Christmas came a few days early for me. I must have been very, very good indeed, because what Santa handed me was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream: A South America cruise. Not just any cruise, but a full-blown, 14-night, around-the-horn sojourn from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santiago, Chile, aboard Celebrity Millennium.
I clutched my cruise documents as though they were a favorite teddy bear, I reread them so often that they became dog-eared and grimy, I dreamed of penguins and gauchos and glaciers. I pictured mornings spent with room service coffee and croissants, evenings with Michel Roux-inspired cuisine, sea days soaking in the thalassotherapy pool in Millennium's beautiful AquaSpa.
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I read every bit of material I could find on the destinations I would visit, practiced my Spanish and planned my shore excursions. And finally, I was on my way.
My cruise started in Buenos Aires, which I had always heard referred to as "the Paris of South America." Anyone who is cruising this route, who starts or ends in Buenos Aires, is doing themselves a huge disservice if they don't take a couple of days in this magical city. With a stable economy and low inflation, it's worth it to spend the time once you arrive ... because the biggest expense is in getting to Buenos Aires to begin with.
January, of course, is the height of summer there, equivalent to North America's July. But, just as in France and other European cities in July, "Portenos" (Buenos Aires locals) tend to take the month off to vacation with their families. This leaves some businesses closed, but it also means much less traffic, smog and congestion, and the closed businesses are primarily internal and don't impact the tourism industry.
This is a city filled with parks, fountains, outdoor cafes and pedestrian streets. Turn a corner and a couple is dancing the tango to a tune on a portable radio. Turn another and find a street market of artisans and craftsmen. People in this city actually smile at you, welcome you and want to help you.
Since I was definitely in the Southern Hemisphere, several thousand miles closer to the South Pole than to New York, the first thing I did when I checked into my hotel was turn on the water in the bathroom. Yep, the swirl in the sink definitely went in the opposite direction than it does at home. I was officially upside-down.
Make no Mistake...
I couldn't have been more delighted when I boarded Millennium, my first cruise on this class of ship and only my second time on Celebrity. I had a concierge-level cabin near the aft of Deck Nine. My only concern (and it was borne out as the two weeks passed) was that it was under a deep overhang; so deep that it requires angled stanchions for architectural stability. There were three major drawbacks to this as far as I was concerned: it limited visibility (I never saw the tops of the mountains from my balcony, for instance), it got less sun and light, and it required major readjustment to take photos from the balcony without getting the overhang or the stanchions in the shot.
Other than that, my room was lovely, with a nice sofa, a great desk area, a large bathroom and plenty of closet space to store my belongings. This was home for the next two weeks.
That night, when I met the rest of my group for supper, I saw that we were seated in the center of the dining room just opposite the stairway featured in Celebrity's newest commercial: the one where the lady thanks her travel agent for getting her this far. I had thought that my kid-like excitement might abate with the jetlag, but it didn't. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming...
Our first port stop was in Montevideo, Uruguay -- a small country (half the size of Italy) across the Rio de la Plata estuary from Argentina's northeast border. Most of the people on my cruise (myself included) considered it a "utility stop" until we got to the more "fun" places. Big mistake. Uruguay is probably the most stable democracy in South America, modern and contemporary. The eastern side of the country, along the Atlantic Ocean, is a tourist mecca of white sand beaches; inland, 97 percent of the land is arable, perfect for growing fruits, vegetables, wine grapes and for pasturing beef and sheep.
Two of the most highly lauded and talked-about shore excursions took place on this stop -- the "Estancia (Ranch) Tour with Lunch" and the wine tasting tour. I learned a valuable lesson about prejudging a destination from this experience, both in anticipation of something great (Punta Arenas) and in dismissing a port because it didn't seem "sexy" enough.
Patagonia and Penguins
For me, one of the absolute best things about this cruise was that there was a sea day between each port day. Each port is unique, and because this is such an incredible itinerary, I wanted to do as much and see as much as possible when ashore.
On other port-intensive cruises, when I walk as much as I did on this one and when I take the opportunity to explore as much as I explored the towns and cities on this cruise, I end up achy and exhausted the following day and virtually useless in terms of venturing out at the next place.
So, having the opportunity to rest my tired old bones really helped. The thalassotherapy pool in the gorgeous AquaSpa really helped too; it's adult only and complimentary. I wished I could have done the steam and sauna more often, but on Millennium there is a charge to use the Persian Garden. I didn't want to pay for a week's worth because I wouldn't have used it enough to justify the expense, and I also decided that I prefer separate men's and women's facilities as are found on most ships. The Persian Garden is co-ed and I couldn't really relax.
I missed the cut-off time to sign up for the Punto Tombo penguin rookery excursion. I was pretty unhappy about it but consoled myself with the thought that at least I'd miss a two-hour each way drive in a rickety bus over what are supposedly very rough and dusty roads. I chose to wander around the town of Puerto Madryn instead.
There are two Patagonian regions: Atlantic and Andean. Cruise passengers are exposed to Atlantic Patagonia -- arid, tundra-like landscapes sweeping down to the shores.
But ... most of the guidebooks make Puerto Madryn (chosen as a port stop because it's about halfway between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia) sound like a dusty outpost, nothing more than the starting point for the Punta Tombo penguin rookery located about 100 miles away. This is a misconception; Puerto Madryn is a charming small town with genuinely warm residents. It's also a great shopping stop as long as you make it to the stores before siesta time. There's something truly heartwarming about a cruise port in which the local residents care more about their traditions than the money the cruise passengers bring in. The few shops that remained open after were flooded with passengers and I'm sure had a very gratifying financial day. Patagonian wool items were the highlight of shopping here, with shawls, scarves, sweaters and sheepskin slippers priced very competitively.
Those who took the rough, bouncy, five-plus-hour drive to Punta Tombo and back were not disappointed; approximately 600,000 Magellanic penguins surrounded their feet, while guanicos (a small llama) and rheas (a small ostrich-like bird), and other fauna cavorted in the distance. This was the first of several penguin-centric shore excursions on our itinerary, and the buzz of the ship once back onboard.
"Malvinas" Isn't on the Itinerary
Usually, by the time I'm five days into a cruise, I've settled into a routine, a comfortable daily schedule of morning, afternoon, evening.
For me, the days at sea on Millenium were blissful respites where I enjoyed the ship and all it offered. I relished the quiet time in the library or around the pool, the palliative, curative powers of the AquaSpa whirlpool and the guitarist at the Cova Cafe di Milano. I loved just sitting in my spacious stateroom, reading, the wind and waves outside reminding me where I was and where I had yet to go.
There were a lot of Europeans and South Americans onboard, so there was more dancing than there would have been on a cruise with a more North American base (typically, North Americans are big into casinos while Europeans are more interested in dancing). I loved stopping at the Rendezvous lounge on my way into dinner, watching couples enjoying a dance, and if supper lasted a long time, there was karaoke in the Rendezvous on my way out. I won in both directions!
We watched the weather very carefully. So far we had been extraordinarily lucky, but if the wind picked up, we wouldn't have made it in to Port Stanley.
The Falkland Islands have "belonged" to Great Britain since the mid-1800's but you can't convince most Argentineans of that. To Argentina, the Falklands are the Malvinas, part of Patagonia (albeit several hundred miles offshore) and to prove it, the Argentine military invaded the islands in 1982, mined several thousand acres of its land and beaches, and then retreated in defeat 74 days later. The mines, low metal and virtually undetectable, remain, although the Argentine army generously mapped out its mine locations for the residents, who were then able to fence off the danger zones.
Talk about windswept! Only 40 percent of the scheduled cruises actually make it into this port (the Millennium cruises just before and just after mine did not) because of the strong winds and high seas, so the fact that I was able to visit the boggy moors around Port Stanley was nearly miraculous. It's a tender port without a protected harbor, but at anchor, even from a distance, one is struck by the colorful tin roofs of the Port Stanley "skyline," and once on land, by the vast, treeless landscape.
The Falklands are home to Gentoo penguins; their rookeries are accessed either by boat (which comes right to the ship) or via an E-Ticket ride (which I took) in a 4x4 over rugged, rocky, soggy terrain to an isolated cove at what surely feels like the end of the world. I was just able to snap off a couple of penguin shots with my trusty Olympus digital before a frigid, sideways sleeting rain sent me and the other guests on this excursion into the tiny cafe fronting the beach.
Mossback? Me? Are you kidding?
Merriam-Webster defines "mossback" as an extremely reactionary, old fashioned person; a fogy, a bumpkin, a stick-in-the-mud. Well, here's some trivia for you: A Mossback is also a person who has gone around Cape Horn, so while I sure ain't no reactionary bumpkin, I am a proud Mossback.
Known as the most treacherous passage in the world, Cape Horn defines the confluence of three bodies of water -- the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the "Antarctic" Ocean (which doesn't really exist; Drake's Passage bisects the Pacific and Atlantic at Cape Horn). Again, we were extremely lucky in that it was a sunny day with hardly any wind, and we were able to experience the last slip of land before Antarctica. This was really, truly, the end of the earth.
Because it was so calm, the ship's captain was able to keep us there for over an hour, turning Millennium so that every side got the opportunity to see the Cape and the rocky outcroppings, barely visible in the surf, that extended out from it. We went as close as possible; it was easy to see how less technologically advanced sailing ships could flounder here, smash against the stony protuberances or get sucked into a stormy vortex.
And then, just like that, we had gone from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
I was looking forward to what I thought would be the best stop on this cruise: Ushuaia. Just the name of the place, to me, conjured an exotic, mythical locale. I felt like the seekers of Shangri La must have felt, only Ushuaia is a real place, not fantasy, and I was really on my way.
And to add another layer to my bliss, we dined at the Olympic Restaurant after going Round the Horn, a bunch of "mossbacks" in the singularly most elegant alternative dining venue I have ever enjoyed. The meal was fabulous, with steaks and lamb chops, table-made Caesar salads, soups and desserts to die for. The service was superb, and the company of my friends the icing on the cake of a spectacular day.
Ushuaia and the Land of Fire
Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) -- so named because the ships sailing by could see the bonfires of the indigenous populations -- is an island off the southern tip of South America, shared by both Chile and Argentina. Ushuaia, on the Argentine side, is considered "the southernmost city in the world," although Chile claims that its Puerto Williams is actually further south and qualifies as "the southernmost town in the world." This friendly rivalry does not detract from the fact that this region is stunningly beautiful, surrounded by mountains and sea, glaciers and rivers, forests and meadows. It's as though all the colors of the worldly palate had funneled down to flow through this magical spot.
One can only hope that at least some of the miscreants who were sent to the city when it was a penal colony (from 1902 until the jail's closing in 1947) had poetry in their souls, the better to enjoy its charms.
Poet or not, there is plenty for a visitor to Ushuaia to enjoy ... so much, in fact, that it's a shame that the cruise stops don't last longer than a day.
The weather gods were smiling on us again as Millennium docked in Ushuaia; it was clear and sunny. It didn't take long to discover, however, that the warm mid-70's fahrenheit temperatures could quickly become windy, chilly, rainy low 40's, in just the blink of an eye.
Still, the Beagle Channel shore excursions provided another opportunity to view the scenery, the wildlife (sea lions and cormorants), and the red-and-white striped Les Eclaireurs, often mistakenly referred to as the Lighthouse at the End of the World. (That distinction actually belongs to the San Juan de Salvamento lighthouse at Isla de los Estados.) There was time to wander up and down San Martin Street for shopping and lunch after the excursion, but I was still sorry to have to reboard for departure.
Glaciers, Fjords and the Chilean Coast
I might have been reluctant to leave Ushuaia, but on our way through the Beagle Channel back to the Pacific, we passed a series of five glaciers named for European languages: Francia, Hollande, Italia, Alemania and Romanche. Our fabulous naturalist, Dirk Younkerman, described each of them to us and pointed out birds and mammals that we otherwise might have missed. Unfortunately, my stateroom was on the port side of the ship and this group of glaciers appeared on starboard. I would have loved to see them from the quiet and privacy of my balcony or stateroom, but instead had to go out on deck, where it was icy-cold. Everyone who had started outside gathered in The Ocean Grill or Cosmos, and most, by now, were pressing up against the windows, blocking almost all of my view. I sat down and imagined, as Dirk explained what we were seeing, that it was actually Francia, Alemania, Romanche upon which my gaze rested and not a bunch of tushes up against the window. I was looking forward to the scenic portion of our northbound journey.
Punta Arenas was cold, horribly windy, industrial, flat and not particularly appealing after the beauty of Ushuaia. It's the southernmost city in Chile on the South American mainland; I hoped, now that we had left the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, that this would not be the landscape I would see as we made our way north to Valparaiso.
Put me in a fjord, any fjord, and I am happy. Alaska, Norway, Saguenay ... and now Chile. Some of what was called fjords really weren't (we were in a channel between the mainland and a strip of land facing the Pacific) but I was happy anyway.
After a rocky morning on the Pacific, we entered a series of channels en route to the main attraction of our scenic cruising, the Skua Glacier.
Maybe it's because we seemed to come upon it suddenly or maybe because the surrounding landscape leading up to it showed no sign of snow or ice, but arriving at the Skua Glacier was spectacular. Here was an eons-old glacial river meeting the sea on a sunny day, with the water closest to it the color of the Caribbean, and few visible icebergs to welcome our arrival. Compared to the glacier visits on Alaska itineraries, this came as a delightful and breathtaking surprise. The captain got us as close as possible to the wall of ice, and again, turned the ship, slowly, for at least an hour so every side could see as much as possible.
Our naturalist was describing the glacier and enumerating the fauna in the region when he said something that stunned me: "We are as close in as we can get," he said, "with the glacier face about a mile away." What? A mile? Not possible! We were right under it! I really, honestly thought he had misspoken when I noticed that one of the lifeboats was headed towards the glacial wall (apparently taking one of the ship's photographers for close-in shots). As the lifeboat/tender chugged away from the ship, the enormity of this natural wonder became more clear: the little boat was a mere speck on the water's surface as it got closer to the icy wall towering above it. The depth-of-field illusion was amazing, and the experience left me open-mouthed in wonder and awe.
This trip had been full of firsts for me, and full of new experiences that delighted and surprised me, but this was truly a defining moment, the pinnacle of the entire voyage. In fact, I worried that the four days that were left of my trip would prove anticlimactic. There was nothing that could come close to this experience.
Lakes, Volcanoes and Those Big Black Bugs
Only three days left, unbelievable. I was still not bored or restless; in fact, it was just the opposite now. I was energized and wanted the experience and the cruise to last, last, last. I didn't want to give up the garlicky afternoon pasta or evening sushi, the thrill of being "upside down," or peace and solitude of my stateroom. I was determined to make the most of my last excursion, too, because Punta Arenas had been such a bust for me.
Puerto Montt is the Pacific's entry point to Chile's Lake District, a verdant strip of land surrounded by lakes, rivers, volcanoes and of course, the Pacific Ocean. The city itself is situated on hills that climb in a V-shape from the natural harbor. It usually rains every day in the summer, but when we arrived, we were told it had been sunny for almost a week.
There's actually plenty to see just by walking around the town, and great shopping opportunities at the artisan's markets and malls, but most guests of Millennium chose a shore excursion because there are so many diversions in the region. Want to hike up a volcano? Try your hand at fly-fishing? Kayak under waterfalls or go whitewater rafting? It's all available here.
Unfortunately, so are the region's bane of tourists, the huge black flying bugs that bombard anyone wearing dark colors.
It was fun to see the German and Austrian influence in the region: the buildings that looked as though they had been plucked out of Baden-Baden or Frieburg and plunked down below the Andes; the business names, right out of a Frankfurt or Vienna phone book; the menu options of bratwurst and sauerbraten. And all of it under the snow-topped symmetrical peak of the Osorno Volcano that dominates the horizon.
Valparaiso, Santiago, Goodbye
My friends and I didn't really have to say goodbye on our last night because we would be cloistered together in a bus for upwards of seven hours after we got off the ship. We did, however, toast our dinner waiters and gather for some shipboard memories. I sat alone for awhile, too, in Cova Cafe di Milano, listening for the last time to the strains of the Spanish guitar, and then -- sadly -- went to pack up.
I love coming into and leaving port, so I set my alarm for a very early wake-up and was able to see the hills around Valparaiso in the pre-dawn dark.
The port city that is the commercial and passenger entry-way to Santiago, about 75 miles inland, Valparaiso is built on a series of terraced hills overlooking the harbor and the sea. Arrival here before dawn is bittersweet: The cruise is over, but the twinkling lights dancing in the hills above the terminal are charming, welcoming.
Besides being a commercial port, Valparaiso -- and the coastal towns surrounding it -- is also a vacation spot for land-locked Chileans and for Argentinians across the eastern border. (Chile is so narrow that, as one of our guides put it, "No one ever talks about east or west here. We only talk about north and south.") Access to this coastal region is easy, with well-maintained highways spoking out in all directions.
It takes just over an hour to get to Santiago, with a route that goes from the Pacific through valleys of wine grapes and fruit trees.
The capital of Chile, Santiago, is spread out in a valley dominated by the peaks of the Andes, barely visible on a summer day because of the smog layer that covers the city. Most of the building has taken place over the past 20 years or so, giving Santiago a modern feel, although the city center still retains its colonial architecture and ambiance.
Most of the flights leaving Santiago for North America do so late at night. There are several tour options offered by the cruise lines, almost all involving long (seven-plus hours!) bus excursions that end up at the airport. My recommendation would be to either hire a private car or cab for the trip to Santiago; or find a bus that goes directly to the international airport from the port, check your luggage and then go into the city (the airport isn't very far and transportation costs are reasonable). Although parts of my bus excursion were informative, it was actually quite exhausting to be confined for so long. There was also something intrinsically distasteful to me to have three or four tour buses disgorge their passengers at a single (highly overpriced) lapis lazuli (the blue semi-precious stone indigenous to Chile) shop at the same time, too.
Happily, the layout, amenities, modernity and shopping opportunities at the airport in Santiago rivaled or exceeded those of most airports I have transited and it made the long day -- and the prospect of the long flight home -- just bearable. Because it wouldn't be long before I was not upside down any more, and that fact alone made me quite sad.
Words to the Wise...
A lot of my trip was made easier for me because of the research I had done, so I knew a great deal about what to expect. Still, there are a couple of tidbits that bear mentioning:
Cruise passengers who start in Santiago rather than in Buenos Aires have to pay a $100 entry fee when flying into Chile. Passengers ending in Valparaiso and leaving from Santiago do not.
Layers, layers, layers! Every stop, with the exception of Buenos Aires and Valparaiso/Santiago, (both seasonally appropriate during the cruise period) has unpredictable weather. It could be warm and sunny, and suddenly turn cold and windy; or it could be freezing and sleeting, and then become unbearably hot. Take a tote with you on excursions, with appropriate clothing for all weather conditions.
Oceanview staterooms on the port side of the ship get better viewing opportunities when the cruise starts in Valparaiso, and on the starboard side when the cruise starts in Buenos Aires.
Banks in Chile do not exchange money or take travelers checks. There are plenty of ATM's for local currency, and almost all shops (and grocery stores) take U.S. dollars.
Onboard casinos close just after departure from Ushuaia and do not reopen until after departure from Puerto Montt (or vice versa), so plan your play accordingly.
Port arrival and departure times do not always occur as scheduled in South America, so don't get too picky about it. Be flexible; you'll still get to where you are supposed to go.
The lake district of Chile (Puerto Montt) is home to a flying bug that is attracted to dark clothing. Wear light colors. (Guests on the whitewater rafting excursion have to wear dark waterproof suits and are bombarded with the bugs.)
This is definitely not a cruise for passengers expecting calm, Caribbean-like waters. The seas can get rough -- really rough -- and it's better to assume the worst than to be surprised. Most ships offer complimentary medicines, but you might want to get prescription meds before you leave for South America just in case.
Above all, make sure to have enough film or digital photo cards and batteries for the gazillions of pictures you will want to take of this trip of a lifetime.