How Difficult is it to Travel to Antarctica? And Why Would You Go There, Anyway?

(Image: Henrique Setim,  Unsplash )

(Image: Henrique Setim, Unsplash)

With the polar vortex hanging like a dark, ominous, and rather chilly cloud over much of the Midwest this week and outfits like USA Today running headlines comparing temperatures in Chicago to those of Antarctica and the North Pole, it got me wondering: why do people enjoy traveling (or living, for that matter) in places where the cold regularly punishes their faces? Here in Michigan, where I live, we deal with the snow and the cold for maybe four to five months out of the year, but why, oh why, would anyone choose to live in a state of perpetual winter?

Short of living in a place like Oymyakon (or one of the six other coldest corners of the earth that I wrote about a while back), where class isn’t cancelled unless the temperature dips below -52 degrees Fahrenheit, what’s the draw for visiting an extreme destination like, say, I don’t know… Antarctica? And how do you get to a place like that anyway? Isn’t it practically impossible?

Once you wade through all of the preceding rhetorical questions, you might realize that you’ve never really considered Antarctica a vacation destination, much less the kind of place that people other than climate scientists and researchers visit at all. It is possible to travel to that frozen continent on the bottom of the globe, however. The only thing is it’s not as simple as jumping on a plane from wherever you happen to be and flying down there.

It isn’t as difficult to get there as you might imagine, though, either. According to Daven Hafey, a professional guide, writer, and freelance film maker who has guided more than 40 polar expeditions in the Antarctic, Greenland, Arctic Canada, and Alaska, it is actually easier than ever for adventurous travelers to make their way to Antarctica these days. The first step, Hafey says, is getting yourself to one of two South American destinations: Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile.

Regardless of which you choose, your journey will still involve another flight and a sea voyage. If you opt for Buenos Aires, the next step would be a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Ushuaia, a resort town on the southernmost tip of South America that touts itself as “The End of the World.” From there, it’s all aboard an expedition vessel such as those operated by Quark Expeditions or Oceanwide Expeditions in order to cross the Drake Passage, a 600-mile body of water that separates the southern tip of South America from the Antarctic Peninsula.

Penguins, seals, and whales are among the wildlife you’re likely to encounter in Antarctica (Image: Eamonn Maguire,  Unsplash )

Penguins, seals, and whales are among the wildlife you’re likely to encounter in Antarctica (Image: Eamonn Maguire, Unsplash)

“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,” Hafey wrote in a June 2018 article posted on Quark Expeditions’ blog. “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.”

So, you’ve spent your shekels on the flights and the sea voyages and now you’re aboard the ship, those pristine Antarctic glaciers coming into view — what’s next? Well, depending on which type of expedition your wallet could stomach, you’re about to spend anywhere from eight days up to three weeks or more exploring those frigid environs.

According to Hafey, the most common expeditions last nine to 10 days, during which five full days are spent exploring (with the remaining time devoted to getting there and back). Exploring, he says, consists of “daily landings on islands and the physical continent itself, and intimate, Zodiac cruises amongst icebergs and wildlife.” Other potential activities include hiking up to vantage points, camping on the ice, paddleboarding, kayaking, snowshoeing, or, if you’re truly feeling bold, taking a polar plunge.

Those who have the time and money to do so might opt for a longer expedition which allows for further exploration of not only Antarctica but also of nearby sub-Antarctic regions. “There are expeditions that spend twenty or more days exploring in the Southern Ocean and its unique islands,” Hafey says. “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.”

If you’re still left wondering why someone might want to travel to Antarctica after reading the preceding paragraphs, you might be better off just staying home. While you’re doing that, the rest of us — the true explorers — will keep our sights set on the icy seventh continent and try not to think too much about the thousands of dollars we’ll be dropping once we finally decide to pull that trigger.