Antarctica - Trip Report

Holy smokes - what a trip!

We knew Antartica was going to blow a massive hole in our travel budget. But we also knew we probably weren't going to be back in Argentina in the foreseeable future (at least with enough time on our hands) and had set aside some funds to do it provided we got a reasonable deal. Given we were travelling slowly, we could afford to be flexible with our timing in order to take advantage of some lower sale fares.

 Lone emperor penguin on the ice floes in the Gerlache Strait.

Lone emperor penguin on the ice floes in the Gerlache Strait.

Why do Antarctica from South America?

You can visit Antarctica from a few different places, usually Hobart in Australia, Invercargill in New Zealand or Ushuaia in Argentina. The biggest difference is ocean travel time, which also feeds into travel costs. From Australia or New Zealand you'll be at sea for around a week before you reach the continent, whereas from Ushuaia you'll be at the Antarctic peninsula in 2 to 3 days. With a trip from Ushuaia, you can be on board for 10 or 11 days and spend 5 or 6 of those on and around the continent.

Keep in mind that from New Zealand or Australia you'll visit Macquarie Island and the Ross Ice Shelf, so you'll get much more of the Shackleton-Mawson-Scott-Amundsen history on one of these trips. There is plenty to see on and around the peninsula, but not as much of the legendary early history.

Last Minute Antarctica Deals and Sales

With the internet having well and truly arrived in Patagonia (except El Chalten, but thats another story), the requirement to spend time camping out in Ushuaia waiting for last-minute berths has diminished. You can still do that if you've got the time and inclination, but its not as necessary as it once was.

The best way to track down sale fares is to get on the mailing list of a few travel agents in the region. From our experience, we found the following agencies to be good (well informed, good supply of deals, timely communication, etc.):

We ultimately went with Antarctica Travel - their communication was fantastic, and their staff were incredibly hard working. That isn't to say the other options above weren't good (they were all great to be honest), just that the option we chose stood out a little more.

 Towering icebergs near Brown Bluff.

Towering icebergs near Brown Bluff.

Once you're signed up to the lists, you'll receive regular offers as the season approaches. We were fortunate to sign on to these email lists just before Quark Expeditions had a 50% discount special on some of their November expeditions. One of the expeditions fit our timeframe and budget, so we locked it in. This was done in late September, approximately 6 or so weeks prior to departure. 

This obviously won't work for everyone, and a lot of people plan and book these trips 12 to 18 months in advance in order to fit things around work and family commitments. You can also opt to take a berth in a twin, triple or quad share room if you're a single traveller. Plenty of people take this option to avoid excessive single supplement charges, or to avoid buying a double room for themselves.

Our Expedition

We opted for a 10 day "Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent" expedition, which included a night in Buenos Aires and a charter flight to Ushuaia. Having been largely self-sufficient on our trip so far (except for our Galapagos tour), it felt a little different being part of an organised tour again. Much less stress, but you sometimes miss the feeling of flying by the seat of your pants.

Everyone refers to these trips as expeditions. It makes you feel far more adventurous, and to be honest the trip is much more action-packed than a P&O cruise (you could probably manage fall in the water from a zodiac on these expeditions if you really tried). But you're not suffering like Shackleton.

We booked a twin room on the Ocean Endeavour, a former Baltic ferry leased by Quark Expeditions. When you read the words "former Baltic ferry" you're not quite sure what to expect, but rest assured the vessel is excellent. Modern, large and safe, with a very competent captain and crew. Whilst the operational crew come with the ship lease, Quark Expeditions provides their own expedition team. We had a team of 26 (comprised predominantly of New Zealanders, Australians and Canadians), with specialists for kayaking, paddle-boarding and climbing, as well as a couple of photographers 

The ship is marketed as a "wellness vessel" - anything marketed like this usually trips my BS detector. The boat had yoga classes on some mornings and a smoothie bar, but that was about the extent of the specific differences. The vessel itself was excellent - great lounge areas, plenty of deck space, a bar, great dining area. 

 Our voyage map - courtesy of Quark Expeditions

Our voyage map - courtesy of Quark Expeditions

Every expedition is different, and the timetable is subject to weather and sea-ice conditions. This is continually reinforced through the trip - some areas you just can't get to safely, some days the weather is too marginal to get the zodiacs in the water. All part of the fun and adventure of being in such a remote location. We lucked out and got 5 amazing days of weather near the peninsula, as well as calm seas across the Drake Passage. The only planned stop we couldn't make was in Neko Harbour, as the sea ice hadn't yet cleared out of the bay.

Our final itinerary ended up as:

  • Days 1 - 3: Drake Passage crossing. We left in the late afternoon on Day 1 and arrived ahead of schedule in the early afternoon of Day 3
  • Day 3: Aitcho Islands (PM)
  • Day 4: Brown Bluff (AM) and Paulet Island (PM)
  • Day 5: Mikkelsen Harbour (AM and PM)
  • Day 6: Cuverville Island (AM) and Danco Island (PM)
  • Day 7: Gerlache Strait (AM) and Spert Island (PM)
  • Days 8, 9, and 10: Drake Passage crossing
  • Day 10: disembark in Ushuaia (AM)
 Peninsula details - courtesy of Quark Expeditions.

Peninsula details - courtesy of Quark Expeditions.

Most days we were out on the zodiacs for shore landings twice a day (if the weather held up). We were extremely lucky to get brilliant weather for the whole time we were around the peninsula. Some stops we couldn't make landfall at (especially the smaller islands in rougher waters), so we took longer zodiac cruises to check out little inlets and bays, and get right up close to some icebergs.

The expedition crew were excellent - very experienced, very knowledgable and very friendly.

What did we see?

Penguins (chin-strap, gentoo, Adelie and emperor), icebergs, seals and some more penguins. The landscape down here is other-worldly - as someone said, it looks as though you've lopped off the highest 1,000m of the Alps or the Himalaya and dropped them at sea level.

 Cruising with Pato Saunders, our zodiac-driving, hot air balloon piloting guide.

Cruising with Pato Saunders, our zodiac-driving, hot air balloon piloting guide.

Here are a few highlights:

 An Adelie penguin posing on an iceberg.

An Adelie penguin posing on an iceberg.

 Brash ice at sunrise.

Brash ice at sunrise.

 Giant tabular icebergs at sunrise.

Giant tabular icebergs at sunrise.

Check out the rest of the set over at my Antarctica portfolio!

What gear did I take?

Pretty standard kit - I took my Nikon D810 and my older D800e, one with a 24-70mm and one with a 70-200mm lens (both with polarisers attached). This covered pretty all my needs. There were times when I wished for more zoom (a 400mm would have been great for some of the wildlife), but it wasn't an option and it wasn't very limiting. I took my tripod out once (on the first landing), and never took it out again as the light was good enough to shoot handheld, and you're not ever on land for sunset or sunrise (unless you camp).

If we were doing a shore landing with a bit of walking I'd pack my gear into my F-Stop bag, but for the zodiac cruises I'd just stuff everything into a dry bag with a towel.

Pro tip: dial in a bit of positive exposure compensation when shooting bright ice. I usually had 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop dialled in to get a decent exposure.

Anything I'd do differently?

Not really, aside from not eat so much at the buffet every day. If I ever get back to this part of world I'd jump on an expedition that covered South Georgia Island and Deception Island if possible (and maybe the Falkland Islands). These were the only "big ticket" places we didn't hit on this itinerary.

Get out there and cross off your 7th continent!

 

El Chalten (and the Secret Fitz Roy Cascades)

El Chalten had long been near the top of the list of places I wanted to visit in Patagonia. Being at the foot of both Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, El Chalten has a well-earned reputation as the hiking and climbing capital of Patagonia. 

 Fitz Roy Massif from Mirador Los Condores.

Fitz Roy Massif from Mirador Los Condores.

How to Get to El Chalten

We arrived into El Chalten from El Calafate, which is located approximately 200km to the south, on the other side of Lago Viedma and Lago Argentina. We took a morning bus with Chalten Travel and arrived into the El Chalten terminal (at the south end of town) around 5 hours later. Cal-Tur and TAQSA also run on this route (we found Chalten Travel to be a bit cheaper than the other options) - more details can be found here.

When you arrive into El Chalten the bus will stop at the ranger station / visitor centre (APN) just outside of town, where you'll attend a short information briefing and be provided with some town and trail maps. You'll be shown a video on park and trekking safety and best-practice behaviours (don't light fires, try not to die, etc.). The ranger will also give you a low down on the weather forecast - ours was pretty spot on for the five days we were in El Chalten, so its worth a listen. Once you've made it through this, you jump back on the bus and you're dropped off at the bus terminal (located at the south end of town, just across the river on Perito Moreno).

We booked in at Pudu Lodge at the north end of town, so we jumped in a taxi with our gear (it wasn't an official taxi, just a friendly lady who waits at the bus station to run new arrivals to their lodgings, very entrepreneurial). We liked the location of Pudu Lodge - its very close to the beginning of the Mt Fitz Roy trail, which shaves off 20 or 30 minutes of walking from the south end of town (an advantage when you're heading out at 4am for sunrise). 

The town itself is small (but bigger than we anticipated) and growing rapidly. There are a couple of supermarkets where you can grab some essentials, and plenty of cafes and restaurants. We were fans of Don Guerra and B&B Burger joint. The internet still hasn't really arrived in El Chalten in any big way, and the connections are often relatively poor given they're all satellite connections. The best wi-fi (and friendliest staff) we found was in Cafe Lo de Haydee on Lago del Desierto.

El Chalten Hiking Trails and Miradors

The two principal medium-distance trails in El Chalten are the Fitz Roy / Laguna Los Tres trail and the Laguna Torre trail. Both trails will eventually take you to a lagoon near the base of their respective peaks. Two shorter trails that provide great views are the trail to the Mirador Los Condores, and the trail to Chorrillo del Salto.

 Simplified trail and mirador map.

Simplified trail and mirador map.

You can see clearly on the map the two principal mountain chains of the region - the Cerro Torre massif to the east and the Fitz Roy massif further to the west.

The Fitz Roy trail (Sendero del Fitz Roy as it will be labelled on most of the signs in town) starts the north end of town. Follow the main street out past the last houses, through a car park to a large wooden gateway that marks the start of the trail. There is a large wooden map / information display which will give you can idea of the trail.

The trail is approximately 9km long (18km return if you've forgotten your two-times table) and will take you 3 hours or so each way. There are kilometre markers so you can track your progress and curse at your slowness - the first three or so kilometres are uphill (only gaining about 300m, so not too bad) before the trail levels off all the way to the start of the climb up to the Laguna Los Tres. This last section of the trail climbs 400m in around a kilometre, and is tough work if you're carrying a lot of camera gear.

On the walk up you'll reach a nice view point at Mirador Fitz Roy - on a clear day you'll get a great view of the mountain. If that is all you've come for and you don't fancy a walk up to the lagoon you could easily turn around here. Its also a nice place for sunrise, as its only a 90 minute walk from town.

 Peaks of the Fitz Roy Massif, taken from Mirador Los Condores.

Peaks of the Fitz Roy Massif, taken from Mirador Los Condores.

The Laguna Torre trek takes you out to a lagoon with a great view of Cerro Torre. We didn't get a clear view of Cerro Torre during our time in El Chalten (thats the risk you run), so I can't show you any photos or speak in detail about the end of the trail. Both Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre seem to have their own weather patterns, and even when one is clear the other is often not.

As you can see on the map above, there are a couple of trailheads that connect into the main Laguna Torre trail - one each from the north, central and south points of town. The trek takes in a couple of nice viewpoints before reaching the lagoon. You'll get great views of the Rio Fitz Roy on your left after a kilometre or so, and you'll reach the Mirador Torre after around 90 minutes of walking. If its thick and foggy here, you're probably best off turning around. If its clear and you can see Cerro Torre, continue onwards. Before the Torre Mirador you'll pass the Mirador Margarita - on a clear day this has a great panoramic view of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy. On a cloudy day like we had, you'll have a hard time picking anything out. We turned around at the Mirador Torre given the conditions.

Shorter Trails

There are two shorter trails which are great if you only have an afternoon in El Chalten. If you follow the dirt road out of town to the north you'll eventually come across the Chorrillo del Salto, and impressive 20m or 30m waterfall at the terminus of the Arroyo del Salto. This spot can also be accessed by car and tax (or tour bus) and there is a large car park near to the falls. 

The trail to the Mirador Los Condores is a short 1.5km to 2km trail at the south end of town. You access the trail near the visitor's centre / ranger's office, which is just across the bridge near the bus terminal. You gain around 200m or 300m of altitude, and the viewpoint gives you a great vista of Fitz Roy and the town of El Chalten. This is where the shot at the top of this post was taken from.

Fitz Roy Hidden Falls

It was easy to find a photo of these falls online (and they're on postcards inside every building in El Chalten), but it was impossible to find directions to the falls online. If you've found your way to this blog post, its your lucky day.

The falls are located on the Arroyo del Salto on the Fitz Roy trail, near to Laguna Capri and around 1.5km past the Mirador Fitz Roy. Its easiest to point them out on a map:

 Hidden falls location (courtesy of Maps.me)

Hidden falls location (courtesy of Maps.me)

I dropped a couple of pins on my Maps.me app to remind where to find these falls (it has a much better trail map than you get in Google Maps), which you can see in the screenshot above. The first pin on the map above (on the dotted trail) is where you turn off the main trail. Before you reach this point you'll pass through some pretty narrow track sections once you're past the Mirador Fitz Roy, but the trail will begin to open up just before the turn off. From the turn-off point there are a few tracks (not as well marked as the main trail) that lead down to the river and the falls. You can't really miss it if you follow where these pins are dropped.

I found Maps.me to be excellent for hiking trails in South America generally, especially in El Chalten. It was accurate and worked offline (provided you download the maps you need in advance), which is a godsend in a lot of places in this part of the world.

The GPS co-ordinates for the turn off point are 49°17'48"S 72°56'07"W. These are the co-ordinates provided by the app, not by an independent GPS device, so take them as an approximate guide. I'd suggest doing a scout during the day to find these falls (you can easily do it as part of the trek up to Laguna Los Tres) before you attempt it in the dark before sunrise. There aren't really any objective dangers here through, just be careful around the water as you have to scramble on some rocks to get the best viewpoint here.

This is the view you'll get from the falls if the peaks of Fitz Roy are clear:

 Fitz Roy Hidden Falls.

Fitz Roy Hidden Falls.

So there you have it - a rough guide to El Chalten and its trails, and a guide to finding the secret falls of Fitz Roy. Good luck, and let me know how you go!