The End of the World – Argentina, South Georgia & Antarctica

During the Christmas holidays of 2013, my father and I went for a marvellous three week holiday to Argentina, Antarctica, and a few close-by islands. We spent the first week visiting the main points of interest of the South American country touching, in chronological order, the famous glacier Perito Moreno, the Iguazú Falls (including the Brazilian side), Buenos Aires, and Ushuaia. The remaining two weeks were spent on an expedition cruise, which allowed us to put foot on Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica. I will now try to give a brief account of this extraordinary holiday so that if somebody is thinking of visiting the same places, they will have some more information for planning their trip. I will try to keep it short and personal, but at the same time precise and informative. I will be including some photographs we have taken during the holiday in order to give a better context. 


Day 1 — El Calafate, Argentina

Our Alitalia flight coming from Rome landed perfectly on time at the Ministro Pistarini International Airport in Buenos Aires at around 6 a.m. of December 14th, 2013. We had our fingerprints and photo taken before being finally allowed to officially enter Argentina. Our first destination for the day was El Calafate, a little town of the southern region of Argentina, Patagonia, which hosts the closest airport to the glacier Perito Moreno. Therefore, we first had to move to Buenos Aires domestic airport (Aeroparque Jorge Newbery). We were taken there by the tourist guide who were to show us around the Argentinian capital just a few days later. The journey by car took around 45–50 minutes, but we were lucky to arrive on a Saturday so that we avoided most of the everyday traffic. Just after lunch (which was just a snack at the airport), we took a plane of the Aerolineas Argentinas to El Calafate.

Waiting to take our domestic flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate.
Waiting to take our domestic flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate.

The flight took approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes. We were pleased to immediately see that the Argentinian airline company was surely at the level of any other European one serving domestic flights. From the airport, in 20–25 minutes by bus El Calafate was reached and we checked in our hotel. The town wasn’t particularly interesting, but we managed to find a very good restaurant to eat our first dinner based, of course, on local beef. The restaurant was named La Tablita and we believe it was the second best place where we’ve eaten in the whole holiday (the first one will be in Buenos Aires the very last night). The prices were also very good, considering it was a touristy area. For a steak, a drink and appetisers you would spend about 15 euros each. But now it was time to rest, the morning after we were to finally meet Perito Moreno.

Day 2 — Perito Moreno, Argentina

In the early morning a bus came to take us (we booked online all these services from an Italian agency which operates mostly in Argentina) to the glacier. The journey took a little bit more than 1 hour and 30 minutes, including a couple of stops to take pictures of the Patagonia countryside, the glacier from far away, and to buy the entry ticket for the natural park. Already from a distance, the glacier looks massive and it seems to dominate the environment. The spectacle can be viewed from a series of walkways, built on the edges of a nearby hill, which also allow the visitor to stroll in the fresh air.

Perito Moreno in all his glory.
Perito Moreno in all his glory.

Furthermore, a boat can also be taken (for an additional charge) in order to get closer to Perito Moreno and be able to appreciate its grandness from water level. This second option is also ideal to more closely look at the chunks of ice breaking and falling into the water after a loud and almost mystical, if we consider the otherwise quietness of the place, sound; only the faster photographers will be able to immortalise such an event. On the way back, it was time to rationalise what we just had the chance to look at and have another steak in El Calafate.

Day 3 — Iguazú, Argentina

About to land in Iguazú.
About to land in Iguazú.

After a sleepy morning, spent mostly looking for a working ATM machine (it is advisable bringing cash to exchange if needed, as we never found for the whole holiday a cash machine working with Italian credit cards, or at least it wasn’t clear how to make them work), we moved back to the airport to depart to Iguazú, in the very north of the country. The flights (a connection in Buenos Aires was required) gave us the chance a little bit more to gain more energies for the following day which was planned to be spent fully on both the Brazilian and Argentinian side of the Iguazú Falls. Arriving at destination at around 8 p.m. we were also lucky to enjoy the warm colours of the sub-tropical sunset and the short car journey to our hotel, which was immersed in the forest.

Day 4 — Iguazú Falls, Argentina & Brazil

After an early breakfast, we were picked up by our guide by car from our hotel. She took us first to the Brazilian side of the falls (which is much shorter than the Argentinian one) to, at least for the morning, avoid large crowds and too much heat. The visit was of just over two hours, whereas once we got to the Argentinian side the walks were much longer and busier; this probably took around 4 hours of steady walk. The view was definitely better from the Brazilian side and more scenic if you want to take pictures, but in Argentina thanks to the help of a series of walkways you can get much closer to the waterfalls to enjoy fully their roaring noise and splashes.

The Iguazú Falls seen from the Brazilian side.
The Iguazú Falls seen from the Brazilian side.

In the late afternoon, we got back to our hotel to take our luggage and go to the airport. We had a small argument with the hotel manager and we fully realised how very few people actually speak any word of English, even in touristy areas. From that moment, we decided (with much more success) to just talk plain and slow Italian, and ask the locals to do the same with Spanish. At around 8 p.m. we departed from Iguazú and flew back to Buenos Aires. There, we took a cab to our hotel in the rather central district of Recoleta.

Day 5 — Buenos Aires, Argentina

In the morning the guide who welcomed us the very first day in the capital took us a for quick car tour of the city which lasted about 2 hours. We managed to get an idea of the main points of interest and districts (such as Hollywood and La Boca, where we also stopped for half an hour). That way we were able to decide ourselves what to do in the remaining of our day.

Micro Centro, the business district of Buenos Aires.
Micro Centro, the business district of Buenos Aires.

Just before lunch, with the guide, we also had a quick look at Micro Centro the real business and political centre of the city. The only district we didn’t get to see at all that day was Puerto Madero, the newest of the boroughs, but we had already planned to spend our very last night there, after coming back from the cruise. Even though initially we felt not much was there to see in Buenos Aires (and partly this still holds true), we loved it after a while for its general atmosphere which reminded us a lot about Cairo (in Egypt), where we lived for a few years. In the evening we organised a Tango night. Our Italian travel agency booked us on a evening that included the dinner as well as professionals performing the dance on a stage. We liked it, but you could feel everything was prepared just for tourists and what Tango really is should have rather been investigated in a less commercial Tangueria.

Day 6 — Ushuaia, Argentina

Early in the morning we took the flight planned by Hurtigruten (the Norwegian company with which we were about to depart for the expedition cruise). We were given the full day in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, until around 3 p.m. when we were supposed to check-in on the ship.

A view of the full harbour of Ushuaia.
A view of the full harbour of Ushuaia.
Funny sign about “British pirates”.
Funny sign about “British pirates”.

The Tierra del Fuego town didn’t really offer anything special other than a nice view of the small harbour and surrounding mountains. As soon as we got on the Ms Fram, the Hurtigruten ship, we were assigned our cabin and we were briefed about our two weeks on board. The nationalities on board were probably approximately 45% Norwegian, 30% German, 15% American, and the rest pretty much from all over the world. The passengers were just over of 200 and, admittedly, the average age was quite high (but you would be surprised to find out that elder people could still be much fitter than you during hikes!).

Day 7 — At Sea

First day free to rest and prepare for the rest of the cruise. The following day we were to arrive to the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas) capital, Port Stanley. We were also given our water resistant boots which were biologically cleaned in order to let us get off to South Georgia and Antarctica, in the following days, without contaminating the environment. They weren’t required to get down to the Falklands.

Day 8 — Port Stanley and Bluff Cove Lagoon, Falkland Islands

Just after breakfast we disembarked to the capital’s harbour and we were driven by 4WD vehicles to a two hour excursion to Bluff Cove Lagoon, where we enjoyed one of the largest penguin colonies of the islands.

Bluff Cove Lagoon.
Bluff Cove Lagoon.

We then had the full afternoon to explore the very small capital town of Port Stanley. Everything was clearly influenced by British style and, curiously, my father with an Italian SIM card didn’t have any reception whereas I had full signal with my English SIM card. Interestingly, we were also told that the locals are considering the possibility of renaming the city to Port Margaret. We departed towards South Georgia in the evening.

Day 9–10 — Scotia Sea

The ocean in all directions.
The ocean in all directions.

A couple of days at sea before reaching South Georgia. They were spent relaxing on the outside deck or listening to a series of lectures given by the crew about the fauna and historical fact of the areas. We were also briefed with more details on how to behave in case of danger and in the presence of animals, such as Fur Seals, Sea Lions, and the various kinds of penguin.

Day 11 — Grytviken, South Georgia

We arrived to the main town of South Georgia in the morning of the 24th of December 2013. Grytviken is situated on the other side of the bay of King Edward Point, now a research facility and officially the capital of the island. South Georgia doesn’t really have any population, other than researchers and safeguards. It’s important also to notice that, from this point onwards, every time we disembarked we had to do it with Polar Circle Boats, as the Ms Fram was too big to reach the shore and no harbour facilities were available.

Grytviken whale stations.
Grytviken whale stations.

Everything was well organised and we were assigned a group (no larger than eight people) with which we disembarked together to facilitate the process. On the bay of Grytviken we saw many penguins and seals resting on the shore and visited the remaining old whale stations as well as a few boat relicts. We were allowed to walk all the way to King Edward Point.

Day 12 — Grytviken and Jason Harbour, South Georgia

We spent the morning of Christmas Day strolling once again on the shore of Grytviken while waiting for who went to mass. After that, we went to a very beautiful hike to Maiviken and back.

Final destination of our hike started from Grytviken.
Final destination of our hike started from Grytviken.

Just after lunch we moved with Ms Fram to Jason Harbour where we had another landing. The scenery was slightly different and definitely more humid and watery, it was also clearly an even more isolated bay.

Day 13 — Stromness and Fortuna Bay, South Georgia

Stromness penguin colony.
Stromness penguin colony.

In the morning we arrived to Stromness where a very large colony of penguins was present. Some of the passengers went also to another hike over the mountains reaching Fortuna Bay. There they were reached by the Ms Fram which came to pick everybody up again. These two places where characterised by much larger (and unsafe) whale stations.

Day 14 — Husvik and St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia

The morning was spent in Husvik, another old whale station. In this case, we couldn’t get close to the stations as asbestos was present. Other than this hazard, the place didn’t really offer anything new that we hadn’t already seen in the last few days. In the afternoon on the other hand, we went to St. Andrews Bay, and it was spectacular. It hosts probably one of the largest King penguin colonies in the world: at the time we went there, it was estimated there were over 120,000 penguins.

The huge penguin colony of St. Andrews Bay.
The huge penguin colony of St. Andrews Bay.

Because of this huge number of animals ashore we weren’t allowed to actually land, but we got very close with the Polar Circle Boats. In the evening we left South Georgia hoping to get to the first Antarctica islands by the 17th day of our trip.

Day 15–16 — At Sea

Fin Whales approaching our ship very closely.
Fin Whales approaching our ship very closely.

Once again, we spent a couple of days at sea resting and attending lectures. This time we were also lucky enough to spot Fin Whales multiple times, and in one occasion we could see tens of them simultaneously.

Day 17 — Point Wild, Elephant Island, Antarctica

We arrived to the island just after breakfast. The sea and weather conditions were optimal to land, and it was apparently very rare as nobody of the crew, despite having worked with Hurtigruten for years, had the pleasure to do it before. Point Wild was the legendary place where Ernest Shackleton and his men took refuge after the loss of their ship (more historical info here). It was decided then to spend the whole day there and take advantage of the good weather.

 

Disembarking in Point Wild.

Day 18 — Antarctic Sound, Antarctica

This day was much worse as far as the weather was concerned. We didn’t have the chance to actually land on continental Antarctica because of a series of huge icebergs blocking the way.

Icebergs of Antarctic Sound.
Icebergs of Antarctic Sound.

However, we challenged the sea and the wind and tried, with no few difficulties, to land on smaller islands close-by. Using the Polar Circle Boats in those conditions was quite scary and we were instructed to keep our heads down to avoid strong wind and water splashes as much as we could. In the afternoon we managed to find a way in to Antarctic Sound, the house of icebergs, even if we couldn’t land. We once again found whales there and this time with a great surprise. We were able to watch a female Fin Whale give birth just a few meters away from our ship. In the evening we started moving north towards our last Antarctica stops.

Day 19 — Deception Island and Half Moon Island, Antarctica

Our ship, the Ms Fram, at distance from our hike on Deception Island.
Our ship, the Ms Fram, at distance from our hike on Deception Island.

In the morning we landed on the volcanic Deception Island and we hiked until lunch time. The bravest ones among us also briefly swam in the cold water of the bay. In the afternoon, we moved to Half Moon Island where we had our last land. Many Chinstrap penguins and a Macaroni one were there waiting for us. Other species of penguins we had the pleasure to encounter during the two weeks at sea other than the already mentioned King, Chinstrap, and Macaroni- were the Adelie and Gentoo penguins.

Day 20–21 — Drake Passage

Map on a TV screen showing our position in the Drake’s Passage.
Map on a TV screen showing our position in the Drake’s Passage.

We spent our last two days of cruise heading north back to Ushuaia while ‘enjoying’ the not-so-calm waters of the Drake Passage. We started rationalising what we just experienced and that we had been in places almost completely unknown to humans.

Day 22 — Ushuaia and Buenos Aires, Argentina

We arrived to Ushuaia harbour in the morning and we quickly went to the airport to take our flight back to Buenos Aires. This time our hotel was in the modern borough of Puerto Madero. We loved spending our last afternoon there walking near the artificial (and not used anymore) harbour and the riverside at sunset time.

Puerto Madero, the most modern district of Buenos Aires.
Puerto Madero, the most modern district of Buenos Aires.

We also had our best meal of the entire holiday: an Argentinian steak, of course, at Las Lillas restaurant (this time the prices were more similar to those you would expect in a European place). The district of Puerto Madero was lively in the evening and full of young people roller skating. Once more we realised how much we liked the Argentinian capital.

Day 23 — Back to Italy

At lunchtime our flight departed from the international airport of Buenos Aires and took us back to Italy. We were sad of going back to our normal lives, but definitely much richer inside.


All the photos have been shot with either my Nikon D90, my iPhone 4 or my father’s iPhone 5.