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Home > Virtual Cruises > South America: Around Cape Horn on Regal Princess
South America: Around Cape Horn on Regal Princess
Day 1: Pre-Cruise Stay in Buenos Aires
Day 2: Embarkation, Cruising the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo
Day 3: At Sea
Day 4: Valentine's Day in Puerto Madryn
Day 5: Port Stanley
Day 6: Rounding Cape Horn
Day 7: Ushuaia
Day 8: Punta Arenas
Day 9: At Sea/Amalia Glacier
Day 10: Puerto Montt
Day 11: Disembarkation in Valparaiso, Post-Cruise Stay in Santiago
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Day 4: Friday, Valentine's Day in Puerto Madryn
Valentine's Day in Puerto MadrynNo South America cruise would be complete without a trip to see penguins, which with the exception of zoo dwellers only reside in the Southern Hemisphere. On this itinerary, there were ship-organized penguin tours in Puerto Madryn, Stanley (in the Falkland Islands) and Punta Arenas. We deliberated long and hard on which port we'd dedicate to penguins, taking into consideration that Puerto Madryn and Stanley often get bypassed due to rough seas. However, Punta Arenas (and Stanley too, as a matter of fact) was a port we were more interested in seeing for the city itself. In the end, we decided to sign up for the Punta Tombo tour in Puerto Madryn because it was at the beginning of our itinerary, and if we were unable to dock during our voyage, we'd punt and set something up in Punta Arenas at the last minute.

Luckily, I must be chemically imbalanced in a way that somehow affects climate of the world I explore. Two years ago, when I visited Alaska for the first time, the state experienced a record-breaking heat wave. Now, here we were, docked in generally windblown Patagonia, amid another sweltering (for this region, 80+ degrees) day. Our tour guide, Magda, was sweating and admitted that this weather is a bit unusual for Puerto Madryn, even in the summertime. At least I don't bring the rain wherever I go!

Puerto Madryn was born in the mid-1800's of Welsh settlers that arrived in Argentina after its government sent a proposal to Europe promoting a new stretch of land today known as Patagonia. And although Buenos Aires and Puerto Madryn's outlying areas are part of the same nation, they couldn't be more different. The port city of Puerto Madryn itself is not terribly interesting, although there is a sweet beachfront boulevard with shops and places to eat. Like so many of the world's cruise ports, Puerto Madryn is really a jumping-off point for adventures inland -- in this case, Punta Tombo, a penguin reserve, or Punta Lomo, for sea lions.

Punta Tombo is the largest colony of magellenic penguins, a swimming migratory bird. Thousands of them come to these shores every year in early September, though no one is really sure why they've chosen this particular spot (the New York Zoological Society is stationed there now, doing research on their habits and patterns). The penguins nest until early April, and during this time period, each couple has two baby penguins; approximately 500 per year survive and return to the water with their parents.

The actual trip to Punta Tombo is no pleasure cruise -- 2 1/2 hours by motorcoach, the last 1 1/2 of that on a dusty, unpaved road (we made one stop at a gas station where about two-thirds of the women onboard stopped to use the restroom). Air conditioning on our bus had two settings: deep freeze or non-existent. The seats were comfortable, though; I think I slept better (and longer) on the bus than I did on the plane ride from Newark.

This is actually the kind of place where you don't feel guilty falling asleep on the tour bus because there's not much to observe until you get to your destination. Yet the landscape in Patagonia moved me in a way that is hard to explain. This part of Argentina is believed to have attached onto the continent from another tectonic plate because its soil is markedly different. There's not much to it: It reminds me a little bit of the scenery in the Looney Tunes cartoons with the Roadrunner and Wil E. Coyote -- just miles and miles of dusty, unchanging flat plains with low-to-the-ground bushes. (Ironically, a fast, reddish roadrunner-like bird with a very unusual distinction does exist in these parts: the male birds raise the chicks while the females set out to find food and expand the family.) But I guess what's amazing to me is that this is under the same sun as New York and in the same country as Buenos Aires. There's so much world to explore, by land, by air, by sea ... however you can get there.

When we finally arrived at the penguin reserve, it at first seemed anticlimactic. There were one or two penguins peeking at our bus curiously from behind bushes. On second glance, however, I almost thought I was hallucinating. What I thought was a rock formation on the beach by the water was actually hundreds upon hundreds of penguins, huddled together waiting for a turn to play in the waves.

Then, as if by magic, penguins began appearing everywhere. We pulled into the parking lot (after stopping abruptly several times to let them cross -- they always have the right of way), and a group of them were waddling around the buses ready to greet us. Magellenic penguins are smaller than the king or gentoo penguins seen on the Falklands, and adults feature two indigenous stripes of black feathers on their chests, like little bowties. They have a very distinct sound too, which is a bray almost like a donkey's ... and why they've been given the loving nickname "the jackass penguin." Penguins (or at least their poo) also have a very distinct smell -- not exactly pleasant, but not overwhelming and certainly not offensive to the point where we couldn't stand to be there. One woman said it reminded her of growing up in the country with a chicken coop. This city slicker will have to take her word for it!

Visitors are confined to specific marked paths, but they in no way kept us distanced from the penguins. Upon entering the reserve, we spotted groups of them gathered for private little meetings right on the trail; about 10 feet down the way, a big chubby guy was slowly making his way across the gravel, slapping his feet as if to attract attention and stopping to shake his tail at us every foot or so. We were told that most magellenic penguins are slim this time of year because they have to exert more energy to hunt food for themselves and their young; clearly this fella was doing okay for himself. We were also told not to touch the penguins, but there were times it was very hard to comply with that rule. Mike was surprised that they showed absolutely no fear of us whatsoever -- he's convinced that some of them knowingly posed for the camera. Some would open their beaks wide as if to say "hi," or snuggle right up next to your leg! One soft gray baby (the young penguins have lighter feathers) and I posed for a picture and walked side by side for a few minutes.

We'd come here with some initial concerns (Were we intruding, or disturbing these creatures' land? Were we interfering with their natural day-to-day activities? Will the long trip be worth it?). In the end, I think we were welcome. And yes, it is worth the trip: It is a spectacle unlike anything you will ever see.

The long journey back was broken up by a stop in Gaiman, a city that still holds onto the area's Welsh heritage. Our first impression was that Gaiman could be any suburb in America: Neighbors have a healthy competition going for who has the best manicured lawn and garden, so each street is bursting with colorful flora and fauna. The big difference here, though, is many of these houses are the original structures built around the turn of the 20th century from the rock that surrounds the town.

Our tour included tea at a Welsh teahouse. Honestly, we could have done without the tea, though I can't blame our snack. The tea was perfectly brewed, the treats were delicious (buttered breads and jams, sweet biscuits, apple tarts and cakes), and a community choir performed folk songs and hymns beautifully in Spanish and Welsh, but the experience was spoiled by having been sat at a table with six of the most unfriendly people -- yes, fellow passengers -- we've ever encountered. They basically ignored our very existence, save for one gentleman on my right who rigidly passed us a plate of cakes but without cracking a smile or so much as looking in our direction. We attempted to introduce ourselves -- and I generally consider myself very much a people person -- but felt like we were the science fair geeks that sat down at the popular kids' table. We ate and drank in silence, and were relieved when it was time to re-board the bus.

My mood perked up when we returned to the ship. Mike fell a few steps behind me as I walked into our cabin to find a half dozen long stem red roses on the table -- I knew good things came in threes! It was such a long day that it seemed appropriate to get comfortable, polish off the bottle of bubbly we'd gotten as a "welcome aboard" gift from a friend and order room service from the dining room menu. We both had French onion soup (which, appropriately enough, was something I'd ordered on our first date), and a cheese and leek tart. One glitch on the entree: I had asked for the evening's fettuccine special with lobster ragout but received fettuccine alfredo from the "always available" list. I decided to eat it anyway rather than go through the trouble of calling for a new dish; at least it satisfied my pasta craving.

One of the most fascinating things I learned today was that even in a colony of thousands, penguins return year after year and look for their same mate. It was amazing to see penguin couples courting -- and occasionally kissing! -- throughout Punta Tombo. Penguin poo and all, I can't think of a more romantic place than Puerto Madryn to have spent Valentine's Day.
Day 3: At Sea red arrow Day 5: Port Stanley

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