Any travel, no matter how exotic, usually starts with the mundane. On this winter morning, it will take some four-plus days to leave behind the cold winter of the Northern Hemisphere, pass over the Equator and eventually reach the cold summer conditions at the end of the Southern Hemisphere.
Arriving in Miami, where we would connect with our flight to Santiago, we met up with about half the Lindblad group. We're easy to identify: we all carry red parkas that the company sent to us prior to departure.
We tentatively greet each other and introduce ourselves before boarding an eight-hour overnight flight on LAN Airlines due south to Santiago, Chile. We're definitely bleary-eyed the next morning -- but because we only traveled through a couple of time zones, it's not jet lag. Still, the pre-cruise one-nighter at the Marriott, is a welcome stop that will allow us to ease into the trip and forge bonds with other travelers.
We'll board National Geographic Endeavor tomorrow after a (much shorter) flight to Argentina's Ushuaia, which lies on South America's southern-most tip.
This afternoon, we enjoyed a complimentary tour, courtesy of Lindblad. We trundled around Santiago and got a glimpse of this cosmopolitan city. Santiago is sprawling collection of varied neighborhoods, broad avenues, and historic and modern architecture all backed by the Andes to the east. The Plaza de Armas, a square of palms and fountains, was laid out by Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish Conquistador who founded the city in 1541. Nearby Constitution Square contains statues of heroes and the presidential palace. The funky Bellavista quarter and the big Metropolitan Park are other draws, just to the north of downtown.
Afterwards, we headed for a cocktail party hosted by Lindblad. About 70 of us showed up, and with so few fellow passengers, it didn't take long to meet just about everyone. Fewer passengers also means less anonymity, and combined with everyone's shared enthusiasm for seeing Antarctica, there is already a camaraderie that you'd never find amidst the thousands of passengers on a larger ship.
Lindblad provides all of us with nametags to help break the ice, so to speak. Once you get over the embarrassment of wearing nametags, you grudgingly admit they are a good idea because even though we've just met -- I've already forgotten your name. The tags put everyone on a first name basis immediately and save those awkward moments of whispering, "What's his name again?"
It's not cheap traveling halfway around the world, and on most cruises that start at $10,000 like mine does, passengers are typically comprised exclusively of retirees. That's definitely not the case here, where fellow adventurers represent a good mix of ages -- from a very well-traveled man in his 80's to several in their 20's and 30's (more than 10 percent onboard are under 35). The cruise even boasts two honeymoon couples and a 12- and 14-year-old pair of sisters traveling with their dad. We all share something in common: This really is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience that's worthy of a splurge.
And despite the early 5:15 wake-up call tomorrow morning for our flight to Ushuaia, the good company kept us at dinner until late at night. The hot topic tonight was clearly the sinking of the Explorer, particularly since it occurred so recently (our cruise took place in December 2007). While no one has any second thoughts or concerns about our trip, we're all intrigued to hear more about what happened the week before.
We're not daunted -- it will take more than a sinking ship to dampen the enthusiasm of this group.