Many of us have ‘seeing the aurora’ on our bucket list – and for good reason. To see the northern lights or southern lights dancing in the atmosphere, shades of green, red, purple and white, is an unforgettable experience and one of the most impressive space tourism activities you can enjoy.
For some aurora chasers though, a common destination like Iceland, Norway, or even Tasmania is just not enough. If you love the challenge and want to put in extra effort to see aurora where most people won’t, consider trying to see the southern lights in South America. Patagonia is a world-class adventure destination, and for a lucky few travelers with the persistence, patience, and luck to try a winter trip in hopes of seeing the aurora australis, you might just be well rewarded with that unforgettable and rare experience.
Read on to learn more about where you can see the southern lights in South America, including Patagonia. Plus read tips on everything else you need to know to plan an aurora trip to this area of the globe.
What are the Southern Lights?
For those unfamiliar, the southern lights are the same phenomena as the northern lights – they just happen in the southern hemisphere. The top destinations to see the southern lights are the southernmost destinations in the world, including Tasmania.
Also called the aurora australis (since they more commonly occur over the Australian continent), the southern lights are caused by solar activity striking earth’s atmosphere. When this happens, these atoms light up and we can see the aurora phenomena. The aurora can be different colors, depending on the atoms that are excited: green, red, purple, or even white.
Can You See the Southern Lights in Patagonia? When?
Technically, yes, you can see the southern lights from Patagonia and other destinations equally far south in South America. On a good night for solar activity and when the weather is good, you may be lucky to spot the aurora over the mountains in Tierra del Fuego.
The best months to try and plan a trip to Patagonia for the aurora are the winter months in the southern hemisphere: May through July, and possibly in April or August.
Where to See the Southern Lights in Patagonia… and Beyond
Seeing the southern lights from anywhere in South America is a pretty rare occurrence – but it is certainly possible and can be done. Your chances of planning a short trip (1-2 weeks) when the southern lights are happening are slim-to-none; if you’re going to be in the region for a longer period of time, here’s where you might see them.
Most travelers make their way to Patagonia to explore the region’s stunning mountain and glacier vistas. Based on the picture above, it’s not hard to see why Patagonia is one of the most beautiful regions in the world, a haven for adventure travelers, and astronaut Peggy Whitson’s favorite view from her time in space (skip to the 9:20 mark to see STG founder Valerie ask Peggy this question!).
If you’ve got the time and want to move a bit slower, book a stay somewhere like this ski resort cabin and hope for clear skies on a cold winter night. (Even if you don’t see the aurora australis, you can enjoy winter sports in the region!)
Most people know Ushuaia as the ‘End of the World,’ a jumping off point for Antarctica cruises. As the southernmost city in the world, you can’t get much further south than Ushuaia – and it’s the most urban place you can base yourself for trying to see the southern lights in South America.
In the winter season, you can expect up to 17 hours of darkness in Ushuaia, meaning plenty of opportunity for viewing if the southern lights do appear.
Though most people won’t journey this far just to see the southern lights, the Falkland Islands are generally considered one of the best places in the world to see them.
Geographically, you can see the aurora in the Falkland Islands between the months of April and August each year. Flights depart with some regularity from Punta Arenas in Chile and from Rio Gallegos in Argentina but are typically only offered on the shoulders of aurora season (March/April and August).
South Georgia Island & South Sandwich Islands
The last spot you can see the southern lights from South America is from South Georgia Island and the South Sandwich Islands – far out in the Atlantic east of the Falkland Islands.
To be honest, it’s not easy to get to South Georgia Island and the South Sandwich Islands in aurora season. There is no airstrip on the islands and the only access is by boat. Most passenger boats or commercial companies only offer cruises – which vary in length from 17-28 days round-trip – between late October and the end of March. In short, you’ll be hard-pressed to get the right timing to see the aurora while visiting South Georgia Island and the South Sandwich Islands.
If you’re sold on visiting anyway, check out these options:
- Quark Expeditions offers an 18-day cruise to visit the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island.
- You can enjoy a 20-day cruise to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, and Antarctica with Poseidon Expeditions.
- Polar Cruises offers routes which include South Georgia Island between 15 and 24 days long.
Antarctica on your list anyway? Visiting South Georgia Island and the South Sandwich Islands could be a great extension.
How to See the Aurora in South America
1. Plan Your Trip at the Right Time of Year
As mentioned above, the first and most important aspect of your trip to see the southern lights in Patagonia, the Falkland Islands, or Ushuaia is to book it at the right time of year. You’ll need to visit in the winter months when the sky is dark for the majority of the day.
2. Check the Forecast – But Be Flexible
There aren’t any specific tools to check whether the southern lights will be visible on a given night, but Sky Marvels has a helpful website that pulls data from OVATION, an NOAA/NWS space weather prediction center. This can give you a good sense of when there is a lot of solar activity and when the aurora might be visible.
3. Bring the Right Gear
As you’ll be visiting the far southern part of the planet during the winter months, you’ll need to bring a lot of winter gear. Plan ahead with layers to keep warm; don’t forget a hat and gloves, plus face covering. If you plan to spend more than a few hours trying to catch a view of the aurora in a given night, you may want to plan a pit stop halfway through the session to go inside and warm up.
4. Be Patient
No matter where you are trying to view the aurora, be patient. There is on way to 100% predict that the aurora will be visible, or what time they might appear.
5. Experience Awe
If you are lucky enough to see the southern lights in Patagonia or elsewhere in the region, don’t forget to be amazed at the experience. Seeing the aurora is an awe-inspiring sight that never loses its power!
Tips on Photographing Aurora
Photo credit: John Stephen Chandler via Flickr
If you want pictures like the ones in this post from your own trip, here are some tips.
- Set your camera in manual mode. You’ll need to control the technical aspects of your camera to get the right exposure in your photo.
- Set your ISO to 1600-3200. You’ll need a high sensitivity (high ISO) to be able to capture the colors of the aurora.
- Set your aperture to 1.8-3.0. A low F-stop will ensure you capture enough light in your photo.
- Set your shutter speed at 15-20 seconds. Between 15-20 seconds, you’ll see the stars and northern lights in your photo. You’ll also still see clear stars in the night sky without star trails.
- Use a tripod, remote, and have extra batteries on hand. Similar to our tips for astrophotography, you’ll need to bring some extra gear to ensure your camera is stable and has enough power in the cold winter air.
Will you try to see the southern lights in Patagonia or elsewhere in South America? Let us know your questions in the comments.