Category Archives: South America

Cape Horn to Uruguay (Feb. 21-24)

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Almost as soon as we left Lima the captain started reminding us to use the hand sanitizers we were given and to use those at the entrance to every venue we enter or leave. Each announcement became more and more anxious, encouraging people who were having “GI episodes” to go to the infirmary. On day 4 the laundry was closed for the rest of the cruise and they locked all the books away in the library on day ten. The crew are working overtime to spray carpets with disinfectant, wash hand rails, chairs, etc. and even the place mats are changed in the cafe with each new guest (and no salt and pepper on the tables).   Public washroom doors are stuck open so that we don’t have to touch the door handles and it is taboo to shake hands! Stern warnings come twice daily from the captain to people who had been quarantined to stay in their rooms or be thrown off the ship. One morning a couple went into the Terrace Cafe to eat and they were escorted out by two officers. There are no “quarantine” signs on our cabin doors, but it is obvious that the staff and neighbouring cabins are reporting those who dare to disobey the rules.

It actually got a little scary because the captain told us that each port is provided with the report from CDC and they can prevent the ship from docking given a high % of people ill.  As I write this we are just 3 days from our last port and the crew are still vigilant but the captain has told us that there are only a handful of cases amongst the guests (however we understand that many of the crew are now confined to their rooms).

To ease the frustration, the captain  gave us all an unscheduled treat – he steered the boat around Cape Horn around daybreak.  He had evidently hoped to be able to tender to shore so that we could have our passports stamped but the wind was much too strong and we couldn’t even get in close enough for me to get a good shot of the lighthouse or sculpture marking the spot. I did, however, get a great shot of the small islands jutting out beside the horn – at dawn.

The next day was a huge disappointment for all…we couldn’t anchor off of the Falkland Islands,   The wind was just so high and, with no protection around the islands, the captain said that it was too risky to tender in.  He said that, even if we got in, we might not be able to return to the ship that night, given the forecast for even bigger gusts.  Evidently passengers from a ship a few years previously had the opportunity to enjoy the hospitality of the Falkland Islanders for just that reason – many on couches or on the floor of their homes!

The tour operator with whom we had booked to go and see the penguins and historical sights was not surprised.  it seems that the weather often creates havoc with their business.

So…we are now in our fourth day at sea and very much looking forward to arriving in Punta Del Este, Uruguay tomorrow.  We have, however, enjoyed the excellent onboard lecturer (DrDonKlein.com), the gym and steamroom, and a couple of afternoon “wine tastings” with three other couples in our rooms.  We downed quite a bit of the wine we all bought onshore in Chile and Argentina. The bottle of “LOVE” was deemed the best Malbec of the two day tasting!

Ushuaia (Feb. 20)

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This morning we woke early to see the first of eight glaciers between Puerto Arenas and Ushuaia along the “Avenue of the Glaciers” in the Strait of Magellan.

The glaciers here cascade down from the southern Andes mountains (that now form a ridge west to east, rather than north to south). We were warned that the high peaks are normally in cloud but we did get a glimpse of them from time to time.

I tried to remember the names of each glacier but finally gave up when I realized that I would never be able to distinguish one photo from the other anyway. However, those that cascade into the Strait are all named in Spanish after European countries.

We arrived in Ushuaia, our first port in Argentina, two hours late, about 1:30pm.

This is what I would classify as the city at “the southern end of the earth” and what an amazing setting! Located at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego Island facing Beagle Channel, this city was founded by the UK-based South American Missionary Society in 1870 who arrived to “save” the Yaghan people whom Darwin classified as “the lowest form of humanity on earth”. After surviving 6,000 years without foreign contact, the Yaghan people were literally wiped out by diseases brought by missionaries and settlers as well as the infringement on their hunting territory by sealers and gold prospectors. In onboard lectures by an excellent presenter (drdonklein.com) we learned that theirs was a culture without interest in possession (what was yours can now be mine) and early settlers, not appreciating cultural differences, killed “the savages” when they dared to “steal” their sheep or other possessions.

We had arranged a tour to the Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) National Park with another couple and we all crammed into a small car for a ride out to the park with our charming driver/guide, Juan. Throughout the day he talked about his adopted home (born in Buenos Aires, he came here 20 years ago), it’s history and natural environment.

Between 1884 and 1947 the Argentine government created a penal colony here, sending some of its most notorious criminals. In 1950 it became an important naval base. It is now also a base for explorations to the Antarctic as well as the preferred home for Argentinians looking for a quieter, safer life in a relatively moderate climate. Surprisingly, although they do get lots of snow in winter, the temperature seldom dips below 0 Celsius.

Surrounded by snow-peaked mountains and filled with beautifully clear lakes, the park is quite beautiful. Our first stop was the official southern most post office where Tony and I scampered up a trail that was lined with evergreen beech trees and (something I never expected) the odd rhododendron bush. Subsequent stops took us to the visitor centre, a lovely green lake that feeds into the Pacific through the Beagle Channel, and an area of several magnificent beaver dams.

Here we learned that our national animal is one of the most hated animals n the region. Introduced in the early 1900s for their fur, they have no natural predators and with a relatively benign climate have grown to a much larger size and their fur is not as thick or a prized as it is in Canada. The dams they create are now ruining the natural environment and the government is offering rewards to anyone with a solution to exterminate them. Mink, rabbits and chinook salmon have joined the list of fauna introduced to the area that they wish they could get rid of.

Luckily we avoided the very touristy narrow-gauge “end of the world train” running through parts of the park and we even managed to get ahead of the myriad of tour buses (many from our ship) that poured big groups out from time to time. Juan took us to areas of the park that were devoid of big buses and very peaceful as well as beautiful.

Driving back to town he stopped so that I could get a photo of a lovely 9 hole golf course. Somehow I think I’d have quite a problem with that course – the wind is always very strong and the ball wouldn’t roll far with the amount of rainfall they get.

We had spent so much time wandering the park nature trails that we didn’t have time to walk around the streets of the town (although we did take Juan up on his suggestion to purchase some Argentinian Malbec at a local grocery store). As we drove in he showed us the different style of houses: early homes very small, heated by and constructed of wood while recent homes are larger and constructed of steel and concrete to withstand earthquakes. We also got a taste of the small town atmosphere as he drove us down the main street back to the port.

A great day exploring a fascinating region.

Puerto Arenas (Feb. 19)

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Billed as the “southern most city on earth” (a designation contested by Ushuaia and its neighbouring naval base), Punta Arenas overlooks the Strait of Magellan and is quite beautiful.

European immigrants, largely from Spain and Croatia settled here in the mid 19th century although unsuccessful attempts were made three centuries earlier by the Spanish. Facing the harsh climate and lack of supplies, they finally gave up. Evidently a similar attempt at colonization some 80km south resulted in Puerto del Hambre being dubbed Port Starvation or Famine Port.

Now a vibrant city of 150,000, it’s European origins are reflected in lovely colonial mansions, monumental statues (to Magellan and O’Higgins), grand avenues, and it’s large central square filled with araucaria trees.

We found the square bustling with entertainers and perhaps 50 small stalls selling local souvenirs. A young drum corp (complete with scantily clad girl walking hat in hand amongst the crowd) and a strange (but fun) fellow dressed as a chubby dancing couple entertained as tourists browsed penguins and sheep (glass, wooden or stuffed) and all types of woollen goods and knickknacks.

We walked about 10 blocks past familiar names such as Scotiabank (a bit of Canada in every city we have visited) and Winnipeg (a shoe store!) to the Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello. This museum, founded by Salesian monks, has a large taxidermy collection of indigenous animals (in addition to a few mummies and shrunken heads) on the ground floor but the most interesting was the cultural history upstairs. Here we learned a lot about the indigenous people and how they were essentially wiped out after the arrival of Europeans. Not only were their food sources and land overrun but they were determined to be savages and “sub-humans” (a few were even put on display in a cage at the Paris Exhibition at the turn of the century). Sadly, their demise was primarily caused by diseases, brought to them by their self-pronounced “saviours”.

Museo Regional Braun-Menendez highlighted the other side of life in Peurto Arenas…that of the wealthy sheep farmers. The mansion, built just after the turn of the century, has beautiful inlaid floors (you are provided with cloth covers for your shoes as you walk in), French and British furnishings, and every modern convenience of the day. In an interesting twist, you can walk out the back door into the garden and then immediately down the steps into the servants area. This includes a huge kitchen and pantry, a large food storage area (including cava for the wine), a bedroom and well-equipped bathroom for the cook and housekeeper (evidently 8 other staff lived off site) and the boiler room and coal storage area. A real upstairs/downstairs view of yesteryear southern Chile.

Chilean Fjords (Feb. 17-18)

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Two days at sea usually means hankering down in the library with a good book, going to the gym for some exercise and (if the weather is conducive) a swim and some sun on the deck. This far south the latter is out of the question except for the one brave man we saw doing laps as we got up at dawn to view our first glacier.

Cruising through the fjords is amazingly beautiful – snow-topped mountains on either side, incredibly blue, crevassed glaciers cascading down into the water and a relatively calm sea full of “burgy bits” that have broken off the ice. Those bits shimmer like diamonds on the water because there is much more ice underneath the surface than above and the reflection al,out sparkles.

The captain cruised into an inlet and turned the boat around 360 degrees for over an hour in order for all to see first major glacier and the second followed later that day. We were rocking and rolling that evening as he returned to the Pacific to progress further south and enter the Strait of Magellan.

Chacabuco (Feb. 16)

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Located in the Valdes Peninsula, a UNESCO designated nature reserve, this is the main port in the area (assuming this role after a series of landslides clogged the Port of Aysen in the mid 60s and subsequent damage from volcanic eruptions in the 90s).

The town itself is unremarkable but its position, at the head of the Aysen Fjord and surrounded by the Andes, is quite spectacular. We walked the length and breadth of it in just over an hour and, with the exception of the large canine population that barked and followed us along the way, it had the feeling of a ghost town. Houses are close together and most claddings and yards are quite unkempt although a few reflected pride of ownership. A high percentage were up for sale but, even with my penchant for real estate, I didn’t check them out!

Puerto Montt (Feb. 15)

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Encouraged by Manuel Montt, the President of Chile in the mid 1800s, the German government sponsored immigration to this area and Puerto Montt was founded in 1853. Hence, the port and surrounding Lakes District have a distinctive German flavour.

Driving into Puerto Varas on the huge Lake Llanquihue, the houses and shops have a Bavarian look but the backdrop of volcanos is uniquely Chilean. The beautiful, Fuji-like snow-capped peak of Osorno seemed to follow us all around the lake, while the now almost flat peak of Mt. Calbuco that erupted just ten months ago was often shrouded in cloud.

The ash from that recent eruption covers a large swath of the countryside and it’s easy to see why tourism has dropped in the area. However, there are still bus loads of tourists, both local and foreign, as well as backpackers getting supplies for their trek up to the craters and further into the Andes.

All six on this private tour were Canadian and, when told that we would be visiting the very special Petrohue Falls in Vicente Perez Rosales National Park, we expected a high cascading waterfall. It is, however, a chute-type with water tumbling over various levels of volcanic rock. Add to this the backdrop of Osorno volcano through the trees and varied colours in the water and it is truly quite spectacular. A little further on in the park, past lava flows hardened long ago and Coihue trees unique to Chile, is Laguna Verde, a small emerald coloured lake (due to a combination of minerals and algae).

Our last stop, on the opposite end of the lake was Frutillar, another Bavarian-style village colonized in the late 19th century, which has a modern theatre with a wrap around walkway overlooking the lake. Tony and I especially enjoyed a series of cartoons depicting various composers on the walls inside.  They were by Swiss artist, Jacques Truffert

Valparaiso (Feb. 13)

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We almost came to this city about 10 years ago when Tony was invited to speak at a conference but circumstances changed and he had to turn them down. I was glad to have a second chance. Unfortunately, however, we had so little time and it was tough to choose between touring the city of “Valpo” (it’s nickname) or the capital city, Santiago (just 100km away) or the wine area of Casablanca Valley. Those of you who know us well will probably guess – we chose the valley!

This is one of the downfalls of cruising – you really just get a glimpse of the region, there’s not nearly enough time to immerse yourself in the culture, get lost in the backstreets, or hike in the hills to get beyond the tourist locales. It does, however, give you a taste and a feeling for areas to which you would like to return. Central Chile is one for me.

As our group of seven neared the Casablanca Valley, the vegetation began to look familiar and even more so as the slopes became covered in vineyards. If there had been a lake along the valley it could have been the Chilean “Okanagan”. Our tour guide provided comprehensive background on the region, the wine industry, and it’s short history (the area was deemed too chilly for viticulture until the late 20th century).

Indomita Winery, a white “castle” on top of a hill, was the first stop. A massive estate that bottles a number of brands with grapes from their vineyards in the Casablanca Valley (primarily Sauvignon Blanc) as well as warmer regions of Chile (Carmenere, Pinot Noir, and various blends). We were given a tasting of three and enjoyed them all, purchasing two bottles to take back to the ship. This winery exports all over the world but, unfortunately, the only brand that they ship to Canada is Saint Alicia. It was later explained to us that any Chilean wine with “Saint” in its name is their lowest quality brand. Sad, but a good rule of thumb when choosing wines from this region.

Our next stop was a small boutique winery called House. I loved the architecture of the low, modern building, quite a contrast to Indomita. We had a lovely lunch, not quite spoiled by a waiter who got the wrong orders for two of our party and they were offered their meal as we were about to leave the restaurant. We agreed that “we all make mistakes” but their suggestion that it was somehow their fault and lack of apology was disappointing.

We then had an exceptional tour of the winery by a fellow who was obviously going “above and beyond”. He took us into the vineyards, explained the corporate history and philosophy, then showed us the pressing and fermentation rooms and into the area where they keep the finished product. The winery was the first in the valley, started by a fellow determined to prove the naysayers wrong. He not only showed them that you can grow grapes in that climate, his winery (now owned by a conglomerate) is still a testing ground for new and different varieties as well as creative technologies.

Adapting an old technique with new technology, they use egg-shaped reinforced concrete “barrels” to ferment the wine. The shape ensures that there are no dead corners, providing uniformity of composition and the temperature difference of around 1°C between the top and bottom of the eggs is said to enhance the slow, continuous flow of the liquid. Unfortunately, I neglected to get a photo of these eggs, but I did take a shot of their display board. Just outside this area were some large clay pots similar to those that would have been used by very early vintners.

Ending up in the wine cellar, we learned that this particular winery is too small to do its own bottling, so they send all of their product to a sister company in the Maipo Valley to be bottled and returned. Their production is so small that they do not export, in fact all of the wine they make is sold out of this location (in addition to wines from others in the company). Their own “Mancura Gran Reserva”, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Franc, & Merlot, was delightful and, given the small quantity produced, we were amazed that it was less than $10/bottle. Two more for our cabin!

As we left House we were surprised to learn that our guide through the winery was actually the husband of our tour guide. Having learned of our lunch disappointment, he was determined that we would be pleased with the rest of our time there.

We also received another treat – a short operatic performance from our guide before heading back in the van. Our tour guide moonlighted as an opera singer!

Although sad that we missed seeing the highlights of both cities, we were pleased to have had the opportunity to get a glimpse into (and taste of) the Chilean wine industry.