San Juan Bautista
All of Isla’s Robinson Crusoe’s 635 inhabitants live in or near the village of San Juan Bautista. Nearly all of them depend directly or indirectly on fishing for the so-called Juan Fernández lobster, in reality a crayfish, and on the modest tourist trade. Both of these are seasonal activities, from October to April or May, though the tourist season peaks in January and February.
Though still one of Chile’s most isolated settlements, San Juan Bautista has modern infrastructure, with comfortable guesthouses, a state-of-the-art phone system, satellite TV, and even roads capable of handling an increasing fleet of motor vehicles—in a town where it’s impossible to work up enough speed to get out of second gear. For all of this, few islanders visit the “continent” except for education or medical emergencies; even then the Chilean air force pays literal “flying visits” to deal with routine medical and dental care on the island’s airstrip.
The outstanding contemporary travel essayist Thurston Clarke describes San Juan Bautista, its people, and surroundings in the opening chapter of his Searching for Crusoe: A Journey Among the Last Real Islands (Ballantine, 2001).
Two companies provide air-taxi service from Santiago; Lassa (Av. Larraín 7941, La Reina, tel. 02/2735209 or 02/2731458, fax 02/2734309, lassa [at] terra [dot] cl; Alcalde Larraín s/n, San Juan Bautista) and Aerolíneas ATA (Av. 11 de Septiembre 2155, Oficina 1107, Providencia, tel. 02/2343389, www.aerolineasata.cl; Larraín Alcalde s/n, San Juan Bautista, tel. 0322/751059, teresamaldonado [at] gmail [dot] com).
Flights are frequent in January and February, few outside the November to March period, and windy or rainy weather can abort takeoffs and landings at any time of year. Visitors should arrange their itineraries and finances to be able to stay a day or two extra in case of adverse weather. Round-trip fares are about US$550–600, but there are occasional small discounts and packages that include hotel stays and full board.
San Juan Bautista is about 1.5 hours by motor launch from the passenger pier at Bahía del Padre, an ocean-flooded caldera reached by a short but precipitous dirt road from the airfield, which occupies one of few relatively level sites on the entire island (presumably the rutted asphalt airfield is due for repaving). The boat transfer, usually included in the air ticket, is scenic, but the seas can be rough on visitors unaccustomed to relatively small ships; consider medication.
Sailing from Valparaíso to Juan Fernández requires patience and good timing. It is, for instance, easier to get information on the quarterly naval vessels than it once was, but sailings are not any more frequent and usually require reservations a month or more in advance.
For naval vessels, contact the Comando de Transporte at the Primera Zona Naval (Plaza Sotomayor 592, Valparaíso, tel. 0322/506354). The private shipping company Naviera del Sur (Blanco 1623, Oficina 602, Valparaíso, tel. 0322/594304, www.navieradelsur.cl) also makes the trip once a month.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition