Santiago to Buenos Aires via Antarctica

It’s the cruise destination we all aspire to – Antarctica – and one I’ve been looking to tick off my bucket list for years. Here is all about my South American cruise from Santiago to Buenos Aires, via Antarctica.

Before we get started, let me give you a warning – this will be long! It is, after all, a 22-day cruise. If you are looking for information about particular port stops, use the table of contents to find it quickly.

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Before the Cruise

This trip has been the most stressful to organise of any we have done. We had a tight timeframe between when Simon finished work and when we had to get on our cruise.

We all know how chaotic the airline industry has been in the last twelve months so I was worried about arriving in Chile on time. Our Qantas flight had already been changed once and now we were flying with LATAM (not something I would necessarily recommend between Sydney and Santiago).

Thankfully everything went well, and we got to Santiago exactly as planned. This meant we had about 48 hours before we were boarding our cruise.

Learn how to get from Santiago to San Antonio here.

We were staying in the port town of San Antonio and mostly spent our time relaxing and catching up on sleep. We’re 13½ hours different from Adelaide, so we had to swap our body clocks to almost the opposite time of day.

Santiago cruises leave from either Valparaiso or San Antonio. If yours leaves from San Antonio as ours did, then there really is only one place in town to stay and that is at Hotel Casino San Antonio by Enjoy. It’s not five-star, but it is comfortable. Breakfast is included and the best part is there is a view over the port from the rooms (see the photo below).

It’s probably about 15 minutes walk from the hotel to the terminal for embarkation, but the hotel had a shuttle doing the trips back and forth. There were also taxis available.

Click here to take a look and book for yourself.

Day One – Embarkation

We awoke on the day of embarkation expecting to see our cruise ship docked in the harbour below us. But it wasn’t. I’m in a couple of Facebook groups for this cruise, and it was there I discovered that the harbour had been closed overnight and was still closed. Our cruise ship couldn’t dock.

Initial reports said it would be in around 10 am, but no such luck, it didn’t get into port – even though we could see it sitting out to sea – until midday.

a large cruise ship coming into port between and cargo ship and the wharf
Oosterdam finally coming into port

Originally we were supposed to embark at 3:40 pm, but we were pushed back two hours to a 5:40 pm time slot. We were told to stick to these slots as part of the Covid protocol

We arrived at the passenger terminal at about 5:15 pm to discover a huge line and lots of chaos. Luckily it was not hot and sunny because we stood outside in that line for about two hours.

We eventually got inside the terminal, to only find it was another huge holding area. We were called up by groups to check-in. As part of the process, we had to hand over our passports for the duration of the cruise – something I was not expecting, especially since our visa states we need to be carrying it and our passport at all times.

Next was another line for the security scan of our hand luggage, and yet another line to wait for the buses to take us to the ship. I was well and truly over it by this time.

It was a little after 8 pm when we got on board. Just enough time to wolf down some food at the buffet before we had to attend a full ship muster to go through the safety procedures out on deck.

But hey, at least we were onboard and the adventure could begin.

Day Two – Sea Day

Today was a recovery day and an orientation day. We started to get our bearings around the ship, find our favourite corners, views and food and generally just relax.

We started the day the way we hope to go on – with ten laps of the promenade deck. This equates to about 6km, which is what I walk at home each morning. I hope to combat some of the weight gain from the food by being as active as I can.

During the day we attended some of the lectures, such as An Introduction to Antarctica, and a Port Talk about our first stop, and there may have been a nap before we got ready for dinner. Oh, this cruising business was hard work!

A lecture on the main stage

Tonight was formal night – or as it is now called, Dressy Night. We had three of these during the cruise. This basically means that if you are eating in the main dining room or the specialty dining rooms it’s expected that you will get dressed up. Some people go all out, but since the dress code has relaxed a little, we only went as far as me putting on a dress, and Simon a shirt, tie and dress pants.

We ate dinner tonight at one of the specialty restaurants, Pinnacle Grill. We had a delicious steak dinner and the best lemon meringue pie I’ve had in years – but I was so stuffed, I could not manage to eat it all. Fairly standard for a cruise ship dinner!

We just made it to the Mainstage in time for the traditional Captain’s Welcome toast before settling into Billboard Onboard, the piano bar where we would spend many of our nights.

On this cruise there was a male/female duo playing two pianos and singing all the Billboard hits from the ’50s to the ’90s.

Day Three – Puerto Montt Sea Day

After learning yesterday that we wouldn’t be stopping at Puerto Montt today, we mostly had a very relaxed day. Our morning laps of the deck were done, before we took a seat in the theatre for a lecture about the Pacific Ring of Fire. I like taking advantage of these opportunities to learn a little (yes, the nerd is coming out!) and this was much more interesting than I was expecting.

After lunch, there was an impromptu pool party, with DJ and free drinks for an hour. I think HAL must have been feeling sorry for us missing our port and figured free alcohol would keep everyone happy.

The drinks were giant-sized, and after just one, with nothing else requiring our attention, we again went back to our room for a nap before dinner. I don’t think I can even use jet lag as an excuse anymore, this was pure indulgence.

It was our first time dining in the main dining room tonight. While I had heard others complaining about the food, we were both happy with our meals.

Our evening entertainment was much the same as last night – and probably every night of the cruise – we were at the piano bar. I’ve found the mocktails menu now, so I can cut down to only one of the huge alcoholic drinks a day (plus a normal sized wine with dinner).

Day Four – Puerto Chacabuco

After missing our first port, It was nice to wake up and see land, knowing we were getting off the boat. We anchored in the bay outside Puerto Chacabuco. This is a small Chilean town of around 1000 people situated at the end of Aysen Fjord.

We had spent two hours cruising down the fjord between towering hills on either side of us, many with tops dotted with snow, even though it was the middle of summer.

We had a beautiful day for our visit, around 15 degrees. Our guides said so many times how lucky we were to have blue skies – it hadn’t stopped raining for the last three days. They get almost four metres (!!) of rain here each year, and it’s not unusual for it to rain without stopping for more than 20 days straight.

Looking over the sea to a small town. In the background are towering mountains
The little town of Chacabuco with the mountains towering behind

Sitting above the town of Chacabuco is a glacier, which makes a beautiful backdrop to the fjords.

There’s not a lot to the town of Chacabuco itself – one or two places to eat, some makeshift domes that are used by locals to sell crafts and produce to passengers of the twenty or so cruise ships that stop here each summer.

But it is the gateway to northern Patagonia and home to some beautiful natural areas.

Interestingly, most of this area is relatively new. From 1920 to 1940 there was one huge wildfire in the Patagonia region, destroying much of the vegetation and wildlife. It has now all grown back, but there are very few really old trees around. 

Since 2014 big chunks of the area are now National Park after being bought up by the founder of The North Face, Douglas Tompkins and then donated to the Chilean government with the condition that they are turned into national parks.

We spent about an hour wandering around in Chacabuco before joining our tour, Patagonia Nature in Depth. The tour wasn’t my first choice, but it was one that wasn’t sold out and sounded vaguely interesting. 

This is the first – and one of only two this trip – time I have booked a tour through the cruise line. Our package for this trip included $300 USD to spend on shore excursions but to be honest, I will not prioritise this in the future.

A waterfall falling into a shallow rocky river
The waterfall at the end of the walk

I found the tours to be a lot more expensive than I could find elsewhere, the booking process was clunky and most of the tours were sold out months ago. There was a waitlist process, and we were allocated some of our waitlisted tours a couple of days ago, but by then I had booked elsewhere.

The HAL tours conveniently left from right from outside the cruise terminal though, which was a bonus – but only slightly, other tours left from only about 200m up the road – and there was a free shuttle between the two places!

Our tour was to Parque Aiken del Sur, a privately owned conservation park. We did a (my estimate) 2km walk through the forest. Learning about the history of the area and spotting some of the unique plants in the area.

While we heard about the wildlife in the area from our guide – including the pumas who live in the area – we didn’t see any. He did point out the distinctive calls of some of the birds in the area too.

The walk culminated in views of a pretty waterfall. From there it was another short walk to the park quincho – or the place they hold BBQs – where we were having the specialty of the area, BBQ lamb, for dinner (or maybe it was a late lunch). 

Three splayed lamb carcasses hanging around a fire barbecuing
Lamb cooking in the traditional Chilean way

We had a little time before the food was ready so we took another short walk down to the banks of Lago Riesco for great views over the lake.

On returning for our dinner, we were immediately assaulted by the smell of lamb cooking over an open fire in the middle of the building.  We were handed a drink on arrival, and we chose to try the local drinks, a Pisco Sour and a Calafate Sour. 

Once seated we were brought local wines – a cabernet sauvignon and a sauvignon blanc – and were entertained with some traditional Patagonian dancing. Then the mountains of food started to arrive. Empanadas first, then salads and finally, huge plates of lamb and potatoes.

Having grown up on a sheep farm, I am very familiar with lamb, so it was interesting to learn that the people that we were sitting with from the US had only ever tried it once or twice in their lives and it wasn’t really to their taste. It had not occurred to me that this was not a common meat for them at home. To me, it was delicious!

It was then a mad rush back to the ship, with us boarding our tender ten minutes after the “last tender” time. With three buses of us, there was no fear we would be left behind.

What did I think? The meal was generous and delicious, our guide informative and entertaining, and the nature interesting – but, I would have been disappointed if I had paid $200 USD cash for the five-hour tour as was the advertised price. It’s a dilemma though, because this tour is only available through the cruise ship when they are in town.

Oosterdam tenders
The Oosterdam tenders waiting to take us back to the ship

Day Five – Sea Day, Cruising the Chilean Fjords

There are a lot of sea days on this cruise, but there are also a lot of things to do. And this is where my nerdiness shines through. One of the things I love about HAL cruises is the lectures.

Holland America Line Oosterdam Promenade Deck
I walked many laps of this deck each sea day

This cruise the lectures so far have been really interesting, and really, really popular. Not only are the two levels of the main stage packed to the rafters, but they also stream it into the secondary performance space and that is also packed like sardines.

Today we were treated to lectures on the Chilean Fjords we were sailing through, Living and Working in Antarctica and a port talk about the next two ports on our itinerary.

Day Six – Sea Day, Cruising the Sarmiento Channel

Today we were cruising close to shore, enjoying the mountainous terrain. We started to see more glimpses of snow and ice on the tips of the mountains today, ramping up the excitement for what was to come.

Looking across the sea to green mountains, some with a little snow on the top
Cruising all day with these views

The lectures today were about Antarctic Science, The Beagle Channel & Glacier Alley (where we would soon be sailing) and Patagonia.

Not only did we have two fantastic scientists on board, but we were also lucky that our cruise director Kevin was from Argentina, so he was able to provide us with great local knowledge of the area.

Day Seven – Punta Arenas

Woohoo, another shore day, and this is our last day in Chile before we head to Argentina.

Punta Arenas sits on the Magellan Strait right at the bottom of mainland South America. It’s the capital of the southern Chilean region of Magallanes and has a population of almost 150 000 people.

For our shore excursion today we booked a tour with Shore Excursions Group (in fact we booked a package of four tours, so you will hear about them more in the future) called Exclusive Highlights of Punta Arenas.

Views across the rooftops of a city to the sea beyond. There is a cruise ship sitting in the bay
Looking across Punta Arenas – with Oosterdam sitting in the bay

Our tour guide spoke great English, but since Spanish was his first language he pronounced all the names as they would be pronounced locally (which is fair enough) and I struggled a bit to keep everything straight. I need to do more work on getting my ear in with the Spanish accent.

Due to its distance from Santiago, it’s no surprise to hear that the history of Punta Arenas resembles something out of the wild west. In fact, for a long time, no one knew if this city belonged to Chile or Argentina. Eventually, Chile took control, and turned it into a convict town, sending all their worse prisoners here from 1848.

Now that it was a proper settlement, Chile used it to claim sovereignty over the Magellan Strait (even though the land on the other side is Argentina). With so much shipping passing through the strait, the town grew to service the traffic.

There was a nearby gold rush, and sheep farming in the area became popular, and with this came many immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe (our guide had grandparents who were Serbian and Ukrainian).

It wasn’t all good though, twice the growing town of Punta Arenas burnt down to the ground and had to be rebuilt. Those first settlers also have a very dubious record of how they treated the indigenous people of the area – like so many other countries around the world, including mine.

Today Punta Arenas has quite a European feel to it in the centre of town with lots of grand buildings.

Our first stop on our tour was the Cerro de la Cruz lookout over the top of the city back towards the sea. We had a beautiful morning for the views too, probably around 12 degrees and sunny skies. Not the typical weather for this part of the world. (Although by lunchtime the clouds had come over again)

From the lookout, we went back into the main Plaza Armas Punta Arenas in town to see the impressive Monumento Hernando De Magallanes (Yes, I did have to google all these names again).

This is a monument to Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who mapped a lot of this area and has almost everything named after him.

I was horrified to see some visitors kissing the foot of one of the people on the monument. I mean, surely when covid is still a thing, this is not a great idea!

We had some time to walk around the square looking at some of the buildings flanking it. We ducked into the Cathedral of Punta Arenas opposite the plaza for a quick look before wandering through the market stalls that surround the plaza.

A cream coloured European style four storey building on a city corner
The architecture in Punta Arenas is very European

Our final stop was the Museo Maggiorino Borgatello, a natural history museum sharing information about the plants and animals of the area, the indigenous people and natural resources.

It’s a relatively small museum, and it’s okay. I’ve been to many better museums – and also many worse. Most signs were in both Spanish and English which was good.

We still had a little time once we had browsed through the museum, so we ducked next door to the Santuario Ma Auxiliadora, another elaborate church. This one still had all its nativity Christmas decorations up which was fun to see.

We were dropped back at the dock then, to get back on the boat.

If I was to do this over, I would have chosen a walking tour (they were sold out) because I think there were a lot of interesting bits and pieces we would have seen better on foot rather than in a bus. I would have loved to photograph some of the street art we drove past.

Another possible shore excursion here in Punta Arenas is a flight to Torres de Paine National Park. It looks amazing, but I think I’d prefer to visit independently to have more time to look around.

Fun fact: Punta Arenas is the only city in Chile that faces east, all the others face west.

Day Eight – Ushuaia

This morning we were up at 6 am and outside on the deck as we sailed through Glacier Alley. This area is in the Terra del Fuego archipelago to the west of Ushuaia.

While there are glaciers all over the place here, hundreds in fact, this part of the Beagle Channel has six glaciers that are very easy to see as we sail past.

A glacier on the top of a mountain with a waterfall flowing dow to the sea
The Romanche Glacier has a gushing waterfall

Five out of the six glaciers are named after European countries, and the last (Romanche) is named after a ship: Espana, Romanche, Alemania, Francia, Italia, Holanda

The blue ice of a glacier where it meets the sea
The blue ice of a glacier where it meets the sea

After our morning cruise through Glacier Alley, we dropped anchor in Ushuaia Bay at about 11:30 am. We had a tour starting “45 Minutes after your ship’s arrival”, so as soon as the start of tendering began at 12 pm we got in line.

If you’ve never gone through the tendering process, it can be challenging. First priority is given to premium passengers (in HAL’s case that’s 4 & 5-star Mariners) and people who have booked their tours through HAL.

We had booked our tour independently, so we were at the bottom of the list and were in the group squeezed into the tenders if there was room.

Ushuaia is even more challenging than the average tender port because there were a number of other ships tendering at the same time, all using just one single dock. There was a medical emergency on one of the other ships which left us sitting in our tender for ages. We didn’t get ashore until about 1 pm.

Luckily, most of our tour was also on our tender and the next one, and we eventually left at 1:30 pm.

We were doing a tour of Tierra del Fuego national park, the second part of our package booked through Shore Excursions Group.

Everything here at Ushuaia is known as the “xxx at the end of the world”. There’s the train at the end of the world, the city at the end of the world, and the park at the end of the world.

The park borders the Chilean half of Tierra del Fuego (which is the name of a province, an archipelago, an island, or a park, depending on context) but the border is almost entirely marked by waterways and deep forest.

So even though Chile is very clearly in view the whole time, the nearest place to cross the border is three hours away.

A view across a lake to mountains beyond
Beautiful Tierra del Fuego National Park

Our first stop was at Lapataia Bay which marks the end of the road – to the end of the world. This is where the Pan-American Highway ends after running all the way from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska.

There are some nice views here, and if we had longer, I would have liked to do the 1.2km hike (each way) to see more of the area. We did come across the cutest little owl though, which was fun.

A little brown and white owl sitting on a branch
How cute is this little owl?

The second stop was at Alakush, the visitor centre for the national park. Here there were some great views over the park, a souvenir shop and a small museum, as well as a cafe. And of course, the all-important toilets (there are toilets at the other stops, but even our guide said to only use them if we were desperate!)

We then went a little way along a very narrow road to Lago Roca where the Lapataia River begins – along with about a dozen other huge buses, a handful of smaller buses and twenty or so cars, which all squeezed into a tiny parking space. It was so bad, the bus in front of us on the way out could not turn and had to reverse at least a couple of kilometres to get out.

Our final stop was at Correo del Fin del Mundo (the Post Office at the end of the world) which sits on the Beagle Channel. There are times when the post office is open and it is possible to buy a stamp and post a letter – but this wasn’t one of those days.

A small corrugated building on a dock with a lake and mountains beyond
The post office at the end of the world

What did I think of the tour? There’s some great scenery and things to see, the guide was good and gave us so much great information but I would have liked a lot more time to go off and explore by myself.

Too much of the wildlife was scared away by the hoards (not just our tour, but the dozens of others due to lots of ships in town) and at times it felt like we were in a procession to take the photo and then move on to the next spot.

If I am ever back in this area (and I hope I will be) I would like to go out and do some hiking in the park myself. The trails look well-marked and there were lots of people around doing just that. It is also possible to camp in the park, but I’m not sure I’m that brave – even in summer it could get colder than what I am used to.

After our tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park, we had a little time to look around in Ushuaia.

Ushuaia is the most southern city in the world, sitting on the island of Tierra del Fuego in the Tierra del Fuego Peninsula. It has a population of around 100 000 people and is the capital of the Tierra del Fuego province (I told you everything here is named Tierra del Fuego!).

Ushuaia has a parallel history with Punta Arenas, with settlements set up at a similar time. Each country created a military presence near the border, then each turned the settlement into a penal colony when they needed more people to come here to this cold and windy place.

Even today there are incentives to come here, with wages here legislated to be 80% higher than for the same job elsewhere in Argentina.

There was one place in Ushuaia that was on Simon’s must-visit list, and if you have followed me for a while, you will not be surprised to hear that it was the Hard Rock Cafe. Well, if fact it was the Rock Shop so that he could add t-shirt number 693 (or something like that!) to his collection.

After that we went for a stroll along the main street, Ave San Martín. While Punta Arenas felt like a grand European city with its architecture, Ushuaia felt more like a ski resort town in its summer hiatus.

Buildings in a city
Ushuaia reminds me of a ski town (which it is in winter)

It was packed with visitors the day we were there giving it that holiday feel – the weather was also unusually warm (around 19 degrees). There are lots of tourism businesses, but also plenty of restaurants, clothing stores, souvenir shops, chocolate shops, cafes & bars, and boutique hotels.

We saw lots of street art as we went out to the national park on the bus, but there was only a little where we walked – what’s the bet it was hidden just around the corners.

We couldn’t spend too much time here as we wanted to get back to the ship a little early. We knew it was going to be a chaotic tendering process, and as it was we waited half an hour in line for the tender.

The last tender was meant to leave at 7:30, but there were so many people trying to get back at the last minute on our ship and others (with one tender dock), that the last people didn’t get back on board until 8:30.

Now, the exciting bit, the reason we have come on this cruise, we’re off to Antarctica!

Day Nine – Sea Day, Cruising Cape Horn

This morning was spent out on the deck again enjoying the views as we went around Cape Horn, the very southern most part of South America.

This area is renowned for its incredibly rough seas and strong winds, but we were blessed with a reasonably mild day.

We got to admire the southernmost lighthouse in the world, found here at Cape Horn, which is actually a part of Chile. The lighthouse here is still manned, with members of the Chilean Navy doing twelve-month stints living here and looking after it.

A red building on top of a green cliff overlooking the sea
The lonely buildings at Cape Horn

The current family has two young kids of 5 & 2 and a pet cat! They get supplies from the mainland just once every three months. I can’t decide if the sounds like bliss or a nightmare!

Strangely, after we sailed around Cape Horn, we had to head north again to drop off the local pilot. Regulations say he was needed on board if we wanted to get as close as we did to the cape. Once he disembarked, it was full steam ahead for Antarctica!

We settled in for a relaxing day of learning, with lectures on the Argentinian obsession with football, the lawlessness of Antarctica and how twilight works!

Our good weather held out as we started to cross the dreaded Drakes Passage, and really, the rocking was only enough the rock us to sleep

Day Ten – Sea Day

A rocky shoreline shrouded in low cloud
Our first glimpse of Deception Island, shrouded in cloud

We were still heading south, and all there is is a lot of water! Nothing scenic for most of today makes it a good day to rest! The temperature is dropping sharply, and the deck was closed, so it was mostly an inside day.

With Antarctica just over the horizon, the lectures were introductions to some of the animals we would hopefully be seeing in the following days, Penguins and Marine Mammals.

Late afternoon we approached our first Antarctic destination – Deception Island.

Deception Island is the caldera of an active volcano. It’s almost entirely circular, except for a narrow strait that turns the inside of the island into possibly the safest harbour in Antarctica – if you can ignore the fact that it likes to erupt occasionally. The last eruptions happened in 1967, 1969 & 1970, so I wouldn’t like to be hanging around it too much at the moment.

Two rocky headlands with a narrow passage of water between them
The small opening into the harbour of Deception Island

We looped around much of the island, but the weather was not kind to us and Deception Island was shrouded in clouds.

Day Eleven – The Antarctic Experience

It was kind of weird waking up this morning and knowing that we were in Antarctic waters. After all, not too many people get to do this, and it had been on my bucket list for a long time.

I was eager to get out on the deck and take a look around, but I didn’t even get that far before we saw our first penguins – that happened while sitting at breakfast. There they were, just black dots on the snow in the distance, but penguins nonetheless.

Distant view of a snow-covered shoreline with rocky edges and brown discoloured snow. Small black dots (penguins) walk up to snow
See those black dots making their way up the snow? And the white patches on the rocks? Our first penguins in Antarctica!

While we were in the public areas of the ship, we could hear the ongoing commentary about what we were seeing which was great. Sometimes it would be the scientists, sometimes the captain, and sometimes even the cruise director, depending on what was going on.

This morning we were at the most southern point of our cruise, the Lemaire Channel. I remember hearing that we had just officially crossed the Antarctic Circle – but now, looking at a map as I write this, I don’t think that is true – we were really close though! It’s likely that I misunderstood what was being said at the time.

Most cruises visit this area and it is known for its natural beauty. At its narrowest, it’s only 1600m across with towering mountains on either side.

A small white cruise ship and a red expedition boat against the snowy backdrop of Antarctica
This shows the scale of the snow and ice along the Antarctic shoreline. At places, the ice sheet is kilometres thick.

Or at least, I was told that were mountains; we didn’t see them because again the weather was grey with plenty of low clouds. The sea was like a pond though, with barely a wave to be seen, and it was snowing gently.

For most of the passengers, the snow was a nuisance, but since we don’t see it often, we loved being outside in it. Even more fun was seeing the predominantly Indonesian crew outside in their spare time playing in it – they hadn’t seen it before either. The mood was fun for everyone.

In the afternoon we cruised the Neumayer Channel. It was just more of the same ice and snow, icebergs and the occasional penguin – but I couldn’t drag myself away. It was mesmerising watching the different shapes, the swirling snow and the myriad of “blues” that coloured the view.

A snowy Antartctic shoreline with mountains of snow
The bluer the ice and snow, the more highly compressed it has been

Day Twelve – The Antarctic Experience

We woke up today in Paradise Harbour and it was still snowing. It was going to be another day of going from the deck to back inside to defrost. While it wasn’t exceptionally cold in the grand scheme of things, it was around 0 Celsius which is still very cold for me.

A female making a snowman on the deck of a ship.
I loved seeing how excited the Indonesian staff were over the snow

One of the fun ways to warm up was to hit the lecture theatre and relive the previous day. Both of the scientists onboard were pretty decent photographers with some serious camera equipment and they shared some of their best photos with us and explained what we were seeing.

No one person sees everything, so it was great to see some of the things we had missed and some amazing photos – and to lament not bringing a better camera!

Today ended up being all about wildlife. I spent hours watching penguins porpoise in and out of the ocean alongside the ship and whales slapping the water as they played a little further out.

Penguins porpoising in the ocean, photo taken through the snow
The snow made it hard to get great photos, but you get the idea. These penguins were porpoising through the water right next to the ship.
An iceberg with lots of penguins sitting on it. There are also penguins in the water in the foreground
Penguins on the iceberg and in the water
The white underneath of a whale's tail as it sinks below the water
This was one of my favourite photos – the underneath of a whale tail

As the day continued we visited Neko Harbour and Errera Channel, and I simply couldn’t get enough of everything around us.

A single whale tail in an expanse of the ocean near the snowy shoreline of Antarctica. There are small icebergs floating around too.
A single whale tail

The captain opened up the bow of the ship so we could make our way out the front and get views from there. It wasn’t just the deck though, it was the balconies along each of the upper floors which meant more room for everyone.

Later in the day, we came to a popular area where we saw three or four other cruise ships gathered. I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of the people we saw in the zodiacs getting right up close to the wildlife.

Two cruise ships sitting amongst icebergs
Smaller ships than ours are allowed to take zodiacs and get closer to the action.

Day Thirteen – The Antarctic Experience

You would think that by the third day of ice, snow, whales and penguins I would be getting sick of it – no way!

Today was much the same as the previous two days, as we cruised around Wilhelmina Bay and Charlotte Bay.

The highlight was when the weather became incredibly calm – the sea was almost completely still – and the captain was able to nose our huge ship right up close to a couple of large icebergs. We would have been only around twenty metres away from them, and it was breathtaking seeing them up close.

The bow of a ship with many people on it looking at two nearby icebergs
The captain nosed Oosterdam right in close to these icebergs

Day Fourteen – The Antarctic Experience

Our last day in Antarctica was the worst in terms of the weather. While so far there had been snow and poor visibility, now it was also affecting where we could sail. We were only able to do a sail-past of Elephant Island, not the circumnavigation that the captain had planned.

Elephant Island is part of the South Shetland Island group and is a significant part of the incredible Shackleton story. If you don’t know much about this part of history (and I didn’t before this trip), then I recommend you watch the recent movie Shackleton: The Greatest Story of Survival – it is unbelievable what these guys did to survive.

A rocky shoreline with a glacier coming down to the sea. All is hard to see through the bad weather
Elephant Island was not meant to be for us. This was the best view we had, of a glacier flowing down to the sea

Today was significant though for another event – the Polar Plunge

It’s a tradition during an Antarctic cruise to jump into the icy ocean. It’s a challenge to see if you can brave the cold.

We cannot do the polar plunge on our ship because we are not allowed to leave the vessel. But that hasn’t stopped the Holland America entertainment team from coming up with a solution.

Instead of jumping into the ocean, the polar plunge on Oosterdam means jumping into the outside pool that has been cooling down in temperatures of around 0 degrees for the last four days.

I really, really, don’t like the cold! I prefer temperatures around the 30-degree (Celsius) mark, and if I am going anywhere near water, it should be like jumping into a warm bath.

So the polar plunge is totally not my thing.

Which is exactly why I had to do it.

It was 2 degrees on deck and raining, and just standing around waiting in my bathing suit, a robe and flip-flops was nearly the end of me. I wanted to scurry back inside, or at least get it over and done with as soon as possible.

Just as we were about to start, to make it a little more realistic, and to psych us out a bit more, two big eskies of ice were poured into the pool.

A swimming pool on the deck of a ship in the rain
Getting ready for the Polar Plunge – those eskies looked much bigger then.

The time came, we were given the instruction to go – and my robe was off, I was in the water, and out again in about fifteen second total!

I might not have stayed in there long, but I did it!

To be honest, being in the water was not the worst part, it was getting out again. The deck was frozen, icy in patches, and I couldn’t get back to my shoes, towel and robe quickly enough. I posed for a quick photo, then it was straight to our room for a hot shower.

Day Fifteen – Sea Day

The excitement of Antarctica was over, and today was a day to reflect on what we had seen and start to get excited about what was still to come. There is still a whole week left of our cruise.

We were back to the lectures today, where we learned about Endurance, Shackleton’s ship that had only recently been found in the Antarctic waters after being missing for decades.

We also learned about the Falkland Islands and went to a port talk about the next two ports to get us ready for exploring them.

It was a nice touch from HAL that we were given a map of exactly where we had cruised in Antarctica. Each cruise is different because a lot depends on the weather and there is no set route, just ideas of where they would like to go. Often we would be told one thing, and then later that would change and we would be updated. We were warned in advance that this would be the case.

A blue and white map of the Antarctic Peninsula with a cruise route drawn on it
Our HAL Oosterdam January 2023 route map

Day Sixteen – Falkland Islands

It was so nice to see land again after seven days at sea and everyone was keen to get off the ship to explore, even the staff.

The Falkland Islands are notorious for being missed on cruise ship itineraries because the weather can make it too dangerous for the tenders that are required to go ashore. We were lucky, as both the cruise before us and the one that followed did not end up stopping here.

Posing in front of the cruise ships

And in my opinion, they missed out! The Falkland Islands were my most memorable shore day, mostly because we were able to get right up close to penguins, out in the wild, with no tour!

I loved it so much that I have written a whole post just about that, so go here to read about the Falkland Islands in detail (I think this is getting long enough without me elaborating more here)

Day Seventeen – Sea Day

Ahhh, another day at sea! After walking about 20km yesterday, today was a great day for rest and recovery.

Today we learned about the Southern Night Sky – which I am already quite familiar with, but those from the northern hemisphere are not. Tonight was the start of nightly star-gazing opportunities out on the deck so passengers could see the Southern Cross.

Day Eighteen – Puerto Madryn

As we left the Falkland Islands we said farewell to the Antarctic part of our cruise and we head north where we have four more ports in Argentina and Uruguay to go.

Our first stop is the local holiday destination of Puerto Madryn. It’s a city of 130 000 that swells to 600 000 in the holiday season and reminds me a little of the Gold Coast in Australia.

Looking along a wide beach filled with people on the sand and in the shallows. Behind the beach are highrise buildings
The beach at Puerto Madryn is popular with locals and visitors alike

Peurto Madryn is located in Northern Patagonia and is the gateway to the Valdes Peninsula UNESCO site. It is a top whale-watching destination, but only between May and December. And most exciting for us, it was the first port we didn’t have to tender to get ashore.

Most of the tours in the area understandably went to the Valdes Peninsula. I decided to be different though and chose a tour to see even more penguins at Punta Tombo. To be fair, when I booked I didn’t realise I would see so many penguins on the Falkland Islands for free, otherwise, I may have chosen differently.

Located almost 200km south of Puerto Madryn, Punta Tombo takes around 2.5 hours to reach, with the last 40km or so on dirt roads. The penguin colony is located on a private estancia (a large farm, akin to a station in Australia or a ranch in the US), with the owners donating a small portion of their land to the government to set up a tourism operation. 

Punta Tombo is home to around 700 000 Magellanic penguins spread over a huge area, the largest colony of these penguins in the world. The penguins dig burrows to nest in, and some of them walk more than a kilometre from the water to their nest.

We had a little over 90 minutes to walk amongst the penguins, and that time went quickly. It’s a walk of about 1.5km from where the buses park to the beach, but there are penguins to see all along the way.

Once at the beach, there are a few different viewpoints to see the penguins. Some of the pathway is simply fenced with a single wire and other sections are raised boardwalk, and visitors must stick to these fenced areas. The penguins can roam freely, including on the paths if they choose. 

Two females on a platform overlooking a small beach filled with Magellenic penguins
Just a few of the thousands of penguins that call Punta Tombo home

The only real rules here are to give way to the penguins and to not touch them – but the same rules don’t apply in reverse, as I learnt when a penguin came up behind me and attacked my leg and then my shoe. I wonder what food I was looking like that day?

It was another nice warm day (around 30 degrees) and the penguins were mostly found in shaded areas, including under the boardwalk we were walking on. If we stood still long enough they would congregate in our shadow in their quest for shade.

We were given a packed lunch as we jumped back on the bus to munch on for the trip back to Puerto Madryn.

There was one quick photo stop just outside the town of Trelew where a huge dinosaur stands next to the road. Seems a bit random, but it is because Trelew is home to a natural history museum that holds the bones of the largest dinosaur ever found, the Titanosaur Patagotitan. It wasn’t found right here, but a few hundred kilometres away inland.

We got back to town just half an hour before our boarding time so we didn’t get a chance to look around there further – instead, we made our way to the outside pool deck and enjoyed the sunshine as we sailed away.

Day Nineteen – Sea Day

Are you bored with sea days yet? This is the last one, but it was much the same as all the others so I won’t add much more here.

A highlight was an “Ask the Captain” session where we got to see some of the behind-the-scenes parts of running a cruise ship.

Day Twenty – Punta Del Este

Punta del Este was our first port in country number 55 – Uruguay (It had been so long since my last trip to a new country that I had lost count and had to tally them up again)

Uruguay is a small country squished in between two behemoths, Argentina and Brazil. It has a total population of around 3.5 million people with around only 20 000 of them living in Punta del Este permanently. That swells to over 100 000 during the summer as it is a top holiday destination for locals and visitors alike, and is only two hours by road from the capital. 

We didn’t have a tour arranged for today, instead, we chose just to take a walk. 

Punta del Este is located on a narrow peninsula, one side facing the Atlantic Ocean and the other facing the Rio de la Plata (claimed to be the world’s widest river but is more like a bay). The beaches are called Playa Brava and Playa Mansa, Spanish for fierce and tame respectively – and when you visit, it is easy to see why. 

People sitting under umbrellas on the beach. The sea behind has big waves
The ocean side of Punta del Este has rough seas

We first walked across the peninsula to the rocky shores and pounding waves of Playa Brava. It was amazing to see people swimming in conditions that seemed very unsafe to me. There were some places that had lifeguards and flags, but people were swimming and surfing everywhere.

Along this beach is Punta del Este’s most well-known landmark, La Mano, a sculpture of huge fingers emerging from the sand. They are said to represent a hand of a drowning person above the waves, a warning to all those who choose to swim at these beaches. 

The fingers of La Mano rising from the sand

We wandered back across to the other side of the peninsula, barely a couple of hundred metres away, and the contrast was stark. Here the waters are calm and blue and sparkling, the beach dotted with resort-style umbrellas. Kids play in the shallows here and adults enjoy the deeper water without waves.

A sandy beach dotted with white umbrellas. In the background is a pier and behind that, more shoreline with highrise buildings
The calmer seas of Playa Mansa

This side of the peninsula is lined with marinas, some with expensive yachts, others with local fishing boats. There is a ferry from here over to the island of Goritti, a little off the coast and a nature reserve. 

There are a few small museums, games arcades and a viewing tower that people may like, but we simply enjoy walking around and taking in the atmosphere – helped with a drink at a local bar before we made our way back onboard.

Day Twenty-one – Montevideo

Next we explored the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo. 

We started our day with a city tour organised through Shore Excursions Group. The tour took us to a wide range of locations around Montevideo, from squares in the Old Town, the city cathedral, long white beaches, the parliament building, a market, and the stadium where the first soccer World Cup was held.

White Montevideo sign in front of a long beach lined with high rise buildings
Welcome to Montevideo

I would love to tell you more about many of these places, but unfortunately, the one thing that let this tour down was the guide. He was simply too quiet to be heard over traffic noise etc in most of the places, and really, did not make what I did hear all that interesting. I think this could be a great tour though with the right person.

The old town area of Montevideo has some lovely architecture and leafy parks. There are some interesting monuments to gaining independence firstly from Spain (when Uruguay was part of Argentina) and then independence from Argentina and Brazil – who were both fighting over the region. 

There is a lot of what I am calling South American shabby chic styling in Montevideo, so interesting street art and colourful buildings spread throughout the city.

Inside of a cathedral
Inside the main cathedral

We enjoyed exploring the small but interesting farmers’ markets – or at least, they used to be farmers’ markets, now they have been renovated and are much more upscale. I liken them to the Adelaide Central Market, but smaller and less chaotic, stalls within the old market shed. 

The waterfront ranges from rocky to beautiful white sandy beaches and seems to stretch forever. We made a stop at the Montevideo sign overlooking Pocitos Beach.

Once we arrived back at our ship, we were off on our next mission – back to right near that Montevideo sign to, of course, Hard Rock Cafe Montevideo, for what I’m saying is Simon’s most expensive HRC t-shirt yet. The shirt might have only cost $40 USD (expensive in itself in comparison to other HRCs) but the taxi took another $30 USD for the return trip. It was about thirty minutes each way, so a fair price.

Why didn’t we go there when we were nearby the first time? It wasn’t open yet!

We still had some time left so we went across the road from the port to the Mercado del Puerto, another market area that has been renovated, now with a focus on local arts & crafts in one area and asado (BBQ) food in another. Walking through the BBQ area we could see the haze in the air with all the delicious meat cooking around us. If only we were hungry…

Stand in a market filled with meat
Some of the meat waiting to be cooked in the market

It was a really nice day in Montevideo and I would not hesitate to recommend a visit if you are in the area. Next, onto our final destination where we leave Oosterdam, Buenos Aires – although we do get a full day and night in port until we disembark.

Day Twenty-two – Buenos Aires

We docked this morning in Buenos Aires but we don’t disembark until tomorrow. There were a number of tours available in the city today, and most passengers took advantage of them. There was even a huge 16-hour tour to go to Iguazu Falls. While expensive, if this is the only opportunity to see them, then it’s a great option.

We spent the morning relaxing on the ship. In fact, we sat out on the outside pool deck and enjoyed the views over the city and the balmy weather. I spent much of the time planning the next few days as we finally had decent internet again.

In the afternoon we had our final tour – we were going wine tasting. This was using the remaining tour credit we had with HAL.

Five bottles of wine lined up
The wines we tasted

The wine tasting included a starter course in Argentinian wines. We learned about the history, the regions and the style of wines produced across the country. We tried five wines and each one came with a small snack, along the lines of a tapas.

Two bottles of wine, a glass half filled with red wine and a snack of cheese and quince paste
One of the snacks we had with our wine

On the way back to the ship we had a bit of a city tour. Our guide told us about the areas we were passing and some of the history of Buenos Aires. It was not quite enough for us to properly get our bearings but it did get us well on the way.

We spent our last night eating ourselves silly and enjoying the piano bar, knowing that tomorrow we would be saying goodbye to our home for the last 22 days.

Day Twenty-three – Disembarkation

We had chosen to self-disembark. This meant we had to take our luggage off ourselves, but it also meant we didn’t have a set time frame and could leave when it suited us. We decided to leave it until the very last minute.

We did have to unfortunately do a little running around. The last of our laundry had been returned the night before but we were missing a t-shirt. One of Simon’s many HRC t-shirts had been replaced with a plain white one. We had the staff do a search, but it did not turn up. We then went through the process to put in a claim with HAL for reimbursement.

Disembarking was simple. Our luggage went through security, and then we walked straight out. It was now time for the rest of our trip.

We were staying in Buenos Aires for a few days and still had almost a month before we were on our way back to Australia. In Buenos Aires, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Puerto Madero which suited us well.

The location was convenient, breakfast was included and the rooms were comfortable. I wouldn’t say the standard was the same as a Holiday Inn Express here in Australia but for the price it was acceptable.

Click here to see prices and availability for your time in Buenos Aires.

Final Thoughts

I’ve shared in the past that I don’t love cruising, and to be honest, I still don’t, but sometimes it’s the only way to achieve a travel goal. For that, this was fantastic and I absolutely recommend it to anyone considering this particular type of Antarctic cruise.

Antarctica itself is worth the effort to get there. Even with our less-than-perfect weather, it was breathtaking. The worst part is now I want to go and do it again on an expedition cruise so that it can be me out there in the zodiac and setting foot on the continent itself.

You can take a look at upcoming versions of this same cruise here

Looking for more Antarctica and South America information? Try these
Cruising to Antarctica with Holland America Line
Things to Consider Before an Antarctic Cruise
11 Things to Know Before You Go to Argentina

TRAVEL PLANNING ESSENTIALS

Find flights – I always use Skyscanner as my starting point when searching for flights. One search will give many options including airlines I may not have thought of. This means I can find the best possible flights to suit my needs

Book accommodation – my go to is always Booking.com for the best places to stay. It’s not just hotels anymore, but hostels, apartments, B&Bs and more. I love that the bookings are usually cancellable, and that I can book now and pay later.

Hire a rental carRentalCars.com is my go to here. It allows me to do just one search and it finds cars from many of the different supplies, so no checking multiple websites to compare.

Get travel insurance – you would have heard by now that saying “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel”. If we’ve learnt anything from the last couple of years it should be how essential travel insurance is. I use CoverMore for my insurance.

Pick up an eSIM – I tried an eSIM on my last trip and it was fantastic. I set it up before I went so it was ready as soon as I landed, and I still had access to my home number for emergencies. Get your own eSIM at Airalo.

Book activities, tours & attractions – I use a few different websites for this. Viator and Get Your Guide tend to be the first places I look. In Asia, Klook often has more options, and in Australia it’s Experience Oz.

Manage your money – the best way to manage your different currencies is with an account from Wise. You can hold money in many different currencies, and use them with the ATM card or from your phone.

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