In 2004, I made my only visit ever to Antarctica with the Chilean operator Antarctica XXI. This was a "fly-cruise," including a three-hour flight from the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, in which passengers landed at the Chilean base at King George Island (pictured here). We then walked from the airstrip to the shoreline to board the chartered Russian vessel Grigoriy Mikheev for a week exploring the Antarctic Peninsula and vicinity. For the 45 or so passengers, this saved a potentially gut-wrenching two-day crossing of the Drake Passage and, instead, let them enjoy sailing through the Peninsula's relatively sheltered waters.
According to Mercopress, citing the Punta Arenas daily La Prensa Austral, Chile will soon spend US$9 million to build a new Antarctic terminal at the city's international airport to "confirm Punta Arenas as the real door of access to Antarctica, a condition it disputes with neighbouring Ushuaia in Argentine Tierra del Fuego." While this might sound appealing, Ushuaia is likely to remain Antarctica's "home port" - according to my friend Jeff Rubin, editor of The Polar Times, upwards of 95 percent of Antarctic cruises now leave from Ushuaia. As Ushuaia's a day's sailing closer to Antarctica, Punta Arenas is unlikely to replace it, except for emergency services and the niche market of Antarctic air visitors.