Travel

The Northern Lights Are Spectacular. The Southern Lights Are Even Wilder.

Nature's most elusive fireworks are worth the journey.

Seeing the Northern Lights is often at or near the top of travelers' bucket lists, right along with "duck-face selfie next to South Asian waterfall." The electromagnetic phenomenon is downright spellbinding, but also elusive and unpredictable by nature. Still, an intimate rendezvous with the Aurora Borealis is as easy as catching a west-coast sunset compared to the relative rarity of its southern counterpart -- Aurora Australis. 

You shouldn’t be so shocked by its scarcity. After all, slightly less than 1/3rd of all land on Earth is located south of the equator, and you’ll have to be really far south in order to even have a chance on solid ground. Those who are lucky enough to be in the right place when the literal stardust is optimally aligned are rewarded with a spectacle that knows no rival. 

It occurs when charged solar particles collide with atmospheric atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. Collisions at varied elevations throughout the thermosphere will result in different colors. Down here you’re much more likely to see a rainbow of bursting light; a menagerie of violets, oranges, and pinkish-red hues to accompany the basic green most commonly associated with Aurora Borealis. 

Even when you know the science, the live spectacle feels like pure magic. Plan your next visit to one of these far flung destinations and you’ll increase your odds exponentially. May they ever be in your favor.

MORE:  Want more astronomy? Check out our Backyard Observatory series. 

Ushuaia Port
Sunsets in Ushuaia are like an opening act for the Aurora Australis | Sandra Kreuzinger/Moment/Getty

Ushuaia, Argentina 

With roughly 60,000 inhabitants, Ushuaia is the world’s southernmost city. That means it’s super accessible compared to other locations on this list. Flights out of the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires arrive here multiple times a day. Winter is your best window for spying the spectral anomaly. South of the equator, that falls between June and September. But the lights have been known to make an appearance as early as March. Just be prepared to step outside of town in order to minimize the effects of light pollution. 

 Southern Lights
The sky above Invercargill runs the full spectrum at night | Kwang Chun Gan/Shutterstock

Invercargill, New Zealand

Invercargill is about as far south as you can get on the mainland of New Zealand. Yet it remains accessible by Kiwi standards -- holding its own airport as well as solid positioning on the South Island’s highway system (the very end of Route 6). Late in the evening hour, scurry your way to Tiwai Point, a dramatic promontory about 20 minutes south of downtown. Things are looking up, especially if you happen to find yourself here in mid-August, which is peak Aurora season.
MORE:  In case you decide to just move here, it's surprisingly easy

New Zealand with milky way
This is what New Zealanders refer to as a standard night sky | primeimages/E+/Getty

Stewart Island, New Zealand

If you’re not frightened by the idea of an hour-long ferry ride, you can stretch further south still. Arrive in the port town of Oban on Stewart Island and you’ll have an even better chance of greeting the lights. That’s because the majority of this remote terrain is covered by Rakiura National Park. Skies are clear and vantage points are plenty.
MORE:  New Zealand is loaded with incredible islands

southern lights
Penguins are also known to also listen to Pink Floyd when the mood strikes them | powerofforever/E+/Getty

South Georgia Island, Antarctica 

Your best opportunity to eye the Southern Lights requires the greatest degree of planning. And sea legs. It’s fine. Nothing comes easy, right? In this case, you’ll have to hop aboard a cruise ship—or other expedition line—and navigate the notoriously treacherous waters of the Drake Passage. A three day float from either Ushuaia or Port Stanley brings you to one of the most desolate splotches of land in the world. This otherworldly destination is known for some of Aurora Australis’ most vibrant and vigorous displays. But she’s a fickle phenomenon. So bundle up tight and be patient. Good things come to those who wait. It’s hard to imagine a sight ‘gooder' than this.
MORE:  These are the most beautiful places -- day or night -- in the Antarctic

Punta Arenas, Chile
Chile's twilight hours are also explosive light shows | Christofer Burgos/EyeEm/Getty

Punta Arenas, Chile

Founded in 1584 along the Strait of Magellan, this former Chilean penal colony holds plenty to explore on the ground. But if you’re here in May or June you’ll likely be keeping an eye towards the sky. It’s only about a 3.5 hour flight from Santiago yet it feels half a world apart. The oceanic climate of the region keeps things temperature… for a subpolar region. So it’s one of the ‘warmer’ places to patiently await an auroral emergence. Still, expect temperatures to dip below freezing through the dead of the night. Dress accordingly.

Tasmania, Australia 

Tasmania is pretty much the Stewart Island of Australia. It holds a similarly southern position (just a few degrees of latitude north) and ample availability to unspoiled wilderness. All points below the capital of Hobart are ideal destinations to chase Aurora. But some places, such as Bruny Island, require a boat. So instead stake your claim along the sandy shoals of the South Arm Peninsula. You’ll be far enough outside the city to enjoy dark skies -- and have more than a fighting shot at spotting solar dust. 
MORE: Tasmania is also home to world-class beaches

 Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands
In the Falklands, every night starts with a parade of colors | imageBROKER/Matthias Graben/Getty

Falkland Islands, Argentina

And now for some not so accessible destinations. The Falkland Islands are about 1200 miles south of Buenos Aires, and flights are typically only offered about once a week. Also don’t expect much by way of accommodations in the bustling metropolis of Port Stanley (pop. 2,000). It’s precisely this sort of remoteness, however, that provides prime circumstances for optimal aurora performances. June through July tend to be the go-to times. You’ll likely enjoy the show all to yourself -- save for a few thousand penguins and albatross by your side.

Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist with a wicked case of the get-up-and-gos. He enjoys his whisky neat and his IPA hazy. Although currently under quarantine on the Big Island of Hawaii, he’s usually found at the junction of food, booze, and travel. Follow him @Journeys_with_Japhe.