Rio De Janeiro -made a rather poor first impression to a South American Virgin. The international airport is a concrete monstrosity that appears not unlike those pictures you see of the city that surrounds Chernobyl nuclear power station; only less nice. Immigration was fairly quick and our pre-booked transfer was notable only by its absence, which resulted in us contracting a fresh ride from the "official" tour desk that furnished us with a driver that appeared to be in a great hurry. We quickly arrived at the Premier Hotel Cococabbana after a drive at warp 9 where we shown to our very large and insanely hot bedroom.
With a combination of running the air-conditioning flat out and taking a shower in what amounted to be a cupboard equipped with a fire-mans hose on full bore, we cooled down to a more civilized temperature and got a reasonably good nights sleep. The free internet and breakfast were welcome additions and made for a good value overnight stay, while the hotels roof provided an excellent vantage point to photograph both the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Unfortunately as we were only there for a morning, we didn't have time to do either in person, so pictures from afar would have to do. Some of our friends did the "statue" and said it was time well spent.
We did just have time for a morning stroll along the beach; despite Rio's reputation for permanent menace, we found a mostly agreeable and exceptionally clean beach front where the only thing that was vaguely disturbing was the tightness of old-people's jogging outfits. The best answer to address undesirables that approach you is to smile, say "no" and then carry on your conversation as though they were not there. Rio appeared to be a quite attractive place, on one possible worthy of exploration on a future date.
Buenos Aires – was somewhere I always wanted to visit and the sprawling city is just how I imagined it would be – just interlaced with thousands of acres of pristine and luscious public parks and public open spaces, thronged by people walking well kept dogs, 10 at a time.
The rest of the city is rather more “faded” than I had hoped and would benefit from quite a bit of TLC to make it somewhere really special. I can see why they call it “the Paris of the South”, except BA doesn’t have any decent tourist attractions, save for the balcony of Eva Peron, of whom our tour guide spoke unfavourably, despite shepherding us to gawp at her “crypt”. Some parts of the city looked stunning, especially the Peuro Mandrine, whose water front development blended Liverpool’s Albert Dock with the skyline backdrop of Dubai.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop here, instead favouring instead to dump us for half an hour in the heart of 2 blocks of “tourist shops”, selling the worst kind of overpriced crap imaginable. BA is certainly somewhere I would willingly return.
Montevideo - was somewhere I had never really heard of and I have one piece of advice of anyone who wants to experience the "highlights" is; don't bother. A pleasant main square aside [these attractive central piazza seem to be de-rigueur for all South American cities], the rest of the city is a down-at-heal graffiti and litter strewn dirty hole. Our tour consisted of being herded onto the world's oldest buses and being taken from an uninteresting statue of something or other, to another monument that was equally so. The ship docks near the centre of town and I think the best advice would be to simply walk around, do some a little shopping and get back on board in time for a free lunch.
Port Stanley - or simply "Stanley" as it doesn't really have a harbor that one would imagine would to be a perquisite to warrant the "port" suffix, is a most agreeable, if a tad bizarre, place. The brightly colored roofs of the houses are interlaced with arrow straight roads, travelled primarily by overgrown 4x4s was reminiscent of a charming toy town. The supermarket and gift shops were well stocked [with all the English essentials] and remarkably reasonably priced, considering they were adrift in the South Atlantic, a proud symbol of Britain's last remaining distant outposts.
Our private tour to North Pond involved about an hour of travelling down graveled roads (the only surfaced roads are within the town), through a barren and desolate landscape. Godforsaken, would be the word that immediately sprang to mind - although the infectious and peaceful charm of the islands would make that description a touch unkind, despite being largely accurate.
After leaving the "road" and bumping our way for another mile or so across open ground, suddenly we confronted by an unspoilt vista of a perfect sandy beach, complete with thousands of penguins. Penguins that are undoubtedly wild, but allow you to get close enough to almost touch them and watch as they swim, waddle and sunbathe. With such a small group of people (just 20 of us) I know there a few of us (myself included) who relished every moment that we could just sit and watch as they went about their business.
Ushuaia - is how I pretty much pictured Alaska to be [obviously just at the wrong end of the world], being a small town nestling in a fantastic spot between soaring and jagged snow-capped mountains. Here we had booked our final Princess tour - a 4x4 adventure and it was the best ship's outing we enjoyed. After bouncing around with 8 other people in our Land Rover (that was probably 2 more people that is comfortable) we were taken on a walk through the woods to a wooden shack where, to our surprise, we were severed bread, wine, cheese and a fantastic Argentinean beef casserole complete with a 10oz steak each that complimented our perfect rural setting.
Afterwards there was time for a little last minute gift shopping and a wonder round another town that, again, appeared if the builders had left half way through its construction.
Valparaiso / Santiago– was quite a revelation after the many other port stops we made. Although Valparaiso managed to pull of the tatty and half finished look that is so common to South America, we were simply stunned by the rest of it. Manicured grass, trees, things that were clean and well cared for – it was like suddenly being landed on a completely different continent. Chile is a beautiful country and it is a shame we lost one of our days there.
Although the processes of checking into a hotel and renting a car still generated a large amount of paper work and complexity, it was nice to have some freedom. We saw quite a bit on Santiago, mostly from the car as we were getting lost and it seemed a nice and safe city to spend some time in. So much so; this is tops of list of places to go back to in the future.