Robinson Crusoe island
6-9 December 2016
Where is Robinson Crusoe island? How to get there? What to see? Robinson Crusoe Island is located in the South Pacific, about 600 kilometers from the coasts of central Chile and can be reached with a small plane in just 2 hours from Santiago. Robinson Crusoe island is an extraordinary place to study birds and endemism in botany, as it is home to many species that do not exist (at least in nature) in other parts of the world, furthermore, the island has beautiful landscapes and an interesting history.
How to get to Robinson Crusoe island? Robinson Crusoe Island is located in the South Pacific Ocean, about 600 kilometers from the coasts of central Chile and a couple of hours of flight from Santiago in a small prop plane. The island is part of the Juan Fernandez archipelago, which in addition to Robinson Crusoe, includes also the very remote islands of Alejandro Selkirk and Santa Clara, for a total area of just 100 square kilometers.
Robinson Crusoe island has a small airport where the landing is possible only at daytime and in suitable weather conditions, with prop planes usually operating from Santiago a few times per week.
Flights between Santiago and Robinson Crusoe Island are offered by various airlines that provide air taxi services and are usually available one or two times per week throughout the year. Such schedule lets to enjoy tours to Robinson Crusoe with 3, 4 or 7 nights on the island (and, of course, even longer is you wish).
The airplane shown here is a Super King Air B200 belonging to Aerolineas ATA and its cabin configuration changes depending on number of booked passengers and goods to be sent to the island or to the mainland (usually it takes less than 10 passengers). Booking the flight alone it's not an easy task, since you will not find tickets available on-line or from your overseas travel agent: it may be booked contacting the airline directly or taking a fully inclusive tour to Robinson Crusoe from an operator, such as Far South Expeditions.
The landing on Robinson Crusoe island is possible only during the day and in VFR (Visual Flight Rules), reason for which the flight is only possible in suitable weather conditions. It is therefore highly recommended to plan a couple of free days in Santiago after the supposed date of return from Robinson Crusoe (strictly avoiding to book any kind of non-refundable services), in order to have sufficient buffer if the flight is canceled and rescheduled for the following days.
The airport on Robinson Crusoe is built on a side of the island that does not have road connections to the main town, which is why the airline is responsible also for bringing the passengers from the terminal to a small port, from where a boat will reach the village of San Juan Bautista in less than one hour.
The main and only town of Robinson Crusoe island is the small village of San Juan Bautista, which has a population of about 620 inhabitants. The homes along the shore line have been destroyed by a tsunami that was generated as a result of a violent earthquake in the Bio Bio region of central Chile, in the 2010, and then have been rebuilt on the sides of an hill where future events cannot produce damages.
The island of Robinson Crusoe is the place where the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was abandoned, event that inspired the writer Daniel Defoe for the famous Robinson Crusoe novel.
Some signs indicate the escape route in case of tsunami alarm, while the ruins of the old lighthouse (second picture) recall the damage produced by the tremendous event of 2010.
The Robinson Crusoe Island economy is based essentially on fishing, particularly on lobster
(more than 90% of the lobsters sold among the various fish markets in Chile, are captured in Robinson Crusoe island). In the first picture, there are some lobster traps abandoned along the port of San Juan Bautista. In the second picture, a load of live lobsters is ready to be delivered by plane to Santiago.
In the first picture, small fishermen's boats moored in the bay in front of the village of San Juan Bautista. In the second picture, freshly caught fish and filleted fish.
The island of Robinson Crusoe had some rules as strategic base for pirates in the past century, but also for various actions during the First World War. In the first picture, ancient cannons at the fortress of Santa Barbara. In the second photo, a bullet fired by cannon, shot by the British towards the German cruiser Dresden, which remained stuck in the rock of a cliff along the shore line (the German cruiser was, anyway, destroyed).
The island of Robinson Crusoe is an exceptional place to study endemisms in botany
because, as explained by a sign at the beginning of a trail, the site hosts endangered native species that (at least in nature) cannot be found in any other place of the world. Collecting the flora is therefore strictly prohibited.
Robinson Crusoe island has several kilometers of trails that give the opportunity to hike in the native forest, among dozens of very rare endemic plants
that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It seems incredible that in such small and secluded place (the surface of the island is only 47.9 square kilometers, while that of the entire Juan Fernandez archipelago is only 99.6 square kilometers) can exist species that have evolved and specialized to live only here, yet the botanical literature confirms that these species do not exist in other parts of the planet (unless imported by man).
The native forest on Robinson Crusoe island
occupies mainly the sides of the mountains at higher altitudes. Unfortunately the competition that was generated with the species introduced by man (in particular, the wild blackberry has put a very high pressure on the local ecosystem) has greatly reduced the presence of endemic species in the immediate vicinity of the settlement and threatened the native flora also on the more remote spots of the island.
The Gunnera peltata
is an endemic plant of Robinson Crusoe
, which has giant leaves with a maximum diameter of about 140 cm and a very rough water repellent surface (the first settlers used them as an umbrella). The leaves of the Gunnera peltata
originate from the apex of a rhizome that can exceed the height of 3 meters, with a diameter of 30 centimeters, and are connected to the same by a long and sturdy petiole. The flowers of Gunnera peltata
are grouped in enormous inflorescences forming clusters over a meter long, with a diameter of 20 centimeters.
More photos of Gunnera peltata
showing the birth of a new leaf from the rhizome (first photo) and the whole plant (second photo). The Gunnera peltata
is classified as Vulnerable (VU) as the specie is declining due to the competition with other species introduced by man on the island of Robinson Crusoe.
The inflorescence of Gunnera peltata
The Rhaphithamnus venustus
is an endemic tree of the entire Juan Fernandez archipelago, except Santa Clara island, and reaches heights of 8-10 meters. It blooms abundantly between spring and summer, when it is frequently visited by Robinson Crusoe's hummingbirds. This species is classified as Vulnerable (VU) as sensitive to fungal diseases introduced by man and in competition with wild berries.
On the island of Robinson Crusoe it is possible to see numerous specimens of arboreal ferns with giant leaves.
The Erigeron fernandezianus
belongs to Asteraceae
family and consists of a thick shrub up to a meter high, which often gets mixed up among other herbaceous plants and small trees (first picture). The flowers (second picture) are very small and are produced between November and February, followed by a capsule containing the seeds. The Erigeron fernandezianus
is an endemic plant of the entire Juan Fernandez archipelago, except Santa Clara island, and is relatively common on Robinson Crusoe. The specie is however classified as Vulnerable (VU) because of its distribution area limited to just a few square kilometers (it can't be found, at least in nature, in other places of the world), threatened by human activity and potential natural disasters.
The Rumohra berteroana
is a giant fern endemic to the Juan Fernandez islands, except the island of Santa Clara, and relatively common on Robinson Crusoe, where it forms graceful expanses in the undergrowth. The Rumohra berteroana
is classified as Vulnerable (VU) as it suffers from competition with wild berries imported by man.
The Blenchum cycadifolium
looks like a Cycas revoluta
in terms of shape, but it is actually an arboreal fern endemic to the Juan Fernandez islands, except Santa Clara island. It can be found on Robinson Crusoe at medium and high altitudes. The Blenchum cycadifolium
consists of an erect stem that never exceeds 2 meters in height, at the top of which there is a rosette composed of 5-50 leaves. The plant is classified as Vulnerable (VU).
The Juania australis
is a beautiful palm up to 8-10 meters high, endemic to Robinson Crusoe island, where it is now confined only to the highest and inaccessible peaks. This palm cannot be found in other islands of the Juan Fernandez archipelago or in other places in the world, and it has been brought almost to extinction because of its precious wood, once widely used by local craftsmen. The plant is classified as Endangered (EN) because in nature only very few palms survived.
The Robinsonia gayana
belongs to the endemic plants of Robinson Crusoe island
and consists of a shrub a little more than a meter high and strongly branched, which grows mainly along ridges and slopes at medium and high altitudes. The flowers consist of apical inflorescences of yellow color, which subsequently give rise to capsules containing the seeds, which ripen in mid-summer. The plant is classified as Endangered (EN) for its distribution area in nature limited to a few square kilometers and for the low number of specimens currently alive.
Photo of a young Gunnera braccata
, which is distinguished from Gunnera peltata
as the leaves are smooth. In the image you can see the large rhizome from which the leaves originate.
These photos show the serious damage produced by man with the introduction of alien species
that have never existed on Robinson Crusoe. In the first photo, the wild berries are particularly intrusive and tend to suffocate the endemic plants, which are not prepared to compete with species with such rapid growth. Even the blue carpet in the second photo, although apparently beautiful, shows the enormous damage that the species introduced by man are producing on the whole local ecosystem of Robinson Crusoe island. Instead, the forest in the third photo would never have existed, as it hosts mainly eucalyptus and non-native pines of Robinson Crusoe.
Some trails on Robinson Crusoe island have been equipped with a wooden walkway, to facilitate access to both visitors and CONAF park guards, who are taking care to clean the native forest from alien species, to safeguard the vulnerable endemic flora.
The spectacular landscape of Robinson Crusoe island, among high cliffs and volcanic mountains.
The local CONAF office is working hard to protect the species endemic to Juan Fernandez islands and Robinson Crusoe, with specialized on-site personnel. In a greenhouse near San Juan Bautista, a large part of endemic species are reproduced in order to reintroduce them in the forest.
The Nicotiana cordifolia
, a plant in danger of extinction, reproduced in the CONAF's greenhouses in San Juan Bautista, on the island of Robinson Crusoe.
The Chenopodium nesodendron
is formally extinct in nature and is currently being reproduced in the CONAF's greenhouses.
This hummingbird is endemic to the Juan Fernandez archipelago and its scientific name is Sephanoides fernandensis
. The male (first picture) is 12 centimeters long, weighs 11 grams and has a beautiful red color, while the female (second picture) is slightly smaller and with a plumage tending to gray-blue. It is thought that this hummingbird arrived in Robinson Crusoe from the American continent a long time ago, then, once isolated from the rest of the world, it continued to evolve, developing features that other hummingbirds do not have. The Robinson Crusoe hummingbird
is classified as in Critical Danger (CR) due to the reduced population and for the distribution area limited to a few square kilometers.
The juvenile form of Robinson Crusoe hummingbird
, on a branch of Rhaphithamnus venustus
Some species formally extinct in the wild, can be found in private gardens throughout San Juan Bautista. They are provided by CONAF in order to protect these plants from the permanent extinction. In these photos, a Dendroseris litoralis
This is instead a Dendroseris pruinata
, a plant now present only in a few inaccessible places on the island of Robinson Crusoe.
Where to stay on Robinson Crusoe island?
The Refugio Nautico
is a small eco-friendly lodge providing accommodation from a few minutes stroll from San Juan Bautista town center. The restaurant provide excellent fish and other specialties, very well cooked.
Alejandro Selkirk island
is part of the Juan Fernandez archipelago and is located about 180 kilometers from Robinson Crusoe. It's hardly accessible, but I'm lucky enough to be able to get a picture from a LATAM 787 Dreamliner in service from Santiago to Easter Island.