Juan Fernandez Archipelago, a castaway paradise


Pirates, shipwrecks, political prisoners and buried treasure all make cameo appearances in the Hollywood-worthy history of this remote chain of small volcanic islands 667km west of Valparaíso. The islands was discovered by chance on November 22, 1574, by the Spanish sailor Juan Fernández, who was sailing between Peru and Valparaíso and deviated from his planned course. One of the islands is also the place where castaway Alexander Selkirk whittled away the lost years scampering after goats and scanning the horizon for ships. Selkirk’s story is believed to have been the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe. Although Daniel Defoe set his classic novel in the Caribbean, he based it directly on Alexander Selkirk’s real-life adventures on this Chile’s tiny Pacific possession. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the archipelago was used as a hideout for pirates, and provided a location for a penal colony.

Once an anonymous waypoint for marauders, sealers and war ships, the archipelago is frequently referred to as a temperate counterpart of the Galápagos Islands. Located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, 670 km off the coast of central Chile, the Juan Fernández archipelago is one of the least visited places in Chile and its tourist infrastructure is only gradually recovering from the tsunami that hit it in February 2010, washing away most of San Juan Bautista, the only town. The town of San Juan Bautista, where almost all of the archipelago’s 600 inhabitants live, is located roughly where the shipwrecked sailor Alexander Selkirk spent his enforced leisure time. The town is set beneath forest-covered fists of stone with their peaks continually lost in gray mist; it has only a few unpaved streets, a small museum-library, a handful of restaurants and bars, and a soccer field. With motor vehicles few and far between on the island, the only noise is the never-ending howl of the wind. But, as well as several fascinating excursions relating to Selkirk’s adventures there, the real reason for visiting is the archipelago’s attraction as a unique wilderness area with 62% of its flora found nowhere else on Earth.

Juan Fernández Islands is a unique eco-region that has seen its flora and fauna evolve slowly in isolation. The archipelago has received national and international recognition for their biological uniqueness. There are 140 native plants to be uncovered here – 101 of which are endemic. The rainforest is an evergreen tangle of vines and towering ferns. Of its 11 endemic birds, the Juan Fernandez hummingbird is the most famous of which 700 thrive in both the forest and San Juan Bautista. The Chilean government granted the islands national park status in 1935. In 1977, to further protect the habitats and species, UNESCO declared the archipelago a World Biosphere Reserve. These efforts have helped the fur seal and other populations recover, as conservationists work to remove invasive species. The plight of the archipelago’s endangered natural systems has also been recognized. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) identified the Juan Fernández Islands as one of the world’s 12 most threatened national parks, and in 1984 the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) designated the islands as one of the 10 highest priority regions for seabird research globally. In 1998, Birdlife International listed the islands as a Priority 1 (critical) Endemic Bird Area of the World. The Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) targeted the Juan Fernández Islands as a priority site in 2002, an area in most urgent need of conservation investment to prevent imminent species extinctions.

There are three main volcanic islands in the chain. Robinson Crusoe is the main tourist hub, while Alejandro Selkirk and Santa Clara islands are seldom visited. Small-scale sustainable tourism is the shared mantra, with hiking, diving, and fishing the biggest draws. The climate of the archipelago is cool, but still relatively mild subtropical. The best time of year to visit is from December to February, where the weather is most enjoyable. In winter, from April to October, temperatures are similar to those that can be measured in winter in the Mediterranean.

Robinson Crusoe Island

Of volcanic origin, with a very steep relief, the name of the island, Robinson Crusoe, previously known as Más A Tierra, Beautiful places of both historical and natural interest can be discovered on the island. The National Park is home to some endemic species such as the Juan Fernandez Hummingbird. Its marine ecosystem is as unique as its terrestrial one. Among the activities offered on the island, you can choose to go diving in the sea and enjoy exploring the remains of a sunken ship that lies at the bottom of the ocean since 1915. You can also go by boat to the cave which housed Alexander Selkirk, located 16 km from Puerto Inglés. Excursions not to be missed are the Mirador Selkirk, where Selkirk kept scanning the horizon, hoping to see a liberating ship, and the trek to Villagra and La Punta, crossing the whole island.

Alejandro Selkirk Island

More commonly known as Isla Masafuera by the lobster fishermen and their families who inhabit the island for eight months of the year, Alejandro Selkirk Island is the youngest and most remote island of the Archipelago. It is also the largest, tallest, and most westerly island in the archipelago and sometimes sees snow in the coldest months at the summit, which is home to a number of rare and endangered plant and bird species, such as the Juan Fernández Orchid (Gavilea insularis) and the Critically Endangered Masafuera Rayadito (Aphrastura masafuerae). The Island is densely wooded and very mountainous. It is marked by ridges and numerous deep ravines lead to a rugged eastern coast off which are tremendous depths. The coastal cliffs are up to 1,000 meters high. The south, west and north sides of the island have sandy strips of beach which extend 0.1 mile offshore in places. The highest peak, Cerro de Los Inocentes, rises to 1,329 meters (4,360 ft) at the southwest side of the island.

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