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Getting To and Away from Antarctica

Since the late 1950s, tourist have been embarking on the journey to Antarctica. In those days, only the most wealthy could afford to take the pioneering trips. From 1965 on, more ships began traversing the turbulent waters to the Antarctic Peninsula, opening the door for more to be able to experience this unique world. Every year, the number of trips grows, with now approximately 30 ships offering services there. Ninety percent of the tours depart form Ushuaia, only 1,000 kilometers (610 mi) from the Great White Continent. A handful depart from Punta Arenas, 1,168 kilometers (701 mi) distant. International cruises also breeze past the coastline. These days two types of excursions leave: cruise ships and expeditions.

Cruise ships (cruceros) hold 250-500 passengers, offering many comforts not seen on the smaller ships, as well as naturalist programs. You will be able to see much of the marine wildlife, like whales and sea lions, and the tremendous ice fields and bergs. However, these cruises are not allowed to do landings. Expeditions (expediciones) are generally smaller boats with a focus on providing an educational experience. These have on-board geologists, marine biologists and other natural scientists, as well as professional photographers who can help you capture this magical world on film. Because there are fewer passengers, most of these do landings by zodiac boat at approved spots on the peninsula and islands. Quarters, however, are more cramped and amenities are pared to the bare necessities.

Both of these types of excursions can follow one of three traditional routes from Ushuaia. The Classic Antarctic (Clásico Antártico) goes around the South Shetland Islands and Elephant Island to the eastern side of the peninsula near Base Esperanza and Isla Paulet and turns northward at Cerro Nevado. It then edges the coast as far as Base Brown just north of the Antarctic Circle, then returns to Ushuaia. This trip usually lasts about 10 days.

The Classic Antarctice across the Polar Circle (Cruzando el Círculo Polar Antárctico) heads to the South Shetland Islands, then heads directly to the west coast of the peninsula, following it below the Antarctic Circle. On the north swing, it skirts the islands along the west coast on the ship’s return to port. This excursion lasts approximately two weeks.

The longest trip, lasting up to three weeks, is the Falklands–South Georgian Islands –Antarctic Peninsula route. It does not go as far south along the Antarctic Peninsula’s west coast as the other two routes do. All ships and their deatiled itineraries are posted before the tour season begins on the Instituto Fueguino de Turismo, Oficina Antartica website (URL: www.tierradelfuego.org.ar/antartida).

Children under 10 are not allowed to go. Very few companies accept child passengers at all. Ships have some sort of medical personnel aboard. When you buy an excursion, you will have to sign a contract with the company declaring you have no health problems or diseases.

The cost of a tour to Antarctica depends on many factors, such as size of cabins, whether you have a private or shared bathroom, how luxurious the food is, the number of professional naturalist guides aboard, whether it does landings and a myriad of other factors. Costs are high, ranging from $5,000 to $30,000. Add to this $200-400 in port fees (tazas de embarque). An extra $1,500 can mean a world of difference in the quality of service and experience. Single rooms are very expensive.

Budget travelers come to Ushuaia hoping to get a last-minute deal at a bargain price. However, these are becoming harder and harder to come by. Many companies prefer to advance sell online. With a bit of determination, you may get a boat for $2,500-3,000. Be patient, as you might have to wait a while before your ship comes in. As soon as you get into Ushuaia, hit all the tour agencies possible. Everyone has lists of last-minute deals, though of different ships. The recommended ones are:

Canal (9 de Julio 118, local 1, Tel.: 43-7395, Fax: 43-5777, E-mail: info@canalfun.com, URL: www.canalfun.com)

Rumbo Sur (San MartĂ­n 350, Tel.: 42-1139, Fax: 43-0699, E-mail: informes@rumbosur.com.ar, URL: www.rumbosur.com.ar)

Alicia Petiet (Tel.: 155-12589, E-mail: Alicia@antarcticatravels.com, URL: www.antarcticatravels.com)

Ushuaia Turismo works exclusively with the boats Ushuaia and Antarctic Dreams, the only ones with Spanish-speaking as well as English-speaking staff (Gobernador Paz 865. Tel.: 1561-6969, Fax: 43-6003, E-mail: ushuaiaturismo@speedy.com.ar, www.ushuaiaturismoevt.com.ar).

If you prefer to reserve your trip in advance, some international companies to consult about cruises or expeditions are:

Polar Cruises (Tel.: 01-888-484-2244, URL: www.polarcruises.com)

Adventure Life (1655 S 3rd St. W, Ste 1, Missoula MT, 59801 USA, Tel.: 01-406-541-2677, US toll free 800-344-6118, Fax: 406-541-2676, URL: www.adventure-life.com)

Quark Expeditions (47 Water Street, Norwalk, CT, USA, 06854, Tel.: 01-203-803-2888, Fax: 01-203-857-0427, US toll free: 1-866-961-2961, URL: www.quarkexpeditions.com)

Gap Adventures (19 Charlotte Street, Toronto, Ontario M5V 2H5 Canada. URL: www.gapadventures.com)

You can also reach Antarctica in your own private boat.

Besides on a tour, another way you can get to Antarctica is with a job. The research stations hire their nationals not only for scientific positions, but also auxiliary staff. Applicants must pass stringent physical and psychological examinations.

By Lorraine Caputo

Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...

29 Jun 2011

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