For many travelers, Antarctica is more than just a vacation — it’s the journey of a lifetime. Viewed as one of Earth’s last great frontiers, it is a place so far removed from modern society that you won’t find countries or cities, cellular service or any permanent (human) residents.
It’s little wonder, then, that despite boasting a growing number of reputable tour companies, Antarctica remains visited by so few. In fact, an estimated 30,000 travelers make the trek each year — almost half the number of people in Disney’s Magic Kingdom in a single day.
Getting to Antarctica isn’t without its challenges. It’s costly (though many companies offer flash sales and last-minute deals to help reduce the price), you can only go from November to March, and the weather turns on a dime.
But to be in the south polar region is to experience something otherworldly. Imagine standing before colossal icebergs six stories tall, being so close to whales you’ll hear them breathe and, of course, marching with penguins. You’ll have the chance to follow in the footsteps of famous explorers while creating your own unique experiences that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Intrigued? Let’s take a journey through Antarctica’s astonishing sites and surprises, because you never know what you’ll encounter at the end of the world…
The Gateway to the Seventh Continent
Most travelers begin their Antarctic journey by sailing from Ushuaia in southern Argentina, a four-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Established in 1883 as a penal colony for Argentina’s most dangerous criminals, modern-day Ushuaia — considered to be the southernmost city in the world — is colorful and charming.
There’s plenty of activities to fill a day or two, including strolling along the Beagle Channel, admiring the Andes and snow-capped Martial Range, and visiting Tierra del Fuego National Park. History buffs can take in Ushuaia’s storied past at the Maritime and Prison Museum, while San Martin Street is lined with shops and restaurants serving local delicacies such as lamb and king crab.
For an after-dinner treat, a surprising number of gelato shops offer dulce de leche and other treats. There’s even a Hard Rock Café. The world’s southernmost, of course.
The Calm Before the Shake
After departing Ushuaia, it takes two days at sea to reach Antarctica. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of scenery and history to keep you occupied.
The first leg of the journey takes you through The Beagle Channel, a relatively smooth waterway in the middle of Argentina and Chile. Named for the first vessel to sail it, the HMS Beagle, the channel famously charmed Charles Darwin, who described it as having “magnificent character.”
You’ll feel like you’re in a fairytale forest as you coast through fauna-covered mountains and tidewater glaciers. Though these calm, metallic-looking waters make for leisurely sailing, they were once at the center of a nasty territorial dispute between Chile and Argentina, which got so heated that Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth had to step in as mediators.
After a few hours in the Beagle Channel, it’ll be time for the infamous Drake…
The Drake Shake
To sail The Drake Passage is, well, a rite of passage. Widely considered the earth’s roughest waters, The Drake is also among the coldest, deepest and densest.
With frigid 30-degree temperatures and a depth that ranges between 11,000 and 15,000 feet, you won’t want to go swimming here, but experiencing the “Drake Shake” is an exhilarating adventure. How often do you get to be in open waters where the forces of the Atlantic, Pacific and Antarctic oceans converge?
Bird-watchers will delight in the impressive flocks of petrels and, quite possibly, spot the elusive albatross. Dolphins and whales are often spotted here, too. Though some companies offer a “Fly the Drake” option, to skip this part of the journey is to miss out on something magical.
Plus, because The Drake is entirely unpredictable, you may be lucky and experience the much calmer “Drake Lake.”
Once the waters (and hopefully your stomach) have calmed, it’s time to head to the observation deck for a breathtaking, some say “life-changing,” moment: your first glimpse of the seventh continent.
It’s hard not to get excited, even emotional, as you sail next to icebergs and inch closer to this spectacular white landmass, a befitting reward for conquering The Drake Passage. As you take in the sights, you’ll notice there aren’t a lot of sounds, aside from the waves and the buzz of your fellow passengers.
It’s the perfect moment to take it all in, whether you want to cheer with your fellow passengers or have a moment of quiet reflection. Grab your binoculars, zoom in with your camera or simply stare: Antarctica is a stunning sight to behold.
Cool as Ice
Antarctica's ice contributes to both its beauty and its important impact on the rest of the world. More than 99 percent of the continent is covered by it, and the average thickness is one mile.
The Antarctic Ice Sheet, one of two polar caps in the world, is the largest single mass of ice on Earth and has existed for over 40 million years. It also holds 90 percent of the world’s freshwater supply.
Unfortunately, recent studies indicate that the ice sheet is melting more rapidly than expected — more than three times the rate of past years. With more than 200 billion tonnes of ice flooding into oceans annually, scientists predict a global sea rise between 2 and 3.5 feet by 2100.
A Land of Extremes
Traveling to Antarctica comes with an “anything can happen” clause, thanks to its many extremes. Though covered by ice, Antarctica is actually a desert. In fact, it’s the largest desert in the world, and certain parts haven’t seen rain in almost 14 million years.
In addition to being the earth’s driest continent, Antarctica also holds the prize for being the coldest and the windiest, with coastal winds able to reach 200 miles an hour. The lowest temperature on earth was recorded in Antarctica: an extraordinary -144 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thankfully, visiting in the summer months brings temperatures that hover in the 30s. Temperatures once reached a balmy 63 degrees...but that’s even rarer than spotting an albatross.
Putting Your Feet on The Ground
Seeing Antarctica by sea is awesome, but now it’s time for something even more awe-inspiring: walking on the continent.
There are few things more exciting than putting on your gear (coat, boots, waterproof pants), strapping on a life vest and hopping in a zodiac cruise for your first shore landing. It’s a “pinch me, am I really here?” moment as you motor through icy waters, potentially spotting a whale or seal, and eagerly await planting your feet on the ground.
One of the nicest things about shore landings is that, per guidelines set by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operations (IAATO), only one ship can visit at a time. So, wherever you land, you won’t find big crowds. In fact, you’ll often feel like you have the place to yourself.
Half Moon Island
Shore landings are largely dependent on weather conditions and the itinerary set by your tour company, but a popular first stop is Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands. The crescent-shaped island is home to 3,000 breeding pairs of (adorable) chinstrap penguins that you can interact with.
Late December through early January brings higher chances of seeing chicks, and the opportunity to watch in astonishment as an entire colony band together to defend the young bird against a skua bird looking for dinner.
Though less than 1.5 miles long, you can easily spend hours here watching the penguins and other birds, including storm-petrels and blue-eyed shags. Fur seals have also been known to show up.
Don’t expect much sun on this island — but grey skies and a mysterious, washed-up boat only add to the atmospheric setting.
It’s hard to pick a favorite shore landing because each is so unique, but a definite highlight is a visit to Brown Station. Located on Antarctica’s mainland (as opposed to other shore landings, which take you to islands around the continent), it’s home to an Argentinian research station with a sordid history. In 1984, upon hearing he was to stay for another season, a doctor set fire to the base. Thankfully, no one was harmed, and the station was rebuilt for future scientists.
Brown Station is a picturesque spot to see penguins or enjoy a leisurely stroll. Those feeling more adventurous can climb a steep, 276-foot hill for astounding views of Paradise Harbor and the surrounding area.
It’s okay to quit in the middle, too. There’s a lovely rock to relax and enjoy the quiet — until the thunderous sound of a calving glacier overtakes your senses.
Despite all of its ice, Antarctica is home to almost 140 volcanoes, one of the largest collections in the world. Deception Island, another popular shore landing, is in the caldera of one of them — an active one, no less.
To reach Deception Island, ships sail through treacherous Neptune’s Bellow. Passengers hold their breath as their captain navigates a narrow opening with towering rocks on all sides and a giant one in the middle, the cause of many shipwrecks. The intensity is worth it to experience the closest thing many of us will come to landing on the moon.
The island’s geology is mesmerizing, with glaciers and mountains streaked with ash to create a spacey, imaginary-looking terrain. A short hike on a mountain comprised of volcanic ash provides sweeping views of rifts, the sparkling sea, unique vegetation and an enormous penguin colony. You can even swim in the island’s thermal waters...that is, if you’re brave enough to get past the cold water first.
Marching with The Penguins
Antarctica is home to six different species of penguins — including the Chinstraps, Gentoos and Adelies — and meeting them is a major reason many people visit. Though you’ll probably hear (and smell) the dapper birds long before you see them, there’s nothing like watching them waddle, slide down icy hills on their bellies, and build nests from pebbles.
Technically, you’re supposed to stay within 15 feet, but that doesn’t stop these curious creatures from breaking the rules. One of the best spots to watch the penguins is Cuverville Island, home to the largest colony of Gentoos in the Antarctic Peninsula. Staying 15 feet away is nearly impossible with over 12,000 penguins here, but be careful not to step on the “penguin highways” (trails marked with tiny footprints), which they use to hunt and travel between land and water.
Fascinatingly, Gentoo penguins are far more graceful in the water, swimming up to 22 miles per hour.
Sealing the Deal
Penguins may get most of the glory, but Antarctica seals are equally adorable. Well, most of them.
Leopard Seals, named after the cat for their spotted fur, have an almost reptilian appearance, with a long neck and sharp teeth. (Fun fact: Antarctica is the only continent without actual reptiles.) These vicious creatures hunt penguins and even other seals.
Of all the seals, Crabeaters are the most common, but don’t be fooled: They don’t actually eat crab (because there aren’t any crabs here, either). What scientists suspected were crab shells were actually krill, but the name stuck. Unlike other seals, these ones breed in pairs.
Weddell Seals are often considered the cutest thanks to their round faces, big eyes and whiskers. But, again, don’t get too close. Weddells have especially sharp teeth, which males utilize to make holes in the ice to access water...and to attract females.
A Whale of a Tail
While penguins and seals have the cuteness factor, nothing says “wow” like seeing a breaching whale.
Antarctica provides a prime viewing spot to see humpbacks, minkes and orcas, though humpbacks are the real show-offs. Slow and shallow swimmers with an impressive blow, they’re pretty easy to spot, too. True acrobats, they love to breach and slap the water, leaving quite the splash.
Minke whales are the second smallest whale species in the world, weighing “only” about 15 tons. Highly inquisitive creatures, they think nothing of swimming next to your zodiac and waving their tails.
Orcas, or killer whales, are also an impressive sight. About 25,000 of these iconic creatures are located in the Antarctic. Though aggressive hunters who eat penguin, fish and at times even other whales, orcas are hard not to appreciate. Not only are they beautiful, but their loyalty is remarkable; they often stay with the same pod for the duration of their lives.
Besides wildlife, Antarctica is perhaps best known for its staggering icebergs. Each one is astonishing and unique, like a snowflake.
Some are as tall as buildings. Last year, one of the largest on record broke from Antarctica’s ice shelf; it was approximately 2,200 square miles and weighed over a trillion tons.
Zodiac cruising is a one-in-a-kind opportunity to get close to these impressive structures. A popular spot is Cierra Cove, with its crystal-clear, still water. Here, you’ll be dazzled by shimmering icebergs that look like they were carved by a master sculptor. There are also secret caves and grottos to explore.
Icebergs often overturn here, revealing a startling blue shade. Better yet, you’ll often find penguins and seals chilling out atop these natural monuments.
Time Stands Still
Though there’s much to explore in Antarctica, it’s important to go at your own pace (and also to wear sunscreen; it’s actually very easy to get a sunburn in the south pole).
Thankfully, Antarctica helps you out by being the only continent without its own time zone. Generally, scientists and tour companies use their home time zone, but knowing there’s no official rule makes it even easier to take your time enjoying what you’ve traveled long distances to experience.
In parts of the summer, you’re also treated to 20 hours of sunlight. For a truly exceptional experience, many passengers schedule their Antarctic expedition to coincide with New Year's Eve. With plenty of light, you can stay up all night and celebrate the new year over and over.
It’s the perfect way to toast a new year on an incredible continent.