Luis Andres Henao investigates the South Pole travel industry and finds that tourists now far outnumber scientists.
They trekked snow-covered mountains, gasped at seals flopping along the coastline, oohed at penguins waddling along the ice, and even took in the spectacle of a humpback whale flapping its tail amid a sea of melting icebergs.
After that, the dozens of tourists stranded on a cruise ship at the bottom of the world could only stare up at the sky, waiting for several days of thick fog to clear so they could go home.
"In Antarctica, you can plan all you like, but you can't really schedule anything," goes the local saying.
It's the last terrestrial tourism frontier that nature lovers, adventurers and explorers are rushing to visit. This past tourist season, from November to March, more than 37,000 people visited the coldest continent on Earth, about 10 per cent more than the previous season.
While some tourists climb Mt Vinson, Antarctica's highest point at 4892m, others seek a chance to take in the views of other-worldly terrain or snap pictures of massive groups of penguins as they bop in and out of the water.
Some do extreme sports, like scuba diving in icy waters, or imagine themselves as early 20th-century explorers during reenactment expeditions. High-profile visitors of recent years include Bill Gates and Prince Harry, while heavy-metal band Metallica rocked out for a small group of fans at Argentina's Carlini Base in 2013.
No matter the draw, a strong dose of humour, patience and humility, not to mention tens of thousands of dollars, are an essential part of any Antarctica holiday. Without fail, every year some tourists are left waiting for the sun to come out, or for a patchy internet connection to work, or even for help to get their boots dislodged from the ice.
Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia, but tourists and the 4000 or so scientists who live here part of the year mostly keep to areas that aren't permanently frozen and where wildlife can be found. Those areas account for less than two per cent of the continent.
Most visitors arrive on the Antarctic Peninsula, accessible from southern Argentina and Chile by plane or ship. The next most popular destination is the Ross Sea on the opposite side of the continent, which visitors reach after sailing 10 days from New Zealand or Australia.
The harsh environment requires holidaymakers to come with many essentials: water-resistant hiking boots, several layers of winter clothes including long underwear and a parka, and powerful sun lotion plus dark sunglasses with extra ultraviolet protection.
Many visitors are drawn here by the legacy of the so-called heroic era of Antarctic exploration from 1898 to 1915, when several adventurers braved harsh conditions, and sometimes died, to explore the mysterious continent.
Some agencies even lead reenactment expeditions of Ernest Shackleton's desperate sea and land journey to a South Georgia Island whaling station in the southern Atlantic Ocean in 1916. After his ship was crushed by sea ice during an Antarctica expedition, Shackleton left 22 of his crew at the remote Elephant Island and then set sail in a lifeboat on a 1482km voyage to seek help. Thanks to Shackleton, the crew was rescued by a Chilean Navy cutter boat.
Antarctica is not for budget travellers, and the sky is the limit when it comes to cost. At the top end, chartering a 35m yacht in Antarctica costs about US$53,000 ($68,000) a week. For those on a more modest budget, a 14-day expedition on the National Geographic Explorer ship costs between US$12,000 and US$24,000.
Most tourists sleep on their cruise ships, which offer a bevy of fine dining options and onboard entertainment intermingled with excursions to see the landscapes and animals.
Despite the unpredictable weather and high costs, tourism in Antarctica has become increasingly popular since the 1980s, when visitors averaged less than 2000 a year.
"It's definitely on many people's bucket list," said Steven Cowpe, who leads expeditions for Antarctica Bound, a United Kingdom-based travel agency.
"You feel like you're at the end of the planet because it's so wild and when you come back, you feel like you have achieved something great, even if you're not an explorer."
Getting there: Air New Zealand begins flying three days a week from Auckland to Buenos Aires in December. From there, small charter flights go to Ushuaia to meet the cruise ships sailing to Antarctica.
Details: For more information on tours to Antarctica, visit Pukekohe Travel.