The small town of Ushuaia is exactly what you would expect from the southern-most city in the world. Luckily, we arrived just at the end of summer, which alleviated the high season tourist traffic. Our main draw to travel this far south certainly was not the weather, which is only a touch warmer than what we would experience at home this time of year (note: summer in Ushuaia is winter in Canada), nor was it to say we have been at “Fin Del Mundo” (the end of the world) – but to see what comes after it and venture even futher south. This southern tip of Argentina reaches into the Southern Ocean, easily making South America the closest continent to Antarctica, giving Ushuaia prime gateway position to the White Continent. That’s why we were there.
We had been successful in our timing to arrive in Ushuaia during shoulder season (not quite summer, but not quite winter), rather than the peak of summer in December and January. We chose this strategy in hopes of increasing our chances of finding a boat with space for two at a price that wouldn’t force us to make our next stop the airport to go home, broke. Our first morning, we shopped around town looking for the right trip. The news was perfect – there was space with Quark Expeditions’ Antarctic Explorer 11-day trip, leaving in 3 days. We had read about Quark a number of times. They had come with raving reviews and ranked as one of the best polar adventure companies worldwide. The added bonus – they’re Canadian!
We met Camilla, a 23 year-old swede on the 30 hour bus from Puerto Madryn, who we hooked up with to complete our triple cabin and increase our bargaining power. Honestly, we were lucky when we talked with Sarah through Freestyle Hostel, (where Camilla was staying) who was on the ground in Ushuaia representing Antarctica Travels. There were numerous other agents we could have bought from, all offering the same boat with a similar price, but we liked Sarah better. She hooked us up with free waterproof pants and ski gloves for the trip, a triple cabin and a big dent in our budget. We had faith in her claim that when we set foot on the continent, we would forget how much we paid for it.
With our tickets booked, medical insurance purchased and gear taken care of we had the next couple of days to explore Ushuaia. We did require time to buy a few things needed for the trip including socks, Dramamine and of course a selection of wines, so we limited our activities to one hike. Glacier Martial was posted as a 2-3 hour return trip from the base of the mountain. The hike up was fair, not too challenging, and the sun came out for us to enjoy the spectacular views of the city and the Beagle Channel. To our dismay, we were stopped about 50m short of touching the glacier by the park officials. They claimed we needed a helmet and radio in order to proceed. We, of course had neither but were a bit miffed as we were willing to take the risk, afterall they are OUR bodies! Since the glacier was more like a patch of snow on a mountain, we didn’t see much risk in getting close. The official explained that we would have trouble on the way down. Whatever. We respected the wishes of the official and turn around. After a drink from the glacier stream to rehydrate, we proved him wrong by running down, unscathed. We had made the trek to the top and back in just over an hour so we added on an hour by walking through town back to our hostel.
Our Sunday was spent relaxing and gathering our supplies for the boat. After our pre-expedition meeting, the anticipation started to build. Not just the excitement of going, but the trepidation that comes when you’re about to embark on a crossing of the Drake Passage. This area of the Southern Ocean, where the South Atlantic and South Pacific meet, between South America and the South Shetland Islands is claimed to have the roughest seas in the world. Of course, this is a good meal for my adventurous stomach, but poison for it at the same time, considering my tendancy towards sea-sickness. We stocked up on enough Dramamine to make the 2 day crossing, so I crossed my fingers that it would work.
Getting to Antarctica has been in our heads since leaving Canada in November, we would do everything we could to get on a boat near the end of the summer. Yes, we took a risk by just showing up without a booking, but we were delighted that everything was working out. Now, we just wanted to be on the boat.
The next morning, the weather had shifted. The jagged peaks of the Andes surrounding Ushuaia had been dusted with snow and the temperature had dropped to below zero for the first time on our trip. Summer was over and winter had started in a matter of hours. This was, we were convinced our gentle introduction to what the next week and a half of Antarctic climate may be like. After phone calls home, we bundled up and at 3:30pm February 20th, we met our bus to take us to the port. By 4:15pm we were aboard the Clipper Adventurer, set to sail at 6pm. By midnight, we were expected to enter the Drake Passage.