The gateway to Antarctica

by Timo Berger

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

The Punta Arenas airport, which lies right next to the famous Strait of Magellan, is small and compact, but plans to expand it are already on the drawing board. Alongside the biggest air company in Latin America LATAM, as of a few years ago low-cost carriers started flying back and forth daily, linking the city in the furthest south of Chile to the rest of the country. More and more people use this means of transport to reach the most southernly capital in the world: Tourists, migrants, scientists. In 2017 around one million people came, that is eight percent more than a year earlier. The rising interest in Punta Arenas has many roots. First, increasing numbers of tourists want to visit Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. In addition, scientists and explorers from across the globe use it as a launch pad for trips to the southern pole. As a result, the regional government in Punta Arenas started a number of transport infrastructure improvements to make the city easier to reach.

The windswept 125,000-strong settlement Punta Arenas is changing fast. “In the past 20 years, the city grew at an explosive rate,” said Boris Cvitanic. The man with Croatian forefathers teaches architecture at the University of Magallanes and keeps tabs on its architectural transformation. Just a few years ago, the city of the Magellan region was largely concentrated on its chess-board-like centre. Today it is expanding both north and south along the Strait of Magellan.

Until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, the Strait of Magellan was the most important link between the Atlantic and the Pacific. It is named after the navigator Hernando Magellan, who was the first European to cross the strait between the South American continent and Tierra del Fuego at the end of 1520 on behalf of the Spanish crown.

In the 2018/2019 season, nowhere else in Chile did so many cruise ships land as in Punta Arenas. More than 35,000 arrivals were registered by the police. “Tourism has triggered a chain reaction. The cruise ships, the expansion of the airport and the improvement of connections have developed their own dynamics,” explains Boris Cvitanic. As a result, hostels and guesthouses, local transport companies and tourism agencies have opened their doors. Migrants, mainly from Venezuela and Colombia, have come and work as guides and in the restaurants.

Punta Arenas until now was known as one of the most isolated cities worldwide. From the capital Santiago by some 2,200 kilometres and it takes 250 kilometres to reach the next city, Ushaia, which lies on the Argentinean part of Tierra del Fuego. For a long time the inhabitants of Punta Arenas struggled with their remote location. Mariana Camelio Vezzani, who moved to Santiago to study, says that people like to distance themselves from the distant capital and speak half-jokingly of the “Independent Republic of Magallanes”. But Punta Arenas is in the process of reinventing itself. “The city has shifted its focus,” explains Boris Cvitanic. In fact, by 180 degrees: “In former times the city looked north, towards Santiago and the rest of the country, now it looks south”. Tierra del Fuego, but also Antarctica itself, has been sparking the interest of scientists and tourists for a few years now - a change of attitude that has given the city a new role: The gateway to Antarctica. Whereas in 2007 twelve countries chose Punta Arenas as their starting point for research missions to the Antarctic, today the number stands at 23. The city is developing into a centre for Antarctic research and a key hub for expeditions. And it's not just growing tourism that is generating up to forty million US dollars in new revenues.

Logistics, supply and transport services for research contribute 35 to 50 million US dollars to the region's gross domestic product. Three times more than in 2010, as Natalia Easton, Regional Minister for Economic Affairs, announced at the end of 2018. Rendoll Balich, the regional minister for public works in the Magellan region, explains that the Antarctic region has emerged as a focus of science as its flora has been little researched. “Due to the extreme weather conditions, its plants are exposed to enormous stress.” They have developed mechanisms to adapt. “Different plant parts can be used to treat diseases,” explains Balich. Molecules have been found in lichens that can stop the progression of Alzheimer's disease, and plants also provide molecules for the development of anti-cancer drugs.

It is the end of March and in the morning huge dark clouds hang over the Strait of Magellan. The loading area of the ferry, which passes from Punto Arenas to the mainland is well filled with cars, small trucks, pick-ups and motorcycles. Hoping to see a humpback whale or dolphins, tourists on the upper decks defy the strong breeze while locals drink sweetened Nescafé inside the ferry. Edward Kwan is enthusiastic about the south of Chile. The Chinese doctor and his family spend their holidays here and look out over the deep, black waters of the strait. He appreciates “the untouched nature” and wants to visit a colony of king penguins on Tierra del Fuego.

“Today, tourism has a strong influence on the region,” says regional minister Rendoll Balich. “Areas that used to be used for cattle breeding are now geared up to tourism”. The national park around the emblematic Torres-del-Paine-mountains north of Punta Arenas was also a huge sheep pasture until its foundation in 1959. According to Balich, it is urgently necessary to build new traffic routes for the region. And more and more foreigners have visited the region. The vegetation grows very slowly, the trees are small and bent by the wind. Forest fires have devastating consequences. “We must create better access to these areas to protect them,” he said, adding that the Chilean state must have a presence in the area in order to keep pace with the tourism development.

The Magellan region has a structural problem. It is the largest province in Chile and also has the second lowest population. With 1.3 inhabitants per square kilometer, 92 percent of the population live in cities, most of them in Punta Arenas. In order to connect the scattered settlements in the countryside, more investment is being made in transport infrastructure. In the “Plan Regional Magallanes”, the local government undertakes to build 126 kilometers of new roads between 2018 and 2022, to asphalt 140 kilometers of existing earth tracks, and expand harbours for the mooring of research vessels.

All these efforts converge in Punta Arenas. The regional government has committed itself to developing tourism in a sustainable way. They explicitly do not want mass tourism. Sixty percent of the area of the region is protected zones or national parks, nature is – as enshrined in the “Plan Regional Magallanes” – the “main feature of our territory”. A planned international Antarctic research centre is emblematic for these efforts to interlink infrastructure development, science and tourism. Reminiscent of a drifting iceberg, it will be built on the banks of the Strait of Magellan over the next few years and will provide logistical support for international Antarctic researchers and be open to the general public with exhibitions. The next few years will prove whether it is possible to preserve a largely untouched natural landscape with the help of sustainable tourism.

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