Robinson Crusoe Island – Juan Fernández, Chile - Atlas Obscura
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Juan Fernández, Chile

Robinson Crusoe Island

Named for the DeFoe novel inspired by a stranded sailor, this island is known for its rare plants and extreme beauty. 

Formerly known as Juan Fernandez after the Spanish captain who first landed there in the 16th century, Robinson Crusoe Island is the largest island in the Chilean Juan Fernandez archipelago, sitting about 400 miles west of South America in the South Pacific Ocean.

It was on this island that the sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned in 1704 and lived for four years and four months with only a musket, gunpowder, a knife, a Bible, and some carpenter’s tools before being rescued. Selkirk inspired Daniel Dafoe to write the classic novel Robinson Crusoe, for which the island was renamed by the Chilean government in 1966.

While tourists number in the hundreds every year, there is a small group - 500 or 600, it is estimated - that live year-round in the village of San Juan Bautista. With an airstrip on the island, the residents have been able to bring in numerous television sets and several vehicles, though they maintain, for the most part, a spare lifestyle that depends on the spiny lobster trade.

Tourists visit the island for its extreme beauty - coral reefs, white sand beaches, blue lagoon, palm trees, traditional thatched huts, tropical fruits, abundant seafood - and also to partake in a number of recreational activities that include hiking, horseback riding, birdwatching, snorkeling, sport fishing, and scuba diving. Scuba diving has been gaining popularity on the island as tourists are allowed to explore the wreck of the German light cruiser SMS Dresden, left in the area after a battle during World War I.

Home to one of the most highly endemic ecosystems in the world, Robinson Crusoe Island and the two other islands nearby have been considered of maximum scientific importance for more than three decades. Names a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1977, the island is home to the Magellanic Penguin, a unique fur seal, and a critically endangered red hummingbird famous for its needle-fine black beak.

Hit by a tsunami in February 2010 after a major earthquake hit Chile, much of the village on Robinson Crusoe Island was destroyed and five people killed.

Know Before You Go

During prime vacation season, small planes of up to ten passengers leave Los Cerrillos and Tobalaba airports in Santiago daily. Arriving in La Punta after two and a half hours, visitors will then need to take a boat ride to the island. Carry cash as there are no ATMs on the island.