Antarctica, the southernmost continent and site of the South Pole, is a virtually uninhabited, ice-covered landmass. Most cruises to the continent visit the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches toward South America. It’s known for the Lemaire Channel and Paradise Harbor, striking, iceberg-flanked passageways, and Port Lockroy, a former British research station turned museum. The peninsula’s isolated terrain also shelters rich wildlife, including many penguins.
Peace & Quiet
You can travel to Antarctica! Here’s how!
A common question I hear from people whose excitement is palpable after they’ve learned how accessible Antarctica can be, is: “How do I even get there?” That answer might not immediately seem straightforward. Maybe some of us have heard of researchers flying on military aircraft from New Zealand, or month long sailing adventures from South Africa or Australia. But the easiest way to get to Antarctica is simple. All you need to do is reach Buenos Aires, Argentina or Punta Arenas, Chile. Both are cosmopolitan cities with international airports and regular service to the rest of the world.
The majority of Antarctic voyages depart from Ushuaia, Argentina, a three-and-a-half-hour direct flight from Buenos Aires. Throughout the summer, the Port of Ushuaia embarks and disembarks expedition vessels bound for the southern wilderness as seamlessly as any harbor in the Virgin Islands, the Mediterranean, or Alaska.
Voyages departing from Ushuaia, Argentina access Antarctica by sea. They traverse the infamous Drake Passage, a 600-mile (1,000 kilometer) body of water that separates South America from the Antarctic Peninsula. Depending upon conditions, this crossing often takes a day and a half at sea and is a prime opportunity to view iconic wildlife such as the great wandering albatross.
Alternatively, travelers preferring to skip the Drake Passage can fly out of Punta Arenas, Chile directly to an airstrip on an island adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula. From there, they’ll board the expedition ship and be standing face to face with glaciers and penguins just a few hours after departing Punta Arenas.
The best time to visit Antarctica is from late spring to early fall, which in the southern hemisphere is from October to March. The first voyages of the season reach Antarctica in late spring (end of October or early November) when the sea ice opens up just enough to allow ships into the pristine glacial landscapes. Voyages operate continually from late October, until the summer comes to an end, and the wonderfully powerful Antarctic autumn begins to arrive by the middle of March.
How long is an Antarctic expedition?
When browsing information about your Antarctic expedition, you’ll find different types of “itineraries,” or sailing plans. These itineraries aren’t concrete, per se, but guides that will shape the direction and the duration of each voyage. Among these, you will find expeditions that travel directly to Antarctica, and others that include the spectacular sub-Antarctic regions of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and South Georgia.
There are a wide range of options for visiting Antarctica that can suit your schedule, from “express” expeditions with flights to the Antarctic Peninsula that get you to the continent and back in as quick as eight days, to epic explorations of sub-Antarctic islands and the continent itself, lasting three weeks or more.
The most common expeditions last approximately nine to ten days, including five full days of exploration in Antarctica. Rather than fly from South America, these voyages embrace the power and the beauty of the Drake Passage (and its rich and abundant bird life), sailing from Ushuaia. Time spent at sea varies depending on sea conditions and wind, but often take from one and a half to two days at sea, each way. The rest of the voyage is spent in the seemingly endless coastal environment of the Antarctic Peninsula.
For those with extended holidays and a thirst for a deeper exploration of this remote wilderness, there are expeditions that spend twenty or more days exploring in the Southern Ocean and its unique islands. These extended voyages include visits to the wildlife-rich Falkland Islands and the otherworldly wilderness of South Georgia, in addition to the days spent in the Antarctic Peninsula, making these expeditions the most thorough exploration of the wild environments at the bottom of the globe.
How is an expedition to Antarctica different from a cruise?
The best way to immerse yourself in the Antarctic experience is aboard an authentic expedition ship. Different from traditional cruise ships, expedition vessels are much smaller and allow travelers to not just get closer to the continent, but to actually travel into and set foot on the glacial landscapes that make it so famous.
Larger ships that do quick cruise-by’s, providing only glimpses of Antarctica, often carry upward of 500 – 2,000 passengers. Alternatively, expedition ships typically carry between just 70 and 200 passengers, but never more than 200. Smaller group sizes comply with tourism regulations on the 7th Continent, and allow for a substantially wider array of activities, including daily landings on islands and the physical continent itself, and intimate, Zodiac cruises amongst icebergs and wildlife. This type of exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula is not possible on larger cruise ships.
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest continent. It contains 90 percent of all of the ice on Earth in an area just under 1.5 times the size of the United States. But the southernmost continent is much more than a big block of ice.
Lying in the Antarctic Circle that rings the southern part of the globe, Antarctica is the fifth largest continent. Its size varies through the seasons, as expanding sea ice along the coast nearly doubles the continent’s size in the winter. Almost all of Antarctica is covered with ice; less than half a percent of the vast wilderness is ice-free.
The continent is divided into two regions, known as East and West Antarctica. East Antarctica makes up two-thirds of the continent, and is about the size of Australia. Ice in this part of the continent averages 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) thick. West Antarctica, on the other hand, is a series of frozen islands stretching toward the southern tip of South America, forming an extension of the Andes Mountains. The two regions are separated by the Transantarctic Mountains, a range that stretches across the continent, and is sometimes completely covered by ice.
The ice of Antarctica is not a smooth sheet but a continuously changing expanse. Glaciers inch across the continent, cracking and breaking the ice. Crevasse fields with cracks hundreds of feet deep span the continent, hidden by only a shallow layer of snow. Icebergs fall along the coast, where shelves and glaciers break off into the sea.
Good to know
Since no country owns Antarctica, no visa is required. However, the countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty's Protocol on Environment Protection require that visitors from those countries (including the USA, Canada, EU and Australia) need permission. This is nearly always through tour operators.
1,000 to 5,000 depending on season
Antarctica has no official currency. Fun fact: the Antarctica Overseas Exchange Office produced what they call the 'Antarctican dollar' - a collector's item, it can be sold at certain face value but it's not legal tender.
5.483 million mi²
When to travel
The best time of year to visit is during the Antarctic summer from November to March, when you’ll see Antarctica’s wildlife at its busiest and benefit from up to 24 hours of daylight.