Of my many travel goals, and there are many, the top one has been to visit every continent. And while I still have yet to complete this goal, when presented with the opportunity to travel to Antarctica, I jumped at the chance. The journey was everything I expected and more, and along the way I was surprised by my experiences and the lessons the White Continent had to teach me.
Whether you’re currently planning a trip or travel to Antarctica is just a dream for the future, these are just a few things to keep in mind:
1. There’s more to Ushuaia
The general consensus on Ushuaia is that there’s not much there. This is true – it’s nothing compared to Buenos Aires or even the smaller Argentine cities of Mendoza or Bariloche. But I’ve always enjoyed exploring the small towns (I find them much more manageable than the major metropoles), and though three days was probably more than enough, Ushuaia does offer some interesting activities.
The main reason I was at the end of the world was for the wildlife, and I couldn’t wait to see penguins. While you can see a few in the Beagle Channel, the best bet is to head to Estancia Harberton, approximately an hour and a half drive from the city. Here you can take a short walk through the lovely old farm and browse through a small natural history museum before hopping on a zodiac that whisks you off to Isla Martillo, home of thousands of Magellanic penguins, with a few Gentoo pairs and occasional King penguins as well. On Isla Martillo, you can get up-close-and personal with the penguins, and even peek into the nests they’ve dug into the ground.
Closer to town is the Tierra del Fuego National Park. With a number of trails that pass by lakes and through forests, this park is also a wonderful opportunity to search for wildlife, including many species of birds, guanacos, otters, and foxes.
I’m fascinated by small, local museums, and the Ushuaia Maritime and Prison Museum fit the bill. Maybe it’s not particularly small in the physical sense, as it is located in the former Recidivist Prison where some of the country’s most dangerous criminals were sent, but it has excellent exhibitions on the local and regional history of Ushuaia itself as well as maritime expeditions throughout the years.
There are also Beagle Channel boat trips, but if you’re about to set off for Antarctica, it’s nothing you won’t see upon departure for your cruise. As you pull out into the channel, keep an eye out for lounging sea lions, nesting cormorants, and maybe even a few penguins swimming by.
2. Before you go, be sure about what you want to see
What do you want to see most: nesting penguins, penguin chicks, or whales? While you could potentially see any of the above, the wildlife does follow its own rough schedule. When expeditions begin in November and December, you are more likely to see mating and nesting penguins, and chicks begin hatching from December to January. If you’re more interested in whale watching, you should plan your trip for February and March, when whale activity is at its peak.
3. The Drake Passage is a completely different experience for each person
“This is really smooth!” was the comment I heard from most of the crew, and many passengers as well. Meanwhile, I spent half of the time on seasickness medication, on my back in bed. There is no way to predict how difficult your crossing will be, and even if there were a way to see into the future, the passage can have drastically different effects on those aboard.
4. Take advantage of the onboard offerings
If you aren’t feeling ill, (is seasickness a concern for the entire time, or just the drake passage?) go to the presentations and activities offered. The remote location means that internet and television options are very limited, and the Drake Passage crossing takes about two days. Most ships offer activities and presentations on wildlife, the history of the continent, the challenges Antarctica faces, and much more, and the information presented will lead to a deeper appreciation of your visit.
5. You must be flexible
Especially if you’re going early or late in the season, though it can happen at any time, there’s a good chance that something in your itinerary will change. Being on a boat, you are subject to unpredictable weather and the movement of the ice as it expands and retreats. There will be stops you cannot make, and there will be wildlife you might not see. It’s all part of the adventure.
6. The weather can change quickly
It can be overcast and bleak, with whipping wind and drifting snow. And at other times, though it will never be your typical “beach” experience, I had to remove my jacket due to the balmy temperatures. Make sure you’re prepared for the changeable temperatures by packing accordingly. See our FAQs on packing and more for additional recommendations.
7. Sun protection is essential
Many travelers forget that, even though it’s not a tropical destination, a lot of time will be spent outdoors. With all of the water and snow and the reflections that they create, I would have been blinded and burned without sunglasses and sunscreen.
8. The water really is that cold
If conditions are right, some cruises offer the chance to take a dip in the ocean. A dip is definitely plenty, with water temperatures hovering around freezing all year long. If you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime, extreme polar plunge opportunity, this is your chance. But even though I received a certificate for my bravery, I will never forget the chill and the amount of time it took to recover from the experience. Make sure you have or make a few friends onboard who are willing to help bundle you up and see you safely back to the ship!
9. Penguins smell terrible
Penguins were everywhere. Similar to the Galapagos, they paid no mind to the human visitors to their home and went about their business. It was adorable and incredible, and it smelled awful. I always thought the penguin smell at the zoo was due to being confined to a small habitat, but no. They just smell really, really bad.
10. There are remnants of attempts at human inhabitation
Antarctica is presented as a totally barren, snow-covered landscape; a sort of “last frontier.” But in reality, you can find hints of past expeditions everywhere. From sunken ships to abandoned shelters filled with foodstuffs from decades gone by, reminders of explorers who have attempted to conquer the continent abound.
11. Everyone becomes a photographer
Bring a good camera. Once you touch land, even the most stoic passengers became semi-professional photographers, willing to give up all dignity to get the perfect shot. And with the abundance of photo opportunities, it’s nearly impossible to take a bad shot. (See point 12…)
12. The beauty of Antarctica is surreal
Antarctica feels like a different world. So quiet and vast, and the shades of blue are almost unnatural. We would take slow zodiac rides through iceberg fields, and the colors were almost electric. It was impossible to comprehend, and every view seemed better than the next.
Traveling to Antarctica is an incredible adventure, and absolutely worth every second. Knowmad Adventures can help you pick the cruise that’s best for you and navigate the planning process. Knowmad’s South America travel specialists can also help you arrange incredible pre- or post-Antarctica extensions to explore more of the continent. For more information, check out our Antarctica Trip Ideas page or give us a call at 612-315-2894 to begin planning your adventure today!
Have you been to Antarctica or is Antarctica on your bucket list? Tell us about it in the comments!
Con cariño, Krista
Krista is part of the Operations team at Knowmad Adventures, a company dedicated to creating unique, private and custom trips in South America. She has lived in six countries on four continents and visited more than fifty countries, but is now settled back in her home state of Minnesota where she loves sharing her passion and knowledge with fellow travelers.