Usually the check-off reason for making a trip is business or pleasure. The application for my trip to Antarctica included another: Once-in-a-lifetime experience. There's a reason for this – even for a person whose passport has no more space for stamps. It's probably the last continent anyone checks off.

This coldest, driest and highest of continents belongs to no one. It's 99% ice, .4% exposed rock, bigger than Australia as well as Europe, one and a half times the size of the USA. International treaty dedicates it to science and peace.

What makes this trip like no others? Eyes marvel at the vast expanses of white on all sides; at penguins, easily mistaken for fish at first, hopping above and diving into the water; at plumes of blowing whales, their lumbering black bodies making fleeting appearances. Stomachs feel the uplifting by 20-to-30-foot waves in Drake Passage and unceremonious descent seconds after. Noses retain the indescribable scent, Eau de Penguin Poop.


Ships like the Ortelius visit the peninsula that extends northwest toward Argentina, do-able during summer months (November to April). The rest, 90% of the continent, is for only the hardiest and well-supported researchers. The Ortelius is owned by a Dutch company, Oceanwide Expeditions, which does similar cruises in the Arctic where summer starts right after it ends in the southern hemisphere. Built in Poland in 1989 and used for Russian research until it was refitted for tours, it is named after a Dutch cartographer who published the first world atlas. It accommodates 110 passengers of wildly divergent nationalities, six expedition guides and a crew of 40. The Antarctic cruise leaves from Ushuaia, the southern-most city in Argentina.

It's two days of rough seas going and coming to the continent of Antarctica across the Drake Passage. This is where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans join below South America. Either take your own seasick pills, or the ship physician passes out transdermal ear patches that work like antihistamines, by interfering with communication between nerves and the part of the brain that controls vomiting. Queasiness usually subsides after the first day. To take your mind off this inconvenience, there are lectures about sea birds, whales and photographic tips.

Base fare for a 10-day foray to the end of the world on this kind of ship is around $7000 for a room shared by three or four, but last-minute prices are $4,200. Stand-bys get to go for $3,700. I paid for a quad cabin, but lucked out having only one roommate, an accountant from Hong Kong who quit her 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. job to travel.


Zodiacs take you from the Ortelius to land. Muck boots are provided, as sometimes it is necessary to wade ashore. A practical pointer: To avoid schlepping around so many warm clothes, rent them in Ushuaia. Basic accoutrements should include a polarizing lens for your camera and UV 400 wrap-around sunglasses.


Expedition leaders carefully school visitors on Antarctic animal etiquette: Stay at least 15 feet away from the animals, do not make noise, stay in restricted areas, do not offer food, do not leave as much as a cigaret butt on land. If an animal comes to you, it's ok to be closer and even touch. Penguins do this more than seals. Not sure I'd want to be up close to some of the big guys.

This is when you interact with seals, penguins and birds (whales are from the big boat only). You are exposed to the food chain close up. You may see a seal having a penguin for lunch. Note how he keeps thrashing it back and forth in the water grasped in his jaws. You wonder why, since the penguin is obviously already very dead. Come to find out, he is trying to get the skin and feathers to fly off, so he can get to the tender morsels.

Credit Whale Photo = WIKIPEDIA: Andreas Title

Landings and animals punctuate the main pastime – scanning from the vast whiteness that is Antarctica.


Since I was going all the way to the uttermost end of the earth (southern Argentina), I figured I should see what else is there. Patagonia in itself is a draw, but combined with Antarctica, it's that once-in-a-lifetime experience. Patagonia also has ice.

Perito Moreno glacier is in Glacier National Park near El Calafate, one of remaining advancing glaciers. It is five-kilometers/3 miles across and rises 60 meters/nearly 200 feet above the lake it feeds into. Named after Argentina's foremost naturalist/scientist/explorer, it is not only visually impressive when a catamaran takes you up close to the wall – the audio surpasses even that. Every few minutes a rumbling sound like distant thunder rolls out, then ka-plush, falling ice hits the water. The cacophony of what is called "calving" continues the whole time.

Questions about climate change are inevitable. They are rarely answered frankly or factually by guides (not good for tourism, is the likely reason most avoid the subject if possible). Only one guide in the first six expressed concern. They would say noncommittal things such as: "it's the normal life cycle for glaciers to disappear"... "some are actually growing or are stable"..."we are in an interim period between glacial ages". One of them dared to express his concern about global warming that a glacier in Torres del Paine national park was receding 18 meters a year when normally, glaciers advance. Granted, a few thousand years ago glaciers covered most of the southern Argentina's vast parks sculpting the landscape, carving out deep valleys. Warmer temperatures caused them to retreat to the mountains where they are today and most of us think they belong. Will they be here if you come back in 10 years? People knowledgeable about glaciers tend to talk in terms of million-year eras when glaciers come and go, which tends to somewhat counterbalance panic feelings climate change coverage instills. But not that much.

Upsala glacier is three times the size of Moreno and floats on water, which explains why there are so many icebergs around it.

Patagonia is also endless steppes with guanacos roaming freely, ranches and mountains for trekking.

Credit Photo of Valle del Frances in Torres del Paine: WIKIPEDIA = Mirko Thiessen

Torres del Paine park near Puerto Natales is just over the border into Chile. The "W" route is one for trekkers to check off, sleeping in shelters (refugios) for three to five days to see the park's iconish granite spires up close. Mounts Fitz Roy and Torre are its most famous peaks, but you can enjoy the surrounding peaks without trekking to them as there are guided day trips in minibuses.

El Chaltén, a mountain village in Glacier National Park, is known as the Argentine trekking capital. It is also known for fierce winds, as is common throughout this part of Argentina. "You can have four seasons in one day" are commonly used by-words.

Here also is the Mylodon Cave where in 1895 a German settler found a strange skin with thick, reddish hair, traced to animals that existed 14,500 years ago (man came to the area 11,000 years ago). The Mylodon was cited at the beginning and end of Bruce Chatwin's classic, In Patagonia.

Another Patagonia attraction is Punta Arenas, where ornate European-style buildings around its main square are in stark contrast to the usual types of buildings in South America. Shown above is the exclusive Union Club for the elite of Punta Arenas. This, the southernmost city in Chile was a thriving port in the 1800s creating great wealth for some who could indulge in such architectural lavishness.

A 12-hour bus ride takes you to Ushuaia where boats head for Antarctica depart, necessitating a ferry ride (bus and all) across the Magellan Strait.

Tierra del Fuego (land of fire) near Ushuaia got its name when late 19th-century explorers saw the fires of the native tribes passing through this archipelago. Impressive scenery of waterfalls, forests, mountains and glaciers extends along the southern Andes, ending on the coast at the Beagle Channel. Terra del Fuego park is where the PanAmerican highway that starts in Alaska ends. Beagle Channel is named after the boat Darwin was on when he did early studies in the late 1820s. It is one of three navigable passages connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (the others being the Magellan Strait and Drake Passage).

The Patagonia part of the trip was booked online at This is not a tour in the usual sense. It's a tour of one. A subcontractor, Suy Hueque, does the grunt work, supplying the overall schedule and vouchers for accommodations, transportation and excursions. These, in turn, are for local services. All you have to do is show up at appointed times.

– as published in Romar Traveler online magazine

PHOTO CREDITS: All photos by Linda Quinet unless noted otherwise.