Cruising South America: Seventeen Day on the Veendam Around Cape Horn from Valparaiso to Rio de Janeiro

"Cruising South America: Seventeen Days on the Veendam Around Cape Horn from Valparaiso to Rio de Janeiro,” with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, March 24, 2013, 3-5.

penguinMagellan Penguins in Otway Sound, Patagonia, Chile

As readers of my Post-Standard travel articles over the past 11 years know, I tend to write about more active travel than cruises and believe that travel is about learning and complementing your daily experience with something very different, be it tracking leopards in South Africa or swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos or visiting the ancient temples of Cambodia in Angkor. 

But after I wrote about the Panama Canal Cruise that we took last winter, I was encouraged to do another cruise piece because these are travels that older and perhaps less active people can enjoy and because sometimes cruises are the best way to see destinations.  

Beagle ChannelMarcia and Dan in Beagle Channel (Glacier Alley), Chile

Prior to the Panama Canal Cruise, my wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I had taken an Alaska Cruise and a Caribbean Cruise, so we had some cruising experience on ships. These trips need to be differentiated from the increasingly popular river cruises such as the one we took on the Volga in Russia  (plus several land days in Moscow and St. Petersburg) about which I wrote on these pages some years ago or shorter boat trips of four or five days that we had taken on the Nile and Yangtze, boat trips that were integral parts of longer trips to Egypt and China.

This past December, 2012, we took a Holland America 17 day cruise on the Veendam from Valparaiso on the Pacific Ocean to Rio de Janeiro on the Atlantic Ocean, in part to circumnavigate Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America (and, since we have yet to visit Antarctica, our Southern most journey to date). The spectacular scenery in Patagonia in both Southern Chile and Southern Argentina was the trip’s memorable experience.

Brujo GlacierBrujo Glacier, Chile

Most wonderful perhaps was the stunningly magnificent Brujo Glacier on the morning of the fifth full day.  A few days later we passed through Glacier Alley in  the Beagle Channel, with several glaciers in a row. We saw transcendent scenery: often sublime, but bleak, rugged, desolate, and stark. Often in Southern Patagonia we passed uninhabited fjords with sparse vegetation.  The circumnavigation of Cape Horn, which consists of a few tiny islands, only one of which is populated, was a highlight. 

We also enjoyed revisiting a few cities we enjoyed in he past—Santiago, in which we overnighted before we were driven to our embarking port, Valparaiso; Buenos Aires; and Rio de Janeiro—and new places, notably Uruguay’s capital and largest city, Montevideo.

Cape HornCape Horn, Chile

With long days and temperate weather, summer in the Southern Hemisphere corresponds to some extent to our winter.  On the whole we had sunny weather. As we moved South towards Cape Horn, the days became longer and the temperatures cooler and, and much of the weather was often drizzly and hazy.  Then, later, as we moved north to the major cities, the reverse occurred—shorter, and warmer, and sunnier days-- although we had a rainy day in Buenos Aires.

Ports and Land Excursions:

N PatagoniaNorthern Patagonia, Chile

Our first stop was Puerto Montt.  On a prior land trip to Peru and Chile, we had visited Puerto Montt and the nearby Lake District—an area favored by early German colonialists; within the town of Puerto Mont, there isn’t much but we revisited our favorite area: the fishing port called Angelmo, with its local craft and jewelry shops and a splendid fresh fish market.

 

Once we left we left the Lake District, the scenery became increasingly spectacular. At our next stop, Puerto Chacabuco, we hired a taxi for $140 with two others, and had a wonderful scenic drive through mountains that were punctuated by waterfalls and flowers as well as the Rio (river) Simpson. The destination of our drive, the city of Coihaique was unexciting, but it was set off by the Andes in the background. Our trip cost us a fraction of the excursion offered by Holland  America and the driver stopped for photos whenever we wished and much more often than the excursion tour bus.

Sheep and GuanacoPhotographers, Sheep, Guanaco at Estancia San Guillermo,  Argentina

Our third stop was Punto Arenas, Chile. We used our on board credit to purchase an excellent excursion to Otway Reserve to see Magellan Penguins. We not only saw llamas, guanacos—both related to camels-- sheep, and large rabbits, but some nice birds: cararachos, jotes (turkey vultures), condors, and rheas (large flightless birds resembling ostriches).
Our next stop, Ushuaia, was cancelled due to issues between UK and Argentina over the Falklands, both of which claim the Falkland Islands as their own.   We were told that, in response to the 30th anniversary of the brief war between UK and Argentina, our ship might have been met with demonstrations when docking.

sea lionsSea Lions at Punta Loma, Argentina

With the weather warmed, we moved north after circling Cape Horn.  After three sea days (the term used to describe days when passengers don’t have the opportunity to leave ship) in a row, one of which was due to  the cancellation of Ushusia, we were glad to visit Puerto Madyrn. This is  a small sea resort in Argentina Patagonia, but not much of a sightseeing place. Here we took an excursion purchased on the ship to see sea lions at Punta Loma preserve and to visit a sheep farm and watch sheep shearing; we also did a tad of exploring within the city, which was originally settled by the Welsh. On the farm, we saw a pet guanaco. During the four-hour trip we saw, in addition to the sea lions, cormorants and snowy sheathbills as well as some less exotic birds like the Southern martin.

Punto LomaPunto Loma, Argentina

Our fifth stop on was Montevideo, Uruguay (a country of 3 million, about half of whom live in Montevideo). This was our first visit to Uruguay. We disembarked in Old Town, or Ciudad Vieja, and spent several hours walking around. We saw some of the major sites including the Plaza de la Constitution, the centerpiece of which is the Metropolitan Cathedral, and Plaza Independencia, with the Presidential building, the mausoleum of the Uruguayan hero General Jose Gervasio Artigas, and across from the square, the Teatro Solis, which is something of the Lincoln Center of Montevideo.

From the outside we also saw the Sephardic synagogue, which was closed. Uruguay has been a strong supporter of Israel; now its once influential Jewish community is dwindling due to emigration and intermarriage.

Our sixth and last stop was Buenos Aires where we spent two nights and where we had visited about six years ago. With the twin burdens of unemployment and inflation as well as the expectation of currency devaluation, Buenos Aires seemed less prosperous than it did on our last visit six years ago. We saw a fair number of homeless people in streets, sometimes mothers with babies. 

N PatagoniaNorthern Patagonia, Chile

Buenos Aires is a great walking city and we  did quite a bit of walking,  especially in the pedestrian street Calle Florida and the San Telmo areas.  Recommended major sites in the central area: Plaza de Mayo, Plaza de la Republica, Catedral Metropolitan (with a chapel containing framed pages from Jewish prayer books, salvaged from Holocaust ghettos, concentration camps, and death camps) and the Muse del Cubildo (devoted to Jose de San Martin and  the Revolution in early 19th century). The Ricoleta cemetery (containing the bodies of Eva Peron and other former luminaries) is another important site; the oldest tree in Buenos Aries is at the entrance.

One virtue of walking in cities on your own is that, even if your language skills in the host country are limited, the people you meet people can be your best guides and teachers. In Montevideo we met a Jewish architect whose family came from Turkey in 1922 and, later, a teacher of physical education with far leftist political leanings. In Buenos Aries, we a met young university graduate in her 20s who was working in Museo del Cubildo and another women a few years younger who showed us around the Ricoleta cemetery and its environs.  In all four  cases, these locales—who spoke varying degrees of English-- helped us understand some of the political, economic, and historical aspects of  Uruguay and Argentina.

The ABCs of Cruising

off the coastOff the coast of Chile

Cruise lines sell the less desirable rooms for a nominal price, but depend on disaggregation (charging separately for everything they can think of). Costs depend on where you book, and inside lower decks without windows are the most basic.  But everyone is on the same boat and with some exceptions eats the same food .
The cruise lines expect you to spend quite a bit of money beyond your cabin. They have a casino, sell alcohol rather than provide even one glass of wine for each meal—even at the surcharge restaurant--and charge an exorbitant amount  for excursions.  They generate income from shops on board, art auctions, bars all over the ship, Internet access, yoga and fitness classes, and  even a coffee bar.

A) Accomodations

We booked a verandah suite with a balcony on the 9th deck, but we were upgraded as soon as we reached the room to a Deluxe Verandah suite on the 10th deck with plenty of space and some perks reserved to those who are booked into that category. Our upgrade was a major plus not only because we had access to the 10th deck Neptune lounge reserved for those with deluxe suites  and the Pinnacle dining room for breakfast as well as complimentary laundry service,  but also because the more spacious room served us well for such a long cruise.

B) Pluses of Cruising:

One often cited plus of cruising is no packing and repacking.  Especially on sea days (which were many on this trip), cruises leave leisure to time for reading, writing, going to the gym, playing bridge or board games as well and as for attending activities such as bird-watching discussions, lectures on cruise sites,  and trivia games. For those who like their port arrangements made, the cruise lines provide excursions—albeit pricy--on days in port.  Finally, you don’t have to think about meals and if wish to have a continuous eat-o-thon, you may.

The evening shows in the main theatre, although never more than 40 or so minutes, testify to the availability and abundance off quality performers. The ship’s resident ensemble included several singers who had played in revivals of major productions.  Best of all was the five-member ship band, often fronted by a sixth person, a talented pop and rock and roll singer.

These resident entertainers, often working on six-month contracts, are supplemented by entertainers who come on board for a few days, which on this ship included a wonderful classical guitarist  and raconteur named Julian Miller.  Also in this visiting category were a magician, an electric harpist, a pianist, a female vocalist specializing songs by major women singers,  a tango-dancing couple, and a less than hilarious comedian. In residence for the entire cruise were a classical quartet, a lounge pianist, and a trio playing popular standards to which we danced,

I spent quite a bit of time at the gym, particularly during the many sea days. The Veendam gym is not very well staffed in term of personnel or equipment.  The few people who work there are far more interested in finding customers for personal training than teaching people how to use weights and equipment.  We were given passes last few days to the nice thermal suite—hot tub, sauna, etc.--for which there is usually an extra charge.

c) Negatives:

You are with 1300 (more on larger ships) new friends for 17 days. Even if you chose to dine with your partner, you may at times be sitting close to people who want to tell you that evolution is a myth, as happened with us, or with people who make pointedly negative comments about New Yorkers which may have been a code word for Jews.  

D) Food

Other than room service, passengers have three basic choices: 1) the cafeteria on the 11th deck;  2) the main dining room, called the Rotterdam; 3) two specialty restaurants for an extra charge: the Pinnacle (something of a steak house) and Canaletto (Italian cuisine). The specialty restaurants give you a chance to dine in smaller, more private quarters. 

At the Pinnacle restaurant—for which you pay an extra $25 a person or $39 on La Cirque Night (named after the NYC restaurant and using a menu created by the owner)— the quality, china, and service are excellent. The other special restaurant—the Italian restaurant called Canaletto charges $10 per person extra—was not as exciting or well organized, but we had two decent meals there, featuring osso bucco and gelato.

On nine of the 17 nights we ate at the Rotterdam, the main restaurant on the boat. I found the food in this room more serviceable, decent, and unremarkable than elegant or exciting, although usually respectable with considerable choice given the amount of people served.   

One problem with ship food is that it is difficult to supply the ship  from the small cities between Valparaiso  and Montevideo.  Thus we had limited fresh fruit and vegetables.  Another food problem is that because the food is cooked for a rather elderly clientele—and this was not a young group of passengers-- much of the food is under-seasoned, notably the soups.

E) Excursions:

The package we bought came with Holland America excursion credits, and, using these credits, we bought two excursions.  Excursions bought on board cruise ships are almost always overpriced.   Unless you have ship credit or are physically challenged, in most cases I would advice making your own arrangements when you leave ship. When you leave the boat, you will always be met by taxis and tour companies that will give you a much better deal, usually for less than half the price. The only drawback is that you might not get an English speaking taxi driver, but you don’t need someone to tell you a penguin is a penguin or a sea lion a sea lion, and you can read about what you are seeing in a good guide book.  

F) Cruise Issues

brujo glacierBrujo Glacier, Chile

This is long cruise with much boat time and some cool, rainy weather.
To get through inside passages to see the glaciers, a mid size ship such as the Veendam is required. The Veendam is an older ship with some quirks, including the possibility that some things in your stateroom may need tweaking. Early on, we were locked out of our room for a few hours due to a dysfunction in the door lock and a closet door fell off its hinges.  The pool on deck 11 is small and not suitable for lap swimming, and the gym facilities are far from state of the art.  Internet is very expensive at 50 cents a minute and is very slow, but most of the time we did get CNN, ESPN, and FOX in our room and on the gym TVs.

Although we had a good time, I do need mention some significant disappointments. Cruise ships warn passengers that that the itinerary may change and he sea conditions are unpredictable, and we experienced both.

 1) The last several days the stabilizers were not functioning, a problem that troubled and mystified the verbal Dutch captain, Peter Bos, who told passengers he was in touch with Italy, where the  ship was made, to see what was wrong. Indeed, I am not sure the stabilizers were fully serviceable throughout the voyage. We hit some waves within a day or so of reaching Cape Horn; the ship tipped way to the left and drawers emptied and glasses broke.  Although we had some calm days, this is not a cruise for those sensitive to motion sickness.

2) The failure to stop at Ushuaia (one of the major reasons we took the trip since we had been at most of the other stops) or to find an alternative (when we first looked at the trip the Falklands was included) was a disappointment.  The very excursion on the entire cruise--to the Tierra del Fuego National Park—that we most wanted to take left from Ushuaia, so we missed it.

3) The lack of coherent port arrangements at Buenos Aires. Apparently receiving changing information from port authorities, the captain announced at various times our departure for our second day there would be: a) early morning; b)  noon c) 8 pm. 

Holland-America is, I would argue, ethically responsible for making arrangements for its ports before the cruise starts and if this is not possible, Holland America should consider giving passengers explicit warning about the uncertainty of this itinerary and a chance to cancel.  No doubt some passengers are willing to take their chances to see the fabulous scenery, but I suspect many would prefer a reasonably certain itinerary rather than a 17 day boat ride.

4). Because in part we left Buenos Aires late and because in part of the broken stabilizers, the ship slowed down and arrived in Rio de Janeiro seven hours past our scheduled arrival. That meant, since our return flight was that evening, cancellation of our Rio plans and the waste of $160 each visa fee. Had we known this, we would have gotten off at Buenos Aires and taken, as some passengers did,  a 13 day cruise. 

Notwithstanding these bumps, Holland American provided us with warm hospitality and cherished memories of extraordinary natural sights.

If you go: We have booked our four ocean cruises with Kimmy Perry of Cruise International Expedia CruiseShipCenters, 847-303-2050 or toll free 800-255-7447; she has been exceptionally helpful and  reliable. email:kimmyperry@cruiseshipcenters.com. Our original Verandah Suite cabin cost was about $3500 per person with all taxes included.  Flights are additional.