The Galapagos Islands, arguably the most famous islands in the world, have a rich, fairly recent history filled with whalers, pirates and fur-seal traders, followed by adventurous tourists and those wanting to escape the life of mainland “civilization.”

One of these among the archipelago that straddles the equator 600 miles west of mainland South America has an especially unique history. Floreana Island (also known as Santa Maria Island), was among the earliest permanent settlements in the Galapagos Islands. It offers the most fascinating human history during early settlement of the famous Archipelago (well, perhaps next to Charles Darwin’s famous voyage!). And Floreana is a great destination on a longer Galapagos adventure, including the site of the historical Post Office Bay and Devil’s Crown, well worth a visit if you are lucky enough to experience a journey here.

Mystery History

Although the Galapagos Islands were a pit-stop, a fuel up (e.g. tortoise meat) and a safe haven for whalers and pirates by the late 1600s, it wasn’t until 1929 that a few small groups of settlers decided to call Floreana home. This included a German doctor and his partner, as well as the Wittmers (another German family), and an eccentric Austrian baroness with a couple of her lovers/servants. Trouble in paradise quickly arose as power struggles occurred and resulted in strange disappearances, hunting episodes with human prizes, and multiple suspected – but never proven – murders.

The baroness Eloise von Wagner Bosquet with her lovers, Robert Philippson, left, and Rudolf Lorenz, on Floreana. Credit Waldo Schmidt/Zeitgeist Films

One of those settlers, Margaret Wittmer, who was the first to successfully immigrate from Europe to the island and remain her entire life, wrote a book about those days entitled Floreana, published by Moyer Bell Ltd. Publications (1990, first published in 1961). Her experiences, written as an excellent first hand account that reads more like literary fiction than real life, included harsh struggles to survive, visits from the rich and famous abroad, volcanic eruptions with US aircraft disappearing into a blazing inferno, a world war and an island war, to name but a few trials and triumphs she and her family encountered. The book displays a fascinating and touching description of the human history of the Galápagos.

Margret Whittmer lived on Floreana until the age of 95 in the year 2000, but her son Rolf, who was the first European Ecuadorian born on the islands still calls the Galapagos home and shows tourists around the islands.

Post Office Bay

One of the most interesting remnants of the earlier bygone eras dating back to the whaler and pirate days can be found in Post Office Bay, located on the north shore of the island and which is the main point of access to the island. On the trail just off the beach is a junk pile of bones, debris, signs, and the historical post-office barrel, dating back to the late 1700s.

Longer Post Office

Whalers would drop mail in the barrel and there it would sit until a passing sailor heading in the right direction would pick it up and deliver it. The tradition also played a major role in Margret Whittmer’s account of Floreana and continues today. Visitors are encouraged to drop a postcard into the barrel and look through the pile for anything that could be delivered close to home.

Continuing along the trail, you’ll pass a decrepit fish-processing plant. Farther on is a lava tube that heads below ground and back toward the ocean. With a flashlight or headlamp and a good rope it is possible to scramble down the entry and into the tube. The passage eventually enters the water and walking becomes impossible. If you’ve brought your swimsuit, however . . .

Most visitors to the island spend time checking out the wildlife near shore on a panga (boat) ride. Expect to find sea-lion colonies, lava gulls, and pelicans. At Punta Cormorant there is an olive-green beach with a short trail that leads across a narrow section of the island. Along this trail is a small, brackish lagoon where bright pink flamingos and other lagoon feeders dwell. Sometimes there are dozens of flamingos here, but even if the flock is away there is still a good chance of witnessing a lone individual or two. Flamingos are very shy and nervous animals, so this is a good place to use your zoom lens.

At the end of the trail is a white-sand beach divided by black lava rocks. Here you’ll find colorful Sally lightfoot crabs dancing about and stingrays swimming in the shallows. It’s a great place to swim, but watch your step near shore. Shuffle and slide your feet through the sand to avoid stepping on a stingray.

Devil’s Crown

A panga ride from Punta Cormorant offers a special treat in the form of the Devil’s Crown. This volcanic plug that pokes out of the water just offshore is a great place to see nesting and resting shorebirds. It is also one of the Galápagos’ best snorkeling areas. The crater offers a small coral formation and numerous species of bright tropical fish. Highlights include the blue parrotfish, various triggerfish, and the puffer fish. For an extra-special rush, follow your guide’s lead and look for sharks. If you’re super luck, you may be fortunate enough to spot the awesome hammerhead and white-tipped reef shark in one swim.

And what better way to experience Floreana and other amazing Galapagos Islands than as part of a Natural Habitat Adventures cruise, hiking and kayaking adventure!