Happily Marooned in the South Pacific

Finding a Little Piece of Paradise in Crusoe's Footsteps
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To reach the Juan Fernandez Islands with your nerves intact, it helps to be right with God—and your pilot.

I learned this at a small private airport in Santiago, Chile, where a twin-engine Cessna was about to take off to the remote outpost 250 miles off the South American coast. The only other passenger was a 15-year-old island girl, who took me by the arm, nodded toward our blond Italian-Chilean pilot and said: "Don't worry about anything. I have absolute faith in Mario."

It wasn't long before I would join the faithful. Barely had we left Santiago when the cabin was filled by a thunderous gasp of air: The cabin door had popped ajar, flooding the plane with freezing cold air. "It won’t open up completely," Mario yelled back over the din. As I clutched the armrest, my fingers going numb, I thought to myself: Absolute faith. Yes, all will be well.

The Most Famous Island on Earth
Mario was right—we didn't get sucked to our deaths—yet my pulse rate would be tested again when the tiny Juan Fernandez Islands finally appeared some three hours later. Three serrated specks of earth poked from the sea like the remains of a rusted wreck. They looked as tall as they were wide, with the only clouds in the whole blue Pacific settling menacingly above them. "Engineers said it was impossible to build a landing strip here," Mario screamed out as the air turbulence hit. "But the islanders, they did it!" We plunged toward a strip of red dirt carved into a cliffside; it was built in an arc, like a gigantic ski jump. "Great for taking off. Not as good for coming down. We might have to try a couple of times."

But absolute faith protected absolutely. It was a flawless landing, and perhaps the ideal way to arrive on what may actually be the most famous island on Earth: the Isla Grande of the Juan Fernandez archipelago. Few people might be able to locate it on a map—it lies halfway between Easter Island and the South American coast—but this corner of the South Pacific holds a permanent place in our imaginations. It was here that a rather obnoxious Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, was marooned for more than four years at the beginning of the 18th century—an experience that his contemporary Daniel Defoe turned into The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner.

Eventually rescued from his exile, Selkirk became a celebrity on his return to London. Defoe took up the basic elements of the story, tidying up Selkirk's character to create the beloved figure of Crusoe, goatskins and all. In the process, the largest Juan Fernandez island became our popular conception of a "desert isle": lush and green, with plenty of food, water, and game, completely unlike the barren rocks where most shipwrecked sailors actually washed up.

Published: 13 Jun 2001 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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