A Pilgrimage to Isolation: The Juan Fernandez Islands

Posted in 2013, Chile by on Sep 06, 2015


Islands have always held a special appeal for me. Isolated and lightly visited islands even more so.  A few of them are among my favourite destinations on this planet. Fernando de Noronha was one. Easter Island another. Also the Galapagos, Saba, Mayreau, Svalbard, and the Seychelles. There are a few others that also beckon that I have not yet visited: Socotra, Penrhyn, Pitcairn. On this last trip I made it to two others that had long fascinated me…South Georgia and the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. I will write  about South Georgia in another post.

Chile has two isolated inhabited island groups in the Pacific far from any other place. One is by far the better known – Easter Island. The other is Robinson Crusoe Island in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, located about 600 kilometers in the Pacific Ocean west from Valparaiso. Unlike Easter Island, world famous and easily accessible by jet aircraft, flying to Juan Fernandez is usually by a small 8 seater aircraft. Flights do not go every day and wind conditions are such that flights are often cancelled. Thus it costs almost twice as much (more than US$1000) to go half the distance from Santiago, Chile. But these gorgeous islands are definitely worth it.

The flight from Santiago takes a bit under two hours, but the arrival in the small plane is dramatic, plunging down sharply to a small thin airstrip on the southeast corner of the island. From the airstrip, you leave your luggage behind and then walk twenty to thirty minutes along a dirt road  down to a dock in a bay on the northern part of the island.  We waited by the dock for shortly under an hour while being serenaded by a few hundred seals. My flight to the island had been delayed by a day as the waves and winds during the previous 48 hours were too intense. Perhaps because of this, instead of taking the low rise boat, all passengers were transported on a Chilean military boat.  The choppy boat ride to the only settlement of San Juan Bautista took us a little under one hour. Our luggage was to arrive after another hour by the low rise boat.

Isla Robinson Crusoe is a stunningly beautiful island, reminiscent of a temperate climate Moorea with sharp sculpted green peaks forming a backdrop behind the town.  The total population is under 900, all located in the one settlement of San Juan Bautista. The village was devastated by a tsunami caused by an 8.2 Richter earthquake on February 22, 2010, killing seventeen inhabitants and destroying much of the town near the water line. At a small fast food restaurant run by a local woman in her 50s, I listened to her poignant  recollection of that terrible day. She had been running a larger more upscale restaurant with her husband and had an eleven year old son. Both of them died when the tsunami struck the island.  She has carefully preserved photos of her late husband and son, along with a number of photos of the restaurant they had  built together.  Since the tsunami, the Chilean government has invested a lot of money into reconstructing the town. While there remains some minor signs of the extensive damage caused by the tsunami, the recovery is almost complete, with the most obvious sign being that the buildings along the waterfront are obviously new.

Daniel Defoe’s famous book “Robinson Crusoe”, one of my favourites as a child,  is based upon the real life story of Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk  was dropped on this island in 1704 after a dispute with the captain of the ship on which he was sailing. He subsequently spent four years and four months totally solo, living off the limited resources of the island while waiting for rescue, which finally occurred in early 1709. A Wikipedia search will give  a somewhat fuller account of his life, but for me the most amazing thing is that he survived his time there completely cut off from the rest of the world due to his dedication and resourcefulness  There are a number of hiking trails on the island. The most famous is the trail up from San Juan Bautista to Mirador Alejandro Selkirk, the lookout point at a top of the ridge at 560 metres above sea level giving views over both sides of the island where Selkirk would go up each day and where he waited for years for his eventual rescue. For me, it was a powerful pilgrimage moment and a tribute to isolation and to the resilience of the human spirit.

In many ways, I am in awe of the marvel of technology within the last couple of decades which now allows anybody anywhere in the world with access to the Internet the ability, as just one example, to read this blog within one minute of my publishing it. Yet the hike up to Selkirk’s Lookout also evoked for me the more timeless aspects of this amazing planet and our place in it: geographic isolation, the physical beauty of our natural world, the fragility of the human condition, and to resilience in the face of adversity, both in the 18th century and the 21st century.