You make it to New York, you “make it anywhere,” as one song by Frank Sinatra goes. In the same way among travellers, making it to Antarctica for Filipinos is as close as saying you’ve seen the world. Quite literally, because it takes passing through several cities before one sets foot on the fifth-largest continent in the world.
The ‘frozen’ one, as some people call it, Antarctica is far from the typical destinations Filipinos have grown used to, New York in the US included. Apart from expensive travel costs, travelling to Antarctica from the Philippines involves at least one stopover in a visa-required city. Not to mention, the Antarctic weather is anything but easeful for us who grew up in a tropical archipelago.
Enough about the drawbacks, though. Because believe it or not, travelling to this highly popular yet also scarcely visited destination is not impossible, as the following individuals prove. Pinoy travellers Erwin Yaptangco, Cindy Wong, and Ken Embradura visited the continent on different trips within the last three years. Here, they share just what it’s like to travel to Antarctica for Filipinos.
The travellers, their background in travel, and why they chose Antarctica
Erwin: I graduated from Ateneo and am currently employed with one of the top local banks in the country. My interest in travel basically came from my parents who introduced me and my brother to how fun travelling really is. For my family, it’s not just about being able to get to different places just to escape the hustle and bustle of Manila, but to experience the diverse cultures and colourful food each continent offers.
My family has been travelling yearly since 2006 and we’ve been to 33 countries, including Antarctica (not a country, but of course you and I have to include that), ever since. Antarctica was part of our travel bucket list since the ultimate goal was to set foot on every continent. Antarctica, of course, had to be the last to be crossed off that list, and we were finally able to cross that off in December 2018.
Cindy: I’ve been in the travel industry for more than a decade and I run Exceptional Wonders, where we design luxury travel itineraries and send our clients to exotic destinations. I’ve been to over 50 countries and Antarctica was the last continent on my bucket list. I wanted to test my courage when I decided to travel by myself. I’ve been warned about the roughness of the Drake Passage and the unpredictable weather, not to mention the ongoing pandemic (at that time, it hasn’t reached South America yet, so I still went).
Ken: I’m currently living here in Melbourne as an emergency nurse. It all started with my numerous near-death experiences since I was a kid. I took a long, good look at my life and I thought I didn’t want to travel until I retire ‘cause you never know what tomorrow brings. I chose Antarctica because it was the only continent I hadn’t been to during that time. This was back in 2007. I have been to 54 countries including Cambodia, Egypt, Germany, Liechtenstein, Russia, Sweden, and Zimbabwe.
The preparations, from obtaining visas to packing the essentials
Erwin: There are two embarkation points to get the continent via cruise, Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina. My parents opted to embark via Ushuaia, bearing in mind tips from friends that it is much easier to get a visa for Argentina than Chile. Next would be the warm clothes. We did not own any fur coats, down jackets, or any thermal clothing of any kind, so we had to invest in those. We also had to pack around 21 days’ worth of clothing.
Last, I would say, would be preparing yourself for the gruelling (yet exciting) travel across to the other side of the world and down to the coldest continent on earth through the Drake Passage, which is considered to be one of the Earth’s roughest waterways. This is the shortest crossing to get to Antarctica from another landmass. We booked all our tours and flights online.
Cindy: I also hold a Hong Kong passport. So for all the countries I went to before arriving in Antarctica, I was allowed to enter without applying for a visa in advance. I needed to supply a medical certificate too, so I got one from our family doctor. Also, travel insurance, in case something goes wrong. I recommend checking the weather beforehand as well, to make sure you’re bringing the right clothes.
As for packing, the essentials were waterproof pants, jackets and backpack, binoculars, camera, gloves, sunglasses, warm cap, casual shoes to use onboard, swimwear, and motion sickness medicine! The ship supplied us with waterproof boots, which were sturdy enough to wear while walking on ice.
Ken: I researched how much it would cost, what items I needed to bring, and do’s and don’ts by reading a lot of blogs. Argentina didn’t require a visa, as I got a New Zealand passport; but Brazil required one. It was quite easy though, as I just got the visa from the border.
I booked the tours through Chimu Adventures, but the main company doing the tour of Antarctica was G Adventures. They were usually offering overnight camping in Antarctica as well as kayaking, but only kayaking was available to us as ours was the last trip to Antarctica for the season before they went northwards to the Arctic. The kayaking option was expensive, but it was so worth it because on the second day of doing it, we encountered over 30 humpback whales. You really don’t need to do any physical preparations for this trip unless you’re going kayaking. The oldest person I met on this trip was, I think, in her early 80s.
The journey from leaving their place of residence to disembarking in Antarctica
Erwin: Interestingly enough, we attempted to travel to Antarctica in December 2015, but we did not make it to the continent due to unfavourable weather conditions and an accident that happened on board the cruise liner. We were diverted instead to the Falkland Islands, which was just as great — but you know, it wasn’t Antarctica. For our 2018 trip, when we made it onto the continent, our flight path was Manila, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, and Ushuaia in Argentina.
The total flight time was around 30 hours (including layovers), shorter than our 2016 attempt. We took Turkish Airlines from Manila to Buenos Aires, and Aerolíneas Argentinas to Ushuaia. The package tour to Antarctica that my family picked was for 11 days. Of the 11 days, it takes roughly three days to get there and three days to travel back, so the total time spent on the continent was five days. Not a single minute did I get bored on the cruise, though.
Cindy: I spent my time in Russia before the trip; so from there, I took the flight via Amsterdam to Buenos Aires. I spent a couple of nights exploring the city before flying into Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of the country. From there, we embarked on the 20-day cruise that would cover the Antarctica Peninsula, South Georgia and Falklands. We were supposed to end the trip in Montevideo, Uruguay.
We did not manage to finish the 20-day trip, though, because the world was closing down last March, and Uruguay was not allowing cruises to disembark anymore. So, from the Falklands, we took a chartered flight to Brazil and from there, I flew back to Cebu via Dubai. I purchased the flight ticket at the last minute. It was a roller-coaster ride, but I’m glad I survived!
Ken: The starting point was Ushuaia in Argentina, but that was the last city I stayed before the trip. I went to Buenos Aires first, then went to Iguazu falls before going to Rio de Janeiro to see the carnival. I also made a stop at El Calafate to hike Perito Moreno before going to Ushuaia. Hiking Perito Moreno was exhausting but so worth it. Including Antarctica, the entire trip took four weeks, I think.
The experience in Antarctica, from activities to their thoughts
Erwin: The experience was unbelievable. Mixed feelings of disbelief and amazement struck me as soon as we caught sight of the first iceberg, and fulfilment once we finally stepped on the Antarctic Peninsula. Unsurprisingly, the continent is crawling with penguins and the occasional sighting of seals, whales, and dolphins.
Being in Antarctica is unreal and is really incomparable to any other destination in the world. You’ll be surrounded with views of glaciers, ice, snow, rock and silly penguins minding their own business, while walking on a meter wide pathway paved by the guides with their shovels. I did not see a single tree on that continent.
To get to shore from the ship, tourists will need to ride a “zodiac”, which is basically a heavy-duty rubber boat. There are so many activities available, which include kayaking around the glaciers, hiking through the snow-capped hills, spending the night on-shore, camping in a sleeping bag, and the infamous “polar plunge” as they call it, which is taking a dip in the frigid waters (this is the only activity I did).
Cindy: I was surprised to see 70% of the crew to be Filipino. They were all amazing and hospitable, and made sure I felt home. When I enter the dining hall, I would be greeted by name right away and be directed to my seat. I’d spent time in the bar at the top deck, to read or for sightseeing; Berhel, one of the crew would know my preferences right away (e.g. hot chocolate).
When we were at sea, there were plenty of lectures about the flora and fauna (e.g. different species of penguins found in the places we’re going), and also stories of courageous men like Ernest Shackleton, who explored the continent.
For excursions, it is necessary to take speedy zodiacs for our landings, thus the waterproof pants. Upon landing, the guides would brief us on the paths we’re allowed to go to. Most of the time, we’re free to explore on our own. What I found challenging was walking with the heavy boots on ice. If you have weaker knees, grab a walking stick with you. Sometimes, seals tend to chase you, so you can also use the stick as a protection.
Ken: It was astounding to say the least because I never really thought I could achieve this dream. I’m glad I did it three years ago because who knows how travel to Antarctica will change because of COVID. I made three good friends during that trip. One was Singaporean, one was French, and one was British. They were early-to-mid 30s during that time, and Antarctica was also the last continent they hadn’t been to.
Now, back to the kayaking. Would you believe I booked it and I don’t know how to swim? Our guide was saying that if a whale overturned our kayak, there was someone who was going to rescue us in the next 30 seconds to a minute; plus we were wearing life vests so we would float but still, that water was freezing. I was so anxious during the days leading up to it.
I even became nauseated while putting the kayaking gear on; but after the first day of kayaking, anxiety turned into joy and I was the first in line to go out of the ship to kayak, more or less. They have different activities available for the entire duration of the trip: Watching out for the different fauna in that region, looking at the stars, historical lessons of how Antarctica was discovered. That was surreal because in those times, the gear they had wasn’t warm enough and they stayed in Antarctica for a few months to years.
Their tips and other useful information for visiting Antarctica for Filipinos
Erwin: I don’t think travelling to Antarctica is for the faint-hearted; though why would you consider going there in the first place if you are, right? Basic tips would include packing the appropriate clothing, preparing for the fatigue of transiting for hours, and not underestimating the weather in Antarctica. Better to layer and remove a couple than to be underdressed when the wind hits. Also, prepare to get slightly seasick when traversing through the Drake Passage.
On the other hand, the majority of the crew on board the ship were Filipinos, which was great! Everyone was so nice and happy to have Filipino tourists onboard. We felt closer to home even if home was 19,000 kilometres away.
Cindy: I recommend booking in advance because that’s when you get the best deals. Exceptional Wanders can recommend the perfect itinerary depending on your interests. There are longer itineraries that can cover Chile, too. Also, if you can’t find anyone joining you for this kind of trip, don’t be afraid to go solo. There are plenty of solo travellers onboard, so you’ll never feel alone.
Ken: This is going to be one of the most expensive trips you will ever take in your life. Save, save, save. Plan for it and then once you’ve booked it, read a lot of blogs about other people’s experiences. You are going to meet a multitude of people from different countries. Make friends and savour every moment.
Be prepared for the Drake Passage. You will be seasick if you don’t have medications prepared. I was vomiting like mad during that time, and the workers told me that was still mild. Also, the Internet is very expensive, so prepare a budget of around US$100 (₱4,900) for it. It took a good chunk of my pocket money, but it was worth seeing the pics on Facebook Memories because it was uploaded on the same day.
Antarctica for Filipinos? Not the easiest to accomplish, let alone wrap one’s head around. But for Filipinos who long to experience a different kind of adventure — one that involves postcard-worthy landscapes, unique wildlife, and epic journeys to match — it’s well worth a try. These travellers prove it once and for all.
The quotes above have been edited for grammar, clarity, and flow. Featured image credit: Erwin Yaptangco