Tourist season has officially opened in Chile’s Antarctica. Those looking for a holiday with a difference this summer will be hard pressed to find a more unique experience than a trip to a town in what is not only the world’s southernmost continent, but its coldest, driest, highest and windiest.
Chile’s portion of the Antarctic territories extends some 1,250,000 square kilometers, making it far greater in size than the continental Chilean territory. It is one of the country’s great natural assets, prized for its scientific value, natural resources, and in more recent years, its growing draw for tourists from all walks of life.
A continent of contradictions, Antarctica is 98 percent ice and completely devoid of native reptiles, amphibians and mammals, but teems with life around its coastal fringe and offers unparalleled wilderness experiences, including encounters with emperor penguin and elephant seal colonies, or the chance to see orcas on the hunt.
Though its portion of Antarctic land mass is not as great as some other countries, Chile boasts the largest of only two stable civilian settlements on the continent, Villa Las Estrellas, a town which offers unique snowmobile, helicopter and skiing expeditions. With a summer population of around 150, it whittles down to 80 barely souls in winter. The town is home to a hospital, a school, a bank, a church, hostel and post office – the latter being a special favorite among tourists, who get the unique opportunity to send a postcard home with an Antarctic postmark.
Both scientific and tourist expeditions use Villa Las Estrellas as a launching pad to explore the continent. The tourism season generally runs from November to late February, and travelers can arrange passages on either cruise ships or scientific vessels. Most Chilean expeditions to Antarctica depart from Punta Arenas.
Flights also operate from Punta Arenas, taking around three hours to complete the trip to the Teniente March base in Tierra de O’Higgins, where most of the international scientific bases are stationed.