Galapagos History | < 1 MIN READ

Discovery of Galapagos: Unwitting Castaways in an Otherworldly Place

User Avatar Written by: Francisco Dousdebes
Floreana island, Galapagos islands

FEBRUARY 23, 1535 – On a day like today, back in 1535, a small vessel set sail from Panama to Puerto Viejo, Peru. It was commandeered by a Spanish Bishop by the name of Tomas de Berlanga and he carried with him a message from the Crown that was to be delivered promptly to the Pizarro brothers who were busy leading the conquest of South America. But something unfortunate (or perhaps serendipitous) happened along the way, as unusually fickle ocean currents and strong northerly weather pushed Berlanga’s vessel off and away from the coastline into deep, open waters.

Two weeks later (on March 10th), the vessel arrived at a volcanic archipelago. Up until then, nobody had ever heard about the existence of these pristine, remote, and uninhabited islands that would one day be known as the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos scenery

View of the Galapagos Islands

It wasn’t until much later – after surviving, returning and arriving at his original destination in Peru – that the Bishop sat down and wrote to the King of Spain:

“It seemed right to me to let your Majesty know about the status and progress of my trip since I left Panama, which was on the twenty-third of February of the current year, up until I arrived here in this new town of Puerto Viejo.”

He continues with the following:

“Our ship managed to sail with very good winds for seven days, and the pilot of our vessel stuck close to land. However, shortly thereafter, the currents became incredibly strong, engulfing us and taking us off course in such a way that, on Wednesday the tenth of March, we spotted an island. As soon as we realized that there was only enough water left for just two more days, we decided to lower the life-boat and go on land in search of water and grass [for the horses]. Once out, we found nothing but seals, turtles, and tortoises so big that each one could carry a man on top, and many iguanas that looked like serpents, too.”

Galapagos sea lions

Sea lions are usually found in many of the islands in the Galapagos

“On another day we saw another island, larger than the first, and with outstanding sierras. On account of its size and monstrous shape, we to it thinking that there would no doubt be rivers and fruits. The distance around the first one was about four or five leagues, around the other – ten or twelve leagues. At this juncture of the journey, the water onboard had been completely depleted. It took us three days to reach the island on account of the calms [lack of wind], during which all of us, as well as the horses, suffered great hardship.”

“The boat, once anchored, allowed us all to go on land. Some of our crew were given the task of making a well, and others were given the task of looking for water, if any, on the island. From the well we managed to create, there came to water that was saltier than the sea itself; further inland, the rest of our crew failed to find even a drop of water after two days of searching. Consequently, with the tremendous thirst, the people felt, we resorted to a leaf-covered in thistles that looked like prickly pears.”


Prickly pear cactus

These cactus are all over the Galapagos Islands, mainly in arid inland areas

Because these were somewhat juicy, although not very tasty, we began to eat them and squeeze them to draw all the water we could from their insides. Once drawn, it looked like slops of lye, but we all drank it as if it were rose water…”

MARCH 2, 1535 – Now that we have spoken about the departure of Berlanga’s vessel from Panama and its goal to reach Puerto Viejo in Peru with news from the King of Spain, Carlos V. It’s important to remember that the vessel, the crew, and the overall equipment onboard were never properly geared towards the open seas. Small ships, such as the one Berlanga was sailing on, had very specific and short-term functions: sail along the coast, follow the landscape, and keep land in sight until you reached your designated port.

A Letter on the Accidental Discovery of Galapagos

Berlanga writes in his letter that, after a week of sailing, strong currents managed to engulf the vessel that gradually pulled them into the vastness of the open ocean. Keep in mind that all this happened in early March and that only mild winds and currents are usually present during this time of year in Galapagos. Given these meteorological patterns, we can only assume that there must have had to have been a series of highly unusual conditions that forced the vessel to end up in mid-ocean so quickly.

It helps to try to put ourselves in the feet of the men aboard that vessel, as these were not sailors nor seamen. These were people who embarked on a coastal trip that should’ve presented very few challenges. The open ocean and the feeling of being lost, as well as the oppressive heat, must have consumed each soul by the hour. Thirst and hunger were also present, and it is very likely that mutiny was considered as a way of changing course. Faith is finite under such circumstances.

Discovery of Galapagos: What did Berlanga see, exactly?

Something else that’s interesting to consider is what side of the Galapagos archipelago Berlanga’s vessel must have been seeing. There is no record, of course, of what islands he saw first (remember: this was the first-ever recorded discovery of the Galapagos!), but certain parts of his letter do describe large cordilleras (mountain ranges), which might mean that he either saw Isabela Island from a distance or glimpsed the long silhouettes of San Cristobal’s volcanic features. This is something we will never truly know. The same goes for what island he disembarked at first. Our imagination and speculation can only fly at this point as what island was the first to be encountered during this discovery of Galapagos…

Cerro Brujo

Cerro Brujo in San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands

His description in the letter reads as follows: “On another day, we saw another island, larger than the first, and with great sierras; and thinking that, on account of its size and monstrous shape, there could not fail to be rivers and fruits, we went straight to it. The distance around the first one was about four or five leagues and around the other, ten or twelve leagues.”

Who knows what islands he was looking at. The coolest part, however, is that modern-day explorers in Galapagos get to see the exact same shapes of the islands that Berlanga saw, still as pristine as ever – desolate, full of bizarre wildlife, some quite lifeless, yet all as intriguing as ever. Any itinerary throughout the Galapagos Islands aboard Yacht La Pinta will give explorers the chance to feel and experience all of this firsthand!

By this point in their misadventure, Berlanga had taken measurements of the angle of the sun and now had a basic idea of their geographic location. However, no map at hand mentioned any land at their recorded latitude and longitude…

Discover the majesty of the Galapagos Islands for yourself aboard Yacht La Pinta!



Galapagos scenery

Galapagos has only two seasons throughout the year: hot season and dry season

What happened next?

Stick around for next week’s next and final chapter on the official, but rather odd, discovery of Galapagos! You’ll find out about how Berlanga went ashore on Passion Sunday and, after holding Mass, sent a group of crew members to explore the new land they were on. Their findings were miraculously stunning, to say the least!

Come and see the islands in exactly the same way today aboard Yacht La Pintaalmost 500 years later. That’s the essence of the Galapagos Islands: to stand the test of time!

Text & Photography by Francisco “Pancho” Dousdebés – Galapagos Expert

Other Credits: John Woram (from the book Darwin Slept Here)

Sullivan Bay, San Salvador (James) Island – GALAPAGOS, March 6th, 2018 :: Lat: ‎0°28′59″ S / Long: 90°56′54″ W