Antarctica is an almost-uninhabited continent at the bottom of the world, home to icy landscapes and the animals that inhabit them. It is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on earth, with the highest average elevation. Just getting there (generally by ship) is an adventure, before you even consider what you can do once you arrive.
Around 20 scientific bases dot the continent, and permanent residents -- mostly scientists -- number only a few thousand. There are no cities or towns, and each scientific base follows the laws of the country to which it is attached. Several countries have laid claim to parts of Antarctica, but it is governed by the 1958 Antarctic Treaty, which established it as a peaceful cooperative international zone.
Most Antarctica trips take the form of sea voyages with shore visits, and a few tourists also join land expeditions and sightseeing by air. Most tours depart from southern South America, but it is also possible to travel from New Zealand or Australia.
Antarctica is a nature-lover’s paradise. Glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, icebergs, lakes, penguins, whales, albatross, other seabirds, and seals await visitors. But if you want to see polar bears, you’re thinking of the wrong place—these are only found in the northern polar regions. In fact, Antarctica doesn’t have any native land mammals.
Cruises & Boat Tours
Temperatures in Antarctica are cold, even in the summer, so outdoor activities are limited. That said, when the weather is fine, vessels take visitors to shore for a good explore of the terrain. Guided hikes with knowledgeable guides are a highlight, as is sea kayaking.
The Antarctic Peninsula is by far the most popular destination in Antarctica, as tours from South America head here. Highlights of the Antarctic Peninsula are the Antarctic Andes and hot springs.There are alsohot springs and beaches on Deception Island, another popular destination.
The Ross Sea is the main destination for cruise ships leaving from New Zealand and Australia. This area has some of Antarctica’s most impressive sights, such as the Ross Ice Shelf, Emperor Penguins, Mount Erebus (the world’s most southerly active volcano) and the Transantarctic Mountain Chain.
Informational lectures are given by knowledgeable experts, such as naturalists and scientists, on board your ship. As so much time is spent getting to and from Antarctica, make the most of this and learn all you can from these fonts of knowledge. These same experts will also take visitors on guided walks on land when possible.
Traveling to Antarctica is expensive, but rewarding for those interested in wilderness landscapes and wildlife. Approximately 30-40,000 tourists visit Antarctica each year.
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators regulates all non-scientific travel to Antarctica. The best, most environmentally friendly and ethical way of visiting Antarctica is to use a tour operator that is a member of the IAATO, as these have all demonstrated a commitment to following the protocols and precautions of visiting the continent safely.
Best Time to Visit Antarctica
Antarctica is only accessible to tourists in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, from November to March. At this time, the sea ice melts enough that ships can sail there. In the coastal regions, which are more commonly visited by tourists, temperatures can rise to 57 degrees F/ 14 degrees C, and daylight is twenty-four hours. In the interior, however—such as at the South Pole—even mid-summer temperatures don’t rise above 5 degrees F/ -15 degrees C.
Choosing a Tour
Tours from South America generally tour the Antarctic Peninsula, which is the skinny ‘tail’ that points up towards South America. Tours from New Zealand or Australia, on the other hand, head to the Ross Sea, a very large bay. Both the Antarctic Peninsula and the Ross Sea offer some of Antarctica’s most impressive sights and an abundance of sea and bird life.
The most common way of getting to Antarctica is from Ushuaia in Argentina or Punta Arenas in Chile, a trip that takes about two days. It’s also possible to go from Bluff in New Zealand, or Hobart in Australia, taking about seven days. Cruises are the way to see Antarctica, because of the continent’s lack of roads (or even human settlements).
Sea crossings to Antarctica can be extremely rough, especially through the 497 mile/ 800 kilometer Drake Passage between Ushuaia and the Antarctic Peninsula, and must be made in ice-strengthened vessels. Smaller ships that carry 50-100 passengers can get to interesting and beautiful spots that the larger ships can’t, but the rough seas will have a worse affect on passengers. The larger ships that carry up to 1200 passengers may protect you from the worst effects of high seas, but can't get so up-close-and-personal with those penguins. Many larger ships are also not permitted to make landings, which limits what visitors can see.
Typical Tour Cost
The journey to Antarctica is long, and it costs more to reach than your average destination. As an indication, G Adventures tours start at $7000 for an 11-day trip, departing from the southernmost tip of South America. Tours that fly, rather than sail, are significantly more expensive.
Also bear in mind that medical evacuation in the case of an emergency could run into the tens of thousands of dollars (see Health & Safety section below).
Taking a commercial flight to Antarctica is not impossible, but rare. Some tour operators offer packages that include flying one-way or return from Santiago or Punta Arenas, in Chile. Otherwise, you can count on sailing, whether it be from South America, Australia, or New Zealand.
The tour you choose to take which give you clear outlines of what you need to bring based on the type of vessel, time of year, and excursions included in your itinerary.
Keep in mind that Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth—even in summer. You will need proper clothing for the extreme weather, including warm and waterproof clothes and boots. Sunscreen and sunglasses are also essential. There isn’t, however, much risk of it raining or snowing, as Antarctica is a actually a desert.
Remember that you won't really be able to purchase things you left at home (due to the lack of real settlements), so double-check your packing list with your bag before you go.
It is not dangerous to visit Antarctica per se, but there are logistical and practical challenges that make it a unique destination. When traveling with a tour operator in Antarctica, it is even more crucial than in many other places that they know what they’re doing (as mentioned above, it’s best to go with a company that’s part of the IAATO).
The greatest danger when visiting Antarctica are storms at sea. Hurricane-force winds are possible, as are waves of up to 60-70 feet (18-23 meters). When on board a ship in rough seas, always ensure you’re holding on tight! There’s little chance of the ship sinking, but most injuries come in rough seas from passengers moving around when it’s not safe to do so.
Most ships and research stations have a doctor, but facilities will be limited, and a proper hospital will be several days’ travel away. Evacuation can be in the range of tens of thousands of dollars. If you have any preexisting conditions that might require hospitalization, you may want to reconsider visiting Antarctica. Yet, it is common for people of all ages and travel experience to visit Antarctica, and there is nothing in particular that a fit, healthy person couldn’t take in their stride.
Also keep in mind that the twenty-four hour daylight of the summer months effects sleeping patterns. Therefore, it’s important to ensure you get enough regular sleep in Antarctica. Bringing a dark sleeping mask can help.