The Juan Fernández Archipelago has a long history. Comprised of three islands full of mystery – Robinson Crusoe, Santa Clara and, the one furthest away, Alejandro Selkirk – it surprises you with cliffs at the edge of the sea, splendid waters for diving, and a population that has inhabited the area for just over a century. These are the most enigmatic places in Chilean geography.
It stands out for its endemic nature and the transparency of its waters, which are ideal for diving, along with a unique cuisine that is distinguished by lobsters and amberjack and a village of no more than 600 inhabitants that is receptive and welcoming to outsiders. The landscape offers the chance to go on truly solitary walks and discover places that receive very few visitors, such as Alejandro Selkirk Island, located several hours to the west of Robinson Crusoe Island by boat.
Even in the middle of the 21st century, you can only reach the area in merchant or Navy ships, or else in a small plane, the only means of transport that allow you to reach a craggy geography with great mountains and cliffs of volcanic origin that are approximately 2 million years old. Declared a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve and a National Park by the Chilean state, the archipelago’s nature preserves a large number of endemic species.
It has a marine subtropical climate with high levels of humidity. The average annual temperature is 15 degrees Celsius. Rains are concentrated in the winter season, between May and September. It also rains in the summer, but the temperature is very pleasant. The best time of year to visit Juan Fernández is between November and April.
Castaways, Treasures, and Naval Battles
There was no proven native population for a long time. In 1534 the Portuguese sailor Juan Fernández discovered the archipelago while looking for a route to reduce the distance between the ports of Callao, in Peru, and Valparaiso. On November 22 of that distant year he arrived at what is now Robinson Crusoe Island, putting the islands on navigation charts.
Used by privateers and pirates as a place to restock fruit and fresh water, in the 18th century it received its most famous inhabitant: Alexander Selkirk, who was abandoned on the island after a dispute with the captain of his ship and lived there alone for over four years. Once rescued and back in England, the story of his days as a castaway among goats and hills served as an inspiration for Daniel Defoe to write the famous novel Robinson Crusoe. And a few years ago, the Nobel Prize laureate J.M. Coetzee wrote Foe, a work based on the same story, but from another perspective.
The era of the privateers also left behind a valuable treasure that adventurers and metal-detecting robots are still searching for. In 1714, a Spanish sailor with the surname Ubilla hid 80 barrels of gold and diamonds in the island’s hills. English sailors found them and hid them in such secrecy that nobody has been able to find them. This is one of the myths of the island.
Robinson Crusoe Island was used as a prison for a group of patriots during the independence period and also witnessed a naval battle of World War I between the English and German navies, which resulted in the sinking of the German battleship Dresden in Cumberland Bay.
The National Park has a surface area of 9,571 hectares. It is comprised of the islands of Santa Clara, Alejandro Selkirk and the greater part of Robinson Crusoe Island. Just as Daniel Defoe described it, Robinson Crusoe Island is a lost paradise. Its imposing hills, cliffs, marine caves, and electric deep blue sea make you feel like you are in a magical world designed by Mother Nature in a way that is uncommon in the world.
The territory possesses considerable diversity: there are 218 species of native flora, 136 of them endemic, which gives the island significant botanical and scientific value. In 1935 the three islands were declared the Juan Fernández Archipelago National Park and, in 1977, a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve.
The flora and fauna of the islands are unique in the world. All of the vegetation that migrated to these islands 2 million years ago is similar to the flora of other faraway places like New Zealand, Hawaii, Magallanes, and, of course, the Andes. The seeds arrived by air, water, or else carried by birds, but here they evolved in a unique way. Because of their geographic location, far from the continent, the islands are an obligatory stopover for precious migratory seabirds like the delicate shearwaters.
These lands are also the permanent residence of diverse endemic species like the red hummingbird, which does not even hide from the cameras in the streets of the town, or else the blindado, a predatory bird that is endemic to Alejandro Selkirk Island. When it comes to the marine species, the two-haired sea lion stands out. The Juan Fernandez lobster, which lives on the rocky seabed and is the main source of sustenance for the residents of Robinson Crusoe, deserves a special mention.
The National Park has attractive trails for hiking and camping areas.