Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island
Historians believe this inconspicuous cave on this little-known island in Chile’s Juan Fernandez Archipelago might have temporarily housed an eighteenth-century Scottish privateer named Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk spent four years and four months marooned in the South Pacific following a dispute with his captain over the seaworthiness of a vessel that, sure enough, would soon founder off the coast of Colombia. His adventures on the uninhabited island, then known as Más a Tierra, inspired Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, Robinson Crusoe.
If the immortalised castaway ever spent a single day in this cave, however, Keiser won’t hear a quack about it. The duck he’s been sniffing for the better part of the past two decades was purportedly buried here five years after Selkirk left. It smells less like a madman dressed in goatskins and more like pure gold. Eight hundred and sixty-four bags of it, to be exact, along with 21 barrels of gems and jewels and a chest full of untold Incan treasures.
The story (according to Keiser) is that this trove, worth an estimated US$10 billion, was buried by Spanish navigator Juan Esteban Ubilla y Echeverria in 1714, disinterred by British sailor Cornelius Webb nearly 50 years later, then reburied by Webb after a storm damaged his ship just off the coast. When a mutiny en route to the Chilean port of Valparaiso for repairs threatened his share of the treasure, Webb set the ship ablaze with all its crew on board, never to see the Juan Fernandez Islands again.
It’s an extraordinary tale built on what some might call wild conjecture, but Keiser is used to the scrutiny. “I’m a treasure hunter,” he smirks behind a grey horseshoe moustache. “Why would anyone take me seriously?” Few people do, but that hasn’t stopped the American millionaire from trawling through historical archives in Spain and Britain for clues, and tirelessly financing six-month-long digging expeditions on Robinson Crusoe Island each year.
There are about 20 islanders excavating with hand tools in a rocky patch next to the cave under what Keiser believes is the prophesised image of a scorpion drawn in yellow stone. Treasure hunting eclipses tourism as the second largest industry on the island, after fishing. I survey all three industries when I hitch over to Keiser’s dig site in Puerto Ingles on a lobster boat. With me are two huasos (Chilean cowboys) and their brother Francisco, my guide. The plan is for me to chat with the island’s only gringo while they climb into the pastoral hinterland to wrangle some wild horses. Together we’ll then trek back over the arid northern hills and drive the horses to the island’s only town, San Juan Bautista, following a route that Selkirk might have taken if he ever lived in this infamous cave.
A trail map for the island lists about a dozen tracks of varying difficulty, but the trek I find myself on is not one of them. The huasos had warned me in advance that I should head back on the boat if I was afraid of heights. I told them I wasn’t. A more appropriate question might have been: “Are you afraid of perilous rock slides and slipping into an abyss?” To which I would have replied: “Yes. As a matter of fact, I am.”
But I declined the tepid warning and the recommended trekking pole and soon find myself crumpled in a ball of fear waiting for Francisco to come to my rescue – a wonderfully emasculating way to kick off my journey in the footsteps of one of the world’s toughest survivalists.
San Juan Bautista is just one knuckle away from Puerto Inglés on this volcanic fist of jagged peaks punched out of the South Pacific, but the journey traverses some of the island’s most barren and unpredictable terrain. It takes two hours of heart-pounding, frenzied move-or-die footwork before I finally spot civilisation from the top of Salsipuedes lookout. The horses have long since disappeared into the greener terrain below, but I catch up with their riders at El Mirador de Selkirk a few hours later for crab empanadas and bottles of Archipelago, a strong local brew.
“Were you scared back there?” they joke as we throw down beers and lather our deep-fried lunch in a Chilean salsa called pebre.
“Only a little bit,” I lie. “Next time just strap me to the horse.”
If Selkirk trekked over these crumbling mounds on a regular basis and lived to tell the tale, I tip my hat to the man. But I tend to agree with most modern researchers who believe he likely toiled away his days of solitude in the very place the island’s 800 modern-day residents do, along Cumberland Bay. There’s a sliver of flat land, calmer seas and a lookout with views to the southeast where rescue ships rounding Cape Horn were most likely to appear.
The next morning I set out to explore the corner of this boomerang-shaped island neighbouring San Juan Bautista – the area that Selkirk may have roamed. The surroundings can’t be much different than 300 years ago, as this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is, to this day, 13 times richer in bird life than the Galapagos, with 61 times the plant diversity, including the peculiar pangue, a species that evolved slowly in isolation.
Stepping into a forest of pangue just beyond Plazoleta del Yunque, one hour above town, is like entering Alice’s wonderland. A path from the picnic and camping area disappears into a curtain of leaves as large as a human body, then loops into a dense jungle of endemic flora. Home to both the firecrown hummingbird and short-eared owl, it’s a landscape where frazzled ferns that wouldn’t be out of place in New Zealand’s Fiordland elbow for space next to pencil-thin palms reminiscent of Hawaii.
This serene spot was once the refuge of the German Robinson Crusoe, a man by the name of Hugo Weber Fachinger, who survived the sinking of SMS Dresden just offshore during World War I and eventually settled on the island in isolation from his captors. Fachinger chronicled his adventures for several European magazines of the time (much as Selkirk did upon his return to Scotland) but was forced to leave in 1943 when he was wrongly accused of being a Nazi spy.
The path from Fachinger’s hideout back to San Juan Bautista traverses a different microclimate altogether, where wind-deformed trees cower over a herbaceous steppe, their gnarled branches swept over like a lopsided ponytail. Closer to town the surroundings change once again into a forest of newly planted pine and eucalyptus, resources absent in Selkirk’s day that are now used for construction and heating.
Robinson Crusoe Island is hardly the cut-off-from-the-world backwater it once was. The wood-carved town of San Juan Bautista was virtually rebuilt from the ground up after a devastating 2010 tsunami, and now boasts satellite TVs, wi-fi, sprawling plazas and open-air restaurants with the kind of high-quality, low-fuss seafood found in salty fishing towns. Rock lobster, golden crab, octopus, sea bass – you name it, this island has it, thanks to its location at the confluence of the cool Humboldt Current and warm Pacific Countercurrent.
A more appropriate question might have been: “Are you afraid of perilous rock slides and slipping into an abyss?” To which I would have replied: “Yes. As a matter of fact, I am.”
Chefs will cook up the catch of the day in one of three ways: chopped into a ceviche, wrapped up in an empanada or grilled à la plancha. Of the dozen or so restaurants scattered across town, the breka ceviche at Brisas Del Mar is easily the best deal at 2000 pesos (AU$4), while the steamed lobster at Crusoe Island Lodge is top of the line – with a price to match.
Selkirk would surely roll in his grave if he knew how much a Juan Fernandez rock lobster retails for in Chile, not to mention his native Scotland, where the shellfish is considered a rare delicacy. These lobsters were simply a means of survival for the castaway – a daily dose of energy for a man locked up in an island prison. Now, they’re red gold.
Long gone are the days when you could pluck lobsters off the pebbled beaches of Cumberland Bay, so I pull on an extra layer of blubber (my wetsuit) and snorkel offshore with Francisco to see if I can find dinner. What I find instead are the island’s notoriously playful and childishly inquisitive fur seals.
Three zip over to check me out the moment I plop into the bay. They have a stealth I didn’t think possible of a clumsy sea mammal and are absolutely acrobatic under water, darting headfirst through the sea, their whiskers bending into moustaches.
The welcome party scurries in and out of view for about five minutes, performs a few feats of agility, then retreats to a rocky perch to do what seals do best: suntan, bark and waddle around, all in the company of a few hundred friends.
It was the ancestors of these very seals – large in number and menacing in appearance – that eventually drove Selkirk away from the coast, according to historical accounts. He’s thought to have moved further up into the hills, where he built a hut and domesticated goats, introduced by earlier sailors, for food, clothing and companionship.
There are two ways to get from San Juan Bautista to the airport on the far side of the island. One is by boat. The other is by foot, passing Selkirk’s old hut, his namesake lookout, and the side of the island that bears a striking resemblance to the castaway’s homeland, yet likely remained an inaccessible mystery.
I choose the six-hour walk for my last day in the Juan Fernandez. Halfway up the rugged volcanic range that separates San Juan Bautista from the far side of the island, I come across a trail leading to the remains of what Japanese explorer Daisuke Takahashi claims is Selkirk’s main hut. The pile of rocks isn’t much to look at now, but excavations sponsored by the National Geographic Society a decade ago revealed a few tangible links to the Scottish privateer, including a blue tip from a copper navigational device commonly used by sailors of Selkirk’s time.
I hike further along the island’s uppermost mountain pass into a high-altitude rainforest shrouded in clouds. The wind picks up as I approach an overlook Selkirk is said to have used on a daily basis. The historical accuracy of this claim is as cloudy as the view, but, like Keiser’s tale of exploding ships and dazzling treasure, it makes for a good story.
As I stand on the only vantage point with views of both sides of the island, I’m reminded of something Keiser told me when we first met at Cafe Marenostrum a few days earlier. The wind was howling across Cumberland Bay, the dock was closed to boats, and flights had been suspended for three days. The island was exceptionally broody – just as I’d envisioned it – setting the perfect tone for a lunch of kingfish sandwiches that turned into a four-hour lecture on island legends.
“There are a lot of myths swirling around about the ‘island of Selkirk’,” Keiser warned from our position by a rattling window. “The English version of Selkirk’s rescue describes cats and goats dancing for Christ’s sake. If you take it logically, it just doesn’t make any sense what everyone has said about this man.”
Keiser believes the castaway’s story has been sentimentalised by overly romantic writers and hyperbolised in the name of tourism. He thinks the National Geographic expedition was a hoax, and that Selkirk lived instead on a bushy hill called Centinela, visible from our window.
Perhaps we’ll never truly know where Selkirk lived. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter. Perhaps, however, the castaway and the buried treasure do have more in common than an eventful decade in colonial history.
Each mystery involves a stubborn man pitted against an island. One foresees certain disaster (a ship in peril) and the other good fortune (buried treasure), and both choose to stay in self-imposed exile on this remote outpost because of the strength of their convictions. Whether anyone else believes them or not.
LATAM Airlines flies from Sydney to Santiago. Three airlines operate a two-hour air taxi service to Robinson Crusoe Island: Aerocardal, ATA Aerolineas and LASSA. Flights are less frequent in the winter (April to September). There are also bi-weekly boats from the Chilean port of Valparaiso.
Crusoe Island Lodge is the island’s only true hotel. Bed and breakfast rates start at US$280 a person, twin share, or about US$625 all-inclusive. There are about a dozen smaller guesthouses scattered around San Juan Bautista with nightly rates starting from US$30 per person. Most have cafes with signature seafood dishes from US$7.
Most treks more than an hour out of town require a guide. Check out the board next to the island’s main information centre for guide listings, prices and languages. Pia Pablo is your best English-speaking bet for trekking or snorkelling
(email@example.com), while Germán Recabarren can arrange English-language scuba outings
(firstname.lastname@example.org). Local historian Marcelo Schiller offers insightful walking tours of San Juan Bautista’s fort, caves and historic sights for US$40
Words Mark Johanson
Photos Mark Johanson
Tags: chile, hiking, history, island, south america