A 'hamlet of stars' in Antarctica's biting cold

A 'hamlet of stars' in Antarctica's biting cold

Villa Las Estrellas is a coveted hub for flying into a continent in flux as nations bolster scientific research

A 'hamlet of stars' in Antarctica's biting cold
Children at the schoolhouse in Villa Las Estrellas, Antarctica, study under a portrait of Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile’s independence leader. The bank manager welcomes deposits in Chilean pesos.

The cellphone service from the Chilean phone company Entel is so robust that downloading iPhone apps works like a charm.The inhabitants here say it could be any Chilean village. Except that Villa Las Estrellas is in Antarctica.

Fewer than 200 people live in this outpost founded in 1984 during the dictatorship of Gen Augusto Pinochet, when Chile was seeking to bolster its territorial claims in Antarctica.
Since then, the tiny hamlet has been at the centre of one of Antarctica’s most remarkable experiments: exposing entire families to isolation and extreme conditions in an attempt to arrive at a semblance of normal life at the bottom of the planet.

“It gets a little intense here in winter,” said José Luis Carillán, 40, who moved to Villa Las Estrellas three years ago with his wife and their two children to take a job as a teacher in the public school. He described challenges like trekking through punishing wind storms to arrive at a schoolhouse concealed by snow drifts, and withstanding long stretches with only a few hours of sunlight each day. “But this place is unique,” Carillán said. “Only a few people on Earth step foot in Antarctica, and fewer still live here for long periods of time.”

The United States, China, Russia and most other nations with research stations in Antarctica tend to frown on bringing anyone but researchers and support teams to the planet’s coldest and windiest continent. But Chile and a neighbour in South America, Argentina, have taken a rare route to putting down stakes here, nurturing small Antarctic settlements that include families with children.

Argentina founded its Antarctic outpost even earlier, in 1953. The settlement, on Graham Land at the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, is called the Esperanza Base. It also has a school, a cemetery and even a scout troop claiming to be the southernmost in the world. Esperanza Base’s motto sums up what it is like for some who have moved to Antarctica: “Permanence, an act of sacrifice.”

Villa Las Estrellas, in the South Shetland Islands off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, has emerged as a coveted hub for flying into a continent in flux as various nations bolster their scientific research.

The Chilean air force transports researchers from various countries on C-130 Hercules military planes that make the three-hour trip to Punta Arenas, a city of nearly 125,000 near the southern tip of Chile, several times a month. A sign at the air base near Villa Las Estrellas poi-nts out that the city of Iquique in northern Chile is only 4,675 kilometers (2,905 miles) away.

Most of the students at the village’s small school, who generally number less than a dozen, are the children of air force officials who operate the base; some of the parents say the isolating experience strengthens family bonds.

That Villa Las Estrellas is so remote — its name can be translated as Hamlet of the Stars, since the lack of artificial light pollution here enhances gazing into the heavens — sits just fine with many who live here.

“People in the rest of Chile are so afraid of thieves that they build walls around their homes,” said Paul Robledo, 40, an electrician from Iquique (pronounced E-key-kay). “Not here in Antarctica. This is one of the safest places in the world.”

What Villa Las Estrellas gains as a sanctuary from crime, though, it loses in some other comforts. Animals like Adélie penguins and elephant seals can be glimpsed around the village, but those used to the companionship of dogs are out of luck. All dogs were banned because they might introduce canine diseases to Antarctic wildlife.

Air force families live in small homes here, while researchers stay at the spartan lodging operated by the Chilean Antarctic Institute, sleeping in bunk beds not unlike those found on an aircraft carrier. A Ping-Pong table in the living room offers some diversion. They take their meals together in a cramped canteen.

Recently, the menu for lunch was a dish containing mashed potatoes, chicken and ground beef, washed down with Fanta orange soda. For dinner that day: ditto, though the Fanta was replaced by Coca-Cola.

After one Chilean scientist suggested that a nutritionist might be needed here, Enrique Nicoman, 59, the cook at Villa Las Estrellas, made it clear that such comments were not welcome. “It’s not like there’s a market nearby with fresh vegetables,” said Nicoman, who worked for years as a cook in the Chilean navy before moving here. “I mean, we’re in Antarctica, where everything needs to arrive by plane or sea vessel.”

Using one’s imagination is essential for making the most out of living in a place with a lot of downtime indoors. In his book, “Antarctic Impressions,” Russian volcanologist Vladimir Kiryanov described how some at Russia’s research bases playfully carved out their own territorial claims, inventing the Dukedom of Pinsk, the Principality of the Treasure Hunter Yury Kharchuk and the sovereign state of Immortia.

A gym allows the Chileans at Villa Las Estrellas to play an occasional game of indoor soccer against visiting researchers from Russian and Chinese bases. A small chapel perched above the settlement offers a quiet place to pray.

Hermit’s syndrome

Some say that those who adapt to stretches of relative seclusion in Antarctica can find it hard to re-adapt when they return to mainland Chile. They call this dilemma “hermit’s syndrome,” describing the shock of socialising with family and friends after long periods in Antarctica.

Technology is supposed to ease communication. Some rely on Skype to talk to loved ones back home; others simply use their mobiles. But new technologies can also reinforce how far Antarctica remains from the rest of the world.

The dating app Tinder, for instance, works well enough in Villa Las Estrellas. But some researchers joke that the village’s gender imbalance (only about 10 per cent of inhabitants here are women) and small population show that such services may not have been intended with Antarctica in mind.

No wonder letting off steam here is serious business. At a recent barbecue to celebrate making it an entire year in Antarctica, Chilean navy personnel in Villa Las Estrellas drank bottles of pisco, a brandy made in Chile, and of Great Wall, a Chinese red wine given to them by guests — researchers from China’s aptly named Great Wall research station.

Despite the challenges, many Chileans still covet a chance to live in Villa Las Estrellas. “This is one of the world’s last frontiers,” said Macarena Marcotti Murúa, 25, a veterinarian who arrived in November to work at the post office.

Some are drawn here by a sense of adventure, others by higher salaries than in Chile for comparable jobs. Residents of Villa Las Estrellas seem to have their own reasons for moving to Antarctica.

“I approach this like a vacation,” said Robinson Montejo, 59, the manager, and only employee, of the branch here of the Chilean Banco de Crédito e Inversiones. Inevitably, he spends a lot of time alone, waiting for the occasional customer to come in from the cold. “This is the right place for a little peace and quiet.”