Sunday, April 14, 2024

Journey to Antarctica 2023 ✈ Hola Argentina • Ushuaia

Antarctica had always felt like a distant and unreachable bucket list destination, not just because of its geographical location, but more so because it is so expensive. I never thought it'd be possible to check off this bucket list item but we decided to make this trip happen and celebrated our 10th anniversary with an extraordinary adventure to the end of the earth - Antarctica! I am so grateful for the opportunity to finally step foot on my 7th continent and to experience this incredible journey with our moms. 

24 November 2023 (Fri): Buenos Aires - Ushuaia

Complimentary breakfast at the hotel before we checked out at 9am. The food variety were pretty standard but we like staying in Holiday Inn Express because of the free breakfast.

After checking out, we took an Uber from the hotel to AEP airport to catch our flight to Ushuaia. As compared to EZE airport, AEP airport is much closer to the city. This was our first time using Uber in Argentina. Thankfully, the hotel concierge staff helped to send message to the driver via the app and provided the exact location for the driver to pick us up. There is no option for Uber XL in Argentina and we thought we may have to get 2 Ubers. Amazingly, we managed to fit all 4 of our luggages and ourselves into a small! One of our luggages had to be placed in the front seat, so we all got tight and cozy at the back. It was only about a 20 minutes ride so it wasn't bad at all. Our 20 minutes ride from the hotel to airport costed only ARS $4,826 ($5). We wanted to tip more but the maximum tip that could be added was ARS 2,500 ($2.50), which we did so our total cost was $7.50.

Arrived AEP airport at 9.30am for our domestic flight to Ushuaia at 11.45am. The airport was quite busy but the lines moved pretty quickly. Check-in went pretty smoothly with no issues. Our check-in baggage limit was 15KG, and 3 of our bags were good. MIL's bag was more than 15KG so she had to go to another counter to make the payment.

This was my first time flying with Aerolineas Argentinas. We booked the flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia back in March 2023 and thanks to my friend, Penny, for letting me know about the trick of setting the country to Argentina (instead of US) on the website to pay in ARS instead of USD. As mentioned previously, there are 2 different exchange rates in Argentina. If I had used the US site, we would have paid almost double for our flights because the website automatically converts the fare to USD at the higher 'official' rate ($143.82). By switching the country to Argentina and booking in ARS (and entirely in Spanish - thanks google translate), we were able to save almost 50% as the transaction was charged on our credit card in ARS and Visa converts it to $74.19 using the 'Blue rate'.

We originally booked the 8.45am flight but thanks to a schedule change (which happens a lot for Aerolineas Argentinas if you book early enough), we were able to switch our flight at 11.45am for free by emailing them a summary of our original flight, the new flight, and our preferred flight.  We got through security and arrived at our boarding gate around 10am. There is no lounge at this airport so we just hung out around the boarding gate for about an hour before boarding.

Found out that the scenic side landing into Ushuaia (with snow-capped mountains) is on the right side. We were not able to select our seats for this flight and ended up on the 'wrong' side. MIL's seat was on the 'right' side so she was able to get some nice videos on her side. I took a photo of how I attached a strap to my phone to avoid phone-snatching and it also came in handy to avoid myself from dropping my phone into the waters when we were in Antarctica.

The 3.5 hours journey was pretty uneventful...but as we landed in Ushuaia at 3.15pm, the other passengers started clapping and singing together. The song was in Spanish so we had no idea what was going on. We thought there would be more foreigners/tourists on our flight but majority of the passengers were argentinians. It was nice seeing them so excited about arriving in Ushuaia, which made our arrival into Ushuaia a lil' more special. We were also excited to finally make it to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world is, where we would board our ship to Antarctica the next day!

Ushuaia is a small airport with a pretty cool backdrop surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This airport is so small it took only 1 minute to walk from the plane to the baggage claim area. We got out of the airport around 3.45pm and were welcomed by a windy, cloudy, and chilly weather (approx. 15°C/59°F). It was colder than Buenos Aires so we had to layer up while waiting for our Uber.

When our Uber arrived, I was pretty certain it wouldn't fit all 4 of us and our luggages. However, Francisco (our driver) just calmly loaded our luggages into the 'hidden' trunk from the backseat and managed to fit 3 luggages into the trunk! He was gonna try squeeze the 4th luggage into the trunk but we told him (in sign language + limited spanish) that 'quaddro' can sit in the back and he can put the 4th luggage in the front seat. Fortunately, it was only a short 10 minute ride to the hotel so we were fine being tight and cozy. We got a glimpse of the beautiful scenery heading into town.

We arrived Hostal Malvinas at 4.15pm. We booked this hotel using our Capital One Venture X $300 travel credit for 2 rooms. The hotel was pretty basic but it's good enough for our 1-night stay. The name of the hotel sounds like a 'hostel', but we had our own room and bathroom.

After dropping our luggages, it was time to explore the southernmost city in the world.
It was cloudy so the photos didn't look as good. Spotted our first 'penguin' on this!

Wanted to take photo of the Ushuaia sign but there was a big crowd at the area. Apparently, we found out that La Renga, an Argentine hard rock band was having a concert in Ushuaia the next day. That probably explains the people who were singing on our flight as they were there for the concert.

Puerto Ushuaia is where we would board our boat to Antarctica the next day. We spotted 3 other ships that were departing to Antarctica that day. Our ship has not arrived at the port yet

 Ushuaia is where most people embark the ships to Antarctica, and it's one of the main Antarctica gateway ities because it is relatively close to the Antarctica Peninsula. Close as in ~1,100km (680 miles), which takes about 48 hours by boat. So the 'Malvinas' in the name of our hotel is probably taken from the name Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands). It's interesting to learn some history about this part of the world. P.S. Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are currently considered British Overseas Territory together with few other ones in the Caribbean.

Ushuaia town is pretty small and we were able to explore the entire town by foot.

Ushuaia is located on the southernmost tip of South America, nicknamed the “End of the World.” Took a photo with the 'fin del mundo' (End of the World) sign. We also stopped by the tourist information center to get a free 'diploma'. They also had free Antarctica and Ushuaia stamps rather than paying $3 for the ones at the End of the World post ofice. P.S. We don't want to stamp anything on our passports to avoid it being voided so we stamped it on the diploma. We also got some postcards and souvenirs from the gift shop just up the road from Albatross Hotel, across from Worlds End. Tip: Get the postcards in Ushuaia as they will be nicer and cheaper than the ones on the ship.

Ushuaia is known for King Crabs so we decided to try it out for dinner at El Viejo Mariono restaurant based on the good reviews. The restaurant only opens at 7pm and it was already full when we arrived at 7.15pm. We thought about going to another restaurant to avoid the wait but ended up coming back and stood in line for 30 minutes before we got in at 8pm.

Argenitian white wine + beers from this region to start off dinner.

The main highlight of this meal was this huge King Crab! This restaurant is popular because they only serve freshly caught (not frozen) King Crabs. We ordered a normal size one for ARS 40,000 ($44), which was more than enough for the 4 of us.

Another reason why this restaurant is popular is because the prices are very reasonable. The prices shown on the menu changes month to month because of the crazy inflation in Argentina. 

Some other things we ordered...Grilled pink salmon, Seafood stew, Cream caramel, Almond ice cream. The food was all good and the total price for this meal was ARS 80,800 ($89) + tips. We thought it was very reasonable (in USD tems) especially with this being a touristy town.

25 November 2023 (Sat): Ushuaia - Embarkation day

Complimentary breakfast in the hotel before checking out. We found out later that the family of 5 sitting next to us at breakfast were also on the same ship and are also from Alabama (Birmingham)! What are the! 

After breakfast, we went ahead and put on the seasickness patch in preparation for the Drake Passage later that day. We checked out of our hotel at 10.30am and dropped off our luggage at Oceanwide's storage location. One thing we found out quickly was that Ushuaia is a hilly town. Even though our hotel was only a few blocks from the storage location, it was all the way downhill so it was 'fun' pulling our luggages.

Oceanwide is the expedition company that we are traveling with to Antarctica. Due to local regulations, passengers are not allowed to carry their own luggage onto the ship so we were asked to drop off our luggages at the designated location between 8am - 11.30am. The staff tagged our luggages with our room numbers and informed us to make our way to the pier for boarding at 4pm. In the meantime, we were free to roam around town until boarding time.

I was under the impression that Ushuaia is mainly a touristy town for people going to Antarctica but I was wrong coz we saw a lot of locals too. We didn't know until we arrived but it was a busy Saturday in Ushuaia. Apart from the La Renga concert, we also saw a big group of bikers, and found out that it's the 'International Bikers Meeting at the End of the World' event that gathers bikers from all over the world. Glad we booked our hotel early at the end of March before all the hotels got booked up.

It was spring in the southern hemisphere so flowers were blooming. 

Glad we had more time to walk around town before boarding the ship because the weather was beautiful with blue skies! What a lovely day to walk along the waterfront harboaur with views of the Beagle channel and surrounding mountains.

Gotta get a photo with the Ushuaia sign. 

Eva Peron Memorial in Ushuaia. Cue the song "Don't cry for me Argentina~~~". For those who've watched the movie Evita, played by Madonna, you'd know the tory of Eva Peron, an Argentinan actress who eventually became the wife of Argentinian president Juan Domingo Peron. I know I've heard the song but don't know the story until I googled.

Had lunch at Tante Sara Cafe because of the free wifi. We are not planning to pay for internet on the ship so this was the last chance to be connected to the internet before we go on an internet-detox for the next 2 weeks. Total for this meal was ARS 41,200 ($44).

Spotted our ship, M/V Hondius, as we were walking down towards the harbour. There were 2 ships departing to Antarctica that day...Quark Voyager and Oceanwide Hondius.

Next stop...Antarctica!

Journey to Antarctica 2023 ✈ Hola Argentina • Buenos Aires

Antarctica had always felt like a distant and unreachable bucket list destination, not just because of its geographical location, but more so because it is so expensive. I never thought it'd be possible to check off this bucket list item but we decided to make this trip happen and celebrated our 10th anniversary with an extraordinary adventure to the end of the earth - Antarctica! I am so grateful for the opportunity to finally step foot on my 7th continent and to experience this incredible journey with our moms. 

Trip Planning
I've had the privilege of traveling to 6 continents so it has been my travel goal to step foot on all 7 continents. We had the idea of traveling to Antarctica for our 10th anniversary since 2020. As you can see from our post-Covid travels, Covid has definitely reminded us to travel more while we can coz life is unpredictable. 

We booked and paid the deposit for our Antarctica cruise in July 2022,  which was more than a year before the trip, but waited till January 2023 to book all our flights and hotels. Even though we couldn't travel hack the expensive Antarctica cruise, we were at least able to use points and miles to pay for our flights and hotels to Argentina, where we boarded the ship.

Packing for Antarctica required more preparation than what we usually do for other trips and the main items were warm and waterpoof gears. The difficult part was to avoid overpacking. I was also helping mom to pack (we share the same size) so all these were stuffs we packed for 2.5 weeks for the 3 of us. I had a bunch of Uniqlo Heattech stuffs which came in handy. We also didn't need to buy any waterproof parkas as we were able to use what we had. The few things we bought were hubby's wool thermal layer, wool socks, hand/foot warmers, rubber gloves, and sea-sicknesss meds. Big thank you to Penny for sharing her experience and also borrowing her parka and waterproof gears.

22 November 2023 (Wed): Huntsville - Dallas - Buenos Aires
Our journey to Antarctica begins! We booked our flights to arrive Argentina on Nov 23, 2 days before our ship's departure on Nov 25 to ensure that we had enough buffer in case of flight delays or cancellations. Even though we bought insurance for this trip (which cost quite a lot because the trip cost was expensive) we definitely do not want miss the embarkation of our ship to Antarctica nor have to deal with insurance claims for this expensive trip. This was our most expensive trip thus far.

Mom traveled from Malaysia and spent 2.5 days at our place before we began our journey together. We intentionally planned for her to fly to US first instead of meeting us in Argentina to break up her trip and also to give her some time to adjust for jetlag.

Thanks to MIL's friend, Mayra, for dropping us off at the airport. Glad our luggages all fit into her car!

We checked-in 3 medium size and 1 cabin size bags. Was able to get priority baggage for all of us with my AA Platinum Pro status. :)

Booked our American Airlines flights from Huntsville - Dallas - Buenos Aires for 21,000 AA miles + $5.60 per person in January 2023. On time departure at 1.30pm for this 2-hour flight to Dallas.

Tested out the T-mobile inflight wifi that was included in my work phone package. 

Arrived Dallas at 3.30pm with a 5.5 hour transit before our next flight to Buenos Aires.

Even though we had to wait for about 30 minutes due the the lounge being full, we were glad we were able to hang out at the Capital One Lounge during our long transit and had our 'free' dinner. We were able to get access for all 4 of us with our Capital One Venture X credit card & complimentary authorized user card. The food in this lounge are all individually packed and portioned. 

I also had access to the American Flagship Lounge with my AA Platinum Pro status and could bring only 1 guest so mom and I did a quick hop next door to this lounge to check it out and enjoyed some champagne and a quick bite.

Boarded our 9pm flight to Buenos Aires. I was hoping to get a row to ourselves but this flight was completely full. Mom was already asleep even before the flight took off. 

After everyone boarded, the captain made an announcement saying that there was issue with the cargo door. Everyone was asked to deplane at 9.15pm and wait until they provide more information. 

This was our first time experiencing this type of situation and of course it had to happen to the flight that we cannot afford to miss. While waiting, I went ahead and used miles to put on hold 4 tickets for the flight departing next day as a backup. 

Fortunately, they were able to find another new aircraft after waiting for about 1.5 hours. However, as the new plane was smaller, 49 people would not make it for the flight and will have to depart the next day. Thankfully, we were on the 'good' list and were able to depart that night. It took some time to re-check everybody in as everyone had to get a new printed boarding pass.

Honestly, we were very impressed by how quick American Airlines was able to find a new flight (especially at 9pm after normal working hours for the HQ staff), cleaned and checked the new plane, reloaded all luggages and catering, and started boarding all within 3 hours. Our departure time ended up being delayed by 3hr 55 min in total.

We finally boarded at 12.40am and were ready to take off (again). Our seats were changed but they were similar to our earlier flight. I  was chatting with another lady next to me and she was also going to Antarctica. Apparently quite a number of passengers on this flight were going to Antarctica. Had dinner at 2am, slept for about 7 hours, and a simple breakfast was served before landing.

23 November 2023 (Thurs): Buenos Aires

Finally arrived Buenos Aires EZE auroirt at 1.35pm! 3.5 hours behind schedule but happy to finally make it here after a long night. There are 2 airports in Buenos Aires - EZE and AEP. Majority of the international flights arrive and depart from EZE, which was further from the city. 

Immigration and customers were pretty easy. We got off the plane at 1.45pm and were out of the airport by 2.25pm. We booked our airport transfer online with Tienda Leon from EZE airport to the hotel for ARS 27,900 ($35). We went to the Tienda Leon counter right after customs and provided our booking information. They were able to pull up our information pretty quickly and followed our assigned driver to the waiting area right outside of the airport.

As you can see from the screenshot above, the cost of our airpor transfer with Tienda Leon (ARS 27,900) was almost triple the price of Uber (ARS 10,452). However, since we had 4 luggages and we weren't sure if we could get a larger Uber, we decided to pre-book the transfer online. We were also glad we had booked this as it saved us time not having to figure out how to exchange money or wait for a taxi/uber, especially since we have already arrived later than planned.

Our ride from EZE airport to our hotel in the city took about 35 minutes. We were glad to be welcomed by beautiful weather and blue skies. 

Finally made it to Holiday Inn Express Puerto Madero at 3pm after traveling for about 24 hours. We redeemed this stay for 25,000 IHG points/room. The rooms were pretty basic but it was conveniently located in the city and was good enough for just a 1-night stay in Buenos Aires.

Headed out at 4pm to explore the city after a dropping off our luggages, changed, and left all our valuables in the hotel. There are lots of articles online warning people about safety in Buenos Aires, like petty theft, phone snatching, pickpocketing, etc, so we were a bit paranoid initially. I even strapped my phones to my wrist as I had to use my phones for photos and videos. But honestly, it wasn't that bad and we didn't feel unsafe at all walking around the city.

Our first stop was early dinner at Parrilla Cero5. We wanted to try Argentian steak and wine while we were in Buenos Aires so we chose this restaurant which was close to our hotel and had pretty good reviews. We had some language barrier ordering our food as we don't speak Spanish, but luckily we got a funny waited who provided us with some recommendations. We ordered steak, pork chop, spaghetti, potato salad with tuna, omelette with asparagus, local beer, and a bottle of red wine. 

The food was pretty good and the best part....this whole meal for all 4 of us, including the bottle of wine, cost only ARS 34,290 ($38) + tips in total. The inflation here has been skyrocketing and Argentina's inflation rate has been among the highest in the world for the past five year. If you look on google reviews, you'd notice how much and how frequent the price on the menu changes. 

Their currency, ARS, is also very confusing because there are too many exchange rates in Argentina. Those exchange rates do not follow the official exchange rate you can find in Google. instead, there is a 'Foreign tourist dollar'...called Blue Dollar, which is valued more than half of the rate on Google. The blue rate was about $1 = ARS 900 when we were there and luckily we were able to get th eblue rate for all our creidt card payments there. P.S. Credit cards are widely accepted here and we didn't need to exchange any cash throughout our trip.

After a satisfying meal, it was time to continue exploring the city...a quick photo stop at Theatre Colon. This Belle Époque theatre has been compared with the Palais Garnier in Paris. It even has an octagonal crystal dome. It looks spectacular during the day and is impeccably illuminated at night. It was spring time and we saw lots of those purple flower blossoming all around the city.

Next photo stop...The Obelisco of Buenos Aires and the plant-covered BA sign. The obelisco is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the city and probably all of Argentina. The tall, skinny tower was built almost a hundred years ago and restored in 2005. 

Another quick photo stop at Centro Cultural Kirchner. The architecture of Buenos Aires is entirely rooted in European influence. I felt like we were in Europe instead of South America. The one thing that impressed us the most about Argentinans was how orderly they were! We saw people standing in long lines (with safe distance in between) at almost every bus stop.

Last photo stop for the day...Casa Rosada, also known as the Presidential Palace, is a Spanish-style rose-covered building located on the east side of Plaza de Mayo.

Unintentionally stumbled upon the flag lowering ceremony for the day at 7pm. We headed back to the hotel at 8pm after watching the ceremony. We were flying to Ushuaia early the next morning so that's a wrap for our quick sightseeing of Buenos Aires. 

Next stop...Ushuaia!