From Punta Arenas over the Drake Passage

Earlier this season, Simon Rowland from Wildfoot Travel travelled to Antarctica using the flight across the Drake Passage, rather than sailing across the Drake Passage to and from Ushuaia. The following is instalment 1 of 2 of his impressions of the trip.

Punta Arenas

Reached by a domestic flight from Santiago the capital of Chile. There are no direct international scheduled flights and this is the normal gateway one would use to reach Punta Arenas. A small airport 20 minutes out of the main town Punta Arenas used to be a major port for shipping before the Panama Canal opened saving a huge amount of valuable shipping time and the major efforts rounding the southernmost tip of South America. Well known starting and finishing point for some of the world’s most epic Antarctica expeditions undertaken, Punta Arenas is a major Base for The Chilean forces. Historically a melting pot with an interesting past originally attracting pioneers from Germany, Croatia, Wales and other areas, some of whom made their fortunes in farming, shipping and mining. There’s obvious wealth here and some of the town is attractive and very established with a Northern European feel to the architecture but there are also contrasting less attractive areas which seem to demonstrate a diversity in wealth. There’s a good mixed bag of tourist facilities which include a small amount of high end hotels and restaurants but also tourist and lower end establishments to meet the back packing tourist market.

The 4 star Antarctica 21 hotel which was included in the expedition price was situated close to the centre of the town. The rooms are adequate and spacious, reasonable quality and clean. Service is friendly. For the 2014/15 season a different hotel will be used of a much better standard. Breakfast is included. The day before the flight to Antarctica there is a briefing at the hotel and all of the expedition guests are required to attend. Boots are essential for Zodiac landings and are loaned out after the meeting to take away for the following day. These are of excellent standard and very comfortable. An attractive, practical water proof Antarctica 21 bag is also supplied which will come in handy on the expedition.  A pre expedition meal is held at an  hotel historically associated with Ernest Shackleton during his numerous visits to Punta Arenas.

It is at this time that the weather forecast arrives for the next 24 hours from the Chilean airbase at King George Island in The South Shetland Islands. Missing a good weather slot could literally mean serious delays in reaching Antarctica to join the vessel so this is an important piece of news which everyone is eager to receive.

Our particular slot was going to be slim and very early at 4am from Punta Arenas which would mean a 2am alarm call and a meet in the lobby for the transfer soon after. Departures can be any time during the day and all falls around the much anticipated forecast. Passenger safety is priority.

Waves crashing over the bow of an antarctic cruise vessel in the notorious drake passage
The Drake Passage. Gateway to Antarctica. A stretch of water notorious for its unpredictable sea states.

Flight over The Drake

Punta Arenas Airport was opened just for our early departure and we were taken through checkin and passport control quickly and smoothly. The night previously we were advised to be ready and wearing our polar rubber boots and polar gear including layers, fleece, parka and waterproof leggings. It seemed a little over the top even though the temperature was a little chilly but all would become apparent!

The flight is only 2.5 hours across the infamous Drake Passage, saving a huge two days sailing each way compared to sailing from Ushauia. Frie Station is a Chilean airstrip located on King George Island also shared with a Russian base and a Chinese base called Great Wall, all situated close to each other. Refreshments and light meal were provided en route and the charter flight landed on time in partially clear weather. We disembarked from the flight and were advised to keep in a strict single line along the runway and down to the beach which took 30 minutes comfortable walk. There was a motorized transfer for those not able to walk throughout the few inches of snow. As soon  as we started to walk maybe 30 minutes after landing, we experienced snow fall which turned in to a mini blizzard which clearly demonstrated the accuracy of the weather forecast the evening before and the slim window we had for landing!

We can see a typical orthodox Russian church located in a prominent position on one side of the base with incredible views of the bay. The base welcomes visitors and we had time to visit the Russian church on our return. Take your passport to the Russian passport office on the base they offer a selection of authentic national stamps which I must say look really great amongst my other Entry stamps!

On arrival at the beach, which is covered by another blanket of snow at this stage, the sea was looking very choppy and the expedition team worked with much passenger care and safety to get everyone on board as best they could followed by luggage. By the time the Zodiacs reached the vessel we were absolutely drenched through with melted snow and sea spray – after all we are in one of the most unpredictable regions in the world. On arrival at the vessel we were directed to the comfortable bar lounge for a warm welcome drink whilst our cabins were made ready. As you may guess weather variances differ considerably and on this occasion we had the short straw but it’s all part of the adventure and you must know everything is undertaken with passenger safety the be all and end all.

Find out how you can fly over the drake passage to join a cruise in Antarctica here

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