Islas Juan Fernández

Background

The islands are named after João Fernández, a Portuguese explorer in the service of Spain, who was the first European to visit them (in 1574). For the next 150 years, they were frequented by pirates and
corsairs
resting up before attacking Spanish America. In 1704, Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor, quarrelled with his captain and was put ashore from HMS
Cinque Ports
on what is now Isla Robinson Crusoe, where he stayed alone until 1709, when he was picked up by the
Duke
; his experience inspired
Robinson Crusoe
.

From 1750 the Spanish took steps to defend the archipelago, founding San Juan Bautista and building seven fortresses. During the Wars of Independence the islands were used as a penal colony for Chilean independence leaders captured after the Battle of Rancagua. In 1915, two British destroyers, HMS
Kent
and
Glasgow
cornered the German cruiser,
Dresden
, in Bahía Cumberland. The German vessel was scuttled and still lies on the bottom; a monument on shore commemorates the event and, nearby, unexploded shells are embedded in the cliffs. Some of the German crew are buried in the cemetery.

Legends of buried pirate treasure have abounded over the years and several attempts have been made to find it. In recent years a team using a Chilean-built robot with a penetrative sensor claimed to have discovered signs of the treasure, leading to massive media interest, but so far have failed to unearth anything of interest.

Getting there

The best time for a visit is between October and March. Air taxis from Santiago land on an airstrip in the west of the island, from where passengers are taken by boat to San Juan Bautista. (The boat transfer should be included in the price of the air ticket.) There are also boats to the islands from Valparaíso.

Getting around

Isla Robinson Crusoe is small enough to explore on foot. You will need a boat on the other islands. Take insect repellent.

Sights

The only settlement in the archipelago is
San Juan Bautista
, a fishing village of simple houses. Located on Bahía Cumberland on the north coast of Isla Robinson Crusoe, it has a church, schools, post office, police station and radio station. San Juan Bautista is overlooked by the remains of the
Fuerte Santa Bárbara
, the largest of the Spanish fortresses, while in the village itself is a
Casa de la Cultura
, with exhibition rooms. Nearby are the
Cuevas de los Patriotas
, home to the deported Chilean independence leaders. The island's other famous cave, where Alexander Selkirk spent his years of isolation, is 4 km north west of the village and can be visited by boat.

South of the village is the
Mirador de Selkirk
, the hill where Selkirk lit his signal fires. A plaque was set in the rock at the lookout point by British naval officers from HMS
Topaze
in 1868; nearby is a more recent plaque placed by Selkirk's descendants. The mirador is the only easy pass between the north and south sides of the island. A footpath leads further south to the anvil-shaped
El Yunque
, 915 m, the highest peak on the island, where Hugo Weber, a survivor from the
Dresden,
lived as a hermit for 12 years: some remains of his dwelling can be seen. The only sandy beach on Robinson Crusoe is
Playa Arenal
, in the extreme southwest corner, two hours by boat from San Juan Bautista.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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