FAR AWAY FROM IT ALL

The real trea­sure on Chile’s re­mote Robin­son Cru­soe Is­land is the quiet and the soli­tude

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - SU­SAN NERBERG FROM AIR CANADA’S ENROUTE

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 mous­ta­chioed man tells me to start walk­ing. “We can take your bag, but we can’t fit you,” he says as he 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 over the wind­shield. I set out on foot down 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 a boat is wait­ing, ready to trans­fer us to the is­land’s only town, I see a whole choir prac­tis­ing their do-re-mi’s. Dumb­founded, I send a men­tal apol­ogy to Plá­cido Domingo: sorry, man, that I mis­took you for a mem­ber of a herd of Juan Fernán­dez fur seals.

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 thou­sands of me­tres from the ocean floor. Mr Mous­ta­chio fer­ries us in an open ves­sel across the heav­ing swell to­wards 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 robotic arm 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.

“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 to­wards 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 land line). “Good luck keep­ing in touch with the con­ti­nent!”

He doesn’t re­alise I’m al­ready savour­ing 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, pub­lished in 1719.

“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 a break­fast of bread, mashed avo­cado and cheese, she and her hus­band, Guillermo Martínez, who co-owns the four- room guest house, have given me the lowdown on the is­land’s hik­ing trails, the best – and, let’s face it, pretty much the only – way to see the mist­soaked 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 out­lines the en­tire archipelago, named af­ter the Spa­niard who first land-ahoyed here in 1574. (In ad­di­tion to Robin­son Cru­soe, the re­gion in­cludes Ale­jan­dro Selkirk Is­land and Santa Clara Is­land.) 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.

At the up­per edge of town, a steep path wends through a fra­grant eu­ca­lyp­tus for­est to the is­land’s nat ional park bound­ary. On the “wild” side, I pause at a bloom­ing cab­bage tree buzzing with Juan Fernán­dez fire­crowns, red (male) or green (fe­male) hum­ming­birds that only f lut­ter their 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 more hu­mid 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 gun­nera, rhubarb-like plants that block the sun with their um­brella-shaped 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 car­ry­ing dozens of tourists has docked in Bahía Cum­ber­land for two days.) I un­pack an oat­meal cookie

I FIND MY­SELF IN A HENRI ROUSSEAU PAINT­ING: MOSS CAR­PETS THE GROUND, TREE FERNS TOWER OVER ME

left over from break­fast, and the solo trekker takes out a ther­mos of 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.

Back at sea level, the six- ta­ble pa­tio at Más a Tierra is packed, but Mart ínez brings out a small ta­ble from in­doors. “I want what they’re hav­ing,” I say, point­ing at the spiny rock lob­sters that have landed on my neigh­bours’ plates. When he serves my or­der on a plat­ter, he’s ex­cited to tell me he’s just come back f rom the vet , who’s come to town thanks to the nav y, 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,” he says. (Luck­ily for the is­land’s hu­mans, there’s a per­ma­nent clinic staffed by a doc­tor and a nurse. 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 30cm­long crus­tacean is the archipelago’s prized re­source. I RE­ALISE THIS IS­LAND is the def­i­ni­tion of re­mote when Pía Pablo pulls up in a golf cart at Más a Tierra. Af­ter 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 (seafood stew)!” 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 ma­te­ri­alises as if by magic, and I’m whisked to a swing on a ve­ran­dah 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. 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 PISCO SOUR MA­TE­RI­ALISES AS IF BY MAGIC, AND I’M WHISKED TO A SWING ON A VE­RAN­DAH OVER­LOOK­ING THE OCEAN

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 of what he be­lieves is long-lost trea­sure. Keiser walks me over to a cave and points at some proto- graf­fiti carved into the rock, which he be­lieves is code etched by Cap­tain Gen­eral Don Juan Este­ban de Ubilla y Echev­er­ria, 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,” says Keiser. 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.

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 of his nanobrew­ery, which pro­duces a to­tal of 3000 to 4000 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, they wanted me to make some for them, too,” he says as he shows

me around the liv­ing-room–sized fa­cil­ity. “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 by 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°C, but 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 (but­ter­fish) that whip out in 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 warm­ing up while we’ve been snorkelling. I ease into the steam­ing wa­ter, and be­fore I know it, Aguirre comes over with a 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: soli­tude.

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