Best known as the site of Selkirk’s solitary exile, San Juan is home to several historical landmarks, all of them just a short distance from the plaza.
In 1749, alarmed that British privateer Lord Anson had spent three months at Bahía Cumberland preparing to attack the ports of El Callao (Peru), Acapulco (Mexico), and Manila (Philippines), Spain tried to discourage incursions by sending 200 colonists to the island. Less than two years later, a tsunami destroyed the settlement, but in 1770 the Spanish crown sent engineer José Antonio Birt to plan the fortifications of Fuerte Santa Bárbara, now a national monument, with mortar-covered stone walls and gun emplacements with several cannon each. Partially dismantled in 1817, then damaged by earthquakes in 1822 and 1835, the fortress was reconstructed in 1974.
After Chilean rebels suffered the so-called “Desastre de Rancagua” in 1814, Spanish commander Mariano Osorio raided the homes of 42 key figures who, transported to Valparaíso, were shipped to Masatierra aboard the corvette Sebastiana. Juan Egaña, Manuel de Salas, U.S. consul Matthew Arnold Hoevel, and the others spent three years in the damp grottos now known as the Cuevas de los Patriotas, now a national monument, before the ultimate Chilean victory freed them.
The German headstones at Cementerio San Juan Bautista, near the lighthouse at the north end of town, recall the odyssey of the World War I German cruiser Dresden, a national monument that lies beneath the offshore waters where fur seals now cavort (British shells that missed their target are embedded in nearby headlands). Other gravestones bear mostly Spanish but also French inscriptions from the islands’ colonists.
At the top of Vicente González, open for tours on request, the Vivero Conaf is a nursery that grows native species for reforesting the park and ecological exotics for planting near the village. Two invernaderos (greenhouse) nurture the seedlings.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition