In the far southern reaches of Patagonia, you’ll find the port of Ushuaia clinging to what seems to be the very edge of the Earth, a magnificent region known as Tierra del Fuego. With the striking Martial Mountains looming to the north and the picturesque Beagle Channel to the south, Ushuaia rewards intrepid visitors with stunning panoramas as far as the eye can see. Discover a lively Gentoo and Magellanic penguin rookery on Martillo Island or hike through the subantarctic forest of Tierra del Fuego National Park, an immensely scenic landscape of rushing rivers, glassy lakes and snow-capped peaks. Gain a terrific overview of the area by riding the historic Southern Fuegian Railway, sometimes referred to as “The Train of the End of the World,” and pause at lovely Lapataia Bay for a memorable photograph of the iconic sign indicating the Pan-American Highway’s southern terminus. In the evening, dine on some of the region’s superlative seafood, and if you’ve still got energy, pop into a local bar to hear the fascinating tales of fearless travelers just returned from forbidding Antarctica.
Frequently associated with the brief territorial struggle between the United Kingdom and Argentina, the Falkland Islands have enjoyed decades of stability since the end of the conflict. These days, nature lovers seek out the Falklands for their rich ecosystems, in which a huge variety of captivating marine mammals and seabirds flourish. Two large landmasses dominate, West and East Falkland, but the archipelago contains myriad other islets that provide sanctuary to both resident and itinerant species. As you approach the gently sloping coastline of the archipelago, you’ll discern its expanses of tussock grass, which can grow to over six feet high thus providing excellent protection for nesting birds. The scenery may be adorned with bright bursts of yellow gorse flowers or the delicate white blooms of the pale maiden, the island’s national flower. Few trees are found here, most cultivated by humans, which allows for nearly unimpeded views over the entrancing terrain. If conditions permit, Steeple Jason Island showcases the world’s most populous colony of black-browed albatross, whereas Saunders Island enchants with its dove-white beaches and pods of Commerson’s dolphins frolicking offshore, their crisp black and white coloration distinguishing them from other porpoise varieties. Ashore, you might encounter enchanting king penguins, whose feathered tuxedo is set off by vivid splashes of yellow and orange around the neck and head. More penguins await at Carcass Island, both Magellanic and gentoo, the latter notorious for spiriting away nesting material from other distracted individuals. The islet’s ominous name actually derives from the HMS Carcass, which in 1766 conducted a survey of the area. In line with the island’s name, striated caracara and upland geese may be on the lookout for carrion, and the elusive black-crowned night heron might also make an appearance. The Beaver group of islands, whose coastline appears to have been unevenly sliced with a titanic knife, plays host to unexpected fauna, including the sprightly Patagonian fox and the solemn Patagonian reindeer, both of which were introduced to the Falklands. On Sea Lion Island, you’ll see these eponymous creatures as well as elephant seals, notorious for their voluminous proboscis and an irascible temperament. Three species of penguins can be sighted here, including gentoo, Magellanic, and rockhopper, the latter the most agile as they easily hop around the uneven topography. Other charismatic birds abound, including flightless Falkland steamer ducks and assertive southern giant petrels. A complete change of pace awaits at Port Stanley, the island’s largest settlement and a far-flung snapshot of the British Isles. With a population hovering around 2,000, this cozy town features an unexpected number of attractions, including Christ Church Cathedral, a fetching gray-stone structure built in 1892 that oversees the world’s southernmost Anglican diocese. Just across the way, enormous whalebones forming an arch were placed in 1933 to commemorate what was then a century of British rule over the islands. Several inviting pubs are sprinkled around the town center, so be sure to stop in and hear from the jovial locals what life is like in the exceptional and remote Falkland Islands.
Approximately 1,100 miles from South America and 970 miles from Antarctica, isolated South Georgia Island boasts some of the world’s most incredible biodiversity. A rugged, treeless and perpetually snow-covered sliver of land seems an unlikely candidate for a natural utopia, but travelers come away from this sublime place feeling a sense of true and intimate connection with the great outdoors. Although the weather may dictate the timing and location of landings, you can expect to take in glorious sights you’ve likely not experienced before. Found on South Georgia’s northwest coast, Right Whale Bay is a perfect introduction to the island’s delights. Depending on the cloud cover, you’ll be awestruck by serrated mountains that rise rapidly from gravelly shorelines to heights of over 9,000 feet. Virgin snow and ice cover the peaks, forming glaciers that snake downward into the frigid waters. Closer to sea level, the snow melts into umber terrain occasionally brightened by vibrant moss and patches of swaying grasses. Amid this pristine landscape, a thousands-strong colony of Antarctic seals performs rituals as old as time, staking territory and raising its young. There’s a certain scene that forever imprints itself on visitors to South Georgia, one which reaches its apotheosis on windswept Salisbury Plain and at glacier-fed St. Andrews Bay. Imagine the sight of hundreds of thousands of king penguins gathered in a sea of black and white plumage streaked with russet striations, which turn out to be groups of offspring that cluster together for warmth. Extending as far as the eye can see, the colony might go on forever if the mountains were not there to contain them. Those who have witnessed this incredible panorama are frequently so deeply moved they can do nothing but observe in stunned silence. Determined to steal the limelight, tetchy elephant seals aren’t nearly as numerous but make up for it with their enormous size and loud croaks. While on Hercules Bay, Fortuna Bay or Gold Harbor, look for the seal’s pups, whose enchantingly wide-eyed demeanor gives little indication they will grow into lumbering and intimidating beasts. Another entrancing resident of the island is the macaroni penguin, whose name alludes to the showy 18th-century hats mocked in Yankee Doodle but in this case refers to this species’ genuinely appealing golden-hued crests. These colorful creatures, who unlike most penguins hop instead of waddle, may be spotted at Cooper Bay or Cobbler’s Cove. There’s very little human presence in South Georgia, with most of it concentrated in the settlement of Grytviken, a hallowed site in the annals of exploration as the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grave is found here. Most visitors pay their respects at his simple but stirring headstone, acknowledging that the explorer’s daring exploits paved the way for visitors today. Intriguing remains of a whaling station lie nearby, with fur seals reclaiming the now unused land, and a spartan whitewashed church provides a mesmerizing contrast to the surrounding wilderness. Seabirds also have a significant presence on South Georgia, with the albatross overshadowing all with a wingspan that can measure up to 12 feet from tip to tip. They’ll be your constant companions as you navigate the bays and fjords in search of shimmering blue glaciers, another wonder in a place already brimming with splendor.
Embark on the adventure of a lifetime, uncovering the world’s most enigmatic and pristine environment, a land of lofty dreams and heroic achievements, resilient creatures and incomparable beauty. In Antarctica, nature’s imagination is fully unleashed as it shapes masses of ice into fantastical shapes that glow from within in hues of blue and green. As you cruise along the rippling waters of the Drake Passage, watch for icebergs appearing on the horizon, some carved into fanciful forms that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern art museum, others iridescent arches that seem to be portals to a faraway world and yet others massive ice shelves fronted by forbiddingly frosty walls. You’ll be accompanied on your journey by enterprising seabirds that take advantage of the ship’s wake to both ease their flight and to detect fish as they disperse. A surprising variety of striking birds hazard the crossing to the last continent, including white-chinned and storm petrels, sooty shearwaters, kelp gulls and black-browed, royal and wandering albatrosses, the latter boasting the world’s largest wingspan, which can grow to an astonishing 12 feet in length. Reaching the South Shetland Islands, the opportunities for discovery truly begin. The more tranquil inlets of this volcanic archipelago might allow for exploration by kayak, bringing you right up to the glimmering chunks of ice bobbing in the sea. Depending on the conditions of weather and ice, you may glide into Yankee Harbor, distinguished by a long, pebbled spit of land that creates a natural breakwater, and meet a colony of brush-tailed gentoo penguins that numbers in the thousands. Perhaps you’ll hop ashore on Half Moon Island, a dazzlingly white landscape interrupted by bare patches of land where remarkably hardy types of lichen and moss subsist. If Deception Island is accessible, you’ll enter its sea-filled eroded caldera by a narrow passage guarded by mammoth sea stacks and evocatively named Neptune’s Bellows. Scattered throughout this sublime island’s scenery lie vestiges of a British base and a whaling station, evidence of human attempts to subdue this indomitable place. Further south, claim your prize as you reach the staggeringly breathtaking coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, an elongated mass of earth and ice that beckons forth like a finger of godlike proportions. Surrounded by glaciers, Neko Harbor invites you to listen closely as enormous hunks of ice crackle and then crumble into the frigid waters. Paradise Harbor lives up to its name, with a swooping topography that attracts a variety of blubbery mammals such as crabeater, leopard, Weddell and fur seals. In Wilhelmina Bay, marvel at the sight of breaching humpback whales, a spectacular backdrop of pristine snow and faceted ice further elevating the experience. Weave among the slow-moving icebergs of the Lemaire Channel and pause at bustling Booth Island, where endearing Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins coexist amicably. As you depart Antarctica across the briny sea, it’s possible to glimpse minke whales and even pods of orcas gracefully skimming through the waves. Although the exact path you’ll have taken is unknown, you can be certain you’ll be forever changed by your foray into Earth’s true final frontier.
Reenact one of the greatest achievements of the Age of Exploration by rounding legendary Cape Horn, the arresting headland marking the southernmost point of Chile’s Tierra del Fuego and a place once believed to mark the true end of the world. Jutting forbiddingly from Isla Hornos, the cape is distinguished by precipitous bluffs draped with wind-whipped vegetation. Look to the air for sightings of southern giant petrels, red-legged cormorants and southern royal albatross, regal seabirds equipped to handle the sometimes harsh conditions. Should weather permit, relish an opportunity to alight on Isla Hornos. Although trees cannot flourish at this latitude, you’ll learn that abundant rainfall contributes to a lush terrain of grasses, mosses and lichens that swathe the landscape in shades of green, ochre and burnt sienna. Follow a boardwalk to the memorial dedicated to sailors who have perished in these waters, a splendid steel sculpture that features the silhouette of an albatross, and take a truly memorable photograph beside the world’s southernmost lighthouse.
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