FAR AWAY FROM IT ALL
The real treasure on Chile’s remote Robinson Crusoe Island is the quiet and the solitude
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.