Mystery and Adventure on the High Seas: Run aground on Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island

Robinson Crusoe Island is named for a famous fictional castaway, but the real inspiration for the character was a privateer – a pirate sanctioned and sponsored by an enemy of the Spanish crown.

Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish privateer who believed his ship to be in dangerous sailing condition and demanded to be abandoned on the island. His captain consented, and Selkirk spent four lonely years marooned on Robinson Crusoe Island, before being rescued in 1708, inspiring Daniel Defoe to later pen the classic tome Robinson Crusoe.

Selkirk wasn’t the only pirate to visit Robinson Crusoe Island, though. In the days when pirates roamed and plundered the Pacific coasts of Chile, Robinson Crusoe Island and other islands in the Juan Fernández Archipelago were a favorite respite from the everyday toils of piracy. Famous pirates like Bartolomé Sharp and John Eaton anchored there.

Adding to the literary lore of this mystical pirate island, Robinson Crusoe Island also likely inspired illustrious English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write his celebrated lyric poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with themes including the loneliness and isolation of the protagonist, the powerful forces of nature and strength of the sea, and the superstitious beliefs of 18th-century sailors.

In the text of the poem, an old mariner recounts his ghostly adventures at sea, where he dooms his crew by shooting an albatross. Similarly, Captain George Shelvocke’s ship the Speedwell wrecked near the coast of Isla Robinson Crusoe for five months in 1720, after the second mate shot and killed an albatross as the ship rounded Cape Horn. The island provided the crew with resources to survive and repair their ship.

Discover the treasures of the Juan Fernández Archipelago

The Juan Fernández Archipelago was discovered by Spanish sailors in 1574, while searching for a faster route between Peru and Valparaiso, Chile. The group of islands is located approximately 670 km from mainland Chile.

Robinson Crusoe Island is the Archipelago’s key destination, where a small village, breathtaking coastal cliffs and crashing azure waves, and only several hundred tourists a year create the distinct sensation of visiting a deserted island.

Travel to the island between October and April, by ferry from Valparaiso or small plane from Santiago. Once here, you will be warmly welcomed by the villagers of San Juan Bautista.

You may choose to scuba dive to the ocean floor to explore the nearby shipwreck, the SMS Dresden, which met its fate in the waters of the archipelago in 1915. Or hike or boat to the rocky cave that sheltered Selkirk, 16 km from the village at Puerto Inglés.

Consider visiting Robinson Crusoe Island during the nearly-total solar eclipse that will take place on November 13, 2012, to see if there is any truth to a theory presented in the History Channel documentary Apocalypse Island, which alleges that Mayas visited and constructed sculptures here, indicating that it is a key locale in events related to the 2012 termination of the Mayan calendar.

And when you are arriving to this intriguing treasure of an island, don’t forget to shout “Land ho!” as you spot the legendary cliffs of Robinson Crusoe Island in the distance.

For more information about visiting Robinson Crusoe Island and the Juan Fernández Archipelago, see Sernatur´s Chile.Travel guides here and here.

By Gretchen Stahlman, written for Chile.Travel

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