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Antarctica is the world's biggest wilderness, the last of a dying breed. The bitter cold and discouraging conditions have made this a home for either the very foolish or the very hardy and neither of these two distinct groups come here for a casual visit - research is certainly the most common reason for living in Antarctica.
Tours of Antarctica allow for another two distinct types of people: those who want to enjoy the sights without suffering the cold, and those who'll brave the Antarctic conditions. For the former, flights from Australia are the way to go, since they do not set down but instead provide a powerful glimpse into the heart of Antarctica. For the rugged spirits, cruises from US$3,000 (if you're lucky) are a little more adventurous and a whole lot more rewarding.
Although Antarctica has inhabitants, ranging from around 1,000 in winter to about 5,000 in summer, there is only one permanent inhabitant: a priest!
The history of Antarctica started when it broke loose of Gondwana, and then drifted ever further south. If you imagine Antarctica, your first image will be of snow and ice, but it is good to keep in mind that in ancient times this massive continent was covered with trees and was of a tropical nature. The human history is a pretty short one, as it wasn't until 1820 that people visited Antarctica. It's not certain who first landed on the continent, but its existence was already known a couple of centuries before that first visit.
In 1903 the first permanent base was set up by Argentina on the South Orkney Islands, and soon after that the Race to the Pole broke loose. On 14 December 1911 an expedition led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, reached the South Pole. He was followed shortly after that, by the Englishman Scott, who died on the return trip.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed on 1 December 1959 and came into force on 23 June 1961. Among other provisions, this treaty limits military activity in the Antarctic to the support of scientific research.
Antarctica is the southermost chunk of landmass in the world, almost entirely located south of the Antarctic circle and is about 14.4 million square kilometers big, approximately 1.5 times the size of Russia. About 98% of the total area is covered with ice, sometimes up to kilometers thick. It is also the continent with the highest average elevation. Vinson Massif in the Elllsworth Mountains is the highest point at 4,892 metres above sea level. Mount Erebus is the only active volcano on Antarctica. It is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Antarctica is divided in two parts. The dividing raneg are the Transantarctic Mountains close to the neck between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. The area west of the Weddell Sea and east of the Ross Sea is named Western Antarctica. The other part is called Eastern Antarctica. These areas roughly correspond to the Western and Eastern Hemispheres.
The weather is probably the only disadvantage of going to Antarctica. You won't experience warm weather here.
When visiting during the summer months of December to February, temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula can reach 10 °C, or slightly higher if you are lucky. With the normal boat trips, you will visit during this time anyway, or maybe in November or March. Other months are almost out of the question due to waters frozen solid. Still, in summer, temperatures can drop below 0 °C, especially if you are lucky enough to go more inland.
During winter, temperatures can drop way below -50 °C. The all-time record in the world still stands at -89 °C, at Russia's Vostok weather station, located at higher altitude and with winds blowing all the time. The windchill might as well be much lower than -100 °C!
Antarctica is not only one of the windiest continents, but also one of the driest, mainly because it's too cold to have any rain or even snow. The Dry Valleys are known to have been dry for at least thousands, if not millions of years, making it the driest area in the world - even drier than the Atacama desert in Chile.
Basically, you can either go to Antarctica by plane or by boat. Both are expensive. In the case of flying, most people tend to be in a hurry and just want to visit Antarctica for a day or so (some just fly over the continent!). If paying that amount of money and you have time, it's best to settle for a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the most popular and (relatively) affordable options.
There are no scheduled services to Antarctica, but there are options to visit Antarctica on brief trips by plane, usually from Punta Arenas or Ushuaia. These trips sometimes only include a brief stopover of one night, though you can also opt for either flying to Antarctica and return by boat, or vice versa. If you really have money to burn, there are options (usually in summer only) to fly directly to the South Pole itself.
Although there are possibilities to get to Antarctica from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Chile, the most popular way is by boat from Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, southern Argentina. Prices usually start at around US$3,000 for which you get a triple room, sometimes without views. Prices tend to be somewhat lower in November and March, but higher from December to February, peaking around Christmas and Newyears. Prices go up fast and booking a trip will set you back at least US$5,000 or more in most cases, much more if you want some luxury or a cabin to yourself with great views! Trips usually last around 10 to 12 days, longer if you add some of the islands in between South America and Antarctica, like the South Shetland Islands, Falkland Islands or South Orkneys Islands. In the latter case, prices are much higher again. Boats from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula take around 2 to 3 days at least and taking some precautions against seasickness is highly recommended.
Boat trips from other countries, like Australia and New Zealand, tend to be much more luxurious, longer and thus much more expensive with US$8,000 being somewhat the best bargain you can find.
Unless you are on a long and expensive expedition, your options of getting around will probably be limited to going on land by small boats (usually zodiacs) and walk around the coastline.
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Ask vagamundo a question about Antarctica
Have been travelling there about 50 times. Let me know if you have any questions about the expedition cruises.
Also about Pagatonias coast/fjords (Chile, Argentina), Buenos Aires, Ushuaia and my favourite: Salta & region (Argentina).
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