Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. To sit on the mountains above the city on the southern shores of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of the mighty South American continent, and take in the sight of snow-capped peaks plunging down into the sea, gives you the feeling that you have reached the limit. Yet you know that this is not the end; the great ice-covered landmass of Antarctica lies beyond. Antarctica - the last continent that humans have set foot on, where life clings to a narrow band on it edges, a world of immense emptiness and silence and one of the engines that drive the world's climate. Few people get the chance to visit Antarctica and even fewer could claim to know it. Its remoteness is legendary, yet here in Ushuaia, the call of this silent world was very loud. We have had the good fortune to visit six of the world's continents; only one remained - Antarctica - and to experience it, even just one tiny bit for one tiny period would ice the cake of our travels.

The tip of the South American cone is the nearest continental land to Antarctica; only 1100 km to the south, beyond the snowy peaks of Isla Navarino and across the stormy seas of the Drake Passage, the long finger of the Antarctic Peninsula reached up from the frozen continent and beckoned. The Fuegian Andes may be where the great mountain chain disappears into the ocean, but strictly speaking they do not end there. They disappear beneath the waters of the Southern Ocean in a long arc to re-emerge as the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula. It seemed logical that our exploration of the Andes should include this remote and mystery-shrouded part of the world and, thus, an 11-day cruise from Ushuaia to the Antarctic became not only first visit to the last continent but the culmination of our Andean adventure.

There are few ways to visit Antarctica - by far the most common is to go by ship from Ushuaia. Indeed, the emergence of Antarctic tourism drives the economy of this port city. There is a lot of choice available as well, from Russian icebreakers to large cruise ships holding several hundred people. We chose one of the smaller ships - they are faster, get closer to shore and give you the opportunity to visit land more often. It seems hardly worth going to Antarctica if you can't set foot on the continent. During the few days we spent in Ushuaia, prior to our voyage, reports came in of another cruise ship having hit an iceberg and sunk on its way back from Antarctica. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but it was a reminder that we were heading into a relatively unforgiving part of the world and you should choose your ship carefully. Our vessel, the "Ocean Nova", is a recently refurbished former Greenland ferry with ice-reinforced hull that holds 80 passengers, and by the end of the trip we realised that we had made a very good choice.

Getting There

Beyond the mountains of Tierra del Fuego ....

.... the world of ice and mystery awaits

Day 1 - Around Ushuaia

All the cruises start with a day of exploration around Ushuaia, which enables the ships to undergo any maintenance and be cleaned and restocked, ready to set of again. Thus we found ourselves on a busload of people heading out to the Tierra del Fuego National Park to appreciate the coastal habitats of the Lapataia River and Bay.


Cerro Tonnelli

The estuary of Rio Lapataia

Looking inland to the Fuegian Andes

The bus stopped to allow a short walk along the shores of the estuarine river surrounded by the intense sunlit green beech forests and the white conical peak of Cerro Tonnelli. At little later we did a short walk through the forest of lenga and ñire beech trees, the floor carpeted with moss, dried leaves and the odd white or yellow orchid. Through the gaps, we could see across into Chile and the highest mountain in the Fuegian Andes, 2500m Monte Sarmiento, before the path eventually led us down to Bahia Lapataia.

The intense green of the beech forest

2500m Monte Sarmiento across the border in Chile

Looking out over Bahia Lapataia

Bayscape of Bahia Lapataia

The setting of the bay was beautiful, surrounded by hills and dotted with islets, but it was also the end of Ruta 3, the most southerly road in Argentina and hence a pilgrimage for car tourists, whose main aim appeared solely to get their photo taken in front of the signpost marking their world's end. On the way back to Ushuaia, we stopped off briefly at Bahia Ensenada. looking out across the Beagle Channel to the snow-capped peaks of Isla Navarino and Isla Hoste.

Cerro Tonnelli rises abovbe Lapataia Bay

A fast-flowing Fuegian stream

The pier at Bahia Ensenada

Turista posing at the end of the road in Argentina

It had not been our usual way of seeing the landscapes on offer, but the coastal strip was different to the more mountainous walks we had done in the previous days. For those who had just arrived it was a great introduction to the natural beauty of Tierra del Fuego and, for all of us, it was a last chance to soak up the colour green - from here we were heading into a world of intense whiteness.

Southward Bound - 2 days across the Drake

After one last hour to roam the streets of Ushuaia and make any last minute purchases, we boarded the "Ocean Nova" at 4pm ready to head out into the notorious Drake Passage, meeting point of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and one of the roughest bodies of water on the planet. An hour later, we were off on our adventure to the world of ice and snow. The city of Ushuaia and its magnificent backdrop of snow-capped mountains soon disappeared behind us as we headed eastward out of the Beagle Channel.

Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel

End of the beagle Channel - the pilot boat arrives

Leaving port at Ushuaia

The rich golden sunset ...

Ooops! wrong channel

... turned to a sky of pastel pink and blue

The sky was largely blue and the water calm as we made our way down the channel, Argentina on our port side and Chile on our starboard. The sun set with a golden display over Isla Navarino and, as darkness descended, we left the Beagle Channel behind and headed out into the Drake Passage. It seemed like a good omen for the crossing.

Farewell to Tierra del Fuego - next stop Antarctica

Our first night at sea was uneventful - the cabin was roomy and comfortable and we slept well. The ship had rolled a bit during the night in the swell, but the Drake was not living up to its fearsome reputation. Looking out of the cabin window the following morning, the sea was a smooth deep blue - large 5m swells rolled across from the west but little wind blew. The air was cool and the ship had attracted a following of sea-birds; albatrosses, petrels and prions. It was good to stand on the stern watching their graceful flight, soaring and dipping as they rode the air currents above the swells.

We were crossing the Drake Passage in record time in these fine conditions. The day passed quickly; a lecture or two on Antarctic history, birdlife and geology - haute cuisine meals - and, in between, time to watch the birds and contemplate the enormity of the ocean on which we sailed. Late that evening we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, that sharp division where cold polar waters sink beneath the warmer waters to the north and which marks a divide in the composition and richness of the fauna. Biogeographically we had entered Antarctica; Nello spotted a small pod of Minke whales in the distance and the air had taken on a distinct chill.

Another night of gentle rolls passed - the Drake Passage was still relatively calm. Looking out the window, we were were greeted by a leaden sky and the odd white-cap; the sea was choppier as wind waves and swell conflicted, which actually reduced the roll of the ship. A cloud of black and white patterned petrels soared alongside the ship. Albatrosses came and went, but the ship seemed to accumulate these small petrels - they would stay with us for most of the day.

Today the waters of the Drake Passage are calm

During the day we crossed the 60°S latitude - we had now entered the political entity of Antarctica. There was no doubting the drop in temperature now - it was only 1°C outside on deck and speculation was rife about when we would see the first iceberg. The cry went up as we were eating lunch; out to the port side the distant horizon was blocked by an enormous white tabular berg, then another was spotted, then large tabular bergs and oddly shaped giant icebergs appeared on the starboard side - soon we were passing chunks of bergy bits that bobbed in the waves. Convergences and invisible political lines seemed redundant; emotionally, it was this first sight of ice that made us feel that we had really arrived in Antarctica.

The first giant icebergs drift by

Land ho! - the South Shetland Islands appear thorugh the fog and falling snow

As the day passed, the wind began to strengthen and by the time that we picked out the dark shape of the first of the South Shetland Islands it was blowing 40 knots. The Drake Passage was beginning to flex its muscles just as we had crossed it. Plans for a landing on one the islands were dispensed with as the wind increased and we found ourselves steaming through the narrow English Passage between Greenwich and Robert Islands in a pale fog. Snow blew almost horizontally across the deck as we edged by a giant tabular berg that blocked half of the narrow channel, while on either side, the islands either blended snow-topped into the fog or rose like jagged black teeth from the sea.

The "Ocean Nova" steamed on through the channel to find a sheltered anchorage in Yankee Harbour on the southwest side of Greenwich Island, where we stopped to have a tranquil dinner. Then it was onwards again, out into the wind and swell of Bransfield Strait - tomorrow we would wake up alongside the Antarctic continent.