Ecuador's only territory, administered as a province since 1973, is the Archipelago of Columbus (Archipiélago de Colón), more commonly known as the Galápagos Islands, after the Spanish name for the large land tortoise found there. The six largest islands of the group (with their earlier names in parentheses) are Isabela (Albemarle), Santa Cruz (Indefatigable), Santiago (San Salvador or James), Fernandina (Narborough), Floreana (Santa María or Charles), and San Cristóbal (Chatham). Lying on the equator, this cluster of 60-odd islands is scattered over nearly 60,000 sq km (23,000 sq mi) of ocean and has a total land area of 8,010 sq km (3,093 sq mi). The center of the group lies at about 90° W , some 1,130 km (700 mi) from the coast of Ecuador and about 1,600 km (1,000 mi) southwest of Panama.
Most of the islands are small and barren. The largest, Isabela, which is 121 km (75 mi) long and makes up half the land area of the group, has the highest volcano (now only slightly active), reaching 1,689 m (5,541 ft). The climate of these tropical islands is modified by the cold Humboldt Current, which keeps the mean annual temperature as low as 21° C (70° F ). Desertlike low-lying areas contrast with mist-shrouded heights at 240 m (800 ft) and higher elevations that have considerable rainfall.
Charles Darwin visited the islands in 1835 during his voyage on the Beagle, and his observations there made an important contribution to the development of his theories of evolution and natural selection. The unique forms of plant and animal life found on the various islands include 15 species of giant tortoise, considered to be the longest-lived creatures on earth, with a life span of about 150 years and a maximum weight of more than 225 kg (500 lb). In the mid-1980s, their number was estimated at 10,000. The Galápagos have 85 species of birds. In 1959, Ecuador declared the Galápagos a national park to prevent the extinction of the wildlife. The islands have since become one of the world's most noted focal points for naturalist studies and observations. About 21,000 visitors come to the islands each year.
Early Amerindian navigators, traveling on balsa rafts, frequently went to the Galápagos for the excellent fishing, but there is no evidence of any permanent settlement. Bishop Tomás de Berlanga of Panama landed at the Galápagos in 1535; he was the first of a series of Spaniards to visit the islands. In 1832, the first president of Ecuador, Juan José Flores, declared the islands a national territory. Several were used from time to time for penal colonies, but the practice was discontinued in 1959. The administrative seat is San Cristóbal. Only four of the islands are inhabited, and the estimated population numbers 6,000.