In November 1574 Portuguese mariner Juan Fernández veered off course between Peru and Valparaíso and discovered these islands that now bear his name. Unlike Easter Island, there are no historical records of visits to the islands by either Polynesians or Native Americans. In following centuries the islands proved a popular stop-off for ships skirting around the Humboldt Current. Pirates sought refuge in the few bays – hunting feral goats and planting gardens to stock future visits – and traffic increased with sealers.

In the early 19th century, one island played a notorious role in Chile's independence struggle, as Spanish authorities exiled 300 criollo patriots to damp caves above San Juan Bautista after the disastrous Battle of Rancagua in 1814. The patriots in exile included Juan Egaña and Manuel de Salas, figures from the Chilean elite who would not quickly forget their cave-dwelling days.

Chile established a permanent settlement in 1877. For many years the island remained an escape-proof political prison for the newly independent country. During WWI it again played a memorable historic role, as the British naval vessels Glasgow, Kent and Orama confronted the German cruiser Dresden at Bahía Cumberland.

This Pacific outpost has made headlines in recent times for two major tragedies: first, the islands' infrastructure was badly damaged in the tsunami following the 2010 earthquake, prompting action from a charity foundation, Desafío Levantemos Chile (Together We Pick Up Chile), intent on rebuilding after the disaster. And in September 2011, a group of prominent Chilean TV journalists and crew from the morning program Buenos Días a Todos boarded a plane to the islands to film a segment on the reconstruction efforts. The plane crashed near Isla Robinson Crusoe, killing all 21 passengers, shocking the Chilean public and sending the islands into a further tailspin. The islands have since recovered, but the campaign to woo back travelers remains ongoing.

Selkirk: the Quintessential Castaway

Más a Tierra, today known as Isla Robinson Crusoe, was the long-time home of one of the world's most famous castaways (no, not Tom Hanks or his volleyball Wilson). After ongoing disputes with his captain over the seaworthiness of the privateer Cinque Ports, Scotsman Alexander Selkirk requested to be put ashore on the island in 1704. He would spend four years and four months marooned here before his rescue. Abandonment was tantamount to a death sentence for most castaways in this day, who soon starved or shot themselves, but Selkirk adapted to his new home and endured, despite his desperate isolation.

Although the Spaniards vigorously opposed privateers in their domains, their foresight made Selkirk's survival possible. Thanks to them, unlike many small islands, Más a Tierra had abundant game. Disdaining fish, Selkirk tracked feral goats (introduced by earlier sailors), devoured their meat and dressed himself in their skins. He crippled and tamed some of the goats for easier hunting. Sea lions, feral cats and rats – the latter two European introductions – were among his other companions. Selkirk would often climb to a lookout above Bahía Cumberland (Cumberland Bay) in hope of spotting a vessel on the horizon, but not until 1708 did his savior, Commander Woodes Rogers of the British privateers Duke and Duchess, arrive with famed privateer William Dampier as his pilot. Rogers recalled his first meeting with Selkirk when the ship's men returned from shore. He called him 'a man Cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who look'd wilder than the first Owners of them.'

After signing on with Rogers and returning to Scotland, Selkirk became a celebrity and the inspiration for a rag-tag army of reality shows, theme-park rides and great literature alike. Daniel Defoe's classic Robinson Crusoe is thought to be inspired by Selkirk. Other worthy reads include Captain Woodes Rogers' A Cruising Voyage Round the World, by Selkirk's rescuer; Robinson Crusoe's Island (1969) by Ralph Lee Woodward; and Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee's revisionist novel Foe (1986).

Traditional biography was cast away when British writer Diane Souhami made a portrait of the man through the place. Her take, Selkirk's Island, won the 2001 Whitbread Biography Award. While in the archipelago researching, Souhami became intrigued with the way the island pared down modern life, leaving what was essential. Souhami noted how Selkirk's relationship to the island he once cursed changed postrescue. 'He started calling it “my beautiful island,”' said Souhami. 'It became the major relationship in his life.'