The women in my family have always been explorers. My maternal grandmother was a travel agent before she retired, and my mother spent much of her time outside of work traveling here and there. A couple of years ago, they both decided Antarctica was on their bucket lists and invited me to come along. We chose a tour company, Polar Latitudes, which offers a variety of trips to Antarctica and its nearby islands. My mom funded the voyage — lucky for me — since it costs upwards of $10,000 per person.
Editor's note: at the time of publication, the CDC recommends that everyone defer cruise travel until the COVID-19 outbreak is under control. Read more here.
Thus did three generations of women head down to the coldest place on Earth, first through two days of plane travel to Ushuaia, a small town on the southern tip of Argentina, and the capital of Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia is a charming port town that largely revolves around a fishing economy. There you can buy miniature glass penguins, stock up on any last-minute personal items at the pharmacy (if you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll need the help of Google Translate), and pet the hundreds of dogs roaming the streets — they’re all collective property, well fed and cared for by the townspeople. Spend the night at a hilltop hotel overlooking the spectacular sunset over the bay.
The next day, we boarded a small cruise ship that would take us to the Antarctica Peninsula over the course of two days. The peninsula is a narrow tail curling off the main continent, and it’s where nearly all tourist expeditions visit. On the third morning, we awoke to the sound of our expedition leader’s voice through the overhead speakers: “Wake up, come outside,” she urged. Out on the chilly deck, we caught our first glimpse of the land and seascape that would become our home for the next week: enormous, shimmering glaciers reflected perfectly in placid, cobalt waters, all under clear skies stretching in every direction.
If you find yourself in a position to take this trip: do it. Visiting Antarctica is like touching down on an alien planet, one made of glacial ice, limpid sea, and chittering penguins. But be sure to come prepared — this far from human civilization, resources are highly limited. Here are some of the bare minimum items to bring. Your expedition will provide you with an waterproof parka and insulated, waterproof boots, but there’s still plenty you’ll want to bring:
Antarctica actually isn’t as cold as you think. You’ll be visiting in the summer (the Northern hemisphere's winter) because that’s when the seas melt and allow ships to pass through. We were blessed with bright, sunny weather for the entirety of our week-long stay, allowing temperatures to climb to the mid-30s (Fahrenheit) during the days, when we were trekking on land. But if you’re like me, i.e. cold all the time anyway, you’ll want to have a base layer available for gray days and evenings. I recommend a thin second skin for layering, like this Uniqlo top (they also sell matching leggings).
For the first and last two days of your voyage, you’ll be crossing open ocean — specifically the Drake Passage, also sometimes known as the Drake Shake due to its potential rough waters. Chances are you will be seasick; despite relatively gentle currents on our passage, I barfed, my mom barfed, and judging by the near-empty breakfast hall on day 2, many other passengers didn’t fare too well either. It’s worth it, though!! Just pick up some meclizine at any drugstore (if you forget, your ship doctor will likely have it as well). It works like magic. You can also ask your doctor to prescribe scopolamine patches.
My hands are like ice even on warm days, so these liner gloves saved me in the Antarctic. Their touchscreen-compatible material means you can remove your outer, ski-style gloves to take photos without baring your fingers to the harsh wind and cold. They also work great for outdoor exercise back home.
Every day you will take motorized, sea-level rafts called Zodiacs from your ship to the actual shoreline, where you’ll wade through a few feet of water — our guides kept saying "all landings here are water landings." The point is: everything you’re carrying for each expedition will get wet, and you’ll need a secure pack for it all. Here’s the one my family and I used without issue. The description says “water resistant” but I put my phone in this thing every single day and it stayed completely dry.
Even in Antarctic summer, most of the land is snow-covered. I’m all of 5 feet tall, so I was pretty excited to find a snow pant that came in a short inseam. With the couple extra inches from your boots, these work for even the most petite among us. The internal leg gaiter keeps you truly dry (helpful for water landings and deep snow situations), and they’re lined, so you will not need to wear a base layer underneath. In fact, if you overheat easily, I would instead recommend simple rain shell pants. A couple of days in these thick babies saw some delightful behind-the-knee sweat from yours truly.
Did you know Antarctica is a desert? Though ice covers the continent’s surface, the air is bone-dry at virtually zero percent humidity. That means it’s going to parch your skin like a hydration vampire. You’ll need all-purpose moisturizer for face and body, enough that you can re-apply once or twice a day, with an SPF of at least 30. I applied this gentle, unscented option liberally every morning and night. If you have chronically dry skin at baseline, you may want something stronger like Eucerin or Aquafor, with a sunscreen layered on top.
Let me be clear: these are goofy-looking. It doesn’t matter. You need them every day, all day to blunt the intense glare off the ice, snow, and water. Having sun-sensitive, light colored eyes, I especially appreciated that they block the wind and sun from all directions. And despite strong gusts whipping off the water’s surface into our raft, they stayed put.