The majority of the cruises to the frozen continent leave from Ushuaia, Argentina or Puntas Arenas, Chile. You cannot fly nonstop from North America to either embarkation point. The most direct routes go through Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina. If you don’t have the time and the money to go all the way to Antarctica, some operators run cruises to the Falkland Islands (known as the Malvinas to the Argentineans) and South Georgia, another island known for its abundant wildlife including seals, penguins and whales.
While in Ushuaia, you can explore Tierra de Fuego National Park and the Beagle Channel. Most cruise lines recommend spending a day in Ushuaia before embarking, and there are tour packages available from all of the hotels to visit the park and the channel. Large cruise ships dock in Ushuaia often during the brief summer tourist season, so be prepared for some of the attractions to be busy when that happens. Ushuaia’s main drag is filled with restaurants, clothing shops and some of tourist stops including the Maritime Museum.
Once in the National Park, there’s a little hut on the Beagle Channel to get passports stamped as having been to “El Fin Del Mundo” (The End of the World). The hut features a man with fabulous whiskers. The hut is very small. Entire families have been known to crowd into it to take pictures of the stamping.
Seeing Antarctica and Wildlife
There’s no flying to Antarctica unless you’re a major dignitary or a research scientist. Most of the few thousand visitors take small ships across the voltatile Drake Passage to explore the Antarctic Peninsula. Most cruises offer soft adventure options such as kayaking and ice camping for an extra charge. Because of changing weather conditions (the Drake could accurately be called the world’s weather womb), the passage can be rough going. Seasickness medication is recommended, and most of the ship’s doctors have additional medication if patches and pills don’t work.
After those two days, most cruise ships ferry their passengers to the islands and the peninsula using Zodiac crafts. Although December, January and February constitute summer in Antarctica, there is usually some snow on the ground and the glaciers remain frozen. Temperatures rarely rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s light out for at least 20 hours daily. Rubber boots, parkas and a certain amount of mobility are required. A cruise operator will send you a list of recommended clothing and gear. If you do any winter outdoor activities, you may have a lot of what you need already.
Taking Care of Antarctica
Disinfecting your boots upon re-boarding the ship is necessary for your safety as well as the wildlife you will encounter. Most cruise operators who belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators have strict guidelines for interacting with wildlife. The wildlife don’t know the guidelines so it’s not uncommon to have to wait at a penguin crossing. Look left and there’s a sleeping seal. Whales often swim up to ships since it’s been two generations since they were hunted nearly to extinction.
On board ship, the expedition staff offer lectures on geologic formations, the history of whaling and sealing in the area, and the treaties that keep Antarctica safe for peaceful research. One operator, Quark Expeditions, also encourages discussion of the environmental impact of tourism on Antarctica and welcomes suggestions for ways the company can be more responsible in its operations.
If deciding to embark on an Antarctic adventure, remember these tips and enjoy of the world’s most isolated places.