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At the bottom of the Earth: How to travel to Antarctica in style

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NBC News Correspondent Kerry Sanders and Producer Nery Ynclan recently returned from Antarctica. Below, Ynclan chronicles the journey; you also can click on the map above for more dispatches from across the breathtaking seventh continent.

ANTARCTIC PENINSULA -- Visiting Antarctica is like visiting another planet, where the aliens are friendly and greet you in tuxedos.

A recent study found that global temperatures are warmer now than at any time in the last 4,000 years -- and getting warmer. With that in mind, NBC's Kerry Sanders recently traveled to the bottom of the earth, to Antarctica, where this warming trend is already having a big impact.

Seeing the seventh continent is a bucket-list must, and it is more accessible than ever before. About 35,000 people visit each year.

Anyone over 13 years old can go to Antarctica using most of the 40-plus companies that host polar expeditions.

Trips can cost anywhere between $4,000 and $50,000 for 11 to 20 days. Prices depend on how early you book -- two years ahead for the best deals -- and whether you bunk with strangers or want VIP accommodations on a private yacht.

But the sights and the meals are the same: incredible for everyone.


In the elements
It is called an expedition and not a cruise for a couple of reasons: The storied Drake Passage is seriously rough, and the weather decides where you are going. Motion-sickness medication is a necessity.

Unless you live in Argentina or New Zealand, getting there is a schlep. We traveled from Miami to Buenos Aires, and a day later flew another four hours to Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost spot, where we spent the afternoon in Tierra del Fuego National Park.

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Nery Ynclan in front of signs showing the distance of various international destinations at the Brown science station in Paradise Bay, Antarctica.

The next day, we boarded Quark Expeditions to Antarctica with a busload of people from all over the world for an adventure that 100 years ago seemed impossible.

Our destination: A rocky land mass about twice the size of the continental United States, frozen over by mountains of ice and snow dating back hundreds of thousands of years.

After a merciful 18 hours through the Drake Passage, we disembarked onto Zodiacs and headed for our first landing on Antarctica.

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See photos from NBC's Kerry Sanders' voyage to Antarctica.

‘Lucky to be here’
Perched on the Zodiac, Louise Lewen of Canada capsulized the excitement of seeing our first wild penguins: “They’re all here as if they’re coming to say, ‘Welcome to my home, welcome to my world.’”

We were surrounded by glaciers the size of skyscrapers, Gentoo and Chinstrap chicks chasing parents for food and a beach awash in giant chunks of ice – it was unreal.

Marine biologist Fabrice Genevois tells NBC's Kerry Sanders, with their ability to mimic, the Adelie species is the "most funny" of all penguins.

“I feel so lucky to be here,” said Eva Mallis of New York.

A big part of these eco-travel trips is onboard history classes. We had some extra special guests: Falcon Scott and Jonathon Shackleton, descendants of two of the most famous polar explorers who traveled to Antarctica more than 100 years ago.

Chile's connection to Shackleton's adventure

The original Scott and Shackleton traveled together to Antarctica in 1901 in one of various turn-of-the-century attempts to reach the South Pole. Scott finally reached the pole in 1912, but died along with his men on the bitter trek back. Shackleton secured his place in the history books with the 1914 trip of the Endurance, the storied ship that became trapped in the ice, stranding the crew for nearly two years years and forcing them to eat seals and even their sled dogs. They were eventually rescued.

NBC's Kerry Sanders meets up with the descendants of legendary polar explorers Sir. Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott.

‘Sleeping on ice’
Another highlight was spending the night camping on the ice, splayed out like elephant seals. The critical choice was whether to sleep in a traditional tent or a bivy sack -- essentially a plastic-zippered body bag to shield your sleeping bag from the elements.

With limited bivy sacks, we arrived early to be first in line -- it was our way to be closer to Mother Nature. That night, we were hit with rain and snow. No bivy-wackers slept a wink (except Kerry – correspondents are perpetually exhausted and can sleep anywhere, even when surrounded by penguins and leopard seals.)

NBC's Kerry Sanders and producer Nery Ynclan reveal what it's like to camp out on a sheet of ice in Antarctica, zipped up in a bivy sack.

A warm shower on the ship got us all back in the frozen wilderness mood and the Zodiac rides and landings that followed were each as magical as the first. Whether we floated up to rocks covered in penguins or an iceberg covered in napping seals, or spotted a pod of mammoth whales bobbing off the bow, it’s as if we entered an episode of “Planet Earth.” Everyone was quiet, partly to not scare the animals, partly in sheer awe.

Particularly spectacular was watching penguins “fly” on Cuverville Beach. Penguins don’t fly through the air, but they fly through the water in teams, like synchronized swimmers.

Catching it on film? Not so easy, but what fun trying.

Marine biologist Fabrice Genevois speaks with NBC's Kerry Sanders about Gentoo penguins and their extraordinary way of swimming which at times can appear as if they are "flying."

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