Antarctica Travel Guide: Overview
The earth’s southernmost landmass, Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent in the world, and it was the last one humans discovered and explored. It’s also the planet’s coldest and driest continent, and it has the highest average elevation. Due to both its breathtaking natural beauty and its incredible scientific potential, this land of extremes continues to draw visitors. To touch foot on Antarctica, one must endure choppy seas and frigid temperatures, but it’s all worth it for a chance to visit the world’s last true terra incognita.
Antarctica was the last continent humankind mapped. The earliest recorded sighting of its shores was in 1820, when explorers Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev first sighted the Fimbul Ice Shelf. For centuries, brave men and women hunted for the mythical terra australis incognita, Latin for “unknown southern land.” In the course of their explorations, they discovered New Zealand and Tierra del Fuego but were ultimately frustrated in their quest for Antarctica.
Myths abounded. One British charlatan claimed the existence of a civilization on Terra Australis numbering “more than 50 millions.” He also claimed the land was rich in iron and manufactured goods and fully enjoyed the “comforts of civilized life.” As more and more explorers returned having only earned a glimpse of Antarctica’s ice shelves, however, public interest eventually waned.
The interior of the Antarctic continent wouldn’t be penetrated until the dawn of the 20th century, during what historians now call the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.” The Heroic Age culminated in Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott’s famous race to the South Pole in 1910, which the Norwegian, Amundsen, won by only a month. Scott’s party also made it to the pole but, tragically, perished on the long, cold trek back to the waiting ship.
Since then, Antarctica has been effectively colonized and is now dotted with scientific bases, many of which are affiliated with specific countries. Though the continent’s geography is, by now, well known, mysteries still abound here, and Antarctica travel draws more and more visitors each year who seek to experience the austere, beautiful, enigmatic landscape.
The only continent without an indigenous population, Antarctica doesn’t have much culture, per se. However, the community of permanent and semi-permanent residents on research stations, including both scientists and workers who facilitate community logistics, has developed a distinct way of living. The largest base, McMurdo Station, is populated by up to 1,000 people at any given time and has shops, a harbor, a greenhouse and two Wells Fargo ATMs, in addition to an enormous scientific facility.
Antarctica’s residents celebrate Midwinter Day, the only Antarctic holiday, which the first explorers of the continent started in the early 20th century. On June 21st, the winter solstice, each research station celebrates the midpoint of the long, dark winter with a group dinner, presents from home, breakfast in bed and letters from world leaders. In 1961, for example, American president John F. Kennedy wrote a note of midwinter greeting to American scientists stationed in Antarctica.
Good to Know
When traveling in Antarctica, it’s good to keep the following in mind:
While you won’t need to worry about restaurants, it’s customary to tip the staff and guides on your cruise carrier. For good service, $10 per person per day is the standard—so for a 10-day cruise, you would tip $100 per person in your party.
It’s important to respect the guidelines laid out by your tour operator and the Antarctic authorities when you land on the ice. The Antarctic environment is fragile and easily disturbed, and even a moment of inattentiveness can cause permanent damage to the ecosystem.
It’s a good idea to check with your tour operator whether the ship will have European- or American-style outlets. In Argentina they use the European-style plugs, so you may need to purchase a converter if you’re staying there before or after your Antarctic adventure.
On most cruises that offer food or drink for purchase, they will accept USD or credit card, but make sure to check beforehand.
According to a 2009 agreement, vessels with over 500 passengers are not allowed to land people on the continent. If you’re traveling to Antarctica by cruise ship, as most people do, it’s best to choose a smaller ship, if you want more time on the ice.
To state the obvious, Antarctica is cold. You’ll want to pack waterproof gear, including pants and a jacket, as well as warm gloves, warm underclothing and a set of sturdy boots.
When To Visit Antarctica
The season for tourism in Antarctica typically lasts from November until March. In November, at the beginning of the season, you’re more likely to encounter Antarctica in its natural state, after the winter freeze and before landing sites have become muddied by visiting ships. However, some operators will discourage visitors from coming in November, as temperatures tend to be colder and unbroken ice floes can impede access to some areas.
As the season continues, temperatures get warmer and wildlife becomes more plentiful. In December and February, the warmest months at the South Pole, the sun shines 20 hours a day and penguins begin to hatch. For whale-watching, the end of the Antarctic summer is prime time, and February or March will be your best bet.
Backroads Pro Tip
Backroads offers kayaking excursions off the ship. This is a great way to get away from the larger group and see some parts of the coastline that many tourists miss. If you’re interested, the warmer months—December through January—are most likely to make for a comfortable (warm) experience!
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- The highest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica was in March 2015, when it reached 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
- 90% of the world’s fresh water is in Antarctica.
- New Zealand and the Tierra del Fuego were both discovered by explorers searching for Antarctica.
- Some parts of Antarctica have had no rain or snow for the last 2 million years.
- Husky dogs, the breed that famously pulled the sleds of the historical Antarctic expeditions, have been banned from the continent since 1994, for fear that they might carry dangerous microorganisms.
Full Article Coming Soon!
Regions and Cities
Unless you’re willing to undertake a strenuous (and expensive) journey to the continent’s interior, your visit to Antarctica will most likely entail a series of stops along the coast. Visitations to many famous destinations are substantially limited by a lottery system that determines who gets to land where, so chances are you won’t get to see everything. When choosing an itinerary, however, here are a few of the most popular sites in Antarctica to consider:
This peninsula, which stretches off the Antarctic continent like a tentacle reaching for Tierra del Fuego, is one of the most popular destinations. It’s an awe-inspiring range of towering, icy peaks that descend into ice shelves where tourists can land and often take their first steps on Antarctica. The peninsula is also home to Port Lockroy, the British Antarctic survey base. In addition to being a research station, the base is a functioning little town that boasts a post office, museum and some tourist sites, including the skeleton of a fin whale left over from the station’s whaling days.
South Shetland Islands
The South Shetlands are the most accessible region of Antarctica, and most cruise ships will stop here on their way from Ushuaia to mainland Antarctica. Many tour companies offer a “polar plunge” option here because the water is slightly warmer than farther south. The Shetlands are also home to Deception Island, where you can enjoy the strange sensation of taking a thermal bath in a frozen wasteland at the foot of an active volcano.
Known as the “Gateway to Antarctica,” the Ross Sea was the entrance point to the Antarctic continent for famous explorers like Scott and Amundsen. Today, visiting the Ross Sea is difficult. That is, you’ll need to find a tour company equipped with an ice-breaking ship. For adventurous travelers, the Ross Sea is also the access point for Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano, which stands at over 12,000 feet and is climbable in the summertime. The Ross Sea is also home to the American McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s largest research base.
The South Pole
A long, cold walk from the continent’s coasts, the South Pole is the least visited location on the Antarctic continent that is nominally open for tourism. There’s a ceremonial South Pole marker at the end point of Amundsen and Scott’s famous race, which is, ironically, about 900 feet from the actual South Pole. Several research stations, some abandoned, are also occasionally open to tourists. Trips to the South Pole involve a lot of costly air travel—note, some tour operators allow visitors to ski the final leg of the trip—so be ready to pay upwards of $60,000 per person for the bragging rights.
Worth a Visit
Falkland Islands: A small outpost of the United Kingdom located east of the Tierra del Fuego, these islands are home to a delightfully nostalgic British aesthetic, including red phonebooths and a fish-and-chips shop, as well as a variety of wildlife such as penguins and dolphins.
King George Island: The largest of the South Shetland Islands, King George is where you’ll find the most lively community on the Antarctic continent. Metallica played a concert here in 2013, and for hardened travelers, the yearly marathon is worth a shot—just stay warm!
Port Lockroy Museum: The former base of operations at Port Lockroy has been converted into a charming museum about Antarctic history. If you find yourself in Port Lockroy, be sure to stop by the post office and send a letter stamped from Antarctica!
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Antarctica
While no visa is required to enter Antarctica, the most common route for North American visitors will go through Buenos Aires before finally meeting the cruise ship at the southernmost point of Argentina, Ushuaia. US citizens don’t need visas to enter Argentina for tourism purposes and can stay up to 90 days.
A US citizen needs a passport with at least six months of validity to enter Argentina. Cruise ships will likely also keep a copy of your passport on file, but regulations vary from country to country.
As of August 2016, US citizens no longer need to pay a reciprocity fee prior to entering Argentina, but this is always subject to reversal.
Most travelers will arrive at Ezeiza Airport (EZE), which is located outside Buenos Aires. From there, you can take a direct flight to Ushuaia’s airport (USH), which takes about three and a half hours. Ushuaia is located on an island, so land transport is not an option, unless you want to drive and to take a ferry.
Backroads Pro Tip
Drake’s Passage, the infamous crossing from America to Antarctica, is notoriously bumpy. If you’re prone to seasickness, it’s a good idea to bring some dramamine with you. Ginger chews can also help!
Once you’ve linked up with your cruise operator in Ushuaia, getting around will be simple. Tourism is heavily regulated in Antarctica, and your cruise will likely have a fixed itinerary.
Antarctica has no indigenous language, and each research station speaks the language of its sponsoring nation. The language of communication between research stations is English.
In addition, the following languages are spoken in various territories:
- French, in Kerguelen
- German, in New Swabia
- Maori, in the Balleny Islands
- Norwegian and Swedish, in Maudland
- Ognian, in Ognia
- Russian, in Bellinsgauzenia, New Devon and Ognia
Food and Drink
Your cruise operator will likely include food in the package. The meal quality can vary widely, so choose wisely. Food is generally not allowed on the continent to minimize the risk of pollution, so make sure to eat a big breakfast before you make a landing!
Food in Antarctica: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Antarctica is an intense experience, and accidents do happen. Every year, tourists are injured or even killed visiting the continent, and it’s important to take charge of your own safety while you’re there. The greatest dangers come on the ship when the seas get rough. The odds of sinking are low, but the risk of bumping your head is high. Make sure you have a secure handhold on the ship and be particularly careful with open doors. Similarly, exercise extreme caution when transferring from the main ship onto the Zodiac boats and vice versa. Remember that a hospital is usually days, not hours, away, so the stakes are inevitably higher.
While temperatures during the day in the summer months are typically above freezing, and so not generally dangerous, they can dip below zero during night. For everyone, and especially for travelers to Antarctica during the so-called “shoulder months” (November or March) it’s important to be prepared: pack many layers and remember to keep both your core and your extremities protected from the cold.
Antarctica has 24 hours of sunshine during the summer (the winter months in the northern hemisphere). Visitors should try to maintain a normal sleep schedule, and remember to pack an eye mask!
In all their efforts to protect against the cold, many visitors neglect to consider the sun. Any Antarctica travel guide, however, should note this danger. The rays reflecting off the snow, coupled with the thin ozone, can cause intense sunburn or even eye damage. Be sure to bring sunscreen and sunglasses—especially on day trips to the ice.
In case of emergency:
In an emergency in Antarctica, your best bet is probably to contact your tour operator. They’re likely to be the closest to your location, as well as the most prepared to assist you quickly. However, failing that, you can dial 911 for police, ambulance or fire, which will contact the nearest base with emergency services. If that doesn’t work, you can try 112 or 999.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Antarctica adventure!