In the 19th and early 20th centuries the safest way to get from the U.S. East Coast to the West Coast was to sail around the tip of South America. “Rounding the Horn,” they called it, referring to the often rough and dangerous passage for sailing ships via the island promontory called Cape Horn.
Prospectors from the east chose clipper ships to make it to the California Gold Rush. Commercial shipping, too, continued to use the difficult route until 1915, when the Panama Canal was opened.
Today’s modern cruise ships explore attractions along a route via Cape Horn with safety and comfort, especially during the southern hemisphere spring and summer, from about November through April . I had no hesitation in climbing aboard Holland America’s ship, the Veendam for a 14-day passage from Valparaiso, Chile, to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A century ago, Valparaiso was considered one of the wealthiest cities in South America. With its steep hills, it was often called “Little San Francisco.” Even today its better neighborhoods are still reached by cable cars and funicular railways.
The MS Veendam is one of the older vessels in HAL’s fleet. It carries about 1,300 passengers as compared to newer 21st-century ships which max out at more than twice that number. The size was a good fit for me. The ship would not be crowded, and I correctly figured that many of the cruisers would be sophisticated veterans of many other sea and land adventures.
The Veendamoffered every significant attraction of more modern cruise ships, with one obvious exception. It was built before the advent of private balconies, which have become popular in recent years. In a recent refurbishment, it was found that only a few of these could be added to the vessel.
Instead, an unusual improvement was added to about 40 staterooms – sliding doors that opened directly on the Lower Promenade Deck. Although some cruisers might call it a half-way measure, I had one of these cabins and found it convenient for stepping out for a morning or evening constitutional.
The doors to these “Lanai Cabins” are covered with one-way mirrors so that I could have some privacy, at least during the day. At night, it was advisable to pull the curtains since interior lights just might be revealing even through that special glass.
After a day out of sea from Valparaiso, our first call was at Puerto Montt, a Chilean port guarded by two volcanoes. Founded by a German colony in the 19th century, the city is also known as the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway.
Continuing down the coast the following day, we paused for a few hours at Puerto Chacabuco an important center in the country’s salmon fishing industry. I decided to explore the scenic village which, in some parts, seem to be covered with buttercups.
There I ran into the town’s only English-speaking resident, an American from Massachusetts.
“Hi there! Where ya from,” he called out in an unmistakable regional accent. Paul Dion, originally from Falmouth, Mass., is a retired consultant to the salmon industry. In the summer, he and his dog, Meg, often greet passengers from cruise ships, he said, just so he could speak English now and then to someone. He handed me his business card which identified him as “El Gringo.”
For the next two days we sailed through the Chilean fjords. We paused half a day. From the open deck, we admired the large Brujo Glacier, a river of ice which comes right down to the water’s edge. One of the ships tenders was dispatched to capture one of the small floating “berglets” so we could all touch and admire it.
We also passed a genuine shipwreck, rusting half way above the water. It was a former Grace Line vessel named the Santa Leonor. She has been in that condition since the 1960s, silently proclaiming that in years going by, traffic did not always move so smoothly hereabouts.
The seventh day of the cruise found us at Punta Arenas, a Chilean port on the north shore of the Strait of Magellan. I chose a$150 excursion to the Magdelena Island penguin reserve. It took an hour and a half to get there on a ferry boat which was designed rather like a World War II invasion craft, but the experience was worth both the time and the outlay.
Our next stop was in Argentina, docking for the day in Ushuaia, population 70,000, and known as the southernmost city in the world. I chose a wildlife excursion in the Beagle Channel and enjoyed sea lions and thousands of cormorants and other creatures in the water and on land in the Tierra del Fuego National Park.
The following morning, at about 5:45 a.m. we were in cold weather and rather rough seas when the captain blew the ship’s horn. Those of us who were awake stumbled out on the deck long enough to see the island promontory of Cape Horn itself, after which we began our northward journey along the coast of Argentina.
Our first port call on our way north was at Puerto Madryn, a seaside vacation community popular with Argentineans. Shore excursions featured more opportunities for wildlife tours.
Cruise ships used to skip this port in favor of including a call on the British-owned Falkland Islands, which have now been suspended due to political pressure from the current Argentine government, which claims sovereignty over the islands. Captain Bas van Dreumel later told me that Holland America’s ships still visit the Falklands on some of its world cruises, however.
That evening many of us enjoyed the production in the Veendam’s showroom, an excellent tango show by a professional dance group who boarded the ship in Puerto Madryn.
The penultimate port on our voyage was an impressive urban experience. Montevideo, the seaside capital of the tiny country of Uruguay, is one of those attractive cities that make me feel like returning some day to take up temporary residence.
For a shore excursion, I chose what I always call the “geezer bus,” a $75 no-walking tour through the city. Pilar, our guide, was friendly and knowledgeable. This happy geezer now recommends it – but perhaps only in Montevideo.
The cruise ended the following morning in Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina, and once one of the wealthiest cities in South America. Many cruisers flew home later that day. I had visited BA before, but still took a hotel room overnight in order to become reacquainted with the city center.
As it happened, the native jacaranda trees were in full bloom, bringing a bright purple glow to the old capital, and providing a pleasant cap to the last stop on our Veendam voyage.
Prices for the two-week long South America Passage cruise begin at $4,000 per person, based on double occupancy, in an inside cabin.
A more detailed day-by-day blog, created while on the cruise, may be seen by clicking http://allthingscruise.com/
Photos by Robert W. Bone