Yes, we went to the white continent. One of our great traveler dreams was fulfilled in our one-year trip through South America. Many people have asked us how to go to Antarctica, if there is tourism to that continent until recently almost unexplored if it is very expensive, what needs to be done to get there, what is done when you get there … We have discovered that there is a lot of ignorance about travel to Antarctica, so let’s try to clarify all the doubts we think may arise about expeditions to the sixth (or, according to some theory, the seventh or fifth ) continent.
HOW TO TRAVEL TO ANTARCTICA: VISAS, PERMITS AND WHERE TO LEAVE
The first questions we are going to answer are: Can you travel to Antarctica? How many visitors does Antarctica receive each year? How to get? Do I need a visa? Most people do not even consider a trip to Antarctica and, if they do, they think it will be something very expensive, which can be done only if you work at National Geographic, if you are engaged in extreme expeditions or if it is A scientist who works on some basis. It is not so, it is something expensive but relatively accessible – especially compared to luxury trips to other destinations – and very easy to hire, like any other trip. In fact, according to IAATO statistics– the International Association of Tour Operators of Antarctica – in the 2015-2016 season 30,904 tourists went to Antarctica. Of course, of these only 126 were Spanish and 591 from Latin America – among them 159 Argentines, 93 Mexicans and 88; Chileans. So I know that this article is not going to be read by many people!
The easiest and most accessible way to get to Antarctica is with a cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula (Argentine, Chilean, or English Antarctic …). There are also some cruises to travel to Antarctica from Chile (and plane trips depart from Punta Arenas ), from Uruguay – in particular, Montevideo -. Some also leave New Zealand –by the Ross Sea and leaving Invercargill / Bluff or Lyttelton–, Australia –in Hobart, Tasmania–, or South Africa –Cape Town or Port Elizabeth–, but it is a minority. Since no government currently controls Antarctica, No visa is needed to visit it. Yes, you have to have a permit but, in the case of cruise ships, it is the shipping company that processes these permits so tourists do not have to do anything. Of course, you have to have the documents to enter Argentina.
CRUISE PRICES TO ANTARCTICA: CAN YOU TRAVEL CHEAP OR FREE?
They call them “expedition boats” but most trips to Antarctica are luxury cruises so they are never cheap, but the cheapest fares are last minute. The only agencies that are authorized to offer “last minute” rates are in Ushuaia. But that does not mean that you have to be in Ushuaia waiting until a cruise ship leaves, although it is also an option. Last-minute rates usually appear approximately one month before departure and once published they do not usually go down. That means you have enough time to hire a cruise by phone, email or Skype from anywhere in the world.
Many agencies in Ushuaia sell last minute to Antarctica. The prices are the same in all because it is the shipping companies themselves that decide them. We contacted the majority and, to make things easier, we have reached an agreement with one of them: we help you travel to Antarctica.
One important thing to keep in mind: all prices are in US dollars and the only way to pay for cruises with last-minute rates is by credit or debit card , so you have to have a high enough limit to pay the trip – although you can pay with several cards or in more days, the important thing is to pay the total before the day of departure. The cheapest rates in shared cabins of 4 people are around USD 4,000 for 10-day cruises without complementary activities included.
Some sailboats make longer trips, but you have to have a very strong stomach. We have heard of people who, staying a long time in Ushuaia, have managed to embark for free on some of these sailboats working on the crew.
HOW TO CHOOSE A CRUISE TO ANTARCTICA
The price is, of course, one of the most important factors when choosing a cruise to Antarctica but, considering that it is something that is done once in a lifetime and that, in any case, it will be expensive, it is not necessary to rush into the election and jumps into the cheapest. What should be taken into account when choosing a cruise then?
- That the shipping company is part of the IAATO, on its page, there is a list of the members.
- That the expedition program foresees at least two departures a day.
- The duration of the cruise. Keep in mind that you usually go out at night and arrive in the morning after breakfast, so one day is boarding and one landing. Also, it usually takes two days, in each direction, to cross the mythical Drake Passage. So, for example, on a 10-day cruise will be two days of operations on the ship, four from Drake and only four in Antarctica. Considering the instability of time and, sometimes, it is not possible to disembark, they can be quite fair.
- Speed and stability of the boat.
- If you are interested in an ” adventure option “, ask if it is included or find out its price. The most common are kayaking and camping, although there is also mountaineering and skiing. Kayaking in the Antarctic waters and among wild animals or camping where almost no one has done it can be unique experiences, but not all expeditions anticipate them, they are rarely included in the price and expenses are paid: about 250 USD for kayaking and About USD 950 for camping.
- Private room vs shared room. In our case, the price difference was USD 200 which, over the total cost, was negligible, so we chose the private room
- Boat size. We have heard that traveling on larger vessels means doing fewer excursions since in some places only 50 people can go down at a time. It’s more about the organization since there are ways to separate the passage for everyone to do the excursions. The important thing is to make sure that zodiac excursions are going to be done as well, not just on land. Staying a long time on foot can be tired and boring and some animals can be seen better from the zodiacs.
- Scientific and expert team. In all ships there are historians, biologists, geologists, ornithologists, etc. Sometimes there are also special guests – in our case a nephew of Ernest Shackleton’s grandson and the grandson of Robert Falcon Scott. If you are very interested in the talks, it is good to know who you are going to meet.
WHEN TO TRAVEL TO ANTARCTICA AND WHAT WILDLIFE TO OBSERVE AT EACH TIME
Due to obvious weather reasons, there are only Antarctic cruises from October to April. When to go then? As for prices, they are cheaper at the beginning and the end of the season. At Christmas and in January it is when there are more tourists and it is more difficult to find last minute rates. But, apart from this, what are we going to find in each period?
- From October to the beginning of December everything is covered with snow to the water’s edge. Penguins, cormorants, and seabirds are in the procession and breeding phase and the seals are in their reproduction phase.
- From December to February the snow begins to withdraw, the first penguin pups are born and their parents begin to feed them, Weddel seals are in a time of molt and humpback whales, common Minke whales and Antarctic orcas begin to arrive. The days are longer and there is more light…
Do you want to travel to Antarctica?
- From mid-February to March is the best time to watch whales, since they have all come to feed. There are many sea lions on land and the penguins begin molting while many continue to feed their young. There is less ice and snow, so boats can explore the Antarctic peninsula further south. The days are getting shorter.
CAN I SEE THE EMPEROR AND KING PENGUINS IN ANTARCTICA?
In the Antarctic Peninsula, the area visited by the cruise ships, the most common penguins are the Juanito penguin – Pygoscelis Papua, also called Papuan penguin, Gentu penguin or vinca penguin-, the chinstrap penguin – Pygoscelis antarcticus – and the advanced penguin – Pygoscelis adeliae -. Sometimes, you can see some macaroni penguin – or orange plume penguin, Eudyptes Chrysolophus -. The king penguins can be seen on cruise ships they include South Georgia and emperor penguins only in specialized cruises which include visits to the inner part of Antarctica, usually by helicopter.
WHAT CAN YOU VISIT IN ANTARCTICA: TOURIST PLACES
The next question is what can you visit? What are “tourist” activities? Cruises that leave Ushuaia only run through the area of the Antarctic Peninsula and the surrounding islands. Some also pass through the Falkland Islands – or Falkland – and South Georgia, which are very rich in wildlife – albatrosses, humpback whales, emperor penguins. But we must bear in mind that it takes a long time to reach these islands and that this implies less time on the peninsula. In this one, there are different points of interest such as the Lemaire anal c, Deception Island, Paradiso Bay, and Puerto Lockroy, with its museum and post office from where you can send postcards to the rest of the world.
FACILITIES IN ANTARCTICA: ARE THERE HOTELS? CAN YOU VISIT THE BASES?
There is no hotel or any other type of permanent accommodation tourist infrastructure in Antarctica, although some IAATO operators offer inland expeditions sleeping in tents (not just one night as on cruise ships). There are many scientific research bases in Antarctica but it is not possible to sleep in them as a tourist. Some of them can be visited on request but not all operators include these visits, and those who do not include them in all their cruises, in fact, they are not very common.
- Take out insurance, as cruise ships do not include it. It must include evacuation and repatriation. We always use IATI and you, for being readers of SaltaConmeigo you have a 5% discount hiring from here. You have to choose the cruise option and we recommend the IATI Estrella. If you want to also add cancellation insurance that includes the entire value of the trip (highly recommended), being very high, you will have to ask for a custom one. Write to us if you want to know more. You can also read our entry on how to choose the best travel insurance, the one that suits you best, before hiring it.
- Clothes. With this, we will answer another question. Is it very cold in Antarctica? Yes, it is cold, but in summer it is not much colder than in our mountains in winter, temperatures are usually around 0ºC. The golden rules are:
- Wear many layers.
- Hat and scarf
- The inner layers have to be breathable (avoid cotton, wool or wool blends with synthetic fibers is preferable) and for the legs, it is good to wear fleece mesh.
- The outer layers (pants and hooded parka) must be «waterproof» not «water repellent». It is good that the parka is long enough, it will be useful when you have to sit in the zodiacs. On some expeditions, the parka is given as a gift. The pants have to be thermal.
- Protect hands with waterproof gloves and inner lining and feet with many fat socks.
- Wear the pants outside the boots to prevent water from entering.
- Boots are always provided by the shipping company.
- It is not necessary to buy everything, in Ushuaia, you can rent gloves and waterproof pants, many shops do it. If something is forgotten, there are always shops on boats.
- Swimsuit if you want to jump into the water like us
- Wear sunscreen and sunglasses
- Money. Everything on the boat can be paid by card or US dollars, also tips, which are not included in the price.
- Food and drinks. Water, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and food are included in the price and there is plenty.
- In the bathrooms there is shampoo, shower gel, and towels, you do not need to bring anything. The current is 220 V.
- Wear protection for photo cameras. On the boat, you can buy waterproof bags, but with a plastic bag, and some skill, it may be enough.
- On boats, there is always a photographer who gives talks on how to make the most of your camera.
TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO ANTARCTICA: CLOTHES, MEDICINES, INSURANCE, FOOD, MONEY
- You have to be flexible and not get involved with the program since time plays a fundamental role and the crew will know how to find the right alternatives if something cannot be visited.
- Wear a lot of Dramamine and/or patches against dizziness. Drake’s passage can be very hard even for those who do not suffer from dizziness. It is not necessary to take any other medication – as long as no specific medication is taken – as there are doctors on board.
CAN I SEE THE SOUTHERN AURORA ON MY CRUISE IN ANTARCTICA?
As with the northern lights in the northern hemisphere, there are also polar auroras in the southern hemisphere: the southern auroras. The southern auroras in Antarctica are visible only in the southern winter: from March to September and they are rarely seen in areas visited by cruise ships, since there is not enough darkness in the tourist season, as indicated by the IAATO. It is easier to see the southern auroras from Tasmania, in Australia, or New Zealand.
SUSTAINABILITY OF TOURISM TO ANTARCTICA
Antarctica has a huge biodiversity and tourism could compromise it. Therefore it is important to confirm that the shipping company with which you travel is part of the IAATO, since its members are subject to very demanding regulations that regulate the number of passengers that can disembark at the same time, the codes of behavior with the fauna , the rules for not contaminating this fragile ecosystem (for example you have to vacuum all the clothes you take before leaving to eliminate possible seeds hooked on velcro or at the bottom of the backpacks), etc.
Now that you know how to do it, we tell you what it feels like when you are in Antarctica.