South American Adventure Dec 1999

Princess calls the cruise around Cape Horn THE ROUTE OF THE ANCIENT MARINERS. A tour of ethnic enclaves in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego would be an equally appropriate title.

In the late 19th and early 20th century both Chile and Argentina stimulated establishment of communities of immigrants as a mechanism for claiming and protecting claims to geography. Commercial interests were the drivers. Revenue accruing to owners of ports which made shipping around the southern tip of the continent viable was one and control of natural resources was another. Groups of Europeans, mostly farmers, were enticed by free land and a subsidies providing one year livelihood to exchange a harsh life in the old country for a very tough pioneering experience on or near the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Little trace remains of the ancient mariners other then statues commemorating their feats. Imprints of the German, Slavic, Italian and Welch heritage of the immigrants remain. They came as homogeneous groups. Settlements they established, although now Spanish speaking, retain many of their ancestral traditions.


Santiago Chile, where our trip started, traces it's roots to Spanish colonial times. A statue of the Virgin on San Cristobal hill overlooks the city and along with the architecture in the old part of the city, confirms a Spanish Catholic past. Inhabitants of the City and it's surroundings take pride because a totalitarian government has been shed. Yet the Chileans we met concede that a military dictatorship may have been key to a successful transition from a stagnant, state controlled economy, to the healthiest, fastest growing economy in Latin America.

A day tour to Chile's second largest winery put us in touch with the country's fight for independence. The hacienda, which is the antecedent of the Torreon de Paredes vineyard, reportedly helped prevent capture of 120 rebels by allowing them to hide in the hacienda's cellar. A wine produced for local consumption is named Torreon Parades 120 in commemoration of the event.

Our first port-of-call after boarding the Royal Princess at Valparaiso was Puerto Montt. It and nearby Puerto Varas are classic examples of ethnic enclaves. Today, almost a century and one half from the time German farming families settled a strong central European feeling remains. The personal history of our local guide, an Alaskan, provided a perspective on the maintenance of Germanic culture in this remote area. Our guide is married to a Puerto Montt German whom he met when both were students in the lower 48.

They are settled in her birthplace. In addition to being tourist guides both teach languages at a private academy. Their children are fluent in both Spanish and German and have on more then one occasion, visited relatives in Germany. Thus traditions and cultural identity are maintained.

Mountain rimmed lakes in the Puerto Montt region rival in beauty those found in the Canadian Rockies and in Switzerland. Volcanoes ad a special touch. In the course of our visit we were favored by witnessing lifting of the cloud shroud from volcano Orsono, permitting great videos and photos of a perfect cone, one which is comparable to Mt Fuji in Japan and Mt Helen before it blew it's top.

Sailing the Chilean fjords and the Darwin Channel we experienced low hanging clouds, damp, cool and drizzly conditions typical of that region. The visible, lower part, of the mountains edging the fjords hinted at towering peaks. At the head of the first fjord we entered, the Seno Aysen, we sailed past the isolated settlement of Chocabuco. In addition to spectacular scenery the settlement boasts a very large salmon hatchery.

Ice flowing past the ship as it made it's way up Trinidad Channel provided evidence that Pio XI glacier lay ahead. A dense ice field kept the Royal Princess about five miles from the glacier's headwall. Yet the headwall and a portion of the impressive glacier were visible under the cloud cover.

Heading South into the Straits of Magellan the clouds lifted helping make the daylight portion of the journey to Punta Arenas a visual delight. Saturday mid day we passed the wreck of the Santa Leonora, a ship that went aground on her maiden voyage in 1964 as result of a misunderstood order from Captain to helmsman. Saturday morning we docked in Punta Arenas, the southernmost city on the South American continent.

Chile established a military presence in the Punta Arenas area, in mid 19th century, to secure a claim to the Strait of Magellan. Immigrants from a number of old world regions, including sheep ranchers from Great Britain and sailors from Portugal followed and prospered despite an inhospitable climate. Magellan encountered high winds on his 38 days voyage through the strait which bears his name. Such winds met us on our visit to the city at the end of the earth. In the morning, the weather was sunny and calm. Our exploration of the city was one of taking in sounds and sights. We could not visit the Museum as it's Saturday hours were incompatible with our schedule which called for devoting the afternoon to visiting the penguin preserve on the shore 35 miles northwest. Here we met the wind, which made the two-mile trek from bus to penguin colony physically demanding. Acres of penguins made the trek worthwhile.


Sunday morning we awoke as the Royal Princess was making it's way through Tierra del Fuego’s scenic Beagle channel. On this sail we crossed the border from Chile to Argentina on our way Ushuaia. Argentina first laid claim to what is now the southernmost city on earth by establishing a penal colony. A naval base was next incarnation, which was followed by civilians many of whom were European immigrants. Some stayed but many left. Even today Argentina finds it difficult to populate it's portion of the Tierra del Fuego as it strives to solidify a claim to the areas natural resources including recently discovered oil. In fact on our visit we were exposed to evidence that the law of unintended consequences operates even as far south as Ushuaia. Argentina seeks to attract settlers with cash subsidies. It attempts to make sure they stay by providing land the title to which vests to the transplants after ten years of uninterrupted occupancy. An incentive to stay long enough to become acclimated? No it is an incentive to build houses on logs so as to permit moving them. The dweller has title to the house. If it can be moved he can sell it to a new arrival or he can sell it to a local who owns land. Were the house attached to the land the State would own it. Thus the ten years to vest land ownership leads to movable houses rather then residents tied to the land.

In the course of our half day stay in Ushuaia we experienced the full summer weather cycle. Sunny and calm early afternoon as we sailed around the bay on a wildlife tour. Rainy and dismal later in the day as our bus slid and slipped it's way around the Tierra del Fuego National Park and forest preserve. Beavers were introduced to the area with the expectation that they would be trapped and their fur exported. Unfortunately demand for beaver dried up. Now the National Park whose aim is to preserve indigenous trees is the home of an out of control beaver population cutting down some of the trees and killing others by flooding their roots.

Our journey's next highlight was the rounding of Cape Horn. Royal Princess sailed from Ushuaia eastward through the Beagle Canal. As a result Cape Horn was approached from the Northeast. Our ship sailed past the Horn crossing from Atlantic to Pacific then turned back setting course for the Falkland Islands. At the Horn we were treated to one of the rapid weather changes which earned the Cape the fearsome reputation in the era of sailing ships.  A storm descended upon us without warning canceling the Royal Princess’ plan to face the Horn and allow passengers to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific by walking from one side of the ship to the other. Our Captain deferred to the change in weather and turned away from the rocks rather then towards them. No one questioned the decision.

Prior to our reaching the Falklands we learned that most of the time the weather there is rainy and windy and that we could expect a rough ride to shore. Contrary to predictions, perfect spring weather welcomed us to the island. Both our inbound and outbound tender rides were twenty minutes of smooth sailing. On shore we learned that a cruise ship which had stopped to visit shortly before ours had encountered such rough conditions that trips to shore were canceled.

Port Stanley on the Falklands is a bit of Britain way down in the South Atlantic. Two monuments commemorate war experiences. Closest to the landing is the monument honoring the liberators who expelled the Argentine occupiers in 1982. Another, less elaborate monument honors participants in the little noted 1914 Battle of the Falklands. A neat museum preserves mementos from the time the Britain established a permanent settlement in the 1830s to the 1982 war with Argentina. It is evident that the settlers strove to establish a British existence and that they achieved a primitive version of it. In essence that remains true today. Weather, topography and vegetation particularly well suited for raising sheep is not particularly comfortable for people. Hardy people came to the islands and hardy people are there today.

Port Stanley proved to be one of the better places to acquire souvenirs and gifts. While there we thought we had shopped enough. Looking back we believe we should have bought more penguin pins, shirts, photos and stuffed animals.

A day at sea led to Puerto Madryn roughly half way, on the coast, between Cape Horn and Buenos Aires. Just a short distance inland from the dock where Royal Princess tied "globalization" is exemplified . An aluminum smelter, located there, converts bauxite from Australia, using hydropower from the Andes, to produce Aluminum for worldwide markets. Our Puerto Madryn visit was focussed on penguins and on another example an ethnic enclave created by subsidized immigration in the mid 19th century. In this case the towns are populated by descendants of Welch settlers exhibit a Welch character and maintain Welch traditions, secular and religious.

An all day bus tour took us from Puerto Madryn to the Penguin Preserve at Punta Tombo. A three hour trip over the arid, flat plateau partly on unpaved roads was reminiscent of the Australian Outback. An Alpaca relative with an unpronounceable name populates the plateau. Several of these were spotted but none close enough for a decent photograph. One million penguins is the population estimated to inhabit the preserve. Not having time to count we simply enjoyed seeing acres and acres of Magellanic penguins many up close and personal.

Our return to Puerto Madryn featured a stop at a Welch teahouse in the village of Gaiman. Situated on the edge of the town the teahouse boasts an English garden including trees, green grass and flowers. A chorus in native costumes greeted us with Christmas carols sung in spanish. The Welch tea turned out to be a substantial meal consisting of sandwiches, cakes, scones, buttered bread, marmalade and tea all served family style. The quaint tea house and it's garden provided a welcome contrast to the flat arid country side traversed on the trip to and from the penguins.

A day and a night of sailing up the coast brought us, on the morning of the next to last day of the cruise portion of our trip, to the River Plate. We woke with the city of Montevideo visible from our cabin and note that Royal Princess was gliding slowly through the narrow, dredged channel to the port. Connecticut sized Uruguay ‘s exists because Argentina and Brazil prefer a buffer to a shared border. Montevideo, Uruguay's capital and only city, was settled by Spain early in the 18th century.

A city tour, trip to a wild life preserve and lunch at a resort Hotel on the beach in Punta del Este filled the day we spent in Uruguay. The old city features European style buildings, which have been allowed to decay but are now beginning to be renovated. Modern Montevideo, full of high-rise glass and concrete towers, is clean and appears to be well maintained. An hours drive from the city, the wild life preserve is really a Zoo in which the animals live in relatively large, natural, fenced in areas. In Punta del Este we were served lunch at a resort hotel with a pre World War II ambiance. After lunch our bus climbed to the top of the hill providing an overview of area and the beach, which attracts tourists primarily from Argentina. At the entrance to the port, the anchor of the Graf Spee serves as a reminder of the scuttling of the German warship in the early days of World War II.

Two nights and three days in Buenos Aires wound up our South American adventure. Sunday proved ideal for a city tour. Our bus encountered light traffic hauling us to points of interest. Plaza de Mayo (Independence Square) is the location of Casa Rosada, the pink equivalent of the White House. One could almost picture the Perons delivering diatribes to the assembled multitudes. Avenida 9 Julia, the widest street in the world, is named for Independence Day. It is the home of Argentina's national symbol, an obelisk as well as the Colon Theater.

These sights were covered in our tour of the old city that has the feel of European capitals. In the wealthiest residential section, Recoleta, we found beautiful homes, embassies and a giant cemetery that is the final resting place for rich and famous. A must visit tourist attraction is the Duarte musoleum, in which Eva Peron rests.

Prior to arrival in Montevideo we were cautioned that in the capitals of Uruguay and Argentina, as would be the case in many cities, roam expert pickpockets and purse snatchers. Buenos Aires street criminals were described as "mustard men". The description derives from their modus operandi which is to spray or have an associate spray mustard on the unwary tourist. Next the "mustard man" approaches the tourist calls attention to the mess expressing regret that such a thing should happen to a visitor to his city. Finally he offers to help wipe away the vile looking stuff. The cleaning process is very thorough as the tourist ends up clened out.

Late afternoon on our first day in Buenos Aires we walked into the park across the street from our hotel to get a look at the Big Ben like clock which had been donated to the city, in the early 1900's, by it's British residents. A young Canadian couple shared the tower tour with us. Returning to hotel we chatted with the Canadians not paying much attention to our surroundings. A young man and woman stopped us and pointed up into the tree branches above us and to our back sides. We were meeting a catchup using "mustard couple". We refused their offer to help clean us with the tissue paper which they just happened to find in their pockets. Thus we escaped any further damage. Our hotel's security manager was very apologetic that we had run into the bad guys close to the hotel. To make amends he arranged for the cleaning of the affected clothing. By the time we got to our room a maid was waiting to take the clothing. It was hanging in our closet cleaned and pressed  when we got back after dinner.

A Tango dinner show completed our first day in the Argentinean capital. A late dinner hour, the local custom imported from the mother country, and a steak twice as big as even voracious meat eaters such as we could handle challenged us. Nevertheless the music and outstanding dancing kept us alert well past our normal bedtime.

A visit to a ranch was our second day activity. There we were treated to an exhibition of gaucho skills, folk dances, tangos, folk songs and another great meal.

Shopping on Buenos Aire's pedestrian street, named Florida, helped us to be ready for the end of our adventure and to look forward to our return home. At home we look back on a great trip. A trip which showed us fantastic scenery. A trip which taught us a great deal about a part of the world neglected in our history books as well as by our media. A trip on which we met a number of very interesting people.