One of the #10s on our 15 favourite trips list.
Two years ago my husband and I joined two of our favourite couples and 2600 others for our first large-ship modern day cruise. We know many people for whom “cruising” is nearly a way of life. I don’t think we’re going to be joining that set, but I did come to see the allure. If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday with great digs (with private rooms, private baths, private balconies and your own TV, a far cry from our experiences in 1970), great food, good entertainment, and occasional stops on land, this is your ticket. If your main raison d’être is the shore excursions, then depending on your route, you may get more out of a coach tour. We chose this cruise for two reasons: (1) the itinerary would have been hard to manage easily except by ship and (2) the price was hard to beat!
We were definitely there for the shore excursions, although sitting on your own balcony watching the sea birds following the ship and reading – or writing – makes for a pretty nice in-between activity.
We had a few days in Santiago in advance of the cruise, so had the chance to spend time in the city as well as a day in wine country and into the Andes Mountains northeast of the city that mark the border with Argentina. Like so many South American cities, Santiago has a history going back to the 1500s and has been Chile’s capital since colonial times. It is also prime earthquake territory. Beautiful countryside and interesting history. We boarded our ship in Valparaiso, near Santiago, Chile. It was mid-February and the height of summer there, although of course we were heading south, where it would be colder.
Our first port of call after a few days at sea was Punta Arenas. We had chosen what we thought was the opportunity of a lifetime as our shore excursion at Punta Arenas, a day flight to a research station in Antarctica. Pricy, but, hey, how often do you get near enough to Antarctica to go there for the day? We were told that it would be weather-dependent, but not that it would be people-dependent. Apparently, out of 2600 people, they could not convince 20 to cough up the funds for the trip. So they didn’t even advertise it on the ship and the day-trip excursion to Antarctica was cancelled. And the weather was perfect. Huge disappointment. However, isolated Punta Arenas, the most southerly city in Chile, was pleasant, and the animals and birds in the countryside were fabulous: guanacos (related to llamas), magellanic penguins, upland geese, rheas (related to ostriches), caracaras, carancho vultures, and Andean condors, to name a few.
We slowly navigated our way through the stunning Chilean fjords to get from the most southerly city in Chile to the most southerly city in Argentina, Ushuaia.
Ushuaia is a beautiful town nearly at the tip of South America. With snow-capped mountains as its backdrop, it feels a bit like Norway. It’s a town geared for backpackers and people about to board a ship for Antarctica. There is a wonderful little museum that shows the history of the indigenous people of the region, along with the European history that forever changed the lives of the indigenous people. Ushuaia is also the nearest town to Tierra del Fuego, the national park that encompasses the “end of the earth”. If you’re in the neighbourhood, both are worth stopping for! 😉
The next stop on our itinerary, although not actually a stop, was Cape Horn. This is the place that is legend for storms, high winds, and ships wrecked on the rocks that stand on guard at the very tip of South America. The fear of all ship captains. By contrast, the day we went around it, the sea was like a mill pond. You might have wondered if we were really rounding the Horn of if we had found some other passage, previously unknown to seafarers!
Our next port of called was Stanley, capital and only city of the contentious Falkland Islands, which I have written about in The Falkland Islands: it’s not about the penguins or sheep. It was one of our favourite experiences of this trip, for sure.
A few days at sea were followed by a day in the capital of the tango and Eva Perón – Buenos Aires. This was an example of a shore excursion from a cruise ship really not being able to do justice to a destination. Buenos Aires in a few hours just doesn’t cut it. Capital of Argentina, second largest city in South America (after Sao Paulo), it’s known as the Paris of South America, thanks to its broad boulevards, European architecture, fashion, and culture. And La Recoleta Cemetery, where Eva Perón is buried, along with countless others; it’s a city unto itself. We had enough time to get a brief glimpse of the city and spend a few hours on the pampas out of town, watching demonstrations by gauchos and having our first confirmation that when you go to a BBQ in Argentina, Uruguay, or Brazil, be prepared for meat, lots of meat. This is not the place for vegetarians (not a problem for us!).
Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, is on the north coast of the broad expanse of the Rio de la Plata, not terribly far from Buenos Aires. Our stop in Montevideo was another case of too little time to do justice to an interesting city with lots more interesting history. We had enough of a taste to whet our appetites, after which we spent a lovely afternoon at a winery out in the countryside.
Rio de Janeiro was one of those treats that more than lived up to my expectations. Stunning, stunning, stunning. And vibrant. We had two full days in Rio, thank goodness. There is the spectacular natural setting, which would be impossible to get tired of. There are all the famous beaches – Copacabana and Ipanema are just two of the many stars. There was the vibrancy on the streets. Carnival had just ended, and World Cup and Olympic fever filled the air. Whatever the Portuguese did differently – and the history of colonization in Brazil is quite different from the stories from the Spanish-ruled countries – the blending of the founding races (Indian, African, and European) seems to work better than in other South American countries we’ve visited. It felt good. I came away a fan; despite the reality of poverty and violence, I remain optimistic.
I had no idea that much of the mountainside of Rio is hand planted rain forest constituting the world’s largest urban forest. At one point the natural forest had been cut down for coffee plantations. When this economic experiment failed, it was recognized that Rio’s water supply was in jeopardy and an area of 32 square kms (12.4 square miles) was replanted with many species of native trees and shrubs, known as Tijuca Forest and home to many species of wildlife as well. Tijuca Forest is where the world-famous statue of Christ the Redeemer is found, on top of Corcovalo Mountain. Another “OMG, wow” moment, especially as it revealed itself from behind a teasing cloud of mist.
If you were leaving the cruise here, you could spend as much time as you’d like in Rio. And you could spend time exploring other parts of Brazil … maybe the Amazon region … or the Pantanal. We were spending another two weeks on the ship as part of its repositioning to the Caribbean, so we had two more stops in Brazil before hitting a few Caribbean islands en route to Fort Lauderdale. And, although in retrospect I think ending the trip at Rio would have been the better decision, the two stops further north along the coast of Brazil were places we knew nothing about and we definitely enjoyed visiting. I’ll round out this virtual cruise around South America with stops at Salvador and Fortaleza. Both will be hosting World Cup games in 2014, in case you’re thinking of going!
It was through our visits to these two northern cities that we extended our understanding of Brazil’s history and how different its path to independence was from its colonizer as opposed to the Spanish-ruled countries. Salvador is the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia and is known as Brazil’s capital of happiness! Apparently, its carnival and other street parties put Rio to shame!! Salvador is one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas, being established in the early 1500s. And it is considered to be the center of Africo-Brazilian culture. I should add that all the cities along the Atlantic coast have fabulous beaches, fabulous markets, and some impressive colonial architecture, preserved as World Heritage sites.
At Fortaleza we went out into the countryside to visit a sugar plantation and distillery, Ypióca , that has been producing speciality sugar-based liquors for several generations. I was pleased to learn that it was a young widow who stepped up to the plate a few generations ago and grew the business into the international group of companies it is today.
As with all trips, the learning never stops. There’s so much our world has to offer.