John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties. We enjoy both cruises and land tours; many of our trips combine the two. Most of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaii, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the North Atlantic (Greenland/Iceland), parts of the British Isles, and the Norwegian Fjords. We have taken land tours to the Netherlands, Canadian Rockies, Mexico (Cozumel), London, France (several wine regions and Paris), China, and to many parts of the continental USA.
On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving, or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves, or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles, and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. However, I already had flags from all the countries on this itinerary.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food, etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps. Prior to this cruise we took a 10-day "Tango, Natural Falls, Winery, Andes Mountains" land tour, which was organized by Defrantur (www.defrantur.com). Our review is divided into two sections corresponding to each part of our trip. If you are not interested in the land tour section, simply skip down to the section about the cruise.
"Vino Argentino: An Insider's Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina," by Laura Catena. This book gives a good (albeit brief) overview of the Argentinean wine industry. It is available on www.amazon.com.
"Patagonian & Fuegian Channels Map: Chilean Fjords Cruise Chart - Cape Horn, Ushuaia, Magellan Strait," by Sergio Zagier. This map is available on www.amazon.com.
"The Mission" (www.imdb.com/title/tt0091530/), starring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons and Ray McAnally, has many scenes with views of Iguazú Falls.
SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT THE LAND TOUR OPERATOR
We had originally chosen Defrantur (www.defrantur.com) for a post-cruise extension in February, 2007, based on excellent reviews in the "Ports of Call" forum on CruiseCritic.com. That cruise was supposed to conclude with a day in Buenos Aires, an overnight in port on the ship, and disembarkation the next morning. Defrantur was to meet us the first morning in Buenos Aires for a city tour, a boat tour on the Tigre River, a gaucho show at an estancia, and an evening tango show. After disembarking the next morning, Defrantur was to transfer us to the domestic airport for the flight to Puerto Iguazú, where we would spend 3 nights and tour both the Argentinean and Brazilian sides of Iguazú Falls before flying back to Buenos Aires for our return to the USA.
Unfortunately, things did not work out that way. We had to disembark the cruise in Montevideo and I ended up spending a week in a hospital there. After the Princess port agent got John settled in a Day's Inn a few blocks from the hospital, John had to begin the task of cancelling all of our post-cruise arrangements. Although he had less than 24 hours notice and it was a weekend, Ricardo De Franco (owner of Defrantur) was able to cancel our flights to Iguazú and all the other reservations that he had made for us. Once we returned to the USA, Ricardo promptly refunded our deposit (less a $50 service charge) and filled out all the paperwork needed for our travel insurance company to reimburse the service charge.
Because of Ricardo's excellent service in 2007, his company was the first one that I considered for our 2011 trip. Additionally, I contacted several other tour companies (also recommended by members of CruiseCritic.com). However, Defrantur offered the greatest "bang for the buck" and we already knew that Ricardo De Franco looks out for his clients. The arrangements he made for our 10-day "Tango, Natural Falls, Winery, Andes Mountains" tour were outstanding and we highly recommend his services.
TOUR GUIDE CONTACT INFORMATION
Defrantur (www.defrantur.com) - coordinated all land arrangements (except domestic flights) in Argentina and Chile
firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel - Fax: *54 (11) 4583.4193; Mobile: *54 (911) 4993.1699
Andrea - guide for Mendoza, Argentina
email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Tel.: 154169418
Marcelo Aray - guide for Santiago and Santa Cruz, Chile
email@example.com, Tel.: 098-2911993
Gerardo Germain - driver/guide for Ushuaia, Argentina
firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel.: (02901)15605288-424046
Marta Márquez - guide for Montevideo, Uruguay
email@example.com, Tel.: +598 94 656 042
Diana Persi - driver/guide for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel.: (21) 9218-4610; Nextel (21) 77011565 ID.80*179583
www.tourguideinbrazil.com and www.dianatoursinrio.blogspot.com
REVIEW OF THE LAND TOUR
DAY 0 (SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 12) DEPART FROM USA
John and I had an afternoon flight from RDU to JFK on American Airlines, with a late evening departure for EZE. Although we had 5 hours to make the connection in New York, we had been worried about possible weather delays or flight cancellations. Fortunately, the weather was sunny in both Raleigh and New York and we had no problems.
While my phone was turned off during the flight from RDU to JFK, Princess Cruises called and left a voice message. If we would be willing to give up our cabin on the cruise from Santiago to Rio (which they over booked), they would refund our money and give us all of the following: (1) a free cruise on the same itinerary next year (with an upgrade to a minisuite), (2) either a free 7-day cruise or a free transatlantic cruise, (3) up to $300 pp to pay for changes to our plane tickets, and (4) "help" with the extra expenses for new Brazilian visas. Too bad they waited until we were already on our way to South America to make this offer; it was a really good deal!
DAY 1 (SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 13) BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
When our flight arrived in Buenos Aires, we paid the $140 US pp reciprocity fee and got through customs and immigration. We were met by our driver and taken to our hotel. There we were greeted by Ricardo De Franco and the Defrantur financial manager, Patricio. Patricio went over our program with us in detail and gave us vouchers for each service. We paid him the balance owed for our land tour (a deposit had already been made by money transfer through moneygram.com).
The 3* Gran Hotel Buenos Aires (www.granhotelbue.com.ar) is near the Plaza San Martín and the Avenida Florida shopping area. The room was average and had free Wi-Fi but no safe in the room. Our window looked down on the courtyard of the Círculo Militar, an ornate, early twentieth-century, marble mansion.
After getting settled into our room, we took a short walking tour of the area around the hotel. We walked around the corner to see the front of the Círculo Militar. Across the street is the tree-shaded Plaza San Martín, which is surrounded by a number of other elaborate mansions from the early twentieth century (now hotels or office buildings). The plaza contains an equestrian statue of Argentina's hero, General San Martín. Further down the plaza is the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) War Memorial. This memorial bears the names of the Argentinean troops killed in the 1982 conflict with Great Britain. There is an eternal flame and a perpetual honor guard in colorful uniforms. Ironically, just across the street is the British Clock Tower, renamed the Torre Monumental after the war. The clock had been given to Argentina by British residents of Buenos Aires. After this short walk, we returned to the hotel to meet our friendly and informative guide (Lorena) for a tour of the highlights of Buenos Aires (www.frommers.com/images/destinations/maps/jpg-2006/2299_exploringbuenosaires.jpg).
The first stop was at the A Line Subte (subway station with wooden subway cars dating from 1913). Then it was on to the Plaza de Mayo, which commemorates the 1810 revolution. Painted on the paving around this plaza are babushkas, which represent the mothers of the desaparecidos (people who vanished after the 1976 military coup). These women demonstrate in the plaza every Thursday seeking to learn the fates of their children and grandchildren. The plaza is across from the Casa Rosada, the presidential office building, so the government is constantly reminded that the abuses of that period will not be forgotten and that justice is still expected. Because it was Sunday, the Casa Rosada was open to the public. We went inside to see some of the rooms (with portraits of such notables as Juan and Eva Perón, Che Guevara, Salvador Allende) and the guards in their elaborate uniforms.
Next, we walked to the Metropolitan Cathedral, where we arrived just in time for the changing of the guard at the tomb of the national hero, General San Martín. San Martín was not a Catholic, so his tomb is in a structure that can be accessed from the Cathedral, but is not actually part of it. His tomb also contains a monument with the remains of the unknown soldier of Argentine independence. After admiring the Cathedral, we had a drive-by tour of a number of other sights, such as the legislative buildings, the Obelisco, and the Teatro Colón. We made stops at the Cafe Tortoni (hangout of famous artists and writers), the San Telmo Street Market, and the Pasaje de la Defensa (formerly the home of the well-to-do Ezeiza family; the international airport code EZE stands for Ezeiza). This colonial building, with internal Roman-style courtyards, is now a picturesque shopping spot. We also visited the Caminita in the La Boca area. This short street, with multi-colored buildings and street art, is supposedly where the tango originated.
We next drove along the waterfront and the Puerto Madero area, which was formerly a warehouse district. The warehouses have been renovated into restaurants, offices, and hotels. We continued driving through the Palermo neighborhood, which has many plazas with statues of famous people. One depicts General San Martín with his grandchildren and another is of Evita Perón (the only statue of her in the city).
Our last stop was at the Recoleta Cemetery, where the rich and famous of Buenos Aries spend eternity. Although New Orleans' above-ground cemeteries have many elaborate tombs, the Recoleta Cemetery gives lie to the saying, "you can't take it with you." The majority of the tombs were outrageously ostentatious and many had glass doors so that the ornate coffins, with silver decorations, can be admired. Of course, the main attraction is the tomb of the Familia Duarte, where Eva Perón is interred. This is actually a fairly simple monument and is constantly covered with flowers left by Evita's admirers, many of whom consider her a saint.
After our tour, we had time for a short nap at the hotel before a shared van collected us for the tango show with dinner at "La Ventana" (www.la-ventana.com.ar). We had excellent seats in the basement room (Salón de Virrey) at the center in front of the stage. The dinner included an appetizer, main course, dessert, and a bottle of house-labeled wine. Although the steak was good, it made us wonder what the big deal is about Argentinean beef (fortunately, we would find out later). The tango show was adequately passionate and included some musical numbers and gaucho dancing as well. One of the musical numbers was a stirring rendition of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" in Spanish. After our day in Buenos Aires, I wondered whether Argentineans think Americans only know about their country because of the musical "Evita."
DAY 2 (MONDAY, FEBRUARY 14) BUENOS AIRES TO PUERTO IGUAZÚ
We rolled in after midnight from the tango show and had to get up early this morning for a quick breakfast (very limited) at the hotel. On the flight to Puerto Iguazú, Aerolineas Argentinas fed us another light breakfast. I guess having two breakfasts is not all bad; we did not need lunch. When we got to Iguazú, there was no guide waiting for us. A guide from another company took pity on us and called the local company that was supposed to meet us, IGR Turismo (www.grupocaribe.com.br/espanhol/estrutura/estrutura.htm). A taxi was sent to collect us; it stopped part-way to Puerto Iguazú and we were transferred to the guide's van.
Although we were scheduled to take the half-day tour to the Brazilian side of the falls today, the guide (Mario, who likes to whistle "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina") tried to convince us to tour the Argentinean side first instead. This was not what we wanted because there are more trails (news.iguazuargentina.com/downloads/mapa_area_cat.jpg) on the Argentinean side and I knew a half-day would not be enough time there. We finally insisted that we wanted to do the Brazilian side today, so we went to our hotel, quickly changed into clothing suitable for getting wet, and headed off to Brazil.
After enduring immigration formalities on both sides of the border, we finally arrived at the Brazilian national park (www.cataratasdoiguacu.com.br/index_en.asp). The outstanding feature of the Brazilian side is the opportunity to have a panoramic view of the falls. One does not have words to describe the falls --- tremendous, fantastic, awe-inspiring --- all fall short. The water level in the Rio Iguazú was unusually high (1 m above normal) and the flow was 8 times normal. Some of the falls that are usually distinct had merged together because of the high volume. We walked the trail along the canyon, seeing one spectacular waterfall after another. Near the end of the trail, there is a catwalk that takes you out to the edge of the canyon for a look into the Devil's Throat. This is where you get quite wet even if you are wearing stylish MSU and Colorado Silver Mine Adventure plastic ponchos. After that, there are several other opportunities to get soaked in the spray before taking an elevator to the top of the falls for more incredible views. In addition to the falls, we saw some wildlife such as a large and a small species of lizard, a coral snake, coatis, and butterflies. As we were walking back to the visitor center, we encountered a large multi-generational family of coatis walking along with their ringed tails high in the air until they found a good spot to start digging for insects, completely oblivious to us.
Puerto Iguazú (www.opcioniguazu.com.ar/mapas/planoiguazu.jpg) caters to tourists coming from Argentina to visit the falls. There are many hotels, restaurants, tour operators, and taxis. The falls are the main attraction, although there are a few other modest tourist sites (www.opcioniguazu.com.ar/en/puerto_iguazu.php). The 4* Hotel St. George (www.hotelsaintgeorge.com) had a huge room with a safe and a nice view of one of the main streets. There was free Wi-Fi only in the lobby and bar. The St. George had a good buffet breakfast, with hot and cold items. One evening, the cold water went off right after we had taken our showers; that was fixed by the time we returned from dinner. Also, the electricity was off for a short period of time.
This evening, we dined at Parrilla & Pizza Color (www.parrillapizzacolor.com/home.html), which had good reviews on Trip Advisor. We had read that the fish in Iguazú is excellent because it is freshly caught from the river. We had the "Parrillada de Pescados de Río (serves two)", which is a barbecue of assorted river fishes (surubí, dorado, pacú and boga), bell peppers, and onions. Bread with a chicken patE and chimichurri (a spicy sauce) were also included. The fish was indeed very good; we liked the dorado best. With bottled water and a bottle of wine, the cost was $57 USD (service not included).
DAY 3 (TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15) PUERTO IGUAZÚ
The next day we toured the national park on the Argentinean side of the falls (www.iguazuargentina.com/english/), which features many catwalks along the edges of the various falls. Our first adventure was a ride on the Ecological Jungle Train to the Devil's Throat Station and trailhead. This trail takes you out to the very edge at the top of Devil's Throat, where you can see the water rushing beneath your feet and thundering into the abyss. You also will get very wet there (bring the plastic ponchos). Another thing you can see from the catwalks is the remains of earlier catwalks that were washed away during other high river events. Presumably, the current catwalks are more durable.
Next we walked the Upper Circuit trails, which go along the rim of the canyon on the edge of the falls. After that we walked most of the Lower Circuit trails, which go along the bottom and to the base of some of the falls. We saw some blue-and-yellow Plush Crested Jays and Indian Fig trees (fruit looks like small green pumpkins), plus more butterflies.
The free ferry to the trails on San Martín Island was not operating because the high water level had inundated the ferry landings. Instead, we took the "Nautical Adventure" motorized raft ride (www.aradventuretours.com/Information/Argentina/Iguazu/iguazu-falls-tours-nautical.php) that takes you up to and under two of the falls. Ponchos are useless for this tour; we wore our bathing suits and enjoyed getting soaked. Although it is only a sort ride, the thrill of being so close to the falls is worth the extra $27.50 USD pp. The price includes a dry bag to keep some things from getting further soaked. After the raft ride, we finished the Lower Circuit trails and gave Mario a chance to recuperate and have some lunch before setting off on a less-crowded trail to see a smaller waterfall.
Mario was not particularly happy that we wanted to hike the 7 km (4.2 mi) roundtrip Macuco Trail (www.iguazuargentina.com/english/las_cataratas/paseos/sendero_macuco129.html). However, he was supposed to provide a full-day tour and we could not do the hikes on San Martín Island because the ferry was not in operation. Mario finally resigned himself to it (while occasionally muttering about the danger of encountering a jaguar). The Macuco Trail goes to an overlook above the Arrechea Waterfall and continues down to a natural pool under the falls (people are allowed to swim here). This trail is supposed to be good for seeing wildlife because there are supposed to be fewer people on it. However, we saw lots of people and only a few birds and butterflies. Numerous spider webs stretched between the trees on opposite sides of the trail and looked lovely in the dappled sunlight. Although the trail was a little disappointing, it was a good chance to hike. John figured we totaled at least 12 km (more than 7 miles) today. Despite our minor complaints, Mario turned out to be a very good guide who had lots of information about the parks, falls, wildlife, and restaurants.
Tonight we ate at La Rueda (www.larueda1975.com/restaurante.html), another Trip Advisor favorite. We each ordered "Bife de Chorizo (450 g)," which is like a NY strip steak, and fries. Bread with a garlic butter spread and chimichurri were also included. Ordering two steaks was a mistake because each one was closer to a kilogram (over 2 lbs). They were humongous, really thick slabs of beef, but tasted great; we now know why everyone raves about Argentinean beef. John managed to eat all of his steak and I almost finished mine; we hardly ate any of the fries. Next time we will split one steak and only get one order of fries. With bottled water and a bottle of wine, the cost was $64 USD (service not included).
DAY 4 (WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16) PUERTO IGUAZÚ TO MENDOZA
Wednesday morning, a driver picked us up at the hotel and took us out to the airport. We flew Aerolineas Argentinas to Mendoza and had two lunches on the way. We were met at the airport by our new guide, Andrea from ISC Turismo (www.iscviajes.com.ar). She took us to our hotel, where we were welcomed with a complimentary glass of passable wine.
Our three nights in Mendoza were spent at the 4* Huentala Hotel (www.huentala.com), which has a safe and free Wi-Fi in each room. We had a view of a parking lot. This is touted as a boutique hotel, which mostly meant that it had nicer toiletries in the bathroom. The buffet breakfast was similar to that at the Hotel St. George. The hotel is located only a short distance from the main plaza (Plaza Independencia) and next to the Sheraton Hotel (which has a casino for those who want to offer a sacrifice to Fortuna).
There was no time for a city tour, so we went out walking on our own to see some sights (mappery.com/Mendoza-Tourist-Map). We walked down the pedestrian shopping street (Paseo Peatonal Sarmiento), to Plaza Independencia, down Paseo Mitre, to the Mercado Central. There was a Carrefour Express grocery near the market, where we picked up some items for a light supper. From there we walked back to the hotel past Plaza San Martín After that, we had our snacks, followed by a really, really good night's sleep. We were pleased that we finally managed to go a whole day without having to listen to some version of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."
DAY 5 (THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 17) MENDOZA TO THE VALLE DE UCO
We had a fantastic day today in the Uco Valley, despite some rain (unusual for this area). We toured and tasted at three wineries and had lunch at one of them. Our first stop was at Bodega La Azul (bodegaazul.com.ar/azul/ingles/). This is a very young (2003), small (10 fermentation tanks) winery with some very good and inexpensive wines. The winemaker was not confident about his English, but Andrea did an excellent job of translating; her expertise in wines and winemaking was evident here and throughout our visit to the Mendoza wine region. We tasted wines from each of their three lines: varietal (un-oaked, preferred by the domestic market), Reserva, and Gran Reserva; we also sampled from the barrels. John resisted buying the Reserva (only 60 pesos, about $15 USD), a rich blend of malbec and cabernet sauvignon. However, after tasting at the second winery, he had to ask to return to La Azul to buy a bottle.
The second winery was Bodega Salentein (www.bodegasalentein.com/start.html), an older (1992) and a much larger operation. The visitor center includes an art gallery (Killka Collection), auditorium, tasting room, restaurant, and gift shop. The tour started with a short movie, followed by a walk through the vineyards to the winery building. Set against the backdrop of the Andes, the winery is built in two levels. The wine can be fermented in stainless steel tanks and French wooden vats on the ground level and moved by gravity into barrels on the underground level for aging. The winery has four wings, in the shape of a cross; each wing is devoted to the production of a different type of wine. Where the wings meet, there is a section devoted to making the winery's premium wines. Salentein has four product lines Portillo, Reserve, Numina, and Primus; we tasted two wines from the reserve line.
The final visit was to Bodega y Viñedos O. Fournier (www.ofournier.com/web/ar_00_in.html), which also uses a gravity system and has an architecturally dramatic winery building. Of special interest to John, the lab facilities are in a glass-walled area at the top of the building, so the biochemists have fantastic views while they work. The architects designed the building so that the giant concrete structural columns supporting the winery also include fermentation vats. One of the large wooden vats was set aside for the owner's private wine. Here our tasting was combined with a 4-course lunch (at around 2 PM). The Urban Restaurant is in the visitor center, a plain cubical building in a small lake. The setting is fabulous: the dining room has high glass walls looking out to the nearby Andes peaks. Lunch was tasty, but included trendy touches such as a foam of peas salted with ham. O. Fournier has four labels of wine: Urban Uco, B Crux, Alpha Crux, and O. Fournier; the food was paired with wines from the Urban line. As a measure of how new the wine industry can be in Argentina, this gorgeous winery and wonderful restaurant are accessed by way of several miles of gravel road (that is only now being paved).
After the very filling lunch, we were not very hungry and so did not go out for dinner. This would be the pattern every day that we had a late lunch.
DAY 6 (FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 18) MENDOZA TO LUJAN DE CUYO
Today we toured and tasted at three wineries in the Lujan de Cuyo region and had lunch at one of them. Our first stop was at Bodega Catena Zapata (www.catenawines.com/index.html). The author of the book we recommended above is the granddaughter of the founder of the winery; her father is the current owner. He is the Robert Mondavi of Mendoza because he (like Mondavi in California) took the lead in experimenting with and adopting viticultural and winemaking practices that would improve the quality of Argentinean wines and make them competitive on the world market. The winery building is a pyramid inspired by Mayan temples. Here there was some kind of mix-up; we were supposed to have a tour in English, but an English-speaking guide was not available. Andrea again acted as the interpreter for us. Catena Zapata has a large number of labels, for both the domestic and export market. The regular tasting only includes one wine, so we decided to pay extra for two 3-wine flights from the regular line and the premium line. Of course, John and I shared the flights so that we could compare the two versions of each varietal (chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, malbec). All of these are excellent wines.
Unfortunately, taking the time for this extra tasting made us late for the tour at Achaval Ferrer (www.achaval-ferrer.com/eng/principal.html) and we proceeded directly to the tasting. These are also excellent wines, but much more expensive than those at Catena Zapata because the production at Achaval Ferrer is much lower. We had hoped to have time for the tour after the tasting, but ended up only having a few minutes to look around. An interesting feature of Achavel Ferrer is the use of flood irrigation. There are small channels down each row of vines that are periodically flooded. Catena Zapata uses a modern drip irrigation system.
Our final visit was to Lagarde (www.lagarde.com.ar/#/home), which is one of the oldest (founded in 1897) and most traditional wineries in the area. The Colonial-era main winery building has adobe walls and wood-beamed roofs lined with reeds. The grounds display large wooden casks (and parts thereof) that were previously used in the winery and old farming equipment. We saw one of the original vineyards (over 100 years old) and tasted some grapes and some figs from trees growing next to the vineyard. These old vines are pruned and trained much shorter than in newer vineyards and the rows are a horse-width apart. Flood irrigation is used here also and the vines are only watered every 20 days. As at O. Fournier, the tasting was combined with lunch. The 3-course lunch was delicious --- heartier and less cutesy than at O. Fourier. The main course was an outstanding "ojo de bife" (rib eye cap steak). This was the only winery we have visited (so far) that produces sparkling wines and a glass of it was delightful with the dessert of three different types of ice cream.
Back at the hotel, we were again too full from lunch to have a full dinner. Instead, we went for a walk and tried to see more of the tourist sites of Mendoza (www.ciudaddemendoza.gov.ar/turismo/sitios-turisticos#titulo). The Mendocinos (citizens of Mendoza) still take their siestas seriously and almost everything is closed between 1:30 PM. and 5 PM. (or even longer). For example, we tried to visit the Basilica de San Francisco, which was supposed to re-open at 5 PM., but was still locked up tight at 5:30. We did manage to see the other three large plazas (Italia, España, and Chile), with their various fountains and monuments. We revisited the Mercado Central and found that only the food court was open.
DAY 7 (SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 19) MENDOZA TO SANTIAGO, CHILE
Andrea picked us up early this morning for our 7-hour bus ride on Andesmar (www.andesmar.com/shop/default.asp?lang=en) over the Andes Mountains to Santiago, Chile. Andrea made sure we got on the right bus and let us know that very small tips would be expected by the baggage handlers here, at the border crossing, and at the station in Santiago; it was good to learn that either Argentinean or Chilean pesos would be gladly accepted. We were surprised to learn that the one-way SC bus fare ($27.50 USD pp) included both a cookie and tea/coffee for breakfast and a sandwich and soft drink for lunch. We had asked to have front row seats on the upper level of the bus and that's exactly what we got - seats 12 and 13 on the right hand side. Unfortunately, it was raining lightly (highly unusual) on the Argentinean side and the clouds obscured our view of the mountains. Even before the drizzle started, our windows began to fog up as we climbed higher into the mountains. We used the bits and pieces of napkins we had to keep them clear. We would suggest bringing heftier paper towels for this on a return visit. Once we reached the pass and crossed over into Chile, there were beautiful blue skies and magnificent views. It took over an hour at the border for immigration formalities and customs, but at least we did not have to pay the $140 USD pp Chilean reciprocity fee.
We spotted our guide, Marcelo Aray from First Premium Travel (www.firstpremium.cl), even before we got off the bus. Our hotel was in the Las Condes area, away from downtown, so it made sense to take the city tour first (www.frommers.com/images/destinations/maps/jpg-2006/2320_downtownsantiagoattractions.jpg) before going there. Santiago is a beautiful city. We started our tour in the Plaza de la Libertad, in front of the presidential palace (Palacio de la Moneda, which was originally the mint). Behind the Palacio de la Moneda is the Plaza de la Constitución. From there we walked to the back entrance of the Metropolitan Cathedral, through the ornate cathedral, and out into the Plaza de Armas. In addition to the cathedral, the plaza is bordered by a number of buildings (Natural History Museum, Central Post Office) that date to the founding of the plaza in the mid-1500s by Pedro de Valdivia. There is a statue of Valdivia, who conquered Chile for the Spanish crown, which has a bullet hole in the face from the 1973 military coup. Coincidentally, the real Valdivia had a facial blemish in the same location.
Our next stop was at the Mercado Central, bursting with restaurants and stalls for fish, vegetables, and other products. The building itself is an intricate steel structure that was prefabricated in England. From the market, we drove up Cerro Santa Lucía. This hilltop was the site where Valdivia originally founded Santiago. It was an excellent site for fortification, being situated between two branches of the Río Mapocho; Castillo Hidalgo (now an event center) sits atop the hill. In the 19th century, landscaping, fountains, plazas and staircases were added to make it a lovely wooded park. There is a sweeping overlook of Santiago at the Caupolicán Plaza, which also contains an old city gate and a statue of a Mapuche Indian. Down the hillside from the plaza is a large marble fountain (Terraza Neptuno).
Another nice feature of Santiago is the Parque Forestal, which extends along the Río Mapocho from the downtown area near the Mercado Central to the Las Condes area near our hotel. After driving past several other city landmarks, our final stop was at a jewelry store with beautiful lapis lazuli and malachite items. However, we have better uses for our money --- travel and wine. They gave us a great pisco sour to drink while we admired the pieces though.
The tour ended at our hotel, the 3* Neruda Express (www.hotelneruda.cl). This was an average hotel with a safe and free Wi-Fi in the room. However, there was a notice in the elevator that there would be no hot water in the rooms until 7 PM because the boiler was being replaced. Unfortunately, there was no cold water either. We did not think this would be a problem because we thought all would be well by the time we returned from dinner. However, we did not have cold water in the room until after 10 PM; the hot water returned sometime during the night.
We had dinner at Coco Loco (www.cocoloco.cl/site/v2/), which our guide recommended but which does not have great reviews on Trip Advisor. However, we enjoyed our fish meals: the grilled reineta (Pacific Pomfret) special for John and mero (grouper) with a wine-cream-crab sauce for me, both served with potatoes and bread. The food was much more expensive here than in Iguazú; with bottled water and a bottle of wine, the cost was $88 USD (service not included).
DAY 8 (SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20) SANTIAGO TO THE MAIPO VALLEY
This was our day to experience the Maipo Valley wine region. We started with a tour and tasting at Undurraga Vineyards (www.undurraga.cl/sitio/en/index.html). This was originally a family winery that was only sold a few years ago. The vineyards surround the site of the old family home; being made of adobe; it was greatly damaged in the 1985 earthquake and finished off in the 2010 one. However, the beautiful grounds and gardens are still there. Undurraga lost over a 100K liters of their production in last year's quake and the winery is still under repair. We tasted 4 of their wines, including a nice late harvest blend of semillon and gewurtztraminer.
Our second winery visit was at Concha y Toro (www.conchaytoro.com). The elaborate home of the winery's former owner is still standing and has a lovely Victorian garden and lake. We tasted one wine (a chardonney, pinot blanc, and pinot grigio blend) halfway through the tour and another (cabernet sauvignon) at the end. When we were down in the original cellars (over 100 years old) the guide turned off the lights so we could be treated with the story of why that particular cellar was called Casillero del Diablo (the Devil's cellar). To keep the local people them from stealing his wine, the owner told them that the Devil lived in his cellar.
Both Undurraga and Concha y Toro gave us really nice souvenir wine glasses, which we managed to bring home without breaking.
We finished the day with a late lunch at La Calma de Rita (www.lacalmaderita.cl/la-calma-ingles/restaurant.html). This is a picturesque small guesthouse in Pirque surrounded by fruit trees, not far from Concha y Toro. The very good lunch was served with a glass of their house wine, Santa Alicia (www.santa-alicia.cl/index.php).
This evening, we took a walk around the hotel area and stopped at a Unimarc grocery to pick up a few items.
DAY 9 (MONDAY, FEBRUARY 21) SANTIAGO TO SANTA CRUZ VIA THE CURICÓ VALLEY
Monday was spent in the Curicó Valley, with tours and tastings at Viña San Pedro (www.sanpedro.cl) and Miguel Torres (www.migueltorres.cl). On the way to San Pedro, we got stuck in a traffic jam caused by an accident. However, San Pedro's English-speaking guide got stuck in the traffic too, so we got there on time but she didn't. She finally made it though and we had a fun ride in a truck through the vineyards and then a tour of the facilities plus a tasting. This was one of the wineries hard-hit by the 2010 earthquake. In the cellar, there was a red stain around the walls about a foot up from the floor --- that was how high the wine filled the cellar when the barrels broke. While some of the facilities have an industrial quality, this winery prides itself on its eco-friendliness. The wine made for export was wonderful.
After the tasting at Miguel Torres, we had lunch at their restaurant. This was a wine pairing lunch and had generous (perhaps too generous) servings of a different wine with each of the four courses. The sparkling wine was particularly delicious with the ceviche served as appetizer. After that, we drove on to our hotel in Santa Cruz (www.hotelsantacruzplaza.cl) because it was too far to go back to Santiago. This picturesque hotel, as well as several other facilities in Santa Cruz, is owned by an arms dealer who cannot leave Chile without being arrested by Interpol. I guess he wanted to live in a nice place, so he has invested a lot of money making the town a tourist destination with a wine train, casino, museum, tours, etc.
DAY 10 (TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 22) SANTA CRUZ TO SANTIAGO VIA THE COLCHAGUA VALLEY
We awoke this morning with only slight hangovers and vowed to remember that we are supposed to be tasting the wines, not drinking all of them. Yesterday was the only day of the trip when we overindulged; it made us glad we had a driver and guide to get us safely to our hotel. Hotel Santa Cruz had the most lavish breakfast buffet of all the hotels on our trip. In addition to eggs and cereals, there were several hot meats (wonderful bacon!), cold meats and cheeses, fresh fruits, and a huge array of pastries. Besides coffee, tea, and milk, they had chocolate milk and various fruit juices.
This day, we toured and tasted at two vineyards in the Colchagua Valley near Santa Cruz. This must have been an unlucky week for English-speaking guides because the one at Viña Montes (www.monteswines.com/english/home.php) was sick. We had to use a Spanish-speaking guide and Marcelo translated for us. The tour started with another truck ride through the vineyards up to an overlook of the whole property. When we got back to the winery, there was a French family who had arrived late for the tour. Marcelo ended up translating for them as well as us during the tasting. The winery guide gave him a bottle of wine to thank him for translating and wanted him to stay and translate for other groups who would be coming later in the day! The symbol for this winery is an angel (to protect the vineyard) and the winery building also incorporates the principals of feng shui. They play soft music to calm the wine in their barrel cellar.
At Viña Montgras (www.montgras.cl), we toured with three women from Colorado who were driving around touring wineries without even a road map --- definitely free spirits. This winery had an interesting spot in the vineyard with a circular terrace with a sun design in the middle. There was a semi-circular arbor around the terrace and if you stood on the sun and spoke, you would hear an echo. The visitor center at Montgras resembles a large Colonial hacienda, with interior patio courtyards. The tasting was held in one of the patios and included small bites of food designed to match each of the four wines we sampled.
After those tours, we went back to Santa Cruz for lunch at the Alma Campesino restaurant (www.almacampesina.cl). John had grilled octopus as a starter and reineta Parmesana as his main course; I had a mixed ceviche and pastel de choclo. Pastel de choclo is a typical Chilean dish made of fresh ground corn (choclo) mixed with spices and protein (mine was mixed with seafood); it was served in the traditional paila (earthenware bowl). We had asked Marcelo what local dishes we should try and pastel was one he had recommended; the version I had was delicious.
After lunch, we paid a visit to the Museo de Cochuaga (www.museocolchagua.cl). The museum is made up of the arms dealer's private art and artifacts collections. It has everything from prehistoric fossils to old autos to an old locomotive and passenger train car. Then we headed back to Santiago and the Neruda Express Hotel. Along the way, Marcelo insisted that we try another local delicacy --- horse jerky. There are venders at every toll booth entrance (illegal, but tolerated) selling food, drinks, and other items; he bought some horse jerky from them. Marcelo said his girlfriend loves the stuff; it must be an acquired taste.
Marcelo had mentioned he would be serving the wine he was given at Viña Montes at his birthday party tomorrow night. John and I made another little trip to the Unimarc and picked up a couple of bottles of Miguel Torres sparkling wine --- one for us and one for Marcelo's birthday present.
DAY 11 (WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 23) SANTIAGO TO VALPARAISO VIA THE ROSARIO AND CASABLANCA VALLEYS
On Wednesday, we drove from Santiago to Valparaiso to meet the Star Princess. Of course, we stopped at two wineries on the way. The first was Viña Matetic (www.matetic.cl), which takes up almost all of the Rosario Valley. This winery follows organic and biodynamic practices, such as planting, cultivating, and fertilizing according to the phases of the moon. The winery building also incorporates the principals of feng shui. The underground wine cellar has 2-story partitions of un-mortared rocks restrained by open wire mesh; this provides thermal mass to help keep the cellar cool. Those rocks were originally stacked like a flat wall, but the 2010 earthquake shifted them into an interesting 3-D pattern. This winery did not lose any wine in the earthquake; they were lucky enough to have shipped everything out the day before the quake hit.
Our last winery tour was in the Casablanca Valley at Viña Casas del Bosque (www.casasdelbosque.cl/english/index.php). We were a little early for the tour, so Marcelo had our driver go through the vineyards to a mirador with a panoramic view of the vineyards. When we got back to the visitor center we found out that we would be on a tour with about 30 people who had just gotten off the Star Princess that morning. This was much too large a group for a winery tour and was not much fun for us. This is another winery that serenades its barrels.
Finally, it was time to head off to Valparaiso. Marcelo picked a route that let us see some of the beautiful Chilean coastline and a bit of the city. When we stopped at one overlook of the coastline, Marcelo called our attention some structures on the top of a nearby hill. These appeared at first glance to be tall apartment buildings with balconies across their width at each floor. However, this was actually El Cementario de Playa Ancha. In New Orleans the walls of older cemeteries are often composed of simple crypts stacked six to eight high; these crypts were stacked 30 or more levels high. Balconies every six levels or so allow families access to the tombs.
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
DAY 0 (WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 23) EMBARK THE STAR PRINCESS IN VALPARAISO, CHILE
When we arrived at the cruise terminal, the check-in line was humongous. However, we had printed out our boarding passes ahead of time and could go to the express check-in line, which had no one in it. We checked in pretty quickly (after a bit of discussion about the validity of our Brazilian visas) and caught a bus to the other side of the harbor and the ship. We had been upgraded from the lowest level of balcony cabin to the highest, which is on the same deck as the minisuites and has a larger balcony than those on the other decks. This would be great for the scenic cruising and for when it got warmer on the way north to Rio.
The first night of a cruise is always a zoo in the Personal Choice dining rooms, so we decided to have dinner at Sabatini's Trattoria. This is an extra-charge restaurant that features a 20-course (only a slight exaggeration) meal that takes several hours to eat. We had a great table near a window so that we could watch the sailaway from Valparaiso. Actually, we had the entire restaurant to ourselves; no one else came to dinner until we were leaving.
DAY 1 (THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 24) AT SEA
Today was a sea day. We went to a port lecture on Punta Arenas, Chile, by Joe May, who was the port lecturer on our 2007 Antarctica cruise. He gives lots of useful information for independent travelers and is funny as well. Then we played trivia with Pia & Mike (whom we met on the 2009 Amazon River cruise and are SERIOUS trivia players) and a Canadian couple, Don & Mary. After that, we had a Cruise Critic get-together, where I got to meet the people on the tours I had organized. Then we went to another lecture about the history of cruise ships by John Maxtone-Graham. We had also heard this lecturer on a previous cruise; he is very interesting and humorous. His son is the executive producer of "The Simpsons" and he says his son lives in the house that Homer built.
Soon it was time to get dressed for dinner. This was the first of three formal nights and a good many people dressed up. We think it is fun to dress up occasionally and of course John looks quite debonair in his tux; I clean up pretty well too. Not everyone agrees about dressing up and it is their prerogative --- the only people we have ever seen turned away from the dining room in the evening were those wearing shorts. After dinner, we went to a production show, "Destinations."
DAY 2 (FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 25) AT SEA
Friday was another nice, relaxing day at sea. We went to a port lecture on Ushuaia, Argentina, and a lecture on Titanic survivors. We played trivia with the gang. We tied with three other groups and lost on the tie-breaker question.
We really liked the dining room team (Antonio and Carlos) we had last night in the Portofino dining room, so we set up a standing reservation for a table for two in their section. We mentioned to the Service Assistant (who is in charge of that section of the dining room) that we would like to know what day the osso bucco was going to be served at lunch so we could have the kitchen save some for us for dinner. She (Eva) said we were in luck, it was going to be for lunch tomorrow and she would be sure that we got some. We can't understand why they only serve osso bucco at lunch; it is sooooo good! It's a good thing we went to the production show, "Destinations," last night. It was supposed to be repeated tonight, but it was canceled because of the ship's motion. We did not have any problems with the motion though.
DAY 3 (SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 26) CHILEAN FJORDS (SCENIC CRUISING)
This morning we entered the Chilean Fjords before sunrise at about 6:45 AM. John and I got all bundled up in wind jackets, hats, and gloves and went out on the open decks to enjoy the views. It was really windy, so we went back to the cabin after awhile to put on some more fleece and our wind pants. Some people were in shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops --- they obviously were not from the Deep South! The area right above the bridge is usually blocked off, but today it was open for a panoramic view of both sides of the fjords. We skipped trivia this morning because we wanted to keep watching the scenery. We saw some dolphins and sea lions in the water.
We finally had to come inside to get ready for the "Most Traveled Passengers" luncheon for the 40 people with the most days sailing on Princess. This time we were not at the bottom of the list but not anywhere near the top either. Pia and Mike were numbers 7 and 8, so they didn't get a prize this time (they are often in the top 6). They had asked to sit with us, so we thought that we would all be placed at a table with a low-ranking officer. However, apparently 4 of the top 6 did not want to come to the luncheon, so we were all seated with the Captain! This was a first for us and will undoubtedly not be repeated for a long time. After the luncheon, we were invited on a private tour of the galley, led by the Executive Chef.
At dinner tonight, Eva made good on the osso bucco. In fact, she brought two servings for each of us, but we used all of our willpower and refused the second ones. They did not go to waste however; another table asked what we were eating and wanted them. There is a woman chef going around the dining rooms (she talked to us at Sabatini's) asking people about the food. We called her over to our table and expressed our strong opinion that the osso bucco should be served at dinner and not just relegated to lunch. Of course, she said that Princess' corporate office makes the menu decisions, but we asked her to make a note about the osso bucco in hopes that would change future menus. After all, a lot of people kept requesting sauerkraut to go with the knockwurst and bratwurst in the grill and Princess finally started serving it, so it is worth telling the powers-that-be what you want. Can you tell that we really, really like the osso bucco?
During the evening and night, we sailed through the Strait of Magellan on the way to our first port, Punta Arenas, Chile.
DAY 4 (SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 27) PUNTA ARENAS, CHILE 7:30 AM - 6:00 PM
When we were in Punta Arenas in 2007, I had organized a private tour for a group of 13 to the Seno Otway penguin colony with Turismo Viento Sur (www.vientosur.com). That had been an excellent tour and I tried to contact the same company to arrange something for this visit; however, I never received any response to my inquiries. John also contacted some companies about hiking and 4x4 tours, but people on our roll call were not interested and the prices and logistics did not work for a group of only two.
Instead of a private tour, we decide to take the ship's hiking tour. We took a bus from the pier to a small mountain (maybe 1,900 ft. high) just outside Punta Arenas, where there is a ski area run by the Club Andino (www.clubandino.cl). We took the ski lift to the top of the mountain and had a great view of the Strait of Magellan and even of snow-capped mountains on Tierra del Fuego. Then we hiked down the mountain back to the ski club for a snack of cake and hot chocolate. The hike went through a forest of the main types of trees in this area: coigues, lengas, and ñirres. The trees look like something out of a fairy tale about a haunted forest. They are very pale and twisted with few leaves. The branches have lichen hanging from them, sort of like Spanish moss. Along the trail there were several types of berries that the guide pointed out and invited us to taste. We did not think the berries tasted that great, but to be fair they were not really ripe.
I think the hike exhausted most of the people in the group. Only a few couples got off the bus at the main square to tour around there before walking the 5 or 6 blocks back to the tender dock. John took a few pictures of the monument to Magellan in the center of the square. There is a statue of a Patagonian Indian on the monument. The legend is that if you kiss or rub his toe (which is shiny from all the rubbing), you will someday return to Punta Arenas. The legend is obviously true because I rubbed his toe 4 years ago and here we were again. I browsed in the booths in the square that were selling all sorts of souvenirs and bought a small penguin charm that is supposedly silver with lapis lazuli on the wings. Even if it's not genuine, it will look nice on my charm bracelet.
After walking around the square for awhile, we headed back to the ship. On the way, we stopped at a Unimarc grocery that is only a block from the dock and bought some Chilean wine. I also bought 2 very small limes to go in our gin and tonics. I interrogated the produce clerk in my rudimentary Spanish and he assured me that they were actually "limas", not "limons" (the sign said "limon de pica granel"). They smelled like limes and only cost about 15 cents total. Then we stood in line for about a half-hour to take the tender back to the ship.
We were very fortunate to have nice weather today, nice meaning that the temperature was not frigid, the wind was not howling, and it wasn't raining. The last time we were here, the tenders could barely dock because the water was so rough. While we were standing for what seemed like forever in the humongous line to catch the tender back to the ship, we were the coldest we have ever been. Today the temperatures were in the 50s and the wind was only intermittent. The sea was quite calm. The sun even broke through the clouds a few times.
After leaving Punta Arenas, we headed west back along the Strait of Magellan to the Pacific. At some point, we would enter the Beagle Channel. Tomorrow morning, we would sail through the Beagle Channel, past a number of glaciers, and dock in Ushuaia, Argentina, around noon.
DAY 5 (MONDAY, FEBRUARY 28) USHUAIA, ARGENTINA 12:00 PM - 7:30 PM
This morning, we got up at dawn to enjoy scenic cruising through the Beagle Channel. This section of the channel features a series of ice-capped mountains and dramatic glaciers starting with the Españia Glacier, which has two streams flowing from its base. Next is the Romanche, which is rapidly melting and has a large waterfall emerging from its base. Next came the Alemania, Francia, Italia, and Holandia Glaciers. The Italia Glacier is still a tidewater glacier (the rest are hanging glaciers) and we were fortunate to see it calve an iceberg into the channel.
We continued sailing on to Ushuaia, Argentina, which is surrounded by the peaks of the Martial Mountains. To enter the harbor at Ushuaia, we had to sail east past Ushuaia and go around the island with the "Lighthouse at the End of the World" (Les Eclaireurs). We also passed the islands with sea lions and birds that can best be seen from a small excursion boat. When we were in Ushuaia in 2007, we took the "Penguin Island" wildlife tour with Catamaranes Canoero (www.catamaranescanoero.com.ar/eng/principal.htm); these tours can be booked on the dock and there are several other companies to choose from.
For today, John had organized two private taxi tours with Gerardo Germain (email@example.com), driver of taxi #245. Plenty of taxis are available at the dock for tours, but we arranged in advance to have Gerardo because of his excellent reviews on CruiseCritic.com. Gerardo speaks very good English (although he may request that you repeat your question if you speak too quickly or use an ambiguous phrasing) and knows all the best places to stop for photo ops. He gives lots of great information and is happy to adjust the tours to suit his clients. We were joined on these tours by John and Nicky from the UK.
We were to dock in Ushuaia at noon. In order to control the mass of passengers who would be trying to get off as soon as the local authorities gave clearance, Princess made all of us pick up disembarkation tickets and wait in one of the restaurants; we were then disembarked in groups of 50. This was the first time we have heard of Princess requiring disembarkation tickets for ports where the ship is docked. The four of us went down early to get in line, so we were in the first group off the ship.
Gerardo was waiting for us as we exited from the pier. Our first tour was to the Tierra del Fuego National Park (www.parquesnacionales.gov.ar/i/03_ap/37_tfuego_PN/37_tfuego_PN.htm). We drove the Pan-American Highway (Route 3), stopping along the way to see the southernmost golf course (9 holes) in the world. Gerardo showed us the starting and ending stations for the "Train at the End of the World;" I was surprised to see that the train route is only 7 km (4.2 miles) long and only goes 1 km (0.6 mi) into the National Park. Turning off Route 3, we went to Ensenada Bay, which has a beautiful view of the Beagle Channel and Tierra del Fuego across the channel. There is also a post office where you can get an "End of the World" postmark for your letters/postcards or a stamp in your passport (except that Princess kept everyone's passport until the end of the cruise). Returning to Route 3, we took the turnoff to Roca Lake. We enjoyed a short walk along the shores of the lake (milky with glacial silt) and met Gerardo at the restaurant there. We saw a Caracara (type of eagle) behind the restaurant; they hang out there looking for meat scraps. Back on Route 3, we took another short trail to see a peat bog, Laguna Negra. A bit further up the road, Gerardo dropped us off at the "Mirador Lapataia Trail" to the shore of Lapataia Bay, where the Pan-American Highway ends. There is also a nice boardwalk along the edge of the bay. On the way back from Lapataia Bay, we stopped at the Green Lagoon, where there was a beaver lodge. We also hiked a trail to see beaver dams and get an idea of the destruction these introduced pests have caused.
Now it was time for the second tour, on the other side of Ushuaia. We took the Pan-American Highway up to the Garibaldi Pass in the Andes and had panoramic views of Fagnano and Escondido Lakes. Along the way, we had beautiful views of the Five Brothers mountain range and scenic valleys. It was interesting to see the abrupt line on the mountains where the vegetation stops; above that is only bare rock or ice and snow. The tour finished up back in Ushuaia, where Gerardo took us up into the lower slopes of the Martial Mountains for panoramic views of the port and the Martial Glacier. Although we had already exceeded the time that the tour was supposed to take, Gerardo offered to take us on a walking tour of downtown Ushuaia. However, John and I were already late for our standing dinner reservation (French night and escargots!), so we headed back to the ship while John and Nicky opted to walk around for awhile on their own.
DAY 6 (TUESDAY, MARCH 1) CAPE HORN (SCENIC CRUISING) 7:30 AM - 8:30 AM
Early this morning, we circumnavigated Isla Hornos. The weather was overcast but no fog and the sea was calm, so we had great views of the Chilean border station and the albatross monument (to lost sailors) on the north end of the island. As we rounded Cape Horn, the sun even broke through the clouds. There are interesting rock formations right at the cape, where the wind and waves have caused sections to break away from the island.
After this scenic cruising, we had a relaxing day at sea. We went to both the port and the enrichment lectures (the latter about the Queen Mary 2) and played trivia with Pia, Mike, and the Canadians (lost again by 1 question). We tried to sample the seafood buffet extravaganza, but the line was so long that we gave up and had lunch in the Horizon Court instead.
DAY 7 (WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2) STANLEY, FALKLAND ISLANDS 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM
On our 2007 visit to Stanley, we took the ship’s “Sparrow Cove Penguin Adventure.” We were taken in a small boat directly from the ship to Sparrow Point, where we boarded a 4x4 for a bouncy, half-hour drive to the penguin colony at Kidney Cove. This is a large Gentoo Penguin colony, but a pair of King Penguins was also nesting there. Most of the penguins we saw were juveniles, still covered with down; the parents were out at sea fishing. The juveniles were quite comical: a small group was chasing a feather and others tried to eat our pants legs and shoe laces. After we were returned to the ship, we took a tender to Stanley. We stopped at the visitor center and picked up a booklet with a self-guided historical walking tour. After taking the tour and browsing in a few of the shops, we returned to the ship.
The Sparrow Cove tour was such an excellent tour, we decided that we did not need to take another long penguin tour on this trip. Instead, we wanted to spend the day hiking, so John and I got up early to have plenty of time. When I opened the cabin drapes, I saw whale spouts --- an auspicious beginning to the day. We caught the first tender into Stanley, about a 25-minute ride. The seas were very calm and the forecast was for partly cloudy skies and a high of 62°F. This was quite different from the conditions we encountered here four years ago. But we knew the weather can change quickly; we went prepared for anything: multi-layers of clothing, wind jackets, hats, gloves, rain ponchos, etc. After we had been hiking for awhile, the sun came out and, with all the exercise from walking, we felt like we would roast. Better than freezing though, I guess.
We had maps and hiking instructions (www.falklandislands.com/contents/view/181) from our last visit, so we headed right off to Gypsy Cove, which is in a nature preserve about 4 miles from the tender dock. Stanley’s harbor is the site of many shipwrecks and we passed four of them (Afterglow, Lady Elizabeth, Plym, Samson) as we walked along the seashore path and two more (Golden Chance, Gentoo) in the small marina near the Canache. The trails are narrow, unpaved, and not marked very well --- only a few signs here and there saying “Public Footpath;” however, there were signs identifying the wrecks. We also saw some of the flightless Steamer Ducks and many, many Upland Geese, along with other sea birds. Last trip we saw some black-and-white Commerson’s Dolphins, but we were not able to spot any this time.
Finally, we reached the trails above Yorke Bay and Gypsy Cove (www.falklandislands.com/assets/documents/gypsycove.pdf). The boardwalk trails have interpretive signs and wardens are available to answer questions. There are overlooks for viewing wildlife without disturbing them. Down on the beach of Yorke Bay, we could see a large group of at least 100 Magellanic Penguins. At another overlook we saw a number of penguins near some burrows. Further along, we saw a large group of juveniles quite near the trail; they were almost finished shedding their gray down. We probably saw 150-200 penguins total. At the end of the trail, on Ordnance Point, is a naval gun from WWII. This is also the starting point for a different trail back to town.
We double-checked with a warden about the Engineer Point trail before we took it. There are still many unexploded land mines in the Falklands since the 1982 conflict with Argentina and we wanted to make sure we would not be hiking near any of those areas. The trail is not marked very well (as the warden said, “it looks like a sheep trail, just walk along the shore”). However, by going back this way, the warden said we might encounter additional penguins along the shore of Hadassa Bay. So we took off though the diddle-dee bushes along the shoreline and eventually came upon a penguin right on the path. He didn’t seem bothered as we got some great pictures. Another one was more disturbed (although we kept well away from him) and waddled down to the water and dove in to swim away. We saw other penguins standing on their burrows and others inside their burrows. We saw about a half-dozen, but there were probably a lot more in the burrows that we could not see. Nevertheless, it was fun to encounter penguins outside of the protected areas. We continued on to Engineer Point, where we had a great view of the Star Princess, anchored off Port William. We continued back along the shore of Stanley Harbour into town.
Our port lecturer had recommended walking up one of the steep streets away from the tender pier for a view over Stanley. We hiked up, but had better views from Engineer Point. We walked back down to the waterfront near the Christ Church Cathedral, with its Whalebone Arch. After that, we headed back to the tender dock and the ship. John estimates that we walked at least 20 km (12 miles) in 5 hours today and worked up a good appetite for the Italian dinner tonight!
DAY 8 (THURSDAY, MARCH 3) AT SEA
A port lecture (Buenos Aires and Montevideo), an enrichment lecture (S/S Normandie), and trivia (lost by 1 again) took care of the daytime. For lunch, there was an (somewhat schizophrenic) international buffet: chicken skewer saté, taquitos, various cheeses and patés, quiches, salmon and herring. People did not seem as interested in this as in the seafood buffet. This was a formal night and the Captain’s Circle party. There were 148 Elite members on this cruise; the most traveled couple had over 1,000 days on Princess. Vodka with lime juice tastes better than the champagne cocktails.
DAY 9 (FRIDAY, MARCH 4) AT SEA
At morning trivia, we again lost by 1 (this is getting monotonous). For lunch, there was a Mexican buffet: beef/pork/chicken/veggie fajitas with many optional toppings, plus salsa and guacamole with chips (strange chips, like deep-fried pastry). In the afternoon, the enrichment lecture was about the S/S France. Later in the afternoon, the Princess Grapevine wine tasting was held. The wine tasting is complimentary for Elite passengers and usually has the same wines every time. This time, they surprised us by having a new one. However, they did not have the nice wine tasting brochure (with flavor wheel, food pairings, etc.) that they have given out in the past, so I don’t know how this tasting was really supposed to help novices learn about wine. After dinner, we went to the production show, “Stardust," that was mainly songs from the 1950s; we don’t remember seeing this show before.
DAY 10 (SATURDAY, MARCH 5) BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA 8:00 AM – 6:30 PM
For today, I had organized a private tour with Defrantur (www.defrantur.com), the same company that organized our pre-cruise tour to Argentina/Chile. Including John and me, the group had 12 people from our Cruise Critic roll call. Our guide was Lorena, who also led our Buenos Aires city tour back on February 13. Today’s tour went outside the city to the pampas and a typical Argentinean ranch, Estancia Santa Susana (www.esantasusana.com.ar/english.htm). It turned out that the Princess tours went to the same estancia, but the ship charged $129 pp and we paid $80 pp. To be fair, the ship’s tour did drive through the city to the Recoleta Cemetery for a stop at Evita’s tomb. Personally, I would not consider that worth the additional $49.
We got to the ranch before anyone else and enjoyed drinks (water, juice, wine or beer) with empanadas before it got crowded. There are several activities to enjoy on the farm, including a short horseback ride, a ride in a wagon, and a museum showing the original farm owner’s house and chapel. There is also an older gaucho named Cirilo, who poses for pictures with the ladies and wants a kiss. After that, we had lunch with grilled beef tenderloins, chicken, and sausages plus all the beer, wine, soft drinks, and water we wanted. Following the lunch, there was a show with music, tango dancers, and malambo (traditional gaucho dancing with boleadoras). Finally, we adjourned to the horse arena, where we saw a display of the gauchos’ horse riding and herding skills. The final exhibition was a “ring race," where the gauchos race toward rings hung from a bar and spear them with a small stick; then they give the rings to favored ladies along with a kiss. I got to be a favored lady by yelling “Bésame" (kiss me), which I think surprised them, but I got a ring and a kiss from Cirilo.
DAY 11 (SUNDAY, MARCH 6) MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY 8:00 AM - 6:00 PM
Today was our chance to see more of Montevideo (www.frommers.com/images/destinations/maps/jpg-2006/2316_montevideoattractions.jpg) than the area around the hospital, where I spent a week back in 2007. John had arranged a private tour for us and 14 other members of our Cruise Critic roll call with Marta Márquez (firstname.lastname@example.org). Marta was waiting for us as we left the security area around the ship and off we went. First we toured the Ciudad Vieja, stopping at Plaza Zabala (Palacio Taranco) and Plaza Constitution (Cabildo, Catedral Metropolitana). There were flocks of parrots at Plaza Zabala and a small flea market at Plaza Constitution. Next we drove past the Teatro Solis to Plaza Independencia (old city gate, former and current national government offices, statue and mausoleum of the liberator General José Gervasio Artigas, Palacio Salvo).
From the old city, we drove out to the countryside to visit a winery, Bodega Bouza (www.bodegabouza.com/index_eng.php). We had a private winery tour, tour of the vineyards, and a tour of the owner’s antique auto collection. Finally, we tasted 4 of the winery’s 11 labels of wine, along with a “snack” (really a light lunch) of cold cuts, cheeses, liver paté, and assorted breads.
After the winery visit, we headed back to town and up the hill that gives Montevideo its name. There is a fort (Fortaleza del Cerro) and lighthouse on top. The hill provides a beautiful view over the port and the city. In addition to the old town, you can see the sail-like Telecommunication Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the country. The neighborhoods near the fort were once among the nicest, but became run-down after WWII due to the loss of jobs related to processing and shipping beef and leather products to Allied troops in Europe.
We continued on to one of Montevideo’s largest parks, Parque Prado. Here we drove past public sculptures, such as “The Stagecoach,” “The Gaucho,” and “The Last Charrúas Indians.” Next we made a short stop at the Palacio Legislative, a marble extravaganza. The top reminded me of the “Porch of the Caryatids” on the Acropolis. From there we drove through upscale neighborhoods; we even drove by the hospital (Sanatorio de la Asociación Española) where I stayed in 2007.
Near the hospital is another large park, Parque Batlle. This park is home to the Estadio Centenario, the national football stadium and site of the first World Cup in 1930. At the entrance to the park stands the Obelisk of Montevideo, with bronze statues on its three sides, representing "Law", "Liberty," and "Force." The park also contains large public sculptures such as "La Carreta," locally known as “Cart Stuck in the Mud.” We drove along the beach area, stopping at an overlook on Punta del Buceo (with a sculpture to sailors lost at sea), and passing the golf course and another large park, Parque Rodo.
Towards the end of the tour, we drove back to the old town in a futile attempt to visit the cathedral (closed earlier and still locked up tight). Our last stop was at the port market, which was intended as a train station but never used as such; now it contains shops and restaurants. Marta then delivered us right to the ship’s gangway. Several of us walked back to the Graf Spee memorial, which is right at the entrance to the port area. The Graf Spee was a German warship that was chased into the Montevideo harbor by British warships during WWII and was scuttled by her captain to avoid capture. This was another great tour where we saw much more than the ship’s tours and at a much lower cost.
DAY 12 (MONDAY, MARCH 7) AT SEA
Today featured another loss at trivia and formal night. There was also a Captain’s Farewell cocktail party, but we decided we didn’t need a free drink that badly. Tonight was a new production show, “British Invasion.” This was quite enjoyable, but it makes me a little sad that the music from our high school years is now a staple for cruise ship shows.
DAY 13 (MARDI GRAS, MARCH 8) AT SEA
Packing day was made slightly less depressing because our team finally won at trivia after four tie breakers. We would not have tied at all if Pia hadn’t known all of Elizabeth Taylor’s 8 husbands. She was also responsible for winning the tiebreaker because she knew the years that Shakespeare was born and died. Unfortunately, staying for the end of trivia made us late for the Cruise Critic farewell luncheon in the Portofino dining room. Pia and Mike opted to join the lunch group, but John and I just visited the tables to say goodbye to everyone. Later in the afternoon, we enjoyed another presentation by John Maxtone-Graham. This one was a series of amusing skits about passenger behavior in which he was assisted by his wife, Mary.
After dinner, I found a notice in the stateroom mailbox that the credit in my onboard statement could not be applied to the amount due on John’s (as has always been done in the past). I had to stand in line at the passenger services desk (PSD) to have charges from his statement transferred to mine until all my credit was used up. When I got back to the cabin and checked the revised statement against my spreadsheet, I discovered that we had been charged twice for the same bottle of wine. Back at the PSD, I was told that the problem could not be resolved until the charge slips from the dining room were turned in after 11 PM, at which point I might or might not have to come back down to the PSD to look at the slip. They said they would call me once they had the slips. Naturally, I loved the idea of staying up late when we wanted to get a good night's sleep before our all-day tour of Rio and the late-night flight home. Fortunately, the PSD called me a little after 10 PM to say the charge for the second bottle had been voided. Anyway, the morals of this tale are (1) make sure that each of you uses up all the onboard credits in your own onboard account and (2) get a printout from the PSD so that you can double check the charges and make sure that all of them are valid.
DAY 14 (ASH WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9) RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
Brazilian immigration officials came onboard the Star Princess; the line was very short when we showed up at our appointed time. We waited in the Platinum/Elite/Suites lounge (Crown Grill) until our disembarkation group was called. Our luggage was easy to find and the customs inspection had no line. As a result, we were ready to leave the terminal 1/2 hour before our guide was scheduled to meet us. The area where tour guides and taxis were meeting people was a madhouse, but we finally found our guide, Diana Persi (email@example.com), and headed off on our tour. The streets around the port were very congested and a number of them were blocked off. This made it somewhat difficult to drive around the Centro (city center), even though the traffic was lighter than usual because it was a holiday.
When we visited Rio de Janeiro (www.frommers.com/images/destinations/maps/jpg-2006/2845_riodejaneiroataglance.jpg) in 2007, we hit all the usual tourist highlights (Corcovado, Sugar Loaf, Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, etc.) and also toured outside the city to Petropolis. This time, we wanted to visit more off-the-beaten-path areas.
Our first stop was near the pier at Samba City, a huge warehouse where many of the samba schools build their Carnaval floats and store their costumes. Each school’s entry is shrouded in deepest secrecy until it is revealed during the competition. There was a fire here about a month before Carnaval that destroyed the entries of two schools and they were not able to compete this year. You could still see the smoke marks on the parts of the building where the fire broke out. Across the street was a covered area where many floats were being stored. Because the competition was over yesterday, the floats were no longer secret. Diana told the workers there that we were from New Orleans and talked them into letting us roam among the floats, taking pictures. The floats are much larger than those used for most Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans and are self-propelled instead of pulled by tractors. Unfortunately, the driver cannot see where he is going and must depend on spotters among the marchers to tell him which way to steer. The decorations on the floats are made out of styrofoam that is painted or covered with textured materials, not painted papier maché like the ones in New Orleans. Later, as we were driving around, we encountered a street party, where people were still dancing and celebrating; Carnaval in Rio does not really end until the Sunday after Mardi Gras. It was quite special for us to get this taste of another city’s carnival traditions.
We took an expressway and several tunnels across town to our next stop, the Escola de Artes Visuais in Parque Lage. This was once a “party place” for the King of Brazil and is now an art school. The building has interesting architecture, with a large atrium surrounded by pillars and a swimming pool in the center. The gardens are beautiful in a lush, over-grown jungle way and include a small aquarium in a stone grotto. They would also have a nice view of Christ the Redeemer through a decorative window, if Corcovado had not been clouded over.
Next we drove past the Botanical Garden and through the Leblon area to an overlook above Ipanema beach. From there, we drove along Leblon and Ipanema beaches to Forte do Copacabana. We toured the fort, which has great views of Copacabana beach and the Arpoador Rock (fishermen used to harpoon whales from this rock). Tucked between the base of the fort and the Copacabana beach is a small fish market, where some fishermen were displaying their catch and others were repairing their nets next to their colorful small boats.
We drove along Avenida de Nuestro Sehora de Copacabana, a main shopping area, to the base of Sugarloaf Mountain. This is the Urca neighborhood, which only has one street in and out. That makes the neighborhood a bit quieter and more exclusive; there was less graffiti here. We continued along the Baía de Guanabara waterfront to the Flamengo area, which was formed by filling in a section of the bay. This is now a lovely beach area with many gardens. Now we were back in the Centro, at the Candelaria Church. John got a few pictures of the exterior. However, we were unable to tour either this church or another one that Diana wanted to show us because they were closed for Carnaval. It seems odd to us that churches would be closed on Ash Wednesday, but that seems to be the way it works in Rio.
However, the Metropolitan Cathedral (dedicated to São Sebastião) was open for visitors. The cathedral is an ultra-modern building that resembles a cooling tower on the outside. There is a large door (which is kept open) on each of the four sides and the walls are concrete slabs with open spaces between them; this gives the cathedral natural ventilation. The inside is beautiful because of the enormous stained glass windows, one above each door. The windows symbolize the four characteristics of the church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Otherwise, the interior is plain (only a few statues, the altar, and the baptismal font) but huge. Its official capacity is 20,000 people, but it reportedly held 30,000 when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass there in 1980.
From the Cathedral, we drove through the Lapa area, passing the Municipal Theater, the National Library, the Arcos da Lapa, and Cinelandia (site of the first cinema in Rio). We had planned to take the bonde (tram) that climbs along the top of the Arcos to the Santa Tereza neighborhood, but the ticket lines were quite long and the small yellow trams were packed. Instead we drove through the narrow streets of this trendy area, passing shops, restaurants, and art galleries, and getting panoramic views of Rio. This is also an alternate route to the Tijuca National Park and Corcovado.
The last time we went up Corcovado, we took the cog railway (entrance fee included in the ticket). If you go in a car or taxi, you have to stop short of the peak, pay the entrance fee, and take a park van the rest of the way. Diana managed to get a parking spot and used her clout as an official tour guide to get us to the front of all the lines. While we were driving through Santa Tereza, it looked like the top of Corcovado had cleared, but once we got there, it had clouded over again. We waited for awhile and finally got a few pictures of the statue of Christ the Redeemer and the city views when the clouds dispersed intermittently.
After drinking a refreshing mango smoothie, we continued on our tour of the Tijuca National Park. We stopped a Cascatinha Tunay, a lovely waterfall, then drove past the small Matrink Veiga Chapel. We stopped to see the historic “Restaurante Os Esquilos“ (The Squirrels Restaurant). It was formerly the home of the Baron de Escragnolle, one of the administrators responsible for the reforestation of the National Park. We continued down through lush vegetation of the park passing gorgeous views and small attractions, such as an old fountain and a pond.
From the park, we drove to the Barra da Tijuca area and the Marapendi wetlands. We took a water bus to Gigóia Island, one of seven islands in a lagoon. People who live in this area park their cars on the mainland and take boats to their homes along the shores of the islands. We had a delicious, late lunch of Milanese (breaded) fish, black beans and rice, salad, and French fries, washed down with Antarctica beer (Guarana fruit juice for Diana). Lunch at Cícero’s no-name restaurant totaled $33 USD (service not included) for the three of us.
After eating, we took one of the expressways through the outskirts of the city to the International Airport on Governor Island. While we were in Barra da Tijuca, the expressway views were of shopping centers, apartment buildings, and sports venues built for Rio’s 2008 Olympics bid. Further along, however, we had depressing views of Rio’s many slum neighborhoods (favelas). The military began cleaning up these crime-ridden areas earlier this year in preparation for the Olympics and World Cup, which will be held in Rio in 2014 and 2016, respectively. However, the vast areas of the mountainsides covered by these slums makes the task look insurmountable. The traffic and lack of parking are also going to cause headaches for the event planners and those who attend.
After this excellent tour, Diana dropped us off at GIG for our American Airlines flight to RDU via DFW. At GIG, each gate serves multiple jetways and flights from the same gate leave within minutes of each other. For example, our flight to DFW left 8 minutes after one to JFK from the same gate. Passengers from both flights were herded into the same corridor to the jetways, so there is ample opportunity for confusion about where you are supposed to go. Fortunately, there were two checkpoints in the corridor where we had to show our boarding passes, so I guess everyone got on the correct plane.
DAY 15 (THURSDAY, MARCH 10) RETURN TO USA
We skipped the in-flight dinner and slept most of the 10-1/2 hour flight time from Rio to DFW. Except for some scary sporadic turbulence, the flight was uneventful. Our flight from DFW to RDU also experienced some scary turbulence, but we arrived mid-afternoon at RDU, still all in one piece.