Truth and fiction come together in the exploration of one tiny ­island whose storied past inspired one of the world's first real novels. Illustrations by Ted Burn.



Daniel Defoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719. Since then, more than 700 versions and translations of the book have described the adventures of a shipwrecked English sailor, marooned on an island along with his Man Friday. After the Bible, Crusoe is said to be the world's most widely read book.

The primary source for Defoe's adventure is the true-life story of Scottish sailor/pirate Alexander Selkirk, who after becoming stranded, lived in complete isolation on a small volcanic island off the coast of what is now Chile. Clothing himself in goatskins and surviving off the island's abundant seafood, wild game, and vegetables, he was finally rescued four years later and was described as looking like "a hairy ape."

I've come here to Robinson Crusoe Island, about 400 miles from civilization, to see if anything still remains of this peculiar literary heritage.

  • Image about Alexander Selkirk
Just getting to the island is a small adventure in itself. It isn't what one would consider­ easy, by any stretch. You have to take a small plane from Santiago, fly three hours over open ocean, eventually land on a postage-stamp-size runway, walk two kilometers along a gravel road to a pier, and then get on a fishing boat for another two-hour trip around to the opposite side of the island before you even arrive at the main village. During the rainy season, there are few visitors; planes can't navigate the weather.

Robinson Crusoe Island is actually part of the Juan Fernández archipelago, a group of three tiny islands: Isla Más a Tierra, Isla Santa Clara, and Isla Más Afuera. In 1968, the Chilean government renamed all three to promote tourism. Maps and brochures now list them as Robinson Crusoe, Santa Clara, and Alejandro Selkirk islands, but locals still refer to them by their Spanish names. Only Robinson Crusoe is inhabited, with a population of about 600 residents, 10 or so cars, and a handful of dogs and chickens.

Selkirk actually only lived on Robinson Crusoe (rather than on his namesake island, Alejandro Selkirk, as one would think). But this is only one of many confounding historical details. Although Defoe based his book on Selkirk's life, which was written about in British publications after his rescue, Crusoe is actually set in the Caribbean, not the South Pacific. Defoe also invented the character of Friday; Selkirk was alone. And in the book, Crusoe and Friday were stranded for 28 years. Selkirk was picked up by a ship after just four years on the island. Nevertheless, Chile has renamed the island Robinson Crusoe, a central street is called Daniel Defoe (also the name of a hosteria and a bar), and the local library displays a large collection of Crusoe editions in various languages.

Our wooden boat slowly chugs its way along the western shore of the island, edging past sheer rock cliffs. I wonder if Selkirk ran up and down these peaks, his bare feet leathery and tough, looking for any sign of a ship on the horizon. My companions don't speak much English, and I don't know much Spanish, yet we still manage to communicate to a degree. They open up a compartment and show me the day's haul of scuttling langostas (lobsters) and wriggling eels. The island is famous for its langosta, a spiny lobster that once grew up to three feet long in these waters. Like most of us, Selkirk probably thought a langosta looked creepy and disgusting. Until he tasted one, anyway.

We eventually pull into the harbor of San Juan Bautiste, the island's only settlement. Locals refer to it as Cumberland Bay. I step onto the pier and head off to my hosteria, wheeling a bag along the bumpy dirt road. A huge wooden statue of Alexander Selkirk stands in the village plaza. He looks tired.

I meet up with Pedro Niada Marín, a scuba instructor and ecotravel guide who explains a few more details about the island. There are no hospitals. There are no banks or credit cards. There is telephone service and, as luck would have it, limited Internet access, if you sign up in advance at the library (satellite Internet service was donated to the island by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation).

The island has a school, museum, ­cemetery, soccer field, tourism office, a few markets and bars, and two fuel-powered generators that provide electricity. The harbor is dotted with freshly painted green and white boats. Most people here make their living by fishing, except for the mayor, who is also the police chief. Supplies are brought in by ship from the mainland.

Beyond the Selkirk story, the Juan Fernández archipelago is ripe with history. Spanish sailor Juan Fernández discovered the group of islands by accident in 1574 while sailing between Peru and Valparaíso, a Chilean coastal town, and christened the islands with their original names. Some years later, the main island served as a legendary hideout for pirates - although to the disappointment of many, no treasure has ever been found.

Then during World War I, the German cruiser SMS Dresden was surrounded by British ships at Cumberland Bay after the Battle of the Falkland Islands. With no engines operational, and still flying the ensign flag, the commander ordered it scuttled. The wreck now sits in 200 feet of water at the harbor bottom. Divers discovered the ship's bell in February.