established links between its many parts, the richer it becomes.


Text & picture: (edgardo.civallero@fcdarwin.org.ec).
Publication date: 1 May 2022
Last update: 1 May 2022