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San Juan Bautista

Tel Code: 32, Population: 598, Altitude: 5-30m

The tiny, dusty town of San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist) and its 598 inhabitants have the recognition of being the only populated area on the historic Robinson Crusoe Island. San Juan Bautista and the airport also comprise the five percent of land not contained in San Juan Fernandez National Park. The people of this fishing village survive on the spiny lobster trade (also called Juan Fernández lobster or langosta). These lobsters; however, are really no more than expensive crayfish (selling at $20 a pop!).While the economy is based on fishing, an increasing amount is being supported by the budding tourism sector.

San Juan Bautista was founded in 1750 when the Spanish sent 200 colonists to the island as a deterrent to both pirates and the British who had also sent military personal to check out the area. Twenty years later, Fuerte Santa Barbara was constructed by Spanish engineer Jose Antonio Birt—complete with cannons and tall stone walls, it now stands as a national monument. Damaged by earthquakes in 1822 and 1835, the fortress was finally reconstructed in 1974. The fort is accessible from Mirador de Selkirk via the plaza along Subida El Castillo. Continue further south of Fuerte Santa Barbara and you will find a group of seven caves known as Cueva de los Patriotas, where 42 Chileans were exiled after being defeated in battle.

Another historical site is San Juan's Cemetery, where original Spanish colonists as well as survivors of the doomed German cruiser Dresden were laid to rest. (Located near the lighthouse, in the north part of Bahia Cumberland). As a nod to the marooned Alexander Shelkirk (who later become the model for Robinson Cursoe in Daniel Defoe's famous novel) there are plaques seated at the top of the Mirador de Selkirk, where every day for four years Shelkirk would climb the 550 meter ascent and look for ships on the horizon.

Although the days of Alexander Shelkirk are long gone, the island is still isolated from modernity, the infrastructure of San Juan Bautista is surprisingly up-to-date. The town has a satellite internet connection, several vehicles and cable TV. There is a Correo de Chile located on the south-side of the plaza, but money exchanges and ATMs are difficult to come by. Before entering the island remember to get small bills as many vendors are not able to break large ones. (Many hotel owners will also take U.S. Dollars). Conaf has a kiosk near the plaza with brochures, maps and information about the local village and surrounding national park. While tourists to San Juan Bautista are limited to a few hundred a year, there is a variety of food and housing accommodations available.

As the hostels and hotels can be a bit pricey, many opt to camp while staying in San Juan. For a cheap no-extras included night, try Camping Los Cañones, which has a decent location and cold showers (Tel: 032 751 050). Hostal Villa Green is a solid option, offering breakfast along with half and full board (Tel: 032 751 044). A bit more expensive is the Hosteria Aldea Daniel Defoe also offering half and full board (Tel: 032 751 075). Most of the hostels and hotels in town also serve food. Not surprisingly, the spiny lobster and other seafood dishes are the local speciality. (Beware as many places require a day's notice when ordering the lobster). Near the plaza try The Nocturno for fish empanadas and other seafood dishes (Tel: 032 751 113). For something lighter but still close by, El Remo serves sandwhiches, salads and is open late (Tel: 032 751 030). When dining out with more than two people, its always helpful to call ahead and warn these small restaurants.

By Michelle Lillie
I am currently living on my fourth continent. I think that backpacks are one of the greatest inventions of all times. I adhere to the idea that if...
06 Jul 2009

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