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Puerto Williams Opening Up to Increased Antarctic Travel

By Paige, Nicaragua, June 2011

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For decades, Puerto Williams, Chile, and Ushuaia, Argentina have vied for the title of “world’s southernmost city.” While Puerto Williams is slightly farther south, it has only 2,000 residents (1,700 of whom are in the Chilean Navy), and must call itself the southernmost town in the world. The popular resort town of Ushuaia, on the other hand, boasts a more respectably urban population of some 70,000, and can thereby claim the title of southernmost city.

There’s no doubt, however, that Ushuaia is more developed for tourism, with dozens of hotels and restaurants catering to more than 200,000 visitors and 200 cruise ships received annually; the Argentine town is the world’s most important access port for increasingly popular Antarctica trips.

Glacier-framed Puerto Williams, on the other hand, welcomes perhaps 2,000 travelers per year to Isla Navarino, isolated within the Cabo de Hornos archipelago. Many of these are scientists, working with the University of Magallanes to study the frigid region. More intrepid travelers are arriving, however, in search of the road less traveled to the Beagle Channel, Diego Ramírez Islands, Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, Circuito de los Dientes, and of course the Antarctica. One enchanted visitor blogged that tiny Puerto Williams is “unique and untouched by the razzmatazz of unbridled tourism.”

The town is already quite accessible, with regular LAN flights from Santiago and Punta Arenas, as well as a car ferry that makes the 34-hour run to Punta Arenas weekly.

This is about to improve. In April 2011, the Chilean government’s Committee on the Antarctica Policy met in Puerto Williams to sign the Antarctic Strategic Plan. The centerpiece is a US$400 million port project that will open Puerto Williams up for more cruise ship traffic, making it a more competitive Antarctic travel hub.

The lack of “tourist razzmatazz” may put off some travelers, but there are a few attractions in town if simple glacier gazing isn’t enough. Check out the Martín Gusinde Anthropological Museum, with exhibits about the indigenous Yamana (Yahgan) and Selknam peoples who once inhabited the region, and Omora Ethnobotanical Park, with hiking trails, picnic spots, and plenty of fierce, sub-Antarctic scenery.

Photo by Dentren, from Wikipedia

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