Esperanza Base is an Argentine research base in Hope Bay (Bahía Esperanza) at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Part of it is designated as Fortín Sargento Cabral, a year-round civilian settlement similar to the Chilean settlement of Villa Las Estrellas. In 1978 the first birth in Antarctica was here, and at the last census in 2010 the population was 66. The site is free of ice and has fresh water from a lake: this attracts wildlife especially Adélie penguins and made it a good place for a base.
The northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula is called Graham Land. At the height of summer its west coast is free of ice and can be approached by ship, and it supports penguins and other life that needs access to the open sea. The east coast is harsher, usually socked in by the ice of the Weddell Sea and Larsen Ice Shelf. The tip of the mainland, called Trinity Peninsula, is indented by Hope Bay looking onto a channel some 20 km wide; then the Joinville Islands form the last part of the landmass. The first navigation of this channel was by Otto Nordenskiöld's Swedish expedition in 1902, in the barque Antarctica - so the channel was named "Antarctic Sound" for their ship rather than directly for the continent. In Feb 1903 the ship was crushed by ice in the Sound, marooning not only the crew, but those ashore awaiting relief.
That expedition was supported by Argentina, with José María Sobral (1880-1961) joining it to become the first Argentine to set foot on Antarctica. He was with the main party set down on Snow Hill Island in the Joinville Islands, spending a planned winter there. Three men were set down in Hope Bay, where their hut has been preserved. When Antarctica was lost, it was on its way to relieve the expedition: its men took to their lifeboats and got ashore at Paulet Island, nearby but with no means of communication with the other groups. Everyone was stuck for another, unplanned winter, until in Nov 1903 they were rescued by ARA Uruguay - launched in 1874, this doughty corvette is now on display in Buenos Aires.
Argentina had earlier staked claims in this region, and its flag was first hoisted in 1904 at what is now Orcadas Base in the South Orkney Islands. The claim eventually became a pizza-slice of the continent, between meridians 25° West and 74° West, and from 60° South down to the pole. This was in conflict with British and Chilean claims, and 1942 saw a spat, with Britain and Argentina hoisting their own flags while stomping on the other amidst desolate rocks and ice. In 1952 Argentina founded Esperanza Base, which of course means "hope", but it led to the first shots fired in anger in Antarctica. A warning burst of machine gun fire was sprayed over the heads of a British landing party, who'd come to rebuild their own burnt-out station. The British retreated to the Falklands, where a puce-faced Governor drummed up a frigate and marines to escort the builders and complete the work. There was another armed confrontation at Deception Island.
Those incidents were smoothed over and in 1959 the Antarctic Treaty suspended all territorial claims south of 60° S, fostering a spirit of scientific collaboration. The Treaty has stood the test of time, but was challenged in the 1970s when a military junta gained power in Argentina and re-asserted historic claims. From 1977 they sought to strengthen these by establishing a "civilian" colony at Esperanza Base. On 7 Jan 1978 Emilio Palma became the first person born in Antarctica - his mother was specifically flown in to give birth at Esperanza, where his father was head of the army detachment. Over the next few years 7 others were born here in similar circumstances. The last was in 1983, but the junta were overthrown after the Falklands / Malvinas War, and (though no international jurisdiction would support it) they'd sufficiently made their point.
Esperanza Base has been inhabited continuously since its foundation, with some 55 people in winter. It stands on solid rock close to shore, with 43 buildings housing research and support staff plus their families; there's even a school and scout troop. Energy is mostly from diesel generators, but a wind turbine was installed in 2008 (see the video of the installation). It's routinely visited by cruise ships, with over 1000 tourists each year.
Hope Bay has one of the largest Adélie penguin colonies in Antarctica, with some 125,000 pairs. South of the bay is a headland capped by Buenos Aires Glacier, while 20 km northwest is Prime Head, the northernmost tip of mainland Antarctica. The area is showing signs of climate change as the east coast (now called the Nordenskiöld coast) was almost permanently ice-bound when first explored, but nowadays has longer ice-free periods.
Ski-planes such as Twin Otters land on the glacier - they're based at Marambio Island 100 km south, which has a large all-year airfield and acts as the support hub for all the Argentine bases. Esperanza also has a helipad. So station supplies and personnel often arrive by air.
1 Refugio Puerto Moro specifically refers to the hut at the landing pier, and more generally to the landing facilities on Seal Point. There's just a small wooden wharf, too small for ships, so tourists are ferried in by Rib / Zodiac. Inside the hut staff conduct immigration procedures and give a safety briefing on the area, while you get out of the biting wind for a few minutes.
Landing at the wharf may be impractical at low tide, and bad weather from the east will make the shore unsafe. About 20% of intended landings have to be called off, though to date only one vessel has sunk.
Walk. The base straggles along a dirt track leading uphill for 1 km from the landing area, until it peters out beneath Mount Flora. Ski trails continue up to the glacier and aircraft strip: do not venture onto the glacier without suitable equipment, training and permission. Be aware that if sea conditions turn foul, your ship may need to sail away at short notice.
Tour groups may potter round the bay in Ribs to see the various bird colonies.
- 1 Grunden Rock Lighthouse is near the landing stage. It's a 6 m tower, really just a harbour light, on the knoll of Seal Point (Punta Foca), the tip of the promontory. West of it towards the head of Hope Bay is Eagle Cove and east is Hut Cove, where the Swedish group survived. It was that group that named the place when they encountered a seal, and ate it.
- 2 The Schoolhouse (Escuela Provincial Nº 38 Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín) is one of the first buildings encountered on the track up from the landing area. Opened in 1978, it was initially named for General Belgrano, then until 2012 for the 19th century President Julio Argentino Roca, who's now depised for his genocidal campaign against the indigenous Patagonians. The original building was destroyed by fire in 2007, so the present schoolhouse is from 2009. It has two teachers, spouses of base personnel, and 9 students in the 2014 school year; distance learning is important especially for secondary pupils. It is by some way the southernmost school on earth, and since 2018 it's the only one in Antarctica, as the one in Villa Las Estrellas has closed down.
- The Museum (Museo de la Base Esperanza) is near the school in a round-roofed building that looks like an aircraft hangar. Various exhibits and displays on the natural history and exploration of the area, and present base. It opens on demand for visitors, free.
- Along the main track note the grotto (a shrine to the Virgin of Lujan, Nuestra Señora de Luján), the flagpole erected in 1955, and a bust of General José de San Martín, leader of Argentina's war of independence from Spain. It was at the start of that war in 1813 that Sergeant Cabral, for whom the civilian settlement is named, lost his life in saving San Martín.
- 3 Chapel of St Francis of Assisi (Capilla de San Francisco de Asís). This is the first Roman Catholic chapel on the continent and has seen a few Antarctic firsts: the first baptism (of Emilio Palma born at the base), the first communion, the first religious wedding, and so on. It's regarded as the senior RC church of the eight in Antarctica. Since 2001 it's held a relic of St Héctor Valdivielso Sáez (1910-34), the first saint born in Argentina, so perhaps one day this modest orange hut is destined to become a cathedral.
- Swedish Hut (Choza de los Suecos) is next to the chapel. In Dec 1902 the Swedish expedition ship was beset by ice but undamaged. Two months of summer lay ahead so the men weren't greatly concerned, and three came ashore here to lay a depot then rejoin the main party on foot across the ice. When the three eventually set off, unsure of their way, they were baulked by open water. They took that for a good sign, that the ship would easily be able to return for them, so they went back to their depot and waited. And waited, and waited, while summer slipped away. Realising that they would have to over-winter, they built this makeshift shelter, now a Treaty-protected monument (No 39), a drystone enclosure like a sheep bothy with a sledge for a roof. Within (which you can't enter) was a tent to stop the draughts, where they ate 700 penguins and a few seals to eke out their rations. In Oct 1903 some of the main party made their way south across the ice, and were astonished to spot black seals walking on their hind legs. It was the soot-blackened figures of the Hope Bay trio trudging towards them.
- 4 ECARE stands for Estación Científica Antártica Ruperto Elichiribehety - it's a summer-only Uruguayan station next to Esperanza, with a staff of up to seven. This was previously the site of the British Station D or Trinity House. Two men died when this caught fire in 1948, and the first attempt to rebuild in 1952 lead to the gunfire incident. It was re-established until 1964, then closed, and handed over to Uruguay in 1997. It's named for navy lieutenant Ruperto Elichiribehety.
- The cemetery is on "The Crest" - the glacial moraine ridge above town. The two men killed in the Trinity House fire lie here.
- 5 Lake Boeckella is the freshwater lake that helps to make this place habitable for wildlife and humans. It's fed by the glacier, penned by The Crest and drains into Eagle Cove. Boeckella is named for the genus of copepods - tiny crustaceans - that dwell in it, but you may suspect it means "seabirds' latrine". The water is suitably cleansed to form the base supply. The skuas here can be aggressive, hold a stick above you so they attack the stick not your scalp.
- 6 Mount Flora is the 520 m / 1700 ft bluff above the base, given its botanical name by the Swedish expedition who found Jurassic plant fossils here. It's separated by the Kenney glacier outflow from Mount Taylor (1000 m) to the west.
- 7 Depot Glacier is the ice cliff tumbling into the sea at the head of Hope Bay. Nordenskiöld so named it as the bay looked a good site for a depot, which was later laid by the three men near Seal Point.
- Outposts: Esperanza supports a dozen or so temporary camps. They're rarely visited by tourists as they're several km away across the ice, involving technical ice-trekking and an overnight bivouac. Some have become lost beneath the ice.
- Tune in. LRA36 Radio Nacional Arcángel San Gabriel is the local radio station, broadcasting on 870 AM for a couple hours each day. The big dish antenna along the track into the base also receives Argentinian TV.
The museum and post office have souvenirs and postcards.
- The Casino is the community centre where you'll be served a snack and hot drink at the end of your tour ashore.
- Phantom pizzerias: internet maps such as Google are dotted with food outlets that don't exist, never have, never will. They're a global phenomenon, complete with bogus reviews, but more noticeable in barren terrain such as Antarctica that lacks genuine outlets. So the game is to see how many you can find, in the most desolate spots.
- Carry your water with you. Never drink alcohol in this climate until you're safely back in shelter.
Sleep back aboard your ship, the base accommodation is reserved for residents.
There is of course no mobile signal here, but you can send a postcard from the base Post Office.
- In short, wherever your cruise ship is going next. It might visit elsewhere on the Peninsula, or King George Island where Villa Las Estrellas is a larger civilian community, or head north to South Georgia, the Falklands and the ship's South American base port.
- Anywhere except the South Pole is another way to put it: don't start from here! Hope Bay is about 1100 km in a straight line from the South American mainland but almost 3000 km from the pole. Only two expeditions to the pole have ever set out from here, both involving a round trip of over two months.