After a very rough crossing of more than 400 miles we arrived in Cumberland Bay by Robinson Crusoe Island at dinnertime on January 23. We were scheduled to arrive on the 24th but the Captain took it at high speed to minimize the bad weather and rough waters, and once we reached the bay everything turned pretty calm. The craggy peaks and green valleys of the island were quite beautiful as the sun went down.
This island is one of three in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, named for . . . you guessed it, Juan Fernandez, who first discovered it in 1574. The islands were uninhabited and there is no evidence that humans had ever been there before. He named this island “Mas a Tierra,” which means closer to land, and the second largest island Mas Afuera (Farther out). Pirates and buccaneers used it as a refuge & watering spot off and on for many years, then the Spanish took control in the mid-18th century & used it as a penal colony. The first permanent settlement, San Juan Bautista, wasn’t established until the second half of the 19th century.
If you have read the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe you know that it is actually set far from here on a fictional island in the Caribbean. While there is no direct evidence for this, many think that the ordeal of a buccaneer named Alexander Selkirk was the primary inspiration for Defoe’s novel. Apparently something of a pain in the rear, Selkirk kept complaining about the condition of his ship. So the captain put him ashore on this island alone with very few supplies. He lived here for four years and four months before being rescued by a British ship in 1709. He ate fish and goats, which had been introduced to the island by Juan Fernandez, and reputedly climbed the mountain every day to scan for ships. Bad as this was, Selkirk was lucky for he was right about the ship he was on: it sank a month after he was marooned taking the lives of many of the crew.
After his rescue Selkirk returned to buccaneering, dying of fever in the tropics 14 years later. A book about his experience was published in 1712, just a few years before Robinson Crusoe. So in 1966, in a blatant attempt to exploit this history for tourist dollars, the government of Chile changed the name of Mas a Tierra to Robinson Crusoe Island and the name of Mas Afuera to Alexander Selkirk Island. There you have it: Robinson Crusoe never set even a fictional foot on Robinson Crusoe Island and Alexander Selkirk never set foot on Alexander Selkirk Island.
But we did set foot on Robinson Crusoe Island. After breakfast on January 24 we boarded a tender that took us to the pier at San Juan Bautista. Almost everyone in the archipelago lives in this town, some 800 people.
Our first stop was in the town square right next to the pier, probably called the Plaza de Armas. Here are a few small shops and a bust of our old friend Arturo Prat, the hero of the Battle of Iquique.
These islands are more than 400 miles from the nearest mainland, so it isn’t surprising that it is home to many endemic plants and animals that can be found nowhere else. Among the animals are the Juan Fernandez fur seal, hunted almost to extinction in the 18th century but now making a successful comeback, and the Juan Fernandez Firecrown, a tiny hummingbird. We didn’t see either of these during our visit, but the Firecrown fertilizes and feeds on the nectar of the Cabbage Tree, an endemic tree related to the sunflower that is only found on this island (there are unrelated plants elsewhere with the same name). Both the hummingbird (of which only about 200 are left) and the tree are endangered species; we did see some cabbage trees in the town square, blooming with large yellow/orange flowers. Alexander Selkirk ate these when he couldn’t find goats. Some 70% of the approximately 200 native (ie. not introduced by man) plant species on the island are endemic, found nowhere else. As you will see, we saw quite a lot of flowering plants during our visit, but we have no idea which ones are endemic, other than the cabbage tree.
In 2010 the town of San Juan Bautista was mostly destroyed by a tsunami estimated between 10 and 30 feet. About 16 people were killed (10 known dead and 6 missing) and all the buildings were flattened. It would have been much worse, but a 12 year old girl noticed the water receding from the bay and knew that was a sign of an impending tsunami. She rang the emergency gong in the town square in time to save the lives of most of the inhabitants. On our visit the town looked like it was mostly rebuilt, but tsunami evacuation routes are plainly marked and they are pretty steeply uphill so it wouldn’t take long to reach safety with a little advance warning.
We walked down to the end of the town and visited the cemetery. It is in a beautiful spot, with cliffs on one side and the seashore on another. It is not crowded, we understand, because a number of graves were washed away by the tsunami. Here there is a memorial for the 16 people lost in the tsunami.
Walking a short way down past the cliffs beyond the cemetery we came to the small lighthouse and a wooden platform built up against the cliff. In 1914 a German navy squadron under Admiral von Spee (of whom we will hear more in a later episode) gathered here before defeating the British at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile. They continued on to the Falklands where British cruisers sank most of them. The Dresden, the only German cruiser to survive that battle, returned here in the beginning of 1915 and was cornered in the bay by the British. Rather than allowing the British to seize their ship the Germans scuttled it, and it still sits deep under the water about 700 yards from this wooden structure. A number of the Dresden’s sailors (either killed in battle or settled here after the battle and died later, depending on the source) are buried in the cemetery with a stone memorial maintained by the Chilean navy. We have read that you can still see unexploded shells embedded in these cliffs, but we did not (we must have unknowingly walked right past them).
Having pretty much exhausted the town, we walked back to the central square & began walking up one of the mountain paths that might take us to the old fort. Instead, we ended up at a nice scenic overlook complete with park bench. On the way there we passed quite a few interesting flowers.
Still determined to find the fort, we walked back down the path and took the other fork. A fellow came out on his porch a good ways away and showed us two spiny lobsters he had caught. He was far away and the picture isn’t very clear, but it was a cool moment and it’s the only one we have. These lobsters are among the mainstays of the island, not only consumed locally but exported to mainland Chile. We saw a few passengers on the porch of a small guesthouse on one of the mountain paths enjoying one.
Fort Santa Barbara was built by the Spanish in 1749 to protect the island from pirates and privateers. We have read that it was heavily restored in 1974, so we don’t really know what it looked like originally. Today it is basically a large grassy platform supported by stone retaining walls containing several old cannon, which may be the original ones. It has a very nice view of the bay (which it would need to fend off pirates) and is surrounded by a lot of flowers, some of which we have seen before.
After leaving the fort we tried to climb up to Mirador Selkirk, the spot where Alexander Selkirk reputedly watched for ships every day. It was pretty steep, though, and got much steeper. Not only that but there was very loose dirt & gravel, so every time we took a step up we would slide right back down. So we gave up on that (good thing since it would have been a much longer climb than we anticipated) and hunted out the Cuevas de los Patriotas (caves of the patriots). We could see them above the town, but getting there involved climbing some hazardous wood and dirt steps that had been badly eroded, presumably by rain. The story of these caves is unusually confusing because different sources give different accounts. They were certainly inhabited by some soldiers in 1814. Some say these were Spanish patriots who fled the mainland after Chile declared its independence. Other sources say these were Chilean patriots removed to the island by the Spanish. Take your pick. Whoever they were, they soon tired of living in caves but we don’t know whether they settled there or found another way out.
And so we ended our visit to beautiful and isolated Robinson Crusoe Island and tendered back to the ship to await the sail away. If you are a nature lover (who isn’t ?) & your legs are up to a challenging climb, this would be a lovely place to spend a few days, although it is not an easy place to get to if you don’t happen to be on a cruise ship that is going this way. As we sailed away, the island (of course) got smaller & smaller and we began the long journey back to the Chilean mainland.
We docked in San Antonio, Chile early on January 22. Until recently most cruise ships in this area docked in Valparaiso, an important old port city about an hour and a half away. But labor troubles, or a new port owner who thinks he can make more from container ships, or something else (we have heard several different stories) has resulted in most cruise ships now docking in San Antonio instead. That’s a shame because Valparaiso is a very interesting city with a long and colorful history, while San Antonio has little to offer beyond a working port.
So we spent no time in San Antonio, instead joining a private excursion to Valparaiso. In 2012 we docked in Valparaiso and witnessed sunrise over its beautiful port, but spent the day instead on a trip to Santiago. You can see all that here:
Founded in 1536 by an associate of Diego de Almagro, Francisco Pizarro’s partner/rival, Valparaiso remained a small village until the early 19th century. In 1810 the first pier in Chile was built there and after Chilean independence in 1818 it became the primary stop for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific, most of which had to sail through the Strait of Magellan. Its importance grew as miners flocked to California from the Atlantic coast in the 1850’s and it developed into a cosmopolitan city containing communities of German, English and Italian immigrants. This lucrative sea trade mostly dried up when the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After the long drive from San Antonio our van dropped us up near the top of one of the hills surrounding Valparaiso’s large harbor in what (if memory serves) was once the German community. There were splendid views of the bay.
As you can see from the pictures above, Valparaiso is a very colorful city with buildings painted a variety of bright colors. It is also known for its amazing graffiti. There is more graffiti here than anywhere we have been. It is not the stuff of midnight taggers, but publicly approved works of art. Part of what pulled Valparaiso out of its long decline after the opening of the canal was its emergence as a center for the arts and artists, with many having studios in this city. Our guide told us that one way for young artists to become known & successful is by painting public walls and staircases. They seek permission from the landowner, many of whom are glad to have them because of public approval of these works. We saw many of these during our visit, most of which were quite interesting and well done.
As we continued walking down the hill we came upon a children’s library . . . pure serendipity. And, of course, a lot more wall art.
We came to the end of a street that continued down with wide stairs. It provided a nice view of the bay. But our guide borrowed one of our cameras and ran down to a lower level and took a picture of the group standing on the top. The steps looked entirely different from below, of course (although it’s a lie; we really are aging hippies).
On our way down we passed two impressive old mansions built in 1916, the tail end of Valparaiso’s golden age. First was an impressive yellow mansion and then the Art Nouveau style Palacio Baburizza, which became an art museum 1971. After passing the Palacio we came to a viewing point over the harbor.
We had a nice walk down one of the hills, but walking up would be an entirely different matter! To alleviate this the city has a number of “ascensores,” or funiculars, that will take you up or down the hills on rails (for a small fee). They were built between 1883 and 1916. At one time there were 30 of them but today 16 remain and only 7 are in operation (the others are being restored). We rode down a funicular (not sure which one) to Plaza Sotomayor.
We walked through the Plaza Sotomayor, the central square of the city built entirely on reclaimed land. It is a large and impressive plaza, with the headquarters of the Chilean navy spanning one side & a monument to the heroes of Iquique in the center. The remains of Arturo Prat and some of his men are in a crypt below the monument. The navy headquarters used to be the legislative building or the presidential palace (we can’t remember which), but now the navy refuses to give it up for any other use.
Valparaiso (and really all of Chile) relies on volunteer fire departments to protect the city from fires. The city’s tradition of cohesive ethnic communities led to fire brigades being organized by each community, beginning in the early 1850’s. Today there are still American, British, French and Italian fire brigades, among others. To join a brigade you have to provide proof of your ethnic descent. The overall headquarters of the fire departments is in Plaza Sotomayor, and the building houses two brigades on its first floor; if memory serves, the garage on the left is the English and the one on the right American. Plaza Sotomayor has a lot of typical vendors’ kiosks in its central area, and we visited a modern building that has what appears to be the most expensive restroom in the world (actually 300 Chilean pesos amounts to a little less than 50 cents American).
Refreshed after the pit stop, we walked over to the lower station of another funicular, the Ascensor Artillería. We rode it up to a plaza overlooking the harbor.
We walked from there to where our van was waiting. Nearby was an awning with a Coke ad that looked like it was from the 1950’s or earlier; we had seen a number of these old fashioned Coke ads in Peru & Chile. Then we drove up one of the hills through what was the English district. We had to reverse course several times because of traffic jams (we were glad we weren’t driving), but we passed several old buildings representative of this neighborhood and, inevitably, some more wall art.
We stopped at a cul de sac overlooking a beautiful bay with surf breaking on volcanic rocks. Several dogs were sleeping there, looking like they were having a lazy afternoon. Our guide pointed out to us a shrine on the rocks below, which was dedicated to a girl who died there. We can’t remember the story about her, but got the impression it was well known in these parts. Small shrines for dead friends or relatives can be seen all over this part of South America, particularly along roads and highways.
We drove to Vina del Mar, a nearby resort town. But it is a large one: Valparaiso has about 280,000 people within the city but Vina del Mar has about 325,000, Chile’s fourth largest city. It was founded in 1878. There is a large river running through the town with many bridges and high rise residential buildings lining the banks.
We exited the van by the Palacio Carrasco. It was built in 1912 and is now the site of the municipal library as well as hosting art exhibitions. In front is a sculpture by Auguste Rodin called “la Defensa.”
We walked down to the Fonck Museum, but didn’t go in. We were there to see a moai statue from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the only one in mainland Chile (Easter Island is actually owned by Chile).
The last item on our brief visit to Vina del Mar was the floral clock, an obvious tourist attraction but pretty nonetheless. What we hadn’t expected to see there was Groot!
After this we started the long drive back to San Antonio. When we scheduled this excursion we were a little concerned that the long drive in both directions would leave insufficient time to see the city. But in fact we had a very enriching visit to Valparaiso, mostly thanks to our guide, Juan. About half way between the two cities we passed a church that Juan told us is the site of pilgrimages in which the roads are blocked off and many thousands of people walk, and even crawl, to the church to express their devotion. Here is a picture taken from a moving vehicle, so it isn’t a very good portrait of the church.
Despite the distance from Valparaiso we reached the port in ample time for “all aboard” and set sail west across the Pacific to our next port. As we say good night we will leave you here with a carved watermelon and a towel animal for your enjoyment. Some of the crew on this ship are very talented!
We spent January 20 in Antofagasta, a city of about 400,000 in northern Chile that looks a lot like Iquique from the ocean: sitting on a narrow shelf between barren mountains and the water. This is still the Atacama Desert; Antofagasta gets about 0.1 mm in annual rainfall making it the world’s driest city.
Antofagasta started life in 1869 as a Bolivian town, built primarily as a port for nitrate exports from the mines in the desert in the region. But that didn’t last very long because in the settlement of the War of the Pacific in the 1880’s the town was ceded to Chile. This left Bolivia landlocked, but the settlement provided that Bolivia would have free access to the ports of Antofagasta & Iquique for its exports. Not sure how that worked out, but to this day these two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
We visited here during our 2012 South American voyage, and you can see it here:
As you can tell if you look at that posting, we weren’t too impressed then with this port in the desert. Seven years later it was a little better, so they have made some progress, but still not a place to put on your bucket list. HAL’s location guide, Heather, told us (as if this made the stop exciting) that this is the first time since 2012 that they have visited this rarely visited city. Lucky us, hitting it both times.
We took the HAL shuttle to Plaza Colon, the central square of the old city. Presumably named for Christopher Columbus, this is a very nice & very green space. In the center is a clock tower contributed by the English community of the town. It is said to be a replica of Big Ben in London, but doesn’t really look like that to us.
It was Sunday morning, but the cathedral, on one side of the plaza, was open to visitors. It is modest as cathedrals go but pleasant. While we were there a dog walked in with a HAL tour group and sat down quietly in one of the back pews until they were ready to leave. He looked like he was a veteran of such occasions. There are quite a few loose dogs walking around in this city.
On the opposite side of the plaza was an old distinguished looking building that housed the post office and the regional library. It was Sunday, so the post office was closed, but surprisingly the library was open. It was a very nice library too, with many comfy looking chairs and skylights at the top of the high walls. Even the children’s room was open.
In 2012 we left the plaza toward the south, finding nothing but dusty streets and lazy packs of dogs. This time we turned north & walked to the old port, where they used to ship the nitrate. This was a much better choice. On the way we passed a couple of museums, closed on Sunday, and some nice flowers. At the small port were a few vendors (mostly closed) and a fish market.
The one accessible museum was the old railroad station which, we think used to connect Antofagasta with the Bolivian interior.
We walked back to Plaza Colon, where we found on the first corner an unlabeled monument that we think must be Ferdinand & Isabella. Makes sense on a plaza named for Christopher Columbus, right? At the lower left of the monument was a lion, but we aren’t sure what it was supposed to represent.
January 21 was a sea day, but there were a couple of events worth sharing. First there was a medals ceremony. HAL hands out (fake) copper, silver, gold & platinum medals for passengers who have spent certain total numbers of days at sea on HAL ships. We think this is pretty silly; after all, the only “accomplishment” being honored is being a particularly good customer of the company (not sour grapes, we have received two of them). But a lot of folks really like this and on this day our friends & tablemates Robert, Bill and Sharon were among those receiving medals. The ship’s penguin squadron looked really proud of their medals too.
The second notable event was the Filipino crew show. Most of the crew on HAL ships are Filipino and Indonesian; HAL has a crew training facility in Indonesia called the MS Jakarta where they learn their trade. The professional and friendly crew are one of HAL’s best calling cards for repeat customers. On every grand voyage each of these groups of crew members take time from their unbelievably busy schedules to rehearse & present a show of their national song and dance. They work very hard at this and it shows; the crew shows always attract a large and enthusiastic audience of passengers. Here are a few images from the Filipino crew show that was presented on this day.
So that is all for this episode. We leave you here with a couple of cantaloupe sculptures and a pair of bedtime towel animals.
We spent January 19 in Iquique, our first port in Chile. We were a little sleepy when we pulled the curtains back to see the city because when we crossed into Chile we lost not just one hour but two, all at once. We assume that this change was mostly a political difference between the two countries, since Iquique isn’t really east of Matarani.
With a population of about 200,000, Iquique sits on a narrow flat area tightly bound by 2500 foot mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. The mountains are mostly sand, this being a desert.
The population here never exceeded 100 before the 19th century. Iquique was part of Peru until the Pacific War of 1878-1883, fought among Bolivia, Peru & Chile. When the smoke cleared Iquique was part of Chile. Its growth was fueled by the nitrate boom of the late 19th & early 20th century, when Iquique was one of the wealthiest cities in Chile. That ended with the development of synthetic nitrates and the city suffered a decline.
HAL’s shuttle bus took us to the Plaza de Armas, which in this city is called the Plaza Prat. In the middle of the square is the Torre Reloj, an 82 foot tall white clock tower built in 1877 by the city’s English community. It is white & looks like stone from a distance but is actually made of wood, specifically Oregon pine. This apparently was the building material of choice for the nitrate barons of the late 19th century.
In the center of the clock tower is a bust of Arturo Pratt, for whom the plaza is named. Arturo Pratt appears to be one of Chile’s greatest heroes. During the Battle of Iquique in the Pacific War Pratt commanded a ship called the Esmeralda. He refused to retreat during the battle & his ship was sunk by the Peruvians, with Pratt and most of his men perishing. He is honored for being willing to sacrifice his life (not to mention all of his men) to defend Chile’s interests. It is rarely mentioned that the Chilean interest involved was seizing a Peruvian city rather than defending his homeland, but nonetheless he is a great hero.
One thing we really wanted to see in Prat Plaza was the Teatro Municipal. Another wooden building that looks like stone, the theater was built in 1890. It is reputedly very interesting inside but we didn’t get a chance to find out because some kind of platform was under construction in front and it was closed to the public.
On the other end of the plaza is the Casino Espanol, built in 1904 by the city’s Spanish community. It was closed in the morning but we were able to wander inside a bit in the afternoon before returning to the ship. Its façade is in Moorish style and inside it is filled with Spanish tile and mirrors with columns and a series of 9 paintings of scenes from Don Quixote. Today it is an opulent restaurant, where we gawked but did not eat.
Leaving the plaza, we walked down Avenida Baquedano toward the sea shore. We looked through a market that had nothing we wanted and then we found the library! Unfortunately it was closed on Saturday (one might think this would be the best time for schoolchildren and working people to visit the library). It was located on the tsunami evacuation route. From the avenida we walked down you could see the sandy mountains looming over the city.
Avenida Baquedano is pedestrianized all the way from the plaza to the seashore, with palm trees down the middle and a streetcar that runs down tracks in the middle. It is lined with old mansions built of Oregon pine by the nitrate barons in the late 19th and early 20th century, many of which have been restored and painted bright colors. We stopped in one called the Palacio Astoreca that is famous for its painted glass Art Nouveau ceiling, but the ceiling was covered with wood for some restoration work. The wood paneling and grand staircase were nice, but the ceiling was what we had come to see.
We visited the Museo Regional, an interesting little museum (it would be more interesting if we could read Spanish). The museum was quite eclectic, with skulls of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures that presumably lived in this area and a large exhibit about the Santa Maria de Iquique Massacre of 1907 in which up to 2,000 striking miners and their wives were shot by the Chilean army as they assembled inside the Santa Maria school. But the exhibit was all in Spanish so we could only look at the interesting pictures. Best of all was an exhibit of mummies of the Chinchorro people. A sign (in English!) said that some were up to 7,000 or 8,000 years old, thousands of years older than the oldest mummy found in Egypt. They are well preserved because of the extreme dryness of the Atacama Desert. Some ancient textiles (but not quite that old) were displayed here as well.
The day was sunny & the ocean was very blue. Lots of people were out in it swimming and doing water sports, since it was the weekend. We walked down the seaside promenade for a while enjoying the ambiance. Among other things we passed a fountain full of ducks, strangely still because they were made of stone.
We walked back to the plaza to catch the shuttle back to the ship and had a final view of the plaza from the bus.
From the ship we had a good view of the large container port next to where we were docked. The modern city extending up to a sharp boundary on the sandy mountain was also an interesting sight from there.
As we sailed away the city diminished until it was little more than a line separating the mountains from the ocean.