Looking at the map, many travelers planning a Patagonia cruise overestimate South America’s remoteness because, beyond the tip of the continent, the next thing they see is Antarctica. In reality, at a latitude of 56° S, Cape Horn is almost exactly the same distance south of the Equator as Edinburgh is to the north, but the vast open waters of the Southern Ocean are a dramatic contrast to the landmasses of Europe, Asia and North America.
Even then, though the South American continent tapers to its tip in Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is the gateway to the white continent in a time of global warming concerns. Nearly all Antarctic cruises sail from the Argentine port of Ushuaia, on Tierra del Fuego, but there’s another option – the Chilean city of Punta Arenas has the only airport that offers commercial flights with Aerovías DAP.
When I made my only visit to Antarctica, in late 2004, it was part of a fly/cruise trip with Antarctica XXI, a Chilean operator that was offering the chance to avoid two days of stomach-churning sailing across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, whose sheltered waters are calmer. We flew from Punta Arenas to King George Island (Isla Rey Jorge), where Chile and several other countries have research bases, and then boarded a chartered Russian vessel for our week-long cruise excursion (since then, Antarctica XXI has acquired its own ships).
The Antarctica XXI cruises are expensive, but there’s now a briefer, cheaper alternative for those who want to sample what Antarctica has to offer. Through its Antarctica Airways service, DAP now offers day-trips and overnight stays at an “Ice Camp” on King George Island.
My feeling is that a day-trip doesn’t allow enough time to see King George’s sights, which includes an elephant seal colony and many penguins, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church there. Even the overnight trip, though, requires some flexibility – with crosswinds, flights from the South American mainland cannot land at King George’s narrow airfield, as I learned when our Punta Arenas excursion was delayed a day in 2004. If your schedule is tight, the trip could be tricky.