Rio to Santiago cruise on the Golden Princess
Mike and Charlotte
We flew from LAX to Miami to Rio without incident, even though lots of our cruise critic friends were forced to spend an unplanned night in Miami because their connecting planes were delayed. I managed to sleep most of the way on both flights, but Mike, in a twist, had a hard time sleeping.
We arrived in Rio at 8 am on Thursday and caught a cab to the Marriott for $45. Great place on Copacabana Beach. Actually, hotels aren’t on the beach, but right across the street. Our room wasn’t ready so they gave us passes to the Club Lounge where we had a big breakfast as well, as high speed internet access. Finished in time to get down to the lobby to meet our guide for the tour we'd booked. It appears that Brazilian Time is slower than our time. When I confirmed the tour on Tuesday, the guy said to be in the hotel lobby at noon. The guide arrived at 1:45.
It was really hot so we didn't mind the cool lobby--and the hotel staff brought us bottles of cold water. The guide picked us up and we were off with 10 others for a walking tour of the old city center. We were thankful for the air conditioned van to take us from one area of the city to another to see the old monestary church that was started in the 1500's but not completed until the 1700's. We noted that all the gold wasn’t taken to the king in the Old World.
Then we walked by many civic buildings in the center of the old city. All buildings are either several hundred years old and restored or falling down, or modern 20-40 story skyscrapers. Our Guide told us that it is illegal to tear down the old buildings so the owners are either European companies that bought them years ago and are waiting for them to fall down so they can then be replaced, or Brazilian companies that restore the original facade and add all kinds of reinforcement inside, then build a new interior.
We also saw the old, downtown cathedral. The story is that a Portugese shipping magnate went to the Far East to pick up spices and fabrics, but on the return trip, after rounding South Africa, a horrible storm came up, washing much of the cargo overboard and damaging the little ship. The merchant prayed that, if he were saved, he would build a cathedral wherever he landed. He landed clear over in Brazil, and build the cathedral in Rio. Murals on the ceiling show the story of the ship, his prayers, the landing and building of the cathedral.
From there we walked to the new National Cathedral, and, oh, my, what a contrast! While the old one is traditional, the new one is conical, all brass, bright leaded glass, and can hold 42,000 people. It was huge! Really stuck out like a sore thumb in the center of the old city, but they are very proud of it.
That night we were so tired that we didn't really bother with dinner; just went up to the Club Room at the hotel, ate all the snacks we wanted, and went to bed. The Club Room overlooks Copacabana Beach, and so did our room. Great views! By the way, Ipanema is The Hot Place to be; Copacabana is for old folks, but there were a lot of young bodies on the beach!
The next day our walking tour started at 9. We rode the Metro and then took a city bus to Santa Teresa. The ads had said we would ride an historic trolly, but it ran off the track and into a power pole about two years ago; still not running again. So we took the bus, which was like a Disney E-ticket ride—very, very bumpy! Friday was 104 and 90% humidity. We still climbed to the top of Santa Teresa, which is a trendy area with a lot going on at night, but not so much in the daytime. From the hilltop we viewed favelas in the distance, once controlled by drug lords and even more dangerous now that the government has put them in prison, from what we heard. Until recently there were warring drug lords, now it's a free-for-all with many clashing for control. Some friends toured the favelas, but we've seen enough slums.
Leaving Santa Teresa was via the Escadaria Selaron, which is a series of 215 steps in two flights, covered with tiles of all different colors from all over the world, They are trendy, touristy, heavily trafficked, and I’d have been happy with seeing them, not going down.
By 2:30 we were back at the hotel, had lunch, and decided to rest; it was tooooo hot, hot, hot to go out! Early on we decided against climbing to the top of Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer and taking the funicular to the top of Sugarloaf; seeing them both from a distance was better than waiting in lines to get to the top. We were glad we did.
That night we went to dinner and la Plataforma Samba Show. Dinner was at Carretao, a charrusco restaurant--one of those all-you-can-eat Brazilian places where they bring huge skewers of many cuts of beef, chicken and pork to your table, slicing as much of each as you want on your plate—after you go through a line for salads, sushi, fruit, and veggies. It was fantabulous! The beef and pork were to die for! Every piece could be cut with a fork, and was seasoned sooooo well.
At La Plataforma theater we found a place on a side platform that was eye-level with the stage, plunked ourselves down, and the show began. What a show! It started with native dances, followed by dances the slaves brought from Africa . Gradually acrobats and drummers were introduced, and an acrobatic show began. We've never seen such a show. These guys were terrific! Periocically one of the four drummers performed solo to give the acrobats a break. Then super tall dancers in tremendous samba costumes came out to did the samba as it's done along the Sambadrome during Carnivale. In all it was a 90 minute show. Each year La Plataforma purchases the winning costume from Carnivale, which the tall dancers wore. They were made of feathers with headdresses that must have spanned 6 feet, and all I could think was, “How on Earth could people wear those huge, heavy costumes during the 5 mile parade along the Sambadrome, lined with thousands of people, in the heat and humidity that's Rio?” The finale was the owner/emcee coming onstage and personally singing a song from the homeland of all those in the audience. All in all, we thought it was a tremendous show. We booked all three Rio tours through Viator.com.
The next morning we took a taxi to the ship; it was the most disorganized boarding I've ever seen. We entered a huge warehouse, where we were handed either a number or letter and were to leave our luggage. At least there were fans. People were milling all over the place, nobody knowing where to go or what to do. We found the table in the center where they handed out the health questionnaires, and finally found a line at the front of the room. Mike asked the guy what number he was calling, and we boarded. Some of those people stood around for hours, waiting to be called!
Princess has changed a few thiings since we cruised in the fall. For one thing, they have begun to wash balcony glass--the glass that we had to keep washing so we could see. We learned that when the cabin boy above us poured a bucket of water down as we were enjoying the sunset! They also changed the show schedules. Now there are three of each show a night, giving a better chance of finding a seat; shows are at 7:15, 8:45 and 10:15. On the down side, shows have been cut from one hour each to 45 minutes. We think the quality of the entertainment has gone down, and we hope that Princess does not make the 45 minute shows a line-wide practice.
After two days at sea we arrived at Buenos Aires. The skyline is as filled with skyscrapers as New York’s or Boston’s. We docked at the commercial port so took a bus to the terminal. It was cloudy and dark and, as we walked down the gangplank, the skies opened and it poured. Wow! We caught a taxi to the Casa Rosada (President's House) and by then the rain had stopped. Walked around the plaza , changed some money, and then took a taxi to La Boca District, where all the colorful little houses are. It was jumping. We walked around, sent some post cards, took a lot of pictures, sat in a shady outdoor place for a “schop” (draft beer), and soaked in the local color.
Mike saw a couple dancing the tango at an outdoor cafe so we stopped for lunch. As soon as we ordered, the sky opened up again. However, we were nice and dry under a canopy. We managed to stretch lunch out while three couples put on a tango show, as well as a gaucho show with bolas. Waiters used sticks to raise the canopy to drain water. When the rain stopped, we were ready to return to the ship.
The nights were clear with lots of stars so we saw the Southern Cross every night from our balcony. That night we traveled very slowly 90 miles up the Rio de la Plata (River of Silver) to Mondevideo. The river was named because it was the way to transport silver from the mines to the two cities, not because of the color of the water, which is very muddy. On our previous trip to Montevideo, we’d noticed many wrecked ships tilting in the shallow harbor. This time, we noted that all those ships have been moved to one area, but are still atilt.
Montevideo is a great city. It is clean, safe, and has retained more of its ancient buildings than Buenos Aires. Although Buenos Aires claims to be the Paris of the South, it is quickly modernizing. Montevideo has wide avenues with landscaped medians from when it was laid out in the 1500's by Europeans, and oozes the aura of ancient times. It is also much more laid back, and not so bustling, as Buenos Aires. Many streets have been closed off in the old city center, reserving them for pedestrians with lots of outdoor cafes. The pedestrian walkways connect large plazas. We really liked it. We walked the pedestrian walkways, saw the plazas, and ate in a sidewalk cafe under both an umbrella and a huge tree--lots of shade in the heat of the day.
Geographically, the Falkland Islands are due south of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The South American coast has a large easterly bulge where the two cities are, and then curves westerly a lot so that the Falklands are pretty much 'way out in the ocean, even though they are due south. From there, we'll travel due west to the very tip of South America, Cape Horn and Ushuaia, Argentina.
After two sea days we arrived at the Falkland Islands, which claim to be an independent country under British protectorate, but which the Argentines claim to be illegally taken by the Brits in the 1870's. They are still squabbling, but in the meantime, 6 generations of Brits, Welch, Northern Irish, and a few Scandavanians, have made the place home.
This is a tender port because the bay is shallow. Weather does not always cooperate and about half the cruises that are scheduled to stop here do not make it. Mike and I have made it twice, so we are very lucky! We had booked a tour to Bluff Cove Lagoon to see penguins; it is a privately owned sheep ranch. Sheep ranching is the main business on the islands. We drove about 20 minutes in a van, and then transferred to a 4WD Land Rover ATV; the next 30 minutes were on what they call trails, but were nothing more than where an ATV or two had gone before over a peat bog. Pretty rough. There aer not as many penguins here as we saw at Puerto Madryn in 2001. There are Gentoo and King penguins. The Kings have yellow necks. We snapped pictures for a while, but then ducked into the Sea Cabbage Cafe for tea, scones, and warmth. The didddle dee jam scones with whipped cream were superb, and the cafe was warm. Temps ran in the 40's, but the 40 MPH wind made it seem much, much colder.
Upon returning to Stanley, we headed for The Rose, a pub which our Canadian friend Harvey found for us in 2001; we had an ale for Harvey before returning to the ship for a very late lunch.
The following day was a sea day, but at 4:30 we approached and circumnavigated Cape Horn. That day defined the vast difference between this cruise and our 2001 cruise. On the previous cruise, we'd had bright sun and smooth seas until we passed Cape Horn. At the minute we passed from the Atlantic into the Pacific, the sea turned angry, gale force winds whipped up and we were in a blizzard of snow. On the other hand, this time the warm, sunny weather followed us around the Cape and back into the Beagle Channel. We could not have had better weather than on this trip! How far south did we get? That day the sun rose at 5:18 and set at 10:45. That's a long day!
The following morning we docked at Ushuaia with the sun shining brightly, and much warmer than we’d expected. Ushuaia, El Fin Del Mundo, the end of the world, is the southernmost city, not just on the American continents, but in the world on Tierra del Fuego, Land of Fire. Tierra del Fuego was so named because the early explorers saw smoke from fires the Indians burned to keep warm.
Ushuaia is a city of 85,000, but it seems much smaller. I have no idea why so many people live here; it's harsh, cold and dark in winter, yet it’s beautiful. Think Switzerland with an ocean and the Alps coming down to the water. In this case it's the Andes with forests and wildflowers. The primary industry in the early 20th century was a hard-core prison, but that closed about 50 years ago and is now a museum. There's also a small Argentine navy base here. It appears that the main industry is provisioning ships for Antarctic cruises and to providing food and gear for travelers into Patagonia.
The city rises from the water. We'd taken the prison train down to Tierra del Fuego in 2001 so this time we climbed the town, zig-zagging up one street and down another. Very nice little city, but I wouldn't want to live here.
The passenger makeup of the ship is quite cosmopolitan. In addition to the usual complement of Californians, other US citizens, Canadians, Aussies and Brits, there are many Brazilians, a group of Russians, many Germans, and 450 Argentines joined us in Buenos Aires. All announcements were in English, Brazilian and Spanish.
Speaking of Buenos Aires, in a cafe in Ushuaia we saw a TV news bulletin about a strike at the port there. They showed police and people in a standoff, but we didn't catch the details. We did catch that 1500 cruise passengers were not allowed to disembark and were glad it happened after we left there. What a disappointment that would be!
I took a mis-step the other morning, heard a loud pop in my knee and the following pain was worse than anything I'd ever felt before. Went to the medical center; and the very competent doctor gave me a knee brace and some pain killers, and said to see an orthopedist when I return home. I managed to hobble around Ushuaia, but the Magellan Strait was a bit rougher so I remained on the ship at Punta Arenas because it was a tender port, and I was unsure of another mis-step between the ship and the tender. Mike went out for a zodiac tour we’d reserved; it was to go to two islands for penguin sightings. However, upon reaching the tour office, the group was told that the Harbor Master had cancelled all tours because of rough seas. Mike walked around Punta Arenas with some friends, thankful that this was the first (and only) not-so-good weather we encountered.
After three more days at sea we arrived in Valparaiso, Chile. Disembarkation was a breeze, especially compared to the nightmare that the Brazilian Port Authority put us through on embarkation two weeks before. A Cruise Critic poster had arranged a transfer to Santiago, including a tour, wine tasting and lunch, for less than Princess wanted for just the transfer, and the van met us at the pier on schedule.
The tour included a trip up two ascencores, or funiculars, in Valparaiso, to the part of the city on top of a cliff. Since the lower part of the ascencor has not operated since an earthquake a few years ago, our guide said there would be stairs. I opted to stay with two other women in the van, while mike and the others joined the guide for the climb. The van remained at the bottom, instead of meeting the others at the top, so they had quite a steep climb up for the good view, as well as down again. I made the right decision, considering the condition of my knee.
The driver suggested we three women walk a few blocks to see a church in the area. We inquired of a few people how to get there, but none know. When we found it, there were quite a few men and many dogs sleeping at the top of the stairs. As we were deciding whether to see if it was unlocked or not, a drunk came up, holding a bag of half full cerveza bottles, told us it was a very dangerous area for three women, to stick together and return to wherever we came from. We obeyed and waited in the van.
Then we toured Viña del Mar, a resort area north of the city with big, fancy hotels, a casino, and a flower clock, with the face and all the numbers made of live flowers. On the way to Santiago, we stopped at a winery high up on a hill overlooking the Casa Blanca valley to taste one white and two reds, and they were fabulous. Too bad we could not take some home. We had lunch at a nice place with a thatched roof and gravel floor; the kind of atmosphere that tourists thrive on.
I am sad to say that Santiagos’s recovery from the earthquake is slow, but it’s still a beautiful city The tour took us to the top of the highest hill in town, which is a huge municipal park. We had a good view of the city and met tons of hikers, runners, and others trying to get away from the hustle of the city for a while. The van dropped us at our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, our third time here. Great hotel with a friendly staff; great location on the main avenue and near a Metro station; not far from Santa Lucia Hill. We checked in and had dinner in the hotel restaurant.
The heat wave continued in Santiago so we got a late check-out and enjoyed the hotel’s facilities on our last day. We’d seen most of the sights during our previous two stays so we spent the afternoon in the pool and under umbrellas on the pool deck, where we had access to showers and the sauna. Finally, we took a cab to the airport for our 11 pm flight. Checking in at the Santiago airport, by the way, is reminiscent of the boarding process for the ship in Rio. We were glad we arrived early. However, the flight home was good, we slept well, and were home by noon.