Last week, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) held its annual meeting in the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas. In conjunction with the IAATO meetings, the Instituto Nacional de la Antárctica Chilena (INACH, pictured below) published a mini-guidebook to the city’s Antarctic sites; though I didn’t have the good fortune to be in Punta, I have managed to obtain a PDF copy of Rosamaría Solar’s Traces of Antarctica: Around Punta Arenas and the Straits of Magellan (link in Spanish, but also available in English).
Punta Arenas is one of Patagonia’s most appealing cities, with a remarkable assemblage of Euro-American architecture that dates, mostly, from the wool boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its port infrastructure also made it, at that time, the main departure point for Antarctic explorations like the 1916 Shackleton expedition that concluded, famously, with the British explorer and several crewmembers rowing across the open South Atlantic, from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Eventually, the Chilean cutter Yelcho rescued the remaining crew from Antarctica to a rapturous reception in Punta Arenas.
This, and several other episodes linking Punta Arenas to Antarctica, plus biographical sketches on significant figures of several nationalities, make this booklet a valuable companion for any visitor to the city. It is subdivided into a walking tour around the central city, a scattering of sights on the northern outskirts, and a suggestion of rather less accessible sights on and near the Strait of Magellan, such as the newly established king penguin colony at Bahía Inútil, on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego.
One interesting piece of news to come out of the meetings is Chile’s interest in developing the settlement of Puerto Williams (pictured above), on the south side of the Beagle Channel, for Antarctic tourism. Punta Arenas is a full day’s sail from Puerto Williams, which adds two full days to each Antarctic excursion. Puerto Williams, though, is actually a couple hours closer to Antarctica than the Argentine port of Ushuaia (pictured below, on the north side of the Channel), which is still most important access point to the frozen continent.
In the short term, using tiny Puerto Williams as an Antarctic gateway is problematical, as it would need major airport and maritime port expansion to service relatively small cruise ships, let alone the mega-vessels that sometimes dock at Ushuaia. Ushuaia also has a critical mass of hotels, restaurants and other tourist services that Williams would need decades or more to match, but Argentina’s erratic political circumstances – in which vessels that have visited the Falkland Islands are sometimes unwelcome in Argentine ports – could make scenic Williams a more desirable approach to Antarctica and, perhaps a destination in its own right.