The JUAN FERNÁNDEZ ARCHIPELAGO is made up of three islands and numerous rocky islets. The archipelago is named after João Fernandes, the Portuguese sailor who discovered it on November 22, 1574, while straying out to sea to avoid coastal winds and currents in an attempt to shorten the journey between Lima and Valparaíso. The more easterly of the two main islands was originally called Más a Tierra (“Nearer Land”), while the other, 187km further west, was known as Más Afuera (“Farther Out”).
João Fernandes made a brief attempt to colonize the three uninhabited islands, introducing vegetables and goats, which multiplied in great numbers (the third, smallest, island was later known as Goat Island, officially as Isla Santa Clara). These were still flourishing when British buccaneers started making occasional calls here to stock up on water and fresh meat between their raids on the mainland.
Following Alexander Selkirk’s much-publicized rescue buccaneers began calling at the islands more frequently, prompting the Spanish Crown to take official possession of the archipelago in 1742, building a series of forts around Más a Tierra. The island was then used as a penal colony for many years, and it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that a mixture of Chilean and European colonizers formed a permanent settlement. In 1966, with an eye on the islands’ potential as a tourist destination, the Chilean government changed Más a Tierra’s name to Isla Robinson Crusoe, while Más Afuera became Isla Alejandro Selkirk, seasonal home to lobster fishermen and very difficult to reach.
Today, only a few hundred tourists make it out here each year, arriving mainly between October and March, when the climate is warm and mostly dry, and the sea is perfect for swimming.Read More
Isla Robinson Crusoe
Isla Robinson Crusoe
Twenty-two kilometres long, and 7km at its widest point, ISLA ROBINSON CRUSOE is the archipelago’s only permanently inhabited island. Most of the islanders – some of them descendants of the Swiss Baron de Rodt and his compatriots who settled the island at the end of the nineteenth century – live in the little village of San Juan Bautista, on the sheltered Bahía Cumberland. The main economic activity is trapping lobsters, and one of the highlights of a stay here is accompanying a fisherman out to haul in his catch (and later sample it).
Lobsters aside, the island’s two principal attractions are the sites associated with Alexander Selkirk and the richness of its flora and fauna. Of the 146 plant species that grow here, 101 are endemic or unique to the island (the second highest proportion in the world after Hawaii), which is both a national park and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Most prolific, and stunning, is the luxuriant rainforest that covers the island’s higher slopes.
The local fauna also comprises numerous endemic species, such as the Juan Fernández fur seal, which is making a comeback after being hunted to near-extinction in the eighteenth century, and the Firecrown hummingbird, as well as sea birds, such as the giant petrel. Meanwhile, diving at various sites around Isla Robinson Crusoe is an excellent way to appreciate the wealth and diversity of its abundant underwater life. Mosquitoes abound, so be sure to bring plenty of repellent.
The 2010 tsunami
The 2010 tsunami
In the early hours of February 27, 2010, a tsunami triggered by the 8.8 magnitude earthquake on mainland Chile struck the Juan Fernández Archipelago. A wave of around 20m in height swept 300m into Isla Robinson Crusoe, destroying much of San Juan Bautista and killing sixteen people. A mix-up between the Chilean Navy and the tsunami alert services meant that the islanders received no official warning, and the death toll would have been much higher but for a 12-year-old girl: awake at night, Martina Maturana spotted the fishing boats bobbing violently in the harbour, and ran from her home to ring the emergency bell in the town square to warn the island’s six hundred or so inhabitants.
Following the disaster, the island’s population fell by about a third, as many people left for the mainland. Islanders, angry at the lack of official warning, launched a court case against the government. Meanwhile, rebuilding attempts – the tsunami destroyed the island’s library, town hall, civil registry office, museum, cultural centre, naval offices, post office, school and every single shop, as well as many homes and hotels – are ongoing.
To compound matters, on September 2, 2011, 21 passengers were killed after an air force plane crashed into the sea after twice failing to land in windy conditions on the island. Among those killed was TV presenter Felipe Camiroaga, who had been making a film on the reconstruction efforts.
Although the island is still getting back on its feet, it is possible to visit – and the money you spend will certainly help the rebuilding efforts. Most hotels remained closed at the time of research, but many plan to reopen – check the latest situation ahead of your visit.
Daniel Defoe’s story of Robinson Crusoe, the world’s most famous literary castaway, was inspired by the misadventures of the real-life Scottish mariner Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on Isla Robinson Crusoe (then Más a Tierra) in 1704 while crossing the Pacific on a privateering expedition. Unlike Crusoe, who was shipwrecked, Selkirk actually asked to be put ashore following a series of quarrels with his captain. The irascible sailor regretted his decision as soon he was deposited on the beach with a few scanty supplies, but his cries from the shore begging to be taken back onboard were ignored. Selkirk spent four years and four months on the island, with only his Bible and dozens of wild goats for company. During that time he was transformed into an extraordinary athlete, as he hunted the goats on foot, and a devout Christian.
Following his rescue by a British ship in 1709, however, Selkirk reverted to his buccaneering ways, joining in attacks on Spanish vessels all the way home. Back in Fife, the former castaway became something of a celebrity and threw himself into a life of drink and women. Fourteen years after his rescue, Selkirk finally met his end when he took up the seafaring life once more, set off on another privateering expedition, and died of fever in the tropics.