Villa Las Estrellas
Villa Las Estrellas is a Chilean civilian settlement on King George Island, the largest of the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. It consists of some dozen prefabs but is a vital service hub for all the bases on the island. It has an airport, and its waters (though lacking harbour facilities and shelter) are usually ice-free, so it's also a transit point for people and supplies further afield. This page therefore covers the entire island.
|Villa Las Estrellas
|Climate chart (explanation)
King George Island (named for Britain's King George III) is known by Argentina as Isla 25 de Mayo, by Chile as Isla Rey Jorge and by Russia as Vaterloo (Ватерло́о). The island is 95 km long but the town, airfield and bases are concentrated on its western Fildes Peninsula, which is ice-free. As well as making it easier to construct facilities, the peninsula's unusual habitat is of scientific interest, as there's tundra vegetation, and fossils and other rocks can be seen which are inaccessible under ice elsewhere.
The town's description as "civilian" is contentious, as it implies that everything else nearby is military, which is forbidden under the Antarctic Treaty. So too is the term "Chilean": that country owns, staffs and manages various assets here, and applies its own laws to them, but under Treaty may not be said to govern a territory. The same is true for the several other nations stationed on King George, and Argentina's "civilian" Esperanza Base on the mainland is in a similar situation. Children have been born in both settlements, and it's possible to see cynical reasons for this, as somehow advancing a territorial claim. But it is of genuine scientific value to observe how ordinary civilians get by in such a harsh, remote place: the plumbing, the child-rearing, the same old diet, the interpersonal tensions, it's all good practice for Mars. In 2018 Bellingshausen base was the scene of this continent's first known attempted murder. In the Antarctica-based TV detective series that has yet to be made (all monochrome ice and rock scenery to noir effect), the problem of confused national jurisdictions will be a recurring plot theme.
By 2018 the school was in poor repair and it closed, so families no longer live here, and the settlement dwindled to become more like other polar research bases. Then came Covid, and most staff were re-patriated because of the impracticality of long supply lines. There are proposals to re-establish the school and other civilian amenities but they may not be affordable, and as of Antarctic summer 2022 / 23 nothing has happened. Travellers may therefore find many facilities closed.
By air: there is no routine scheduled service, but (subject to weather and demand) Aerovias DAP fly day-trips and overnight excursions from Punta Arenas at the south tip of mainland Chile. The aircraft is a King Air 300: it's pressurised and has in-flight catering but no toilet, and on these trips is limited to 5-6 passengers. Flying time is 3 hr 30 min each way, day trippers spend five hours on King George Island before flying back; overnight trippers stay in set-up tents. Prices for 2020 are US$5500 pp day-trip, $6500 overnight, which includes accommodation in Punta Arenas either side of the trip.
Several companies fly visitors here to transfer to cruise ships.
- 1 Teniente R. Marsh Airport (TNM IATA) (1 km northwest of town along a dirt track). it has a single gravel runway of 1,290 m (4,230 ft).
The town is flanked to the south by Profesor Julio Escudero base and to the north by Bellingshausen base; the Orthodox church is 200 m away on the hillside. A dirt track connects town and airport, and stretches along the shore south 2 km to Chang Cheng base. North it stretches 8 km to Artigas base then strikes inland for one km before petering out in the icy wastes. Bases further out are reached by sea. Never venture anywhere on the island by any mode of transport without taking advice on whether your intentions are sensible, and letting folk know when you've arrived / returned safe.
- 1 Holy Trinity Church (Церковь Святой Троицы). Small Orthodox church, a 15 m-high traditional wooden building of Siberian pine. It opened in 2004 and is staffed year-round by monks from Trinity Lavra of St Sergius north of Moscow. In 2007 Antarctica's first church wedding was held here.
- 2 Chapel of St Mary Queen of Peace (Capilla de Santa María Reina de la Paz). Roman Catholic church, quite simple and modern: it's a large metal container, heated within. It's Chile's southernmost church.
- Statue of Admiral Bellingshausen was unveiled at the Russian base in 2020, 200 years after he sighted the Antarctic mainland. He was probably the first person to do so and live to tell the tale. Earlier explorers had only sighted the islands, leaving it undecided whether a continent lay further south or just sea-ice.
- 3 Lions Rump rock formation is an example of the ice-freeze patches found even in the east of the island. Chinstrap penguins appreciate this and boat trips may visit to see them.
- Send a postcard stamped with a genuine Antarctic postmark. The village has a Chilean postal office, which franks the mail before sending out. In 2022 it remains closed.
- Tune in: local FM Radio Sovereignty on 90.5 MHz provides music and information to all the bases, plus community radio which includes home-sourced entertainment. The town's 2.5 meter dish picks up Televisión Nacional and Universidad Católica Television from Santiago.
- Run a marathon: the Antarctic Marathon has several times been held on the island. The event has now moved to the mainland, but there's nothing to stop you running it yourself here: two complete there-and-backs of the dirt tracks will tally the full distance. The record time is 3 hr 34 min 12 sec and the oldest finisher was 84.
See Antarctica#work for how to get hired - this isn't the sort of place where summer-break students can drop off the bus and look for "Help wanted" signs along Main Street. Bases on the island are:
- 1 The town is part of Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva base (Chile). It's flanked by Professor Julio Escudero (Chile) and Bellingshausen (Russia).
- 2 Chang Cheng (meaning "Great Wall", China) is 2 km south of town.
- 3 Artigas (Uruguay) is 8 km north of town.
- 4 King Sejong (South Korea) is 10 km east by boat on the Barton Peninsula.
- 5 Carlini (formerly Jubany, Argentina) is another 10 km by sea further east, under the stout stump of "Three Brothers" mountain. In 2013 the base hosted Antarctica's first rock concert, headlined by Metallica. Actually they were the only act to show up.
- 6 Admiralty Bay is a three-pronged fjord inlet another 25 km east, with the world's most southerly lighthouse. Here are Machu Picchu (Peru), Henryk Arctowski (Poland, and named for the explorer who coined the concept of the "wind-chill factor") and Comandante Ferraz (Brazil) - this base was destroyed by fire in 2012 but re-opened in 2020. Captain Pieter J Lenie or "Copacabana" is a US summer station near Arctowski.
- 7 Eco-Nelson is on Nelson Island across the narrow channel from town. It's privately run by a Czech explorer and not sponsored by that government.
- Terka Kraken is a supermarket at Great Wall base, open M Tu 09:30-18:00, W F 11:30-19:00. It remains closed in Dec 2022.
- Locals sometimes sell souvenirs eg handicrafts. It's just private one-to-one sales, there's no souvenir shop.
You must bring your own provisions. The town has only enough for its own needs.
Never drink alcohol until you are safe indoors.
Hostería Estrella Polar (Hostel Polestar) in Jan 2022 remains closed. Tourists either stay on their ship, or camp in pre-arranged tents, while the bases have their own bunkhouses not available to tourists. And this is not a place for wild camping.
- Civilian mobiles: Chilean telecoms company Entel PCS has a mobile phone antenna on-site.
- Telephones: Telephones for the base and their airfield operate via satellite telephone and, for the inhabitants of the sector, there is a coin-operated pay phone and prepaid cards.
- Radio: FM Radio "Sovereignty" broadcast on the frequency of 90.5 MHz works during the day, providing music and information to all the bases in the sector. Certain cultural and entertainment programs made by staff and their families are also disseminated.
- Television: The town has a fixed dish of 2.5 meters in diameter, which allows reception of live signals from the main television channels in the country, broadcasting from Santiago. Residents can also receive two broadcast stations. These are Televisión Nacional and Universidad Católica Television.
- You can't travel independently, so you'll go wherever your tour party or expedition is heading. King George as one of the most northerly Antarctic islands is often the first or last stop on an Antarctic cruise: these may venture further south along the Antarctic Peninsula, and northbound may swing by some of the Subantarctic Islands and Falklands on the way back to South America.
- Churches in Antarctica mostly lie in this region.