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Deep, deep south: The remote cities and settlements of Antarctica and Patagonia

Posted October 26, 2018


Traveling to the ends of the earth offers up certain mental images. Infinite landscapes. Wild oceans. Isolated settlements. Places ruled by nature, touched by sublimity, and visited by only a few. All of which-when applied to Patagonia and Antarctica-hold true. Because where the albatross flies and the world map runs out of space, adventure awaits.

Hundreds of sea miles separate the southern portion of South America from the Antarctic Peninsula, but the two regions can almost be thought of as one. Both Patagonia and Antarctica occupy the far-flung higher latitudes, both can be explored on tours and cruises, and-though it may not be the first thing you think of-both have fascinating human histories that compound their drama.

Cities of Patagonia: The gateway to the world's end

Patagonia is a place apart. Spread across the southern extremities of Chile and Argentina, it is an immense region of plateaus, mountains, and remote fjords. But while its dimensions might be on a gargantuan scale, defined by a startling wilderness, Patagonia is far from devoid of human settlement. Patagonia tours tend to begin in one of four main gateway cities-not modern metropolises by any stretch, but small, tough-minded cities rooted in the landscape, which set the tone for adventure in this frontier region.

On the Chilean side, the one-time military garrison of Punta Arenas sits on the Strait of Magellan, a cool 1,900 miles south of national capital Santiago, while slow-moving Puerto Natales is a coastal settlement that serves as a base for trips into the fabled Torres del Paine National Park.

Multicolored Houses in the Patagonian city of Ushuaia, Argentina
Multicolored Houses in the Patagonian city of Ushuaia, Argentina

Across in Argentina, Ushuaia is the planet's southernmost city, and the port where most Antarctic cruises embark, while outdoorsy El Calafate is the very definition of a Patagonian city, drawing visitors to Los Glaciares National Park and the colossus that is the Perito Moreno Glacier.

Settlements in Patagonia

The away-from-it-all pull of Patagonia has always lured a certain breed of traveler. The writers Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin both fell under the region's spell, and Charles Darwin praised its sparse lands, "owing to the free scope given to the imagination [here]," and observing that "the plains of Patagonia are boundless." It's unsurprising, then, that certain settlements have carved out reputations over the generations, from El Bolson, which became a hippy mecca in the 1970s, to Puerto Madryn, known for whale watching and its Welsh heritage, and Cholila, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once holed up.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid House, Cholila, Argentina
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid House, Cholila, Argentina

Further south, Tierra del Fuego (literally 'Land of Fire,' so called after early explorers spotted native fires on the shores) is heavy with history. Puerto Williams, on the Chilean side, is a town and naval base with a few thousand hardy residents. In Argentina, the compact city of Rio Grande was founded in 1894 to service nearby sheep stations. And, of course, there's Ushuaia, where the air is bitingly fresh, the buildings are buffeted by gales, and the whole place is imbued with an expeditionary feel.

Cruising near a glacier in Patagonia, Argentina
Cruising near a glacier in Patagonia, Argentina

Into the fjords: Patagonia cruises

Patagonia cruises focus on the large fjords that weave throughout Tierra del Fuego. These water inlets are broad and flanked by raw landscapes of rock and ice. At dawn and sunset, washed in pinks or oranges, the whole region takes on the quality of a vast hinterland, somehow removed from the rest of the world-which, of course, it is. Legendary seafarers such as Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake sailed these same waters, and as your vessel passes along the fjords, there's still an elemental feel to the place.

A highlight of any cruise in Patagonia is the notorious Cape Horn headland, the continent's southernmost fragment of land, a wind-lashed outcrop pummeled by the Pacific on one side and by the Atlantic on the other. Cape Horn is defiantly remote-so much so that its little red-and-white lighthouse is some 75 miles distant from the nearest settlement of note. But, when weather conditions allow, it's even possible to disembark and explore. Get a feel for what you can expect with our Patagonian fjord-cruising tour itinerary.

Setting sail for Antarctica

Crossing the Drake Passage from Patagonia to the Antarctica Peninsula takes time. Two full days, in fact. It is a period of expectation and excitement, of sensing a change in the temperature, a chilly fluctuation in the sea conditions as the ship sails ever closer to the world's most enigmatic landmass. The skies are enormous, and the birdlife-petrels and fulmars, sheathbills and albatrosses-soars over white-tipped waves.

This voyage south is the very definition of a rite of passage, although sailing the whole way down to the Great White Continent isn't the only option. It's also possible to fly over the Drake Passage on a fly-cruise tour to Antarctica, joining your luxury Antarctic cruise ship in the South Shetland Islands.

Cruise ship in Antarctica
Cruise ship in Antarctica

Life on the White Continent: Settlements of Antarctica

Think there are no cities in Antarctica? Think again. Some of the penguin colonies here hold more than a million birds. The continent's feathered multitudes are, of course, its most famous residents, providing little communities of activity among the horizon-wide ice shelves and enormous bays. The scale of the whole place is overwhelming. This is the wild Antarctica that many people come for: the whales and the icebergs, the white mountains, and the super-sized wraparound scenes unlike anywhere else on earth.

But Antarctica tours have a human side too. Remote research bases and field stations make a fascinating and unexpected addition to a tour of Antarctica, places where teams of international scientists work to preserve, protect, and understand the planet's last great wilderness.

Port Lockroy

In place for more than a century, Britain's first permanent Antarctic base gives an insight into life at 64 degrees south. Expect a smattering of resilient huts on a tiny, rocky island, with the Union Flag fluttering overhead, penguins on the foreshore, and a small number of resident workers.

Whalers Bay, Deception Island
Whalers Bay, Deception Island

Deception Island

Part of the remote South Shetland archipelago, Deception Island is, in fact, the flooded caldera of an active volcano. Its high slopes provide one of the most sheltered harbors in Antarctica-hence its former role as a whaling station-and ruins of the buildings serve as a reminder that this desolately beautiful place once saw human habitation. Today, still reddened with ash from historic eruptions, it exudes an extraordinary peace, only broken by the wildlife, making it a popular stop on Antarctica tours.

Plan your own tour of Patagonia and Antarctica

On a Cox & Kings tour of Patagonia and Antarctica, you can explore this extraordinary region your way. Stick to Patagonia; focus on Antarctica; combine the two-it's up to you. At Cox & Kings we specialize in bespoke trips that allow you to craft the ideal journey. Just contact us online or call 1-800-999-1758 to speak to a Destination Specialist who can create the perfect trip for you.

For inspiration, browse our sample itineraries for Argentina tours and Chile tours to see what you can expect on a luxury Patagonia tour, and take a look at Cox & Kings Antarctica tours.