After all the months of planning, I can hardly believe I will be on my way in a week’s time; traveling over a total of 39 days, two continents and over 20,000 miles. Additionally, I will cross all but one of the five major circles of latitude including the Tropic of Cancer, the Equator, the Tropic of Capricorn, and the Antarctic (Polar) Circle.
The genesis of this trip began during some random lunch break back in my Medica days, so more than five years ago. There was an article somewhere online on places to see before you die. The pictures of icebergs surrounding Antarctica were absolutely breathtaking to me, with all their various shapes, sizes, and colors. This started my fascination with ice. Every news story that covered the earth’s ice sheets and their current state of seeming demise captured my attention. Though I slightly diverge, most recently I developed a new fascination with Minnesota’s geology, which has been almost completely carved up by numerous ice ages - explaining the sandy nature of so much of our soil and our “10,000 lakes”. Over a year ago, I started thinking more seriously about taking a trip to see the ice, and spent considerable free time researching the possibility. The biggest question being whether I go to the Arctic polar region (think North Pole) with its polar bears, or the Antarctic polar region (think South Pole) with its penguins. The answer to that question is really both, but for this trip I ultimately settled on Antarctica. Antarctica is one of those trips of a lifetime destinations, and I’m in just that frame of mind.
Some general background information on Antarctica (for those of you who are interested):
- It is the highest, driest, windiest, emptiest, coldest continent on earth. Ice covers 98% of its surface about a mile deep; all this accounts for 90% of the world’s ice and 70% the world’s fresh water.
- Located in the Southern Ocean, it is an independent continent protected by international treaty from ownership by any one country. There are no permanent residents, though researchers do temporarily reside there on several bases scattered around the continent – approximately 4,000 people during the summer months and 1,000 who hunker down through the winter. Another 30,000-50,000 tourists visit the continent every year.
- The months of summer in Antarctica are the opposite of the northern hemisphere, with the most optimal conditions during December, January, and February; however the tourist travel season typically begins in November and ends in March. During this period, the pack ice surrounding parts of the continent breaks up, allowing not only tourist travel, but movement of researchers and their supplies. The high temperatures along the Antarctic Peninsula in this period average in the low to mid 30’s (Fahrenheit).
- Though there are exceptions, the majority of the wildlife in Antarctica is migratory in nature, coming for the summer months to feed and breed (except whales), and leaving over the winter months. Most popular include several species of penguins, whales, seals, and seabirds.
- Time difference between Minnesota and the Antarctic Peninsula is only three hours (Antarctica is ahead).
My Antarctic trip starts at the southern tip of South America, where I will hop a ship for a 12-day cruise. The boat will cross the Drake Passage and the Antarctic Convergence zone (where the cold waters of the Southern Ocean sink below the warmer waters of oceans to the north) to the Antarctic Peninsula, where we will explore in and around the islands off the western coast of the Peninsula. A good number of these Antarctic cruises have around a hundred passengers; reason being that one hundred is the maximum number of individuals from a single ship that can go ashore in Antarctica at any one time. To go ashore, we are split up into smaller groups to board a smaller rubber craft with an outboard motor, called a zodiac. We will go ashore in Antarctica 2-3 times a day. On shore, we will be able to view and photograph wildlife, and any other interesting scenery. The wildlife there, especially the penguins, are fairly tame; coming right up to you to investigate. Some highlights of Antarctica Peninsula shore excursions include:
Given the long haul to reach Antarctica, I decided to make the most of it by expanding my trip to include the Patagonia region of southern South America, specifically following the Andes Mountain range down this area of the continent. The best in a nutshell description for Patagonia is outdoor recreation, and there’s pretty much a little bit of everything to do here. I’ve got a rough route planned out:
First Stop – Bariloche – this town has a German/Swiss feel in its architecture as well as being in the mountains and situated on a large glacial lake. One of its specialties is chocolate – yum! Here, I plan to do some relaxing around the area lakes (the general vicinity of the town is located in what’s referred to as the “lakes region”), bumming around the local towns, day-hiking, as well as more adventurous activities such as paragliding and perhaps even whitewater rafting or zip-lining. Still toying with an optional side trip to Chile, but no final decision on that yet.
Second Stop – El Calafate/El Chalten – There are a couple of popular destinations in this area, one being the Perito Moreno glacier and the other the Fitz Roy (mountain range – more day-hikes so I’ll get my exercise ). There are other glaciers as well, with various ways to access them. The Perito Moreno is the most accessible, and if I’m lucky, I’ll see it calve some of its ice. Chile travel options available here too……
Third Stop – Ushuaia – Last stop before Antarctica. It is the capital city of Tierra del Fuego and is also referred to as the end of the world or the southern-most city in the world and is the southern terminus of the Pan-American Highway. Only here a few days, but plan to do some day-hikes and perhaps a 4x4 off-roading trip.
Last Stop – Mendoza and San Rafael (not technically part of Patagonia, but just to the north) – Last stop before home. This is the Argentinian wine region (malbec is the most popular variety). Surprising for most of you, my biggest planned activity is agate hunting (my latest fixation) – this area has several beautiful varieties. I’ve connected with a group in the area that take people out hunting. Time-permitting, I would like to squeeze in some sort of wine tour.
Hopefully at this point I haven’t rattled on enough to scare you completely away. Please bear with me as I am not usually one to write about myself, but a number of folks in my life expressed interest in what I’d be seeing and doing, and I thought this would be a good way to share. After this post, I’ll just have my smartphone, so I expect my descriptions will be fairly brief accompanied by pictures from my phone. Many of the areas I’ll be travelling will be fairly remote, and as such, I may not be posting every day. If you post comments/questions to my entries, which I welcome, I’ll do my best to follow-up.