Updated October 10, 2019
South America is the new Alaska. Really! For travelers in search of rugged natural beauty, breathtaking mountain peaks, fjords that stretch nearly forever, cosmopolitan cities, indigenous historic peoples and cultures, and vast tropical rainforests, South America is a cruise revelation.
This huge continent covers thousands of miles and extends from the equatorial tropics to the sub-Antarctic. It is exotic in a way that can't actually be matched by Alaska -- and that's for a couple of reasons. The 14 countries and territories that comprise the continent are, of course, diverse; some bear the imprimatur of colonial Spanish or Portuguese legacies, others that of indigenous tribes of Indians whose cultures continue their impact. Another reason? You'll experience no trace of cruise ship congestion -- whether sailing in a fjord or docking in Buenos Aires. There's plenty of room for all the ships that call there.
South America is, of course, too big to sample on a single cruise (it's so big, in fact, that the weather variations run the absolute gamut, from steamy and sultry in the equatorial Amazon to brisk and nippy down in the Cape Horn/Beagle Channel region). Though all-Brazil and even Antarctica itineraries are on the rise, there are two primary routes -- and not only do they rarely connect but they also are incredibly different. Around-the-horn cruises typically sail between Buenos Aires and Valparaiso, and features lots of fjords, the wild beauty of Patagonia and Cape Horn -- the southernmost point on the continent.
An Amazon cruise is a voyage of a different color, and we mean that literally as well as figuratively (the river itself changes hues as you sail from Manaus toward the Atlantic ocean, going from a milky cafe latte to an inky-black espresso -- at one point coming together, without mixing, so that it looks almost like a black and tan beer!).
The beauty of a cruise, as opposed to a land tour, of South America is that the region is simply too vast -- and too undeveloped in terms of a road or public transportation network -- to explore comfortably (that is, unless you favor backpacks and the antithesis of comfort traveling). Ships, beyond the major hotels, go where very few hotels exist -- and even folks who like a little edge in their travel may feel relieved to re-board their ship after spending a day trawling the Amazon's waterways or trudging through the dusty Argentinean pampas.
No matter which route you choose, and no matter how luxurious the ship, this is a more rugged cruise experience, a trip where comfortable walking shoes are much more important than black tie (though ships do offer the usual range of formal nights) and where your adventures outdoors -- from paddling canoes up a tiny Amazonian tributary to hiking out to a peninsula to observe penguins -- will be the most memorable experiences of the trip.
A cruise line's South American itinerary development executive offers these parting words of advice: "This is adventure cruising," he says, "and it's about education. Once you've left Buenos Aires or Montevideo you have kissed civilization goodbye and are headed into the wild blue yonder. From there, the penguins and killer whales don't come to us ... we come to them."
Best Time for South America Cruises
Because South America is in the southern hemisphere, its seasons are opposite of those in the northern hemisphere. As a result, cruise lines' South America season typically runs from November (late spring) to early May (mid-autumn). Regardless, prepare for varied climates that can change from hour to hour and day to day. The further south you go, and the farther from the equator, the less summer you'll experience; in December (the beginning of summer), the mountains of Ushuaia, for instance, were still gorgeously snow-peaked.
South America Cruise Itineraries
Generally, no matter which South American itinerary you choose, it will be longer than seven days (sometimes way longer). At first glance, what seems daunting about a cruise in South America is the distance. From the East Coast, a direct flight takes about 10 hours; carriers like United Airlines and American Airlines typically fly overnight, so you leave late one evening and arrive early the next morning -- a bit like going to Europe but without jet lag. But it can easily take 10 hours to get to Alaska, not to mention some points in Europe from the East Coast, anyway (and we won't even start with Asia and Australia/New Zealand).
The two most common itineraries are:
Amazon River voyages typically sail between the city of Manaus, the major metropolis of the vast Amazonas region, and either Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. Typically, cruise lines will charter a plane from Miami (or Ft. Lauderdale) for the trip to Manaus; passengers will use commercial air on the other end. Want to avoid air entirely? In some cases, cruise lines will combine an Amazon trip with the Caribbean (for instance, Holland America offers a 28-day Amazon Explorer that sails roundtrip from Ft. Lauderdale).
Ports of Call: The main ports of call focus primarily on Brazil with a stop or two in Uruguay before winding up in Argentina. They range, primarily, from very undeveloped areas (where jungle sightseeing tours are the main draw) to small, rough-around-the-edges towns and cities. Typically, ships will call in Santarem, Boca da Valeria (a village), Recife, Belem, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Punta del Este and, finally, Buenos Aires.
Sights to See: The major attraction of this itinerary on the Amazon River portion is, of course, nature and the jungle. Cruise operators offer a variety of tours that range from canoe rides to wildlife experiences. A particular highlight, on the river not far from Manaus, is the Encontro das Aquas, or "meeting of the waters." This is not a port of call but rather the spot where the Amazon's black waters meet up with the tan waters and run side by side for miles without mixing. Once ships swing around into the Atlantic Ocean and head south, down the coast of Brazil, city attractions become more important; in particular, if your ship stops in Recife try to take an excursion to Olinda, a wonderful Portuguese hilltop town that's a UNESCO World Heritage site. Rio de Janeiro, of course, is fabulous, cosmopolitan and completely exotic.
Watch Out For: The Amazon region and Brazil's East Coast -- and we especially include Rio de Janeiro in this warning -- are very crime-ridden. This is not the place to wear jewelry, flash cash or lug around expensive cameras. This is also an itinerary where, unless you are an ultra-experienced South American traveler, we do not recommend you arrange your own tours or venture off independently. If you really do want to wander around in places like Recife, Belem or Rio de Janeiro, consider H.L. Stern. That internationally renowned jeweler works with cruise lines to arrange free transportation, in cities where it has shops, for passengers who want to visit its stores. The good news: You are not obligated to buy, and the stores are always in the city's best neighborhoods (so after browsing, if not purchasing, you can wander off and have a cafe lunch or shop). It is considered tacky to accept the transportation and bypass the store. We came to regard the Stern folks as a savior on our Amazon trip. Another note: Spanish, if not Portuguese, is the language of the country and few people speak English, even in cities.
This voyage nearly always lasts 14 nights or more and travels between Buenos Aires and Valparaiso. The "horn" is the infamous Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the southernmost continent -- the closest you may ever get to Antarctica, which is just 1,000 miles further south. The highlight of this itinerary, beyond a start or finish in Buenos Aires is, in order, the Chilean fjords, whose grandeur may well put Alaska's to shame (!), and Patagonia, a vast land of deserts and mountains that stretches between Argentina and Chile. Some cruises include Antarctica in their itineraries -- if not sailing there directly, perhaps a day-long shore excursion, via plane, from Punta Arenas, Chile. Flightwise, cruise lines use commercial airlines to transport passengers to and from the beginning and ending points of Buenos Aires and Santiago (a two-hour bus ride from the port of Valparaiso).
Ports of Call: Ports are pretty limited in variety because this region is so vast and relatively under-developed. From Buenos Aires, ships call at Puerto Madryn (big attraction: penguin spotting), Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, Puerto Montt and Valparaiso. Other stops may include Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
Sights to See: Experiencing Patagonia -- the breadth and depth of its scenery, from flat, almost eerily-deserted pampas to a mountainous lakes district that looks like something out of the wildest parts of Scotland -- is a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The major draws, nature-wise, are penguin colonies, killer whales and national glacier parks. Obviously, if Antarctica appeals -- and it is financially viable (on our cruise the day trip from Punta Arenas cost nearly $3,000 per person) -- well, that's also a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Watch Out For: Rough seas can be common, particularly as you get further south and closer to Cape Horn, though cruise lines don't usually sail around the horn itself (which is about the roughest water in the world). Instead, they cut into various channels, most notably the Beagle Channel that runs between Chile and Argentina; these are studded with gorgeous snow-covered mountains and glacier-marked fjords.
If you want to really experience Antarctica as more than a day trip, beware of ship itineraries that list it as a destination but don't actually let passengers off the vessel.
Another important note: weather changes markedly on this itinerary. We started in Buenos Aires, when the temperatures were in the mid-90s; as you travel further south, the weather turned cooler, and highs in the 50s and 60s were more common. Then, as we sailed up the Chilean coast, it got progressively warmer. It's important to pack for a range of conditions.
While the region is developing a tourism infrastructure, do know that most folks speak only Spanish (very little English). And because major attractions, beyond the cities at each end, are more about nature and wildlife than urban haunts -- and generally quite a distance from the port -- this is an itinerary where taking the ship's shore excursions is highly recommended.
A final caveat: Even in the height of summer, sea conditions can be dicey, so captains may have to cancel a call at a particular port at the last minute. For instance, it's a good idea not to get your heart too set on Port Stanley, in the Falklands; one cruise captain told us he can only get the ship in about half the time.
Extending the Trip
Because South America is so vast -- and much of it lies in interior regions -- there are many once-in-a-lifetime sights that can't be seen on a day-long port of call stop. This is a region where it's a particularly good idea to consider taking advantage of your cruise line's pre- and/or post-voyage experience. Of particular note:
The spectacular Iguazu Falls, which borders Argentina and Brazil, and includes an awesome rain forest park.
A trip to Salvador de Bahia, in Brazil, which is a mystical place of native, Portuguese and African cultures.
From Santiago, a trip to the Incan Empire of Machu Picchu.
Hanker for More Exotic Fare?
While most passengers will experience South America from the comfort of a more standard cruise ship, more exotic alternatives not only exist but also flourish. For the proverbial off-the-beaten-path experience, going beyond the Amazon and Cape Horn, cruise lines like Lindblad Expeditions, Clipper, Peter Deilmann and Society Expeditions offer more specialized itineraries. Their trips venture to destinations such as the Galapagos Islands and all-Antarctica voyages.