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Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island

With a population of only 900 people, it's the perfect place to disconnect from city life.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

With a population of only 900 people, the rugged Robinson Crusoe Island is the perfect place to disconnect from city life.

The tiny Beechcraft has barely come to a full stop on Robinson Crusoe Island's airstrip when a mustachioed man tells me to start walking. "We can take your bag, but we can't fit you," he says and jumps into a Jeep that crawls away under the weight of my luggage, supplies from mainland Chile and three soldiers on the roof, their legs dangling in front of the windshield. I set out on foot on a gravel road that cuts through a wind-slashed rockscape dotted with poppies. After 15 minutes I hear singing. It's a tenor belting out an aria, but it's impossible to make out the words, mangled as they are by the breeze from the Pacific Ocean. When the road dips down to the sheltered bay where our boat transfer to the island's only town is waiting, I see a whole choir practising their do-re-mis. Dumbfounded, I send a mental apology to Plácido Domingo: Sorry, man, that I mistook you for a herd of Juan Fernández fur seals.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

Horsing around is fun on Robinson Crusoe.

I hadn't expected such a dramatic welcome in the middle of nowhere. Located 670 kilometres from the port city of Valparaíso, Robinson Crusoe is a far-flung buoy tethered to a wire of hardened magma that stretches 4,000 metres from the ocean floor. Mr. Mustachio ferries us in an open boat across the heaving swell toward the village of San Juan Bautista. The napping seals we pass on the hour-long journey don't seem to mind the nothingness beneath them, but I feel like an astronaut clinging to a Canadarm in space – except here, the deep-blue backdrop gives way to walls of volcanic rock that appear to have been folded by a giant accordion maker. No wonder pirates and buccaneers once used this island as a haven; the place is the definition of remote.

"You need a break from the big city?" the skipper asks as he steers us into Bahía Cumberland, setting lobster-trap floaters and moored fishing boats in motion. "You've come to the right place: Only about 900 of us live here," he says and nods toward the wooden houses on the shore. As I grab my bag to get off the boat, he reveals that phone and Internet service are spotty at best (a 2010 tsunami tore out the island's landline). "Good luck keeping in touch with the continent!" He doesn't realize I'm already digging the idea of living for a few days like a modern-day Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish sailor who was marooned here in 1704 and inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

Clockwise from top left: Guillermo Martínez and Nicole Marré take a break at Más a Tierra Eco-Lodge; the Juan Fernández Islands boast some 40,000 fur seals of approval; the endemic – and delicious – spiny rock lobster is the archipelago's gold mine.

"Bring a rain jacket, just in case – the weather here is hormonal," says Nicole Marré, watching pregnant clouds shuffle across the bay from the living room at Más a Tierra Eco-Lodge. Over breakfast of bread, mashed avocado and cheese, she and her husband, Guillermo Martínez, who co-owns the four-room guest house, have just given me the lowdown on the island's hiking trails, the best – and, let's face it, pretty much only – way to see the mist-soaked peaks festooned with plants found nowhere else on the planet. "The Juan Fernández Islands have about 130 endemic species – more than you'd find on Galápagos," says Martínez while handing me a trail map that also outlines the archipelago, named after the Spaniard who first land-ahoyed here in 1574. (In addition to Robinson Crusoe, there's Alejandro Selkirk and Santa Clara islands.) Inspired by the promise of naturalist booty, I head off to the Selkirk lookout, where the banished sailor is believed to have watched and waited for ships to rescue him from his four-year stint in solitary.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

A male Juan Fernández firecrown (the female is green) hangs in there.

At the upper edge of town, a steep path wends through a fragrant eucalyptus forest to the island's national park boundary. On the "wild" side, I pause at a blooming cabbage tree buzzing with the Juan Fernández firecrown, a red (male) or green (female) hummingbird that only flutters its wings here; I also come across a few gnarly canelo and luma trees, the latter being the firecrown's favourite nesting spot. The higher the altitude, the frothier the air and the denser the vegetation. An hour and a half into my hike, I find myself in a Henri Rousseau painting: Cushy moss carpets the ground and tree ferns tower over me, as do gigantic rhubarblike gunnera, blocking the sun with their broad umbrella leaves. When I eventually reach the lookout, I catch up with a Spanish couple and a woman from the continent. (So much for the illusion of being cast away on my own: A Chilean Navy ship bringing dozens of tourists has docked in Bahía Cumberland for two days.) I unpack an oatmeal cookie left over from breakfast, and the solo trekker takes out a thermos with coffee. Sharing a mini-picnic above chameleon slopes studded with chonta palms, we agree that if we had been Selkirk, we would never have left.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

Guido Balbontín takes visitors by horseback to the island's lookouts.

Back at sea level, the outdoor patio at Más a Tierra is packed, but Martínez grabs me a small table from indoors. "I want what they're having," I say, pointing at the spiny rock lobsters that have landed with the neighbours. When he brings out my order on a platter, he's excited to tell me he's just come back from the vet, in town thanks to the Navy, which only anchors here twice a year. "If we hadn't gotten an appointment today, we would have had to send our dog to the mainland with the twice-a-month supply ship." (Luckily for the island's humans, there's a doctor and a nurse at a permanent clinic. And luckily for the dogs, there are so few humans that they can happily run around free.) I rip into my lunch, scraping out every morsel from the skinny legs before I get to work on the tail. Tasting the sweet meat, I understand why the foot-long crustacean is the treasure trove of the archipelago.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

Left to right: Claudio Matamala raises a glass to – and with – his Cerveza Archipiélago; the private patios at Más a Tierra overlook the wharf.

Silence is golden, I think, as Pía Pablo pulls up in a golf cart at Más a Tierra. Throwing my bag in the back, I sit down beside her. We're off to Bahía Pangal, a secluded bay that lets you get away from it all, including the town's rush hour, when two people might enter the main intersection by the wharf at exactly the same time. The manager at Crusoe Island Lodge, Pablo spots three fishermen standing by the roadside. "What do you have?" she yells. The fishermen reach into a wheelbarrow and hold up their catch; Pablo hands them a wad of cash. "For the ceviche!" she says and passes me a bag filled with shiny yellowtail amberjacks before she continues driving. When we arrive at the lodge, a pisco sour materializes as if by magic and I'm whisked to a swing on a veranda overlooking the ocean. There's no one else around, and when it dawns on me that I'm the hotel's sole guest for the next two days, I feel like the queen of a castle, albeit a rustic-modernist one built with dark wood and stone. Only a treasure map where X marks the spot is missing. "Well, I can arrange that, too," says Pablo with a wink.

I'm soon on my way by boat to Puerto Inglés, where I'm greeted by a group of men, their bare shoulders sprinkled with ochre dust. They're jamming shovels into the ground under the supervision of Bernard Keiser, an American who's funding the excavation for what he believes is long-lost treasure. Keiser walks me over to a cave and points at some proto-graffiti carved into the rock. "This code is from a Spaniard who absconded in the early 1700s with barrels of gold and jewellery now worth billions of dollars. I'm convinced he left these marks to indicate where to find the booty." We walk back to the dig. I scan the site and look down into the hole, which vaguely resembles an open-pit mine, and kick a few rocks around in the hope of finding something. It isn't until I swing by the town that afternoon that I strike gold.

Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

Tracing the shoreline of Bahía Cumberland, the village of San Juan Bautista is the only permanent settlement in the archipelago.

My skipper drops me off at the wharf and I scoot up to a small house with a wooden deck that cantilevers over the hillside. I knock, and Claudio Matamala, the owner of Cerveza Archipiélago, opens the door. Forget about microbreweries – this guy runs a nanobrewery, producing a total of 2,000 to 3,000 bottles of golden lager, amber ale and coffee-coloured stout per month. "I like beer, but with so few provisions brought here every month, I had to start making it myself. When my friends tasted the first batch, a lager," he says as he shows me around the living-room-size facility, "they wanted me to make some for them, too. Now, I sell to restaurants and bars on the continent." He pours me his award-winning wheat ale and we step out on the deck to clink glasses. Firecrowns zoom around, hovering at a cabbage tree; they're sipping one of their preferred brews. Looks like I've discovered a favourite, too.

Eager to fully immerse myself in the local wonders, I head back across the waves to Crusoe Island Lodge, where I meet up with the hotel's Víctor Aguirre. Once he's kitted me out with a wetsuit, fins and a snorkel, we waddle down to the rocky shore and jump in the water. I'm surprised at how warm it is – I had expected about 10 degrees, but we're far enough away from the Humboldt Current that it's a balmy 17. Following Aguirre, I peer through water so crystalline, it's a natural draw for scuba divers. There's a kaleidoscope of boulders and kelp sheltering Chilean sea urchins and schools of pampanitos that whip out flashes of blue and yellow. A reddish rock suddenly moves below; it's an octopus tugging at seaweed, as if pulling up a duvet. When we reach the shore, Aguirre quickly sheds his fins and runs off. "You're in luck: The hot tub is ready!" he says when he returns. A wood-fire-heated wooden soaker has been heating up while we've been snorkelling. I ease into the steaming water, and before I know it Aguirre comes over with an island lager. I take a big gulp, then scan the ocean for whales, seals, ships. The Navy has sailed off, and there's nothing to blur the horizon. I've found the real treasure of Robinson Crusoe.


Robinson Crusoe Island, Chile

Travel Essentials

01 Nicole Marré and Guillermo Martínez at Más a Tierra Eco-Lodge swap out the clichéd Chilean folkloric music, fried foods and white rice for octopus carpaccio, amberjack ceviche and golden-crab stew, served to a soundtrack of reggae, bossa nova or Spanish pop. (masatierraecolodge.com)

02 The fastest way to reach the Selkirk lookout or the summit of Cerro Centinela is by horseback. Saddle up with Guido Balbontín from Cabalgatas Tierra Mágica, who can also take you through the enchanted forest at Plazoleta El Yunque.
(56-9-8998-8204)

03 After hiking the island's many trails, sit down on brewer Claudio Matamala's deck for a cold one from his Cerveza Archipiélago.
(cervezaarchipielago.cl)


Where to stay

If you have to get away from it all while you're away from it all, Crusoe Island Lodge has everything you need to live like a marooned sailor – hot tub and sauna, pisco sours, scuba gear, freshly cooked lobster and golden crab, a library with a fireplace – on a sheltered bay outside of town.
crusoeislandlodge.com

Tags

CHILE    

Getting There

Getting there Robinson Crusoe Island

Comments… or add another

Tom Ramsay

Tuesday, February 3rd 2015 02:48
wow, oh wow....this IS the place for me.....when do we leave

Daniel Ramirez

Tuesday, February 3rd 2015 08:26
I would like to kno more about packages to this destiny
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