Photo: Robinson Crusoe Island
The site of Robinson Crusoe’s confinement, a refuge for pirates and - in effect - a prison for criminals, the Juan Fernandez archipelago guards dozens of mysteries and probably more than one stash of treasure that a determined American is trying to locate.
Located some 670 kilometers (415 miles) off the coast of Chile, its nearly 900 residents are the heirs and guardians of a history loaded with legends.
It was Spaniard Juan Fernandez who was the first European to sight the Pacific archipelago on Nov. 22, 1574, after he set sail to find a quicker navigation route between Peru and Pendo, some 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Santiago.
Years after the islands were claimed, Spanish colonizers abandoned them and, because of their advantageous position in the South Pacific, they became the haunt for pirates and corsairs, especially the English and the French.
That is what Victorio Bertullo, historian and the head of the local library on Robinson Crusoe Island, the only inhabited one in the archipelago, which is also comprised of the nearby Santa Clara islet and Alexander Selkirk Island, some 180 kilometers (112 miles) away, told Efe.
The library is the only one that has been rebuilt after the 2010 tsunami devastated the island, including most of the town of San Juan Bautista and, worst of all, killed 16 people, including a Spanish tourist.
The wave of water that rolled over the island swept away numerous examples in various languages of “Robinson Crusoe,” the novel by Daniel Defoe published in 1719 that was inspired by the true adventures of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who found himself marooned on the isolated speck of land.
Selkirk “was marooned as punishment for not obeying the orders of Capt. Stradling, of the vessel Cinque Ports, in 1704, and spent four years and four months alone on the island until he was rescued in February 1709 by Capt. Woodes Rogers, of the English ship Duke,” Bertullo said.
At first, the historian said, the Scottish seaman lived in a part of the island where currently the town of San Juan Bautista stands, on the shore of Cumberland Bay, and he climbed the steep side of what is known today as “Selkirk’s Lookout” to search the surrounding ocean for ships that might rescue him.
Now, that climb can be made on muleback, prodded along the way by the commands of Guido Balbontin.
“Alexander Selkirk came here to see any ship that might rescue him,” the islander told Efe standing beside a plaque written in English saying that the lookout point is the spot where the seaman put his observational talents to use.
It is, in fact, the only point on the island where one can see both slopes of the mountains that divide it. On the left, are the bay and San Juan Bautista and on the right are crags, cliffs and slopes covered in pristine green foliage.
Just two kilometers (1 1/4 miles) from the lookout is the tiny islet of Santa Clara. And as the visitor ponders the view that Selkirk also contemplated, light mist moves in from the horizon and covers the paradise with a white blanket.
Some 15 minutes by boat from Cumberland Bay is Puerto Ingles, and on that small rocky cove is the so-called Cave of Robinson Crusoe, where Selkirk made his home during part of his time on the island.
“The story says that that was his first refuge, but because he was killing off the goats there, and so that Spanish ships would not find him, he had to move to another area called Buenas Aguas,” Rudy Aravena, the former president of the island’s Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, told Efe.
“Archaeologists from National Geographic found a compass and data turned up showing that he had his second house there,” Aravena said.
But Puerto Ingles is also the epicenter of the determined search being mounted by Bernard Keiser, a Dutch-born nationalized American who since 1995 has invested thousands of dollars in trying to find stashes of hidden treasure on the island.
One of those could have been buried in 1714 by Spaniard Juan Esteban Ubilla y Echevarria and is said to consist of 800 barrels of gold valued at $10 billion, 100 chests of silver, precious stones and a rose fashioned of gold and emeralds.
“Two years ago he was here, apparently with the intention of renewing his permit,” park ranger Alfonso Andaur said.
“I think he should be coming in October to make new explorations to see if it’s really where he thinks,” Mayor Leopoldo Gonzalez said, adding that because it was an obligatory way station for pirates and corsairs, the island could have “more than one treasure.”