We woke up early on our last day in Rio (and, unfortunately, our last day in South America) so that we could go back to Mount Corcovado for a better look at the iconic Christ the Redeemer (and the unparalleled panoramic view of the city) than we were able to glean yesterday. From our hotel window, we could see that this morning the bright blue sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds and we were hopeful that we could make it to the top of the mountain before the clouds gathered around the giant statue.
Kim had arranged for an Uber that would take us to the base of Corcovado from where we would board the Corcovado Rack Railway, also referred to as the Cog Train, to make the journey up the mountain. It took just 15 minutes from the JW Marriott on Copacabana beach to the train entrance and we arrived shortly before the first scheduled departure at 8:00am.
There are 3 trains that make the trip to the base of the statue with scheduled departures every 20 minutes. Each train has 2 cars with the ability to transport up to 180 people per trip. There was quite a long queue by the time we reached the ramp leading up to the ticket office but we were able to get on the first train to make the 20 minute climb up Corcovado. Most of that time was spent travelling through the lush Atlantic Forest that covers the mountain.
We arrived at Christ the Redeemer before 8:30am and while clouds had already started forming above the statue we had a full, unobstructed view of the magnificent monument. We were so glad we had made the return today after our rather disappointing try yesterday. Not only was the weather more agreeable, there were quite a few less people here today, undoubtedly due to our much earlier start. We took in the amazing views of the sprawling city below and saw some of the places we had visited yesterday, including the Maracanã Stadium, Sugarloaf Mountain and Copacabana Beach.
We spent about 45 minutes walking around the statue and taking in the various viewpoints of the city below before we decided to head back to make our return trip on the train. Kim used the WIFI connection in the restaurant at the base of the statue to book an Uber that would meet us at the exit to the train. We were back at the hotel before 9:30 and were in time to have a late breakfast before heading out to the beach.
After breakfast, we donned our swimsuits and flipflops, then walked across the boulevard directly to the expansive beach. The hotel had a designated area for guests where we were able to get complimentary lounge chairs, umbrellas and towels. Since it was only mid-morning, the white, sandy beach was still relatively quiet, although there were a considerable number of booths open that were selling food and beverage, souvenirs and crafts. It is easy to see why Copacabana is considered one of the world’s best beaches. It is located in the South Zone of the city and stretches 4 kilometers from south to north.
The warm sun, combined with the cooling breeze off the Atlantic could not have made this relaxing morning any more perfect. We had a great view up and down the beach with Christ the Redeemer peering down on us from behind the hotels. Kim arranged for a surprise leg message and we each had a featured cocktail from one of the nearby vendors. We did take an occasional dip in the water, but the breaking waves were quite rough and the force of the current around our legs and feet was a bit unsettling.
As it was approaching noon, we reluctantly left the beach to go back to the hotel. Our initial check-out time was 12:00 o’clock, but we had a late-night flight back to Toronto and we still had one more excursion planned for the afternoon. We paid for an extended check-out that would allow us to use the room until 6:00pm. We changed into our street clothes and went back to the lobby to wait for our guide and driver to take us on our last excursion in South America - a walking tour of one of Rio’s hundreds of favellas.
We were picked up at 1:00pm and joined by about a dozen other people in the van that drove us to the starting point of our tour. Our guide was a wiry, grizzled gentleman in his 50’s who had been born and raised in the Rocinha favella where we would be doing our walk. He had been raised by his grandmother and without the benefit of a formal education, had taught himself English and spent his youth reading. Throughout our tour he talked with passion and pride about his neighbourhood and the enduring people that made a living and raised their families in its confines. Despite the run-down appearance of the structures that had been built over the decades, he portrayed a vibrant community of people who made the best of their meagre circumstances.
Rocinha is the largest favella in Brazil with a population of about 100,000 residents. It is located in the South Zone of Rio and only 1 kilometre from the nearest beach. Much like the shantytowns in South Africa, favellas in Rio originated from the influx of rural and migrant workers who set up makeshift housing along the outskirts of the city. As more and more migrants arrived, the favellas expanded into the metropolitan areas and evolved into distinct neighbourhoods.
As we drove from the exclusive hotel district with its wide avenues and modern buildings into the favella, there was a noticeable change in general surroundings. The streets were much narrower with far more pedestrians than other areas of the South Zone. The buildings were primarily brick and concrete, many covered in graffiti and local pop art. Rocinha is built on a steep hill and our driver took us to the highest part of the neighbourhood. We got out of the van and walked through the favella towards the bottom, where the van would pick us up. We walked down countless steep steps through narrow, dark alleys that took us past dozens of tiny apartments built next to, and on top of each other. Many had openings for doors and windows that were missing making privacy almost non-existent. Most of the houses have only basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity (masses of tangled electrical wire were dangling overhead and strung from building to building).
Rocinha has more infrastructure than many of the other favellas and has hundreds of businesses including banks, pharmacies, and its own TV channel making it relatively self-sufficient. The tour of Rocinha is an eye-opening experience that emphasizes the wide disparity that exists between the poor neighbourhoods of Rio and the wealth that is evident in the affluent areas little more than a kilometre away.
After leaving the favella, we elected to walk to our hotel instead of taking the van back with the rest of the group. The late afternoon sun was still quite warm, and we wanted to enjoy a bit more sunshine before the bitter cold that would welcome us back in Canada. When we got to the hotel, we finished packing up, checked out of our room and dropped our luggage off at the front desk to hold for us until we left for the airport.
There was an outdoor Italian restaurant in the hotel next to ours that we had decided to book for dinner. It was a great spot overlooking the boulevard and the beach beyond. We ordered a couple of homemade pasta dishes - Kim had a hearty Stuffed Ravioli, while I opted for a freshly made Fettuccini Alfredo. We lingered over our meal while we enjoyed the evening ambiance and mood of Copacabana.
With mixed emotions we finally left the restaurant to pick up our bags at the hotel and booked an Uber to take us to the airport. We had been away for a full 3 weeks and had visited 4 countries in South America - Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Our trip had included some incredible memories and several of the most amazing sites in the world. We also left with the knowledge that there were still some South American destinations on our bucket list including Galapogos, the Amazon and Machu Piccu and that we would be back.
Sailing Through South America - Day 21
We would be spending our last two days in South America in the vibrant metropolitan city of Rio de Janeiro, more commonly known as just “Rio”. Like the rest of Brazil (and unlike the rest of South America) the predominant language in Rio is Portuguese. It is one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere, and while it was the original capital of Brazil, that distinction changed in 1960 when the national capital was moved to Brasilia.
Rio de Janeiro received its name when the first Portuguese navigators arrived at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on the Atlantic Coast of South Eastern Brazil. The navigators mistook the bay for a river (rio in Portuguese) and since it was January 1st, they creatively called it Rio de Janeiro - River of January.
Kim had selected the JW Marriot Hotel Rio de Janeiro as our headquarters for our 2 day stopover in Rio and the location could not have been more perfect. Aside from being at Copacabana, arguably the most famous beach in the world, it was conveniently located near all of the major things that we wanted to see and do on our short stay. Directly behind our hotel was Mount Corcovado, the site of the iconic Christ the Redeemer, which we could see from the beach or from the rooftop pool and bar. From our balcony overlooking the beach, we also had an unobstructed view of Sugarloaf Mountain, one of the major attractions of the city.
We had enjoyed a very restful sleep in the comfortable king bed adorned with luxurious linens on our first night at the JW Marriott so we awoke refreshed and ready to start exploring the sights and sounds of Rio. Before heading out on our first excursion, we went to the Carioca dining area for breakfast where we selected items from an extensive buffet offering.
After breakfast we were picked up by the tour company that Kim had booked and we squeezed into the narrow seats of a tour van that would be taking us around the city for most of the day. We left the hotel just after 8:00am under partly sunny skies and made a couple of stops at other local hotels to pick up the rest of the passengers that were also on the tour. While the hotels were all located in the same general area of Copacabana, not all of the passengers were ready when we arrived to pick them up. In one case we waited nearly 10 minutes for the couple to meet us at their pick-up location. While this is not the way we typically tour (with 12-16 people) it was the most efficient way to get around this massive city to see the major sites in one day.
Our first visit would be to one of the locations we had been looking forward to the most - Christ the Redeemer, standing, arms outstretched, atop Mount Corcovado and one of the most recognizable monuments in the world. It should normally have taken about 20 minutes from our hotel to the entrance of the site where the tickets are purchased but, because of the delay we encountered waiting for passengers, it took over an hour. As a result, by the time the van drove to the entrance of Christ the Redeemer and the guide picked up our tickets so we could be shuttled to the monument at the top of Mount Corcovado, the clouds had begun to settle around the monument which quickly became obscured in a thick, gray mist. We were barely able to make out the statue, even at close quarters, and we could only get glimpses through the cloud, of the sprawling city below, which seemed to be basking in sunshine. After a short discussion with the tour guide, Kim and I determined that it would be best to try again tomorrow and arrive earlier in order to avoid the persistent mist that begins settling on the mountain by mid-morning.
After leaving Mount Corcovado, we continued on our city tour, descending the mountainside on the narrow, winding road that took us through several residential and business neighbourhoods.
We toured around the city core and passed by the famous Maracana Stadium, host of 2 FIFA World Cups, the 2016 Summer Olympics as well as concerts for some of music’s biggest icons including Tina Turner, Paul McArtney, Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Rolling Stones. The stadium was opened in 1950 to host the FIFA World Cup in front of 199,854 spectators making it the world’s largest stadium by capacity and it has held several events in excess of 100,000 until the late 1990’s. Its capacity has been reduced over time as bleachers have been replaced by more comfortable seats and its current capacity is 78,000 as a result of renovations for the 2014 Summer Olympics, still making it the largest stadium in Brazil.
We continued our drive to our next stop - the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian. This is unlike any cathedral that we have ever visited. While most cathedrals have a traditional, Gothic style with tall spires typically topped by a cross, this one looks like a simple but modern concrete pyramid, devoid on the outside of any religious or Christian symbolism. Inside there is only one level with no columns or supporting structures. It is a large, mostly empty space that can seat 5000 people with a standing room capacity of 20,000. There is a large stepped platform at the center where the main altar is located. Each of the 4 pyramid walls is highlighted by an immense stained glass window that soars 64 meters high (equivalent to 15 stories of a high-rise).
After leaving the San Sebastian, we travelled for another 15 minutes passing through a neighbourhood adorned with colourful and elaborate street art, something we had seen a few times on our morning drive around Rio. We arrived at yet another world famous location in Rio, the Seleron Steps located in the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods. The steps were the creation of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who began painting the 215 steps measuring 125 metres long in 1990. He originally scavenged tiles from construction sites and waste he found on Rio streets. Eventually, visitors from the around the world would donate tiles that they brought with them and now the steps are covered in more than 2000 distinct and diverse tiles from more than 60 countries. We found several tiles that celebrated Canada, and Kim was particularly drawn to one of Princess Diana whom she had been a fan of since childhood. The steps are a kaleidoscope of colour on a remarkable yet utilitarian canvas that are walked on by thousands of people every day.
It was nearly 1:00pm when we re-boarded the van and drove towards Copacabana beach on our way to lunch. It had been nearly 6 hours since we’d had breakfast so Kim and I were both hungry. The tour operator had booked a reservation for us at Churrasacaria Carretao Lido, a traditional Brazilian rotisserie steakhouse serving sizzling meats, salads, cold cuts and sauces as well as Japanese cuisine including sushi and sashimi. The restaurant was extremely busy and our group was seated at the reserved table near the front of the restaurant. Each of us was provided with a 2 sided disk the size of a coaster which was green on one side and red on the other. Bustling waiters began arriving at our table with large skewers of sizzling meat including beef, pork, chicken and lamb. As long as the green side of the disk was facing up, slabs of steaming meat were placed on your plate. One of the most popular skewered dishes for a trio of our group who were work colleagues from Guatemala, was the chicken hearts. There were more than a dozen hearts on each skewer and the trio had several skewers each. To top off the meal and help digest our food, some of us ordered a cachaça, the traditional Brazilian spirit which, by law, must be produced in Brazil from local sugarcane.
The final stop scheduled on our tour was to Sugarloaf Mountain, situated on a peninsula that reaches out into Guanabara Bay. It is so named because it resembles the traditional cone shape of the concentrated loaf sugar that was commonly transported during the 16th century at the height of Brazil’s sugarcane trade. The summit of Sugarloaf is attained via 2 cable car rides - the first to Morro da Urca and from there to the taller Sugarloaf peak. The cable car system has been running since 1912 though it has been upgraded several times since. The cars are Swiss-made and bubble shaped allowing for a 360 degree panoramic view of the city, beaches and bay area.
Since this was the last stop of our escorted tour and given that we were relatively close to our hotel on Copacabana (which we could see from Sugarloaf), we told our guide that we would leave the group at this point and find out own way back to the hotel. This gave us additional time to spent on Sugarloaf at our own pace and not have to wait in the van as we dropped off the rest of the passengers at their respective hotels. This proved to be a wise decision as the Uber ride from the Sugarloaf entrance to our hotel was roughly ten minutes.
It was mid-afternoon when we got back to the hotel and as it was quite warm, we went to the rooftop pool to enjoy the spectacular views of the beach. We also had a great view of 2 of the sites we had visited earlier - Christ the Redeemer, looking down on us from his perch on the mountain behind the hotel and Sugarloaf Mountain, in the distance on the beachside of the hotel. We sat at a table next to the glass railing overlooking the beach sipping on glasses of sparkling wine and chatting casually about our day.
I had booked a reservation at an Italian restaurant located about a kilometer from the hotel and further down the beach. We walked from our hotel along the wide but busy sidewalk passing hotel after hotel until we arrived at the restaurant - the Allora Al Miramer. Since we were early by South American standards (our reservation was for 7:00pm), the restaurant was nearly empty. We were seated at a window table looking out onto the main street that separates the hotels from the beach. We each ordered a pasta dish accompanied by wine.
Following dinner we decided to cross over to the very wide boulevard the runs down the middle of the street, splitting the opposing lanes of traffic. Each side of the street has 3 lanes of traffic and in the 2 days we were here the traffic was seemingly unending. It gets particularly busy at night so we were extremely cautious in crossing from our side of the street to the boulevard. The boulevard itself becomes a bustling market at night with stall after stall of crafts, clothes, souvenirs and mobile liquor carts where you can buy a beer or your favourite alcoholic beverage to consume as you continue down the street. The cacophony of sound coming from the beach, the market and the traffic was interspersed with occasional police or ambulance sirens. We weren’t sure whether to feel intimidated or relieved by the sight of police officers at nearly every intersection along the stretch from the restaurant back to our hotel. At any rate, we enjoyed the casual walk back to the hotel and took in as much as we could of this very sensory experience before we retired for the night.
Continue to the final day - click here
We woke to our second day in Iguazu Falls and looked out of our balcony onto heavy, overcast skies. After packing up our bags, we went down for breakfast then waited for our driver to pick us up at the hotel entrance. After exploring the Argentinean side of the falls yesterday, we would be crossing the border and viewing the falls from the Brazilian side. Our travel companions today would be a young Boston family and a single American traveler from one of the southern US states.
It was about a half hour drive from the Panoramic Grand Iguazu Hotel to the entrance to Iguazu Park on the Brazil side. Our border crossing was uneventful. Our guide took our passports and completed all of the formalities for us - we never even went inside the customs building. This was an unusual experience for us.
We were dropped off near the park entrance and waited for our guide to purchase the tickets. The Brazilian park was created in 1939 and covers approximately 185,000 hectares of land and contains 20% of the falls in the Iguazu system.
Yesterday, while on the Argentinean side, we spent most of the day walking along boardwalks and trails that took us across the basin to the edge of the dozens of falls on that side of the Devil’s Throat Canyon where we looked down into the raging flow of water gushing over the cliffs. Today, on the Brazilian side, we were looking across the canyon , and viewing the stunning panorama, some 1200 metres long, on the Argentinian side where we had spent most of yesterday exploring.
The experience is very different depending on which country you are viewing the falls from. We felt that the Argentinean side was more immersive and allowed us to get quite close to the tumbling waters. The Brazilian side is a more serene experience that provides spectacular views of the falls from a distance but also allows you to appreciate the vastness of the Iguazu system. This side was also less strenuous with more level pathways and fewer steps so if mobility is a concern - the Brazilian side is perhaps a better choice.
We also felt that, while we needed a full day to explore the falls from the Argentinian side, we could comfortably do the Brazilian side in a 1/2 day. In order to get a full appreciation of Iguazu National Park, you should really experience it from both sides.
After our visit to the Brazilian falls, our driver took us to Foz do Iguaçu Airport (IGU) for our flight to Rio de Janeiro. This was a different airport than when we had flown into Iguazu a few days before and landed at Cataratas del Iguazú (IGR) on the Argentine side as our inbound flight had been from Buenos Aires. Both airports are a mere 15 kilometers apart, and quite close to Iguazu Falls.
Since we had several hours before our departure to Rio, we decided to leave our bags at a locker on the outside of the terminal building and take a short 5 minute cab ride to Parque des Aves just 2.7 kilometers from the terminal. Parques des Aves is a rainforest bird sanctuary and the 2nd most visited attraction in the area after Iguazu Falls. It is billed as the only institution in the world focused on the conservation of Atlantic Rainforest birds. It features the birds of the area as well as mammals, reptiles, insects and fauna in their natural forest habitat.
The light mist that had been in the air since our day began had turned into a steady rainfall as we were about to enter the sanctuary, so we splurged on a couple of full length ponchos at the gift shop before buying our park tickets.
The park is dense, lush and fragrant from the overhanging rainforest and myriad flowers (including orchids). The trails throughout the park guide you through various regions in order to explore the abundant wildlife and fauna. We saw toucans, hummingbirds, hundreds of butterflies, various turtles and other reptiles in the hour or so that we spent in the sanctuary.
We made a brief stop at a covered outdoor restaurant to eat some lunch before leaving the sanctuary and heading back to the airport.
Despite the ponchos we were thoroughly drenched from the pouring rain. We picked up our luggage from the storage locker, checked into our flight and sat in the single waiting area from where all the flights were departing. While we waited for our flight to be called, I ordered us each a glass of wine from one of the food booths at one end of the departure lounge. The wine was served in elegant stemmed glasses which I was allowed to take back to the seating area in the departure lounge. Very classy.
After a relatively short 2 hour flight from Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro, we took an Uber from the airport to the JW Marriott Copacabana which is situated at the famous beach of the same name. As it was quite late when we arrived, we ordered our dinner from room service and retired to bed to get a well-deserved sleep after an exhilarating 2 days at Iguazu Falls.
Continue to Day 21 - click here
On our last morning in Buenos Aires, we woke to the sounds of clapping thunder in the overcast skies and pattering rain against our hotel room window. This was a travel day, so we weren’t going to be missing any excursions because of the inclement weather. We packed our bags and brought them down to the lobby, then went to the breakfast area to get something to eat before heading off to the airport.
It was about a 30 km drive from our downtown hotel to the Ministro Pistarini International Airport on the outskirts of the city. Our 35 minute cab ride cost us 230 Argentine pesos, which at the time of our trip converted to $5.00 CAD. When we arrived at the airport, the terminal was in a state of chaos. The severe thunderstorms had caused multiple flight delays. As a result, we had to wait in a seemingly endless line to check our luggage. When we finally got through the line and our bags were tagged, we were told to hurry to the gate as the plane was about to depart. We rushed through security and ran to the departure gate (arriving 5 minutes before our flight was scheduled to leave) only to find yet another endless line of people waiting for boarding to begin. It took another 30 minutes to complete the boarding process so our actual departure was delayed by almost an hour.
Once on board the Boeing 737, we settled into a rather uneventful flight from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu for 1 hour and 50 minutes.
By the time our flight landed at the Cataratas del Iguazú International Airport on the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls it was just after 12:30pm. We disembarked from the plane and made our way through the smallish terminal to the baggage area. We watched as the bags starting tumbling out of the shoot onto the conveyor and finally saw our first bag come through. We then waited another 10 minutes or so until the last of the remaining bags dropped onto the conveyor only to realize that our second bag had not made the flight. After reporting the missing bag at the baggage service desk, we left the terminal and met our waiting driver who took us to our hotel in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina which is a pleasant 25 minute drive from the airport through forested countryside.
Puerto Iguazu is the main city on the Argentinean side of the falls. It has a population of just over 80,000 and is situated about 18kms from the world-renowned Iguazu Falls. Because of its proximity to the falls, it is primarily a tourist town and that is reflected in the numerous restaurants, bars, cafes and boutiques that line its streets.
Our hotel, the Panoramic Grand Iguazu, was located about a kilometer from what looked like the downtown core. We had turned off one of the main streets onto a side street that cut through a small forested area. The road made a long, sweeping curve to the right and we could make out a river on our left side. As we rounded the curve, we spotted the hotel on a hillside to our right, partially hidden by the trees. There is a grand lawn lined with tall, majestic palm trees that leads to the entrance of the hotel. It sits majestically atop the hillside overlooking the confluence of the Iguazu and Parana rivers.
We checked in at the hotel and were given keys to our room which had an incredible view of the pool and out over the river to our own “panoramic” view of the Triple Frontier - the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. It was quite breathtaking.
After unpacking our bag, we went to the dining room for a light lunch. Our swim suits were packed into the missing luggage so we weren’t able to swim, but spent the rest of the afternoon sitting by the pool and enjoying the warm outdoors. We kept checking with reception about the status of our second bag and it was eventually delivered just after 3:00pm, so we were finally able to change into our swim suits and go into the pool. We had dinner in the hotel dining room and enjoyed a relaxing evening in our room in preparation for our day on the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls.
After spending a very comfortable night at the lovely Panoramic Grand Resort Iguazu, we were ready for a day of exploring on the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls. We were picked up by our driver just after 8:30am. Kim had arranged a small group tour for our outing and we were accompanied by a lovely Australian family of 3. The husband actually works on contract in Argentina and his wife and daughter were visiting with him for a few weeks.
It took about 20 minutes for the drive from the hotel to the Iguazu Falls Visitor’s Centre. Julio, our guide, purchased our tickets for the park which included a return trip on the Rainforest Ecological Train, an environmentally friendly train that transports up to 150 passengers per trip from the Visitor’s Centre to the Cataratas (Waterfalls) Station and then Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) Station.
As we made our way to the Cataratas Station, Julio gave us some of the highlights of the falls. The source of the falls is the Iguazu River which originates as a small spring in the Serra do Mar coastal mountains near Curitiba, a town about 1200 kms to the east in the state of Parana, Brazil. The depth of the water in the falls ranges between 50cms and 5m and flows at 2 million litres per second. There are 275 separate waterfalls that make up the Iguazu Falls and about 80% of those are on the Argentinean side. The name Iguazu means “big water” in the indigenous Tupi language and the name could not be more descriptive. For comparison, Iguazu is 2.7 kilometers wide and Niagara Falls is 1.1 kilometers wide. Iguazu is also about 30 meters taller than Niagara Falls. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984 (Argentinean side) and 1985 (Brazilian Side).
Up first was the train ride to the Devil’s Throat Station. We left the train and proceeded to the Devil’s Gorge walkway, a bridge approximately 1 kilometer in length that traverses the basin leading up to Devil’s Throat, the largest and most spectacular water curtain of Iguazu Falls. We passed across several small islands as we walked along the steel bridge towards Devil’s Throat. We could hear the increasing roar of the falls as we kept getting closer and closer. The bridge ends right at the edge of Devil’s Throat and opens onto a large balcony overhanging the falls. The view was outstanding! What was fascinating to me were the Great Dusky Swifts that were swooping in and out through the thundering curtain of water. Apparently they build their nests along the exposed rocks behind the rushing water.
We spent about 20 minutes at the Devil’s Throat before heading back along the walkway to the station. We disembarked from the train at Cataratas Station which acts as the starting point for the Upper and Lower Circuits that consist of trails with boardwalks and bridges giving access to large expanses of the basin along the edge of the falls. Over the next 1 and half hours we walked both circuits getting up close to, and having spectacular views from the top of some of the larger falls on the Argentinean side. There was a perpetual mist in the air as we crisscrossed the trails going from rainforest to water basin and back to rainforest. One of the startling observations that I made was the vast number of gigantic spider webs that were strung between overhanging limbs on either side of the trail. In the middle of each web was a single mammoth spider roughly the size of my hand.
After finishing both circuits we ended up back at Cataratas Station where we re-boarded the train and rode all the way back to the main Visitor’s Centre where we had a quick lunch and prepared for our afternoon excursion - an open truck ride through the rainforest followed by a jet boat ride in the Devil’s Throat Canyon. While we waited for our truck to arrive we spotted several coati, a raccoon-like mammal that is abundant in this part of the rainforest.
Our rainforest drive was aboard a raised platform on top of a flatbed truck with wooden bench seats and railings along both sides and the back. It sat roughly 30 people plus the guide who was perched on an elevated seat just behind the cab window. We followed a dirt trail that wove 7 kilometers through the dense jungle from the Visitor’s Centre to the edge of Devil’s Throat canyon where we would be disembarking for the jet boat ride. We were on the lookout for the colourful tucans that are quite plentiful in this area and tend to perch on the treetops. The heavy overcast skies made it difficult to spot them, although our guide tried to point out one or two which she was able to discern in the distance. We did see a variety of other birds and many more mammoth spiders which hung across the trail in their delicate webs just above our heads as we passed underneath them.
We arrived at a parking area about 200m from the water’s edge where we climbed down from the truck and funnelled to a long series of stone and wooden staircases that would take us down to the river. The descent was slow and gradual, but we could tell that the climb back would be an effort. Our group emptied on to a large wooden platform where the jetboats darted in and out to load and unload passengers. We donned life jackets and covered ourselves with plastic ponchos before climbing into the jetboat. Our shoes, socks, cell phones and other items were placed in waterproof bags and stored under our seats. The crew checked to make sure we were all safely seated and the guide gave us some initial instructions about our boat ride, then we pulled away from the dock to begin our adventure.
We travelled for about 20 minutes along the swiftly moving water, heading towards the falls with the Brazilian border on our left and the Argentinean border on our right. We passed by a number of resorts and hotels sitting atop the cliffs. The water became noticeably faster and more turbulent as we got closer to the falls and we could see billowing clouds of mist in the distance. Finally we reached the deepest part of the canyon and could make out the falls that we had viewed from above just a few hours before.
After making a few passes in and out of some smaller rushing rapids we approached the base of a couple of the taller, thundering falls and got close enough to get thoroughly drenched as our boat bounced around in the turbulent waters. We paused about a hundred metres from one of the biggest falls in this part of the canyon and our guide advised us to hang on. The boat then sped directly at the falling curtain of raging water and didn’t stop until we crossed into it. That moment was both terrifying and exhilarating. We felt the full force of Iguazu as it came crashing on top of us. All of us were screaming with excitement as we emerged back into the stiller waters away from the cliff. We continued to explore more of the many cliffs and falls in and around Devil’s Throat before turning around and returning to our embarking point. The total time for our boat adventure was 2 hours and it was one of our favourite highlights of the area. Aside from the sheer exhilaration, it also provided a very different perspective on Iguazu from what we had experienced in the morning, when we were walking and viewing the falls from above.
Check out this video that gives you an a better idea of the falls and their immense size.
After leaving the boat, we made our way up the stairs to the parking area and re-boarded our truck for the return trip through the rainforest to the Visitor’s Centre. Our van was waiting for us when we arrived and we drove back to the hotel where we showered and changed in preparation for an evening in the town of Puerto Iguazu.
It was a short and comfortable 15 minute walk from our hotel to the main town. Kim had arranged for us to attend a unique Argentinean food and culture experience. We had about 45 minutes to browse along one of bustling streets in this picturesque town before our reservation. We stopped at a wine bar a few doors down from the entrance to the Argentine Experience and enjoyed a glass of local wine while we waited for the dinner venue to open.
Arriving at the Argentine Experience just as the doors opened, we were led through the reception area and into a large room with several long wooden tables.
We sat down at our table and were soon joined by about 12 other people, couples and friends, from different parts of the world. Kim always finds a very special place for us to experience local food and culture, but this one was especially unique. Not only would we be delighting in a five course meal with wine pairings, this time we would be participating in the food preparation. Following introductions from our hosts, we donned the chef’s hats that were provided and toasted each other with sparkling wine. We were then shown how to make a local cocktail that we paired with our Patagonian trout tartar appetizer.
Our next challenge was to prepare a classic empanada that we made for our partner.
This course was followed by a thick and juicy mouthwatering 200 gram beef fillet cooked to order along with grilled vegetables and a flavourful au jus. The final course was a creamy, delicious dulce de leche mousse accompanied with red berries. Each course was strategically matched with a superb Argentinean wine. The Argentine Experience was a great way, not only to enjoy the tastes of this South American country, but to do so in a fun, lively and interactive way.
We needed the walk back to our hotel to burn off some of the incalculable calories that we had consumed for dinner. Our day on the Argentinean side of Iguazu Falls had been full and exhilarating and by the time we got to our room we were exhausted and ready for bed.
Continue to Day 20 - click here
Sailing Through South America - Day 16
We woke up early to our second day in Buenos Aires and our last morning on the ship. It had been an exhilarating and adventurous cruise for 14 days on Celebrity Eclipse from Santiago in Chile, along the Pacific coast of South America, then rounding Cape Horn and sailing north along the Atlantic Coast of Argentina and finally making port in Buenos Aires. We had our final breakfast in the Oceanview Cafe then waited in the Martini Bar until 9:50am when our disembarkation number was called and we were able to leave the ship. When we left the Eclipse for the last time, we only had a short wait for the shuttle to take us to the terminal building. After going through the terminal, we walked out to get a taxi. We were surprised to find that port taxis are not metered and drivers can seemingly charge whatever the like. One driver asked for $30 dollars US to drive us to our hotel in Palermo which was about 8 kilometres away. We settled with another driver at $20 US dollars.
Our hotel was in the Palermo area, a trendy barrio (neighbourhood) located in the north of the city that is known for its restaurants, cocktail bars and fashion stores. It is also known as the Polo capital of the World and hosts the annual Argentine Polo Open, also called the Palermo Open. Our home for the next two nights was the Duque Hotel, a lovely boutique property with only 12 rooms and a small but serene courtyard at the back of the hotel that has a garden area with a pool. It also has a cafe and sitting room where a breakfast (included in the rate) is available. As we had arrived around 10:30am, we dropped off our luggage and ventured out to the trendy Palermo Soho area where we would spend the rest of the morning.
Palermo Soho, along with Palermo Hollywood, is one of the trendiest and most visited places in Buenos Aires. While many tourists and locals alike come here for the exclusive boutiques and chic restaurants, we came for something totally different. Palermo Soho is one of the best places to appreciate the incredible murals and street art that cover many of the stores, cafes and restaurants that line both sides of the narrow, mostly cobblestone streets in and around Calle Santa Rosa. It is like walking through a vast outdoor art gallery. Usually this area is teeming with people, especially on the weekends. Because it was Sunday and we had arrived before noon, the streets were still relatively quiet, which allowed us to roam the neighbourhood at our leisure and take our time to admire the more detailed and elaborate works. To make the experience even more enjoyable, the temperature was quite comfortable at 25 degrees Celcius under bright blue skies.
After spending a couple of hours exploring the different alleys and side streets, we found a local outdoor cafe to rest for a bit and enjoy some of the local food. Because Kim had arranged for us to have dinner at a private wine tasting and pairing club later that evening, we decided on a light lunch consisting of a local pizza dish that came with a mixture of fresh greens. Mine was accompanied by an Argentinean beer while Kim opted for a glass of local Sauvignon Blanc. Considering the amount of food that we would be consuming over the next 2 days, we couldn’t have made a better choice for our lunch selection today.
After leaving the cafe, we went back to the hotel, which was about a 20 minute walk. We gathered our bags which we had checked at reception when we first arrived and went up to our room to change into our bathing suits. We took the stairs down to the main lobby and walked through the sitting room to the back of the hotel and the outdoor garden. We had the garden and pool to ourselves. Kim got into the very refreshing pool which was heated by the sun shining down into the courtyard. I got us each a gin and tonic, then settled into a very comfortable lounger in a shady spot at the side of the pool where I faded into a gentle and relaxing nap.
At least once on every trip, we try and find a unique eatery that features cuisine from the local region. Kim has a knack for finding the most exclusive venues that offer a sampling of food and wine and that captures the essence of the places we explore. One such venue is the Casa Coupage, a private wine tasting and pairing club run by Sommelier, Santiago Mymicopulo.
The closed-door, private restaurant which requires an advance reservation was a quick 10 minute walk from our hotel and is located in a narrow converted home on a quiet residential street. We rang the doorbell, and were greeted at the door by the hostess who presented us with a glass of chilled sparkling wine, then escorted us up a flight of stairs to the main dining area which is situated in a bright, narrow rectangular room with a long dining table that seats 12, taking up most of the space. As we were the first to arrive, Kim and I sat across from each other at one end of the table. We sipped our wine and snacked on an appetizer as the rest of the guests joined us - a couple from the UK and a group of 5 women from different parts of the US who frequently travel together.
Santiago introduced himself and gave us a bit of background on himself and the restaurant. He went over the menu and wines that we would be enjoying and emphasized the importance that both taste and smell have in the overall dining experience as well as how the wines express themselves in different ways when paired with various dishes. During the course of the evening he invited us to try several different scent exercises to test the abilities of our nose. It was loads of fun. He spent time exploring the regions of Argentina and explaining why a certain wine was paired with each course. We love to understand the consideration that goes into the pairing and the selection of the menu as it relates to the wine so this was amazing for us.
Our tasting consisted of 7 different wines (including the sparkling wine we had when we arrived) paired with a 7 course menu. While most of the wines that were served were reds, including a couple of different Malbecs from Mendoza, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir, one of the wines was a very aromatic and flowery Torrontés, the most famous white wine from Argentina. Kim was able to substitute her reds for additional Torrontés and Sauvignon Blanc. The food choices were fantastic. The chef was extremely creative and we enjoyed every course that was beautifully presented.
The Casa Coupage was a wonderful way to spend an evening, and is particularly enjoyable in a small group setting where there is always lively conversation with people from different places. The wine tasting and food pairing is a great way to discover, in just a couple of hours, the best wines and foods that an area has to offer.
Continue to Day 17 - click here
Sailing Through South America - Day 15
After cruising from Montevideo overnight, we had arrived at our final port of call on the Celebrity Eclipse - the beautiful city of Buenos Aires. While this was the last port we would be visiting from the Eclipse, our disembarkation would not be until the next day, so we had the benefit of one final dinner and night about the ship.
The Port of Buenos Aires is the largest and busiest in Argentina resulting in a considerable amount of congestion around the port. This meant that we needed to take a shuttle from the ship to the main terminal building which resulted in having to wait around 20 minutes before an empty shuttle was available. At the terminal, we met up with our driver and guide Valeria, who would be taking us on a private city tour of Buenos Aires.
Leaving the terminal on route to our first stop of the day, the Recoleta Cemetery, we passed through the Retiro neighbourhood and the famous Floralis Generica, a steel and aluminum sculpture in the shape of a giant silver flower. What is unique about this sculpture, that was erected in 2002, is that the petals of the flower open and close depending on the time of day. Typically, the flower opens at 8:00am and closes at sunset when it emanates a red glow from inside. Unfortunately for us, the flower had not been working for the last 3 months and the petals were partially closed.
As we continued our drive to Recoleta, we passed by spacious parks with magnificent, mature trees and green space. Valeria told us that the city provides free exercise classes in the parks and we were able to see small groups of people practicing yoga and other activities as we drove by. The city has a very European feel and we were immediately reminded of Paris.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when we arrived at the Recoleta Cemetery. We have seen some pretty amazing cemeteries in our travels, including the St. Louis Cemeteries in New Orleans, the Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery in Jerusalem and a little known but remarkable one in the town of Sete in Southern France. The Recoleta Cemetery is often referred to as “the World’s Best Cemetery”, and after spending more than an hour walking through the labyrinth of marble tombs and monuments, I can see how it got its moniker. It is unlike any cemetery we have ever visited. While the tombs are all above ground, like the famous cemeteries in New Orleans, Recoleta is far from gloomy. It resembles an elaborate city with stately pillars and elaborate carvings that is home to nearly 10,000 deceased patrons. Each mausoleum contains 7 to 14 people descends 2 levels underground.
The cemetery is the burial site of some of the most famous figures in Argentina, including the iconic Eva “Evita” Peron, who was Argentina’s First Lady while her husband, Juan Peron was President of the country. Eva Peron died of cancer in 1952, but because of military upheaval in Argentina at the time, her body went missing and was not buried in Recoleta until 1972. Her tomb is simple compared to many others in the cemetery, but it is one of the most visited. Her final resting place is 5 metres underground in a fortified bunker that is presumed to prevent her remains from ever becoming disturbed again. Recoleta is definitely a “must see” on any visit to Buenos Aires.
Leaving the Recoleta Cemetery, we passed by the Obelisca de Buenos Aires - a National Historic Monument, and the symbol of Buenos Aires. We also had a chance to see the Palace of the Argentine Congress which was constructed at the end of the 19th century and is currently being restored.
Not far from the National Congress we stopped in front of the Teatro Colon (Columbus Theatre), which is the main opera house in Argentina where Kim had booked a tour for us. I have to admit, I am not much of an opera person, but was willing to do the tour nonetheless. I was more than pleasantly surprised. This theatre is an architectural marvel, which was refurbished from 2005 to 2008 by more than 1500 workers at a cost of $100 million dollars. It has elaborate decor with carved columns, stunning stained glass windows and skylights and spacious ante rooms. The main theatre is horseshoe shaped and rises 6 stories above ground and 3 below. It is considered to be one of the top 5 performance venues anywhere on the globe and has hosted the top singers and conductors in the world. The acoustics are so precise that Luciano Pavarotti, the renowned tenor, found it the most challenging theatre to sing in because it amplified every mistake.
Following our tour of the theatre we stopped to walk around Plaza de Mayo which is surrounded by some of the most impressive buildings in Buenos Aires including the Casa Rosada (Pink Palace) which was originally the old Customs House, but now houses the offices of the Argentine President. We also got a chance to see Cabildo de Buenos Aires, a colonial style building that houses a museum of the Cabildo (post-colonial administrative council) and the May Revolution. Before leaving the plaza we visited the Metropolitan Cathedral, home of the Archbishop of Argentina, the most famous being Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who is now Pope Francis.
We left Plaza de Mayo and drove about 10 minutes to another plaza in San Telmo. This area is the birthplace of Tango and the most famous market in Buenos Aires, a sprawling indoor and outdoor market. We meandered through several aisles of the market taking in the smell of fresh vegetables and fruits along with cooking dishes that were being prepared in the various bars and cafes. We stopped at tiny cafe called El Hornero that had a stand up bar in front of a brick oven. Valeria told us this was the best place to try an empanada. The place was fairly busy and after ordering we waited about 10 minutes for ours to be freshly prepared and baked. It was well worth the wait. The empanada crust was hot and flaky. The beef filling was steaming and full of rich, tangy flavour.
After our visit to the market, we continued on our city tour and drove into La Boca neighbourhood which was originally settled by Italians. One of the major venues in La Boca is the football (soccer) stadium - Bombonera. It is unique because the stadium, and the area surrounding it is all blue and yellow, the team colours. La Boca is a lively area. The Italian influence is evident everywhere with colourful buildings, shops and restaurants, many decorated with artistic graffiti and murals. People are chatting and walking and even dancing tango in the streets.
After finishing our tour with Valeria, she dropped us off in a popular area with restaurants. We stopped at a restaurant called La Abuela, an outdoor cafe where we had a meat and cheese lunch (and some wine). After lunch we visited the Generica Artisnal market in Plaza Francia before taking a cab ride back to the ship where we relaxed for a bit before our last night on the ship.
We went to our usual dinner seating for our final dinner and enjoyed succulent Prime Rib of Beef. We were somewhat sad when we bade farewell to our attentive servers Marino and Pinto who had kept us fed and amused for last 13 nights. Returning to our stateroom we packed our bags and spent the rest of the evening relaxing on balcony.
Continue to Day 16 - click here
As we had arrived at the port in Montevideo late the afternoon before, we were able to disembark the ship at our leisure. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the Oceanview Cafe and then walked off the ship onto the terminal pier just before 9:00am. Kim had booked a private city tour of Montevideo, and our driver, Herman, was waiting for us at the entrance to the pier.
I have to say that one of the most enjoyable things for me about travel is discovering the unexpected. Prior to our trip, the two of us had our own special things that we were looking forward to seeing in South America. For me they were (ranked in order) Iguazu Falls, the penguin colony in Puerto Madryn, the Patagonia (and passage around Cape Horn), Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Montevideo was not on that list. In fact, I knew nothing about Montevideo prior to our trip, and only read some cursory information in the ship’s daily update on our last sea day. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement.
Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay and boasts a population of 1.5 million, about 1/3 of the country’s total population. It is a sea port that is located in the southern part of Uruguay, on the Atlantic Coast. Interestingly, it is the southernmost capital in all the Americas. Like most South American cities, Montevideo’s Spanish roots go back to the early 18th century. Since then, it has grown in economic stature and has been rated first by the Mercer report as having the best quality of life of any city in Latin America. This became evident to us as we began our tour of Montevideo.
Our first impression of the city was how European it looked - an eclectic mixture of neo-classical and art-deco, with countless markets and Spanish style squares. Modern buildings fit in seamlessly with the historical architecture and what is particularly noticeable is that there are no towering skyscrapers (unlike most other capitals) that would otherwise obscure the views across the cityscape and horizon.
After a quick driving tour along the main boulevard (more about this later), we headed towards the downtown area where Herman found a parking spot next to a hotel close to a pedestrian street lined with shops where he dropped us off. This gave Kim and I a chance to meander down the bustling street, lined with tall palm trees, and browse the tiny shops on our way to one of the markets where we would meet back up with Herman. The shops on both sides of this street were small but modern and clean.
Since the national stone of Uruguay is Amethyst, there were quite a few jewelry stores along the route. Kim was struck by a particular piece in a storefront window, and we walked into this shop to have a look. The pieces of jewelry that had been crafted from the amethyst were exquisite and after much deliberation, Kim eventually landed on the necklace that she had admired in the storefront.
One of the unique features of this store is the small, but impressive Amethyst Museum that was cordoned off and tucked away in a tiny, elevated alcove to the side of the store. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed it at first, because the alcove was dimly lit. The owner pointed out the museum after we had made our purchase, and invited us into the alcove to view the magnificent giant, jagged, raw Amethyst stones that stood like statues on the carpeted floor. He turned up the lights so we could see the dazzling colour of the rocks. They were huge! When we finished gazing at the stones and were leaving the alcove, I tripped on the carpet as I was descending the slight step to the main floor. At the same time, I knocked over one of the monstrous pieces that stood guard to the alcove and tried to stop it from crashing to the floor. I was successful in saving the piece as I was falling, but it landed on my lower arm and gashed my hand. The proprietor and his staff immediately came to my aid and seemed overly concerned that I might be hurt. While nothing seemed to be broken, my wrist and hand were bruised and numb (as was my ego), my biggest concern was that the piece was not damaged as I couldn’t imagine how much that would have cost us. I did suffer some soreness and swelling over the next few days but nothing that impacted our trip.
After our minor drama in the jewelry store, we continued our walk down the street and through a small market where we eventually met back up with Herman who guided us to Plaza Independencia, Montevideo’s most important plaza.
This is a large rectangular plaza with rounded corners that is circumvented by the beginning of the 18 de Julio Avenue, the most important avenue in Montevideo as it commemorates the date of the first Constitution of Uruguay in 1830. The plaza is dominated at its centre by the Artigas Mausoleum which is identified by a monument that sits on top of the mausoleum beneath. The mausoleum contains the remains of the Uruguayan hero and father of the nationhood, Jose Artigas. We descended the steps into the sombre and dimly lit mausoleum that was respectfully quiet and advanced to an elevated glass case that contained the urn with the remains of Artegas. A pair of Uruguayan guards stood motionless and at attention on either side of the enclosed sanctuary.
Leaving the mausoleum we walked through the square and crossed over to the Solis Theatre, Uruguay’s most renowned and prestigious theatre that was opened in 1856. From here, we drove about 10 minutes to the impressive Palacio Legislavtivo del Uruguay, the austere Greco-Roman style Parliament building. The building’s construction began in 1908 and spanned 3 decades. We had missed the morning visiting hours, so we were not able to go inside, but Herman told us that the interior walls are covered in marble from different parts of Uruguay.
We left the area around the palace and drove a short distance to Mercado de la Abundancia. On the way, we passed by an interesting piece of Montevideo architecture, the telecommunications company, whose building is shaped like the bow of a ship rising up from the earth.
Reaching the market, Herman parked the car and Kim and I went inside the sprawling indoor facility. We wandered through the many aisles, stopping for juice and coffee at one of the food booths. We managed to pick up a few amethyst necklaces to take home as gifts.
We left the market and began the final leg of our city tour, passing by the Holocaust Memorial, dedicated the victims of the Jewish genocide. Our drive took us along the Ramblas de Montevideo, the main avenue of the city that goes all along the coastline of Montevideo. It is also famous for having the longest continuous sidewalk in the world with a length of 22. 2 kilometers! What was most notable about this part of the drive was the amount of green space with large, treed parks on either sides of the boulevard. We passed through quiet, upscale neighbourhoods, dotted with beautiful homes. Closer to the coast we passed along the endless beaches that separated the Ocean from the modern, but understated condos and hotels.
Arriving at the port, Herman told us that we could recover the taxes that we paid on all of the purchases we made, provided that we kept the receipts. He pointed to a building in an industrial part of the pier that we were able to walk to before going back to the ship. We took his advice and managed to receive 18% off of our purchases.
Boarding the ship, we changed for dinner and went to the main dining room where enjoyed one of our most anticipated meals on any cruise - the famous lobster dinner. I topped that off with the feature dessert, which tonight was baked Alaska. Following dinner we were entertained in the theatre by a talented group of Motown musicians called the Horizons.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, I knew very little about Montevideo before we arrived here. It turns out this is one of those secret little gems that is well worth the visit.
Continue to Day 15 - click here
After leaving Puerto Madryn, we continued sailing up the coast of Argentina on our way to Punta del Este in Uruguay. As the distance was over 1500 kilometres, we had a scheduled sea day before our arrival into Uruguay. After breakfast, I attended the Alan Riles lecture on Climate Change. If you have read the previous blogs on our Eclipse Cruise, you will remember that Alan Riles is the guest lecturer that Celebrity had engaged to provide unique insight into the geography, geology and environment of South America’s Patagonia. Today’s lecture highlighted the global impact of climate change on the environment, particularly the receding ice caps in the Andes ranges and the vanishing glaciers in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. It was a very sobering lecture that left me wondering about the future of the spectacular area that we had been exploring over the past several days.
In the early afternoon we attended the Captain’s Club wine tasting and food pairing which we had pre-booked. This event took place in the elegant but modern Blu Restaurant, which is one of the Eclipse’s specialty dining venues. Our sommelier, Fabrice, led us through the tasting of 5 distinct and exclusive wines that were matched perfectly with a variety of foods comprising cheeses, vegetables, olives and chocolate. This was a wonderful way to enjoy a relaxing meal away from the busyness of the buffet.
We left the Blu Restaurant in time to attend this afternoon’s matinee in the Theatre. Alejandro, the Cruise Director, was hosting a rendition of the Tonight Show. The guests included an entertaining performance by Bryony, a crew member; an acrobat (Max) who delighted us with gravity defying antics; and an interview with the Captain who related a number of his experiences and time with the Eclipse.
Our evening started with dinner in the main dining room where one of my favourite entrees, steak, was the featured menu item. Afterwards we went back to the Theatre to enjoy a production of Show Toppers that was put on by the Celebrity Eclipse dancers and singers. We headed off to our stateroom and looked forward to our first day in Uruguay after a good night’s sleep.
As I stated at the beginning of this entry, our destination was Punta del Este on the South Eastern tip of the country of Uruguay. Because of high winds and rough seas, we were not able to stop at Punta del Este, so instead we continued on to our next port of call, Montevideo, also in Uruguay. We had been expected to dock at the downtown pier at 12:00pm, but because of apparent congestion issues in the port, we weren’t able to disembark the ship until 3:00pm.
Kim had pre-booked some tours for our stay in Montevideo, but due to the change in arrival time, she had to improvise and rebooked a private tour and lunch at a local winery. We were picked up at the pier by a driver who spoke no English. He had been informed by the tour operator where to drop us off, so we drove out of the city and into the countryside with no idea of where we were going and no way to communicate with the driver.
After 30 minutes of driving, passing through several villages along the way, we turned onto a gravel road and proceeded about a kilometre before turning into the entrance of the Pizzorno Winery.
Our driver indicated that this was our stopped pointed to a small parking lot across the gravel road. This is where he was going to wait for us while we had lunch and a tour of the vineyard. We entered the foyer of the winery, where we were greeted by a pleasant hostess who took our names and led us through a small dining room, where a young family were seated at a table, to a private tasting room, separated from the main room by a glass wall. We were seated at a table which had been reserved for us and the hostess explained the process for the tasting menu.
Our lunch consisted of several different courses including shrimp and mango salad, lamb, pumpkin stuffed ravioli and finished with a dessert of flan with dulce de leche mousse and berries. Each course was paired with a different wine, carefully selected to enhance the flavour the dish. My favourite wine was the Tannat, which originated in the South West of France, but was brought to Uruguay by Basque settlers in the 19th century. It is the most prominent grape in Uruguay and is considered its national grape. This wine goes very well with rich meats and fatty cheeses, probably another reason that it was my favourite!
After lunch we toured the family-owned winery, which has been around since 1910. The vineyard covers 21 hectares of land and produces about 160,000 bottles of wine using 12 different types of grapes. The winery produces ice wine by freezing grapes after they are picked - an interesting twist on how ice wine is produced in the Niagara region, where the grapes are picked at just the right time when the they are frozen on the vine. The winery also produces a light and fresh sparking wine. When we finished walking through the vineyard, we returned to the winery where we were taken through the production area, below ground level, and were introduced to the various types of hardwood that are used to barrel the wine.
It was after 6:00pm and we summoned our driver who picked us up at the entrance to the winery. By the time we got dropped off at the pier and back on the ship it was 7:15pm. Since we had missed our dinner seating in the main dining room, we went to the Sky lounge for a drink then got some food at the Oceanview Cafe which we took back to our stateroom. We had a casual but enjoyable dinner on our balcony.
Continue to Day 14 - click here
After 2 full days of sailing north from Cape Horn along the Atlantic coast of South America, we finally arrived at Puerto Madryn, an important coastal town with a population of 100,000 in the Argentine Patagonia, which was founded in 1865 by a group of Welsh immigrants.
The contrast in weather between Cape Horn and Puerto Madryn could not have been more significant. We had left Cape Horn battling high winds and heavy seas under overcast, misty skies with temperatures hovering around 10 degrees Celsius. We arrived into Puerto Madryn at 8:00am under calm, cloudless, bright blue skies and a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. This was going to be a beautiful day!
After a quick breakfast, we disembarked from the Eclipse and boarded the air-conditioned tour van that would take us out to the Valdes Peninsula where we would be spending most of the day. The Valdes Peninsula is a mostly barren nature reserve which protrudes into the Atlantic Ocean and provides a natural shelter for Puerto Madryn. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 because of its significance for the conservation of marine mammals and waterfowl. It is home to endangered species such as the Southern White Whale and is also an important breeding sanctuary for the Magellan Penguin, Southern Elephant Seal and Southern Sea Lions. We would be spending the day observing most of these species.
Our first stop on the 170 kilometre drive (2.5 hours) from Puerto Madryn to our end point in Punta Norte was at a rest stop just after a mandatory check point. The province is checking that tourist groups are travelling with certified guides. The rest stop had interesting displays with skeletal remains and information about the wildlife of the region. The ride to Punta Norte is on gravel roads with the last hour being extremely bumpy. Our driver Pedro did his very best to make it as smooth as possible even driving in the middle of the road at times to avoid as many bumps as possible. But this may be a consideration for those that have back problems or suffer from motion sickness. Our final destination was an Argentinian estancia (ranch) for lunch. The ranch was a couple of miles off of the main gravel road that runs through the Peninsula. On our way to the ranch we spotted herds of wild guanacos, which are related to the llama, grazing on the dry pampas grass and brush that is prevalent in the area.
We finally arrived at the ranch which was surrounded by a fenced enclosure and consisted of several outbuildings for the sheep and one main low-slung ranch house. We entered through the main door into a large open room with high ceilings and tiled floors. To the left of the entrance were 2 massive wood-burning fireplaces, each stoked with burning embers, cooking whole lambs stretched across upright steel racks. A pungent smokey barbeque aroma permeated the air throughout the main room. Several large, wooden tables were setup for lunch in the middle of the room. We ordered wine and waited as the various lunch dishes were brought to the table in large platters. As we had become accustomed to in South America, lunch usually starts with empanadas, and this place was no exception. We were also served mixed salads and the succulent, carved lamb that had been grilling in the fireplace. To finish off, we were offered a dessert of dulce de leche flan.
After lunch, we got back into the van and drove another 20 minutes to the Nature Reserve in Punta Norte where we would be spending most of the afternoon. We were quite excited about this particular destination, and it was one of the highlights that we had earmarked when we were planning the trip. This is home to nearly 1 million penguins and we were fortunate enough to be here just after breeding season, which meant that there would be plenty of chicks and young penguins in the mix.
We parked near the entrance of the sanctuary and followed the delineated rocky path that meanders through the breeding grounds all the way to the Ocean. The area is rather dry and consists of hard packed earth covered in small rocks. The main vegetation is scraggly, dense brush that serves to cover the burrowed nests that have been prepared by the male penguins in the dry ground. Each female lays 2 eggs, but usually only one bird survives to maturity. Both the male and female share feeding responsibilities, walking up to several kilometers across the reserve to the Ocean shore to fetch squid and anchovies for their young.
It was hard to leave this area, even after walking around for more than an hour and a half watching the penguins march around, seemingly aimlessly. The penguins were everywhere and it didn’t seem to bother them that we were walking in their midst. They would often stop and stare at us, only a couple of feet away, and then eventually lose interest, turn away and lumber off in another direction.
After leaving the penguin reserve we drove another 6 kilometers up the coast to another reserve to visit the sea lions and elephant seals. Unlike in the penguin reserve which was at sea level and where we were literally walking among the Magellans on the beach, we observed the sea lions and elephant seals from a distance standing on top of a bluff while they lay stretched in small groups on the beach below. While penguins are monogynous, male sea lions are polygamous often having multiple female partners. The females lay close to their young and tended to them, while the males lazed a short distance away. It was quite loud as the elephant seals and sea lions would occasionally burst into bouts of barking as if shouting at one another.
As the midafternoon sun began its journey westward, it was time for us to head back to the ship. We still had more than a 2 hour drive and the all aboard was at 5:00pm. As it turned out we just made it back in time, but had to stand in a long queue to get back on the ship.
Our evening dinner consisted of an appetizer of sundried tomato soup with chicken pasta and rib brisket as the entrees. After dinner we dropped in to the Captain’s Club cocktail where we were greeted by the Ship’s Officers and offered martinis, wine and delightful canapes, including shrimp and sushi.
It had been a long, wonderful day and we settled back in our stateroom looking forward to our next day on the Eclipse.
Continue to Day 12 & 13 - click here
After leaving Ushuaia we sailed through the night towards the southernmost part of the journey - Cape Horn. Cape Horn is located in southern Chile at Hornos Island where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet and is considered the northern boundary of the Drake Passage. It is significant because, prior to the building of the Panama Canal, it was the major marine trade route around South America for sailing ships carrying goods from the Far East, Australia and New Zealand to the Western World, taking advantage of the strong westerly winds. Unfortunately, the waters through the Drake Passage are often quite hazardous due to the strong winds, buffeting waves and occasional icebergs.
Cape Horn is approximately 600 kilometers from the coast of Antarctica. We arrived at the Cape Horn Memorial which is on the southwestern tip of Hornos Island at 7:15 AM. The skies were heavily overcast with a heavy mist being driven by gusty winds. It took a bit of skillful navigation for the Captain of the Eclipse to position the ship so that we could get a relatively close view of the memorial. We stayed in our stateroom and viewed the site from our balcony, bundled up in our coats and scarves. We were able to make out the monument which commemorates the countless sailors who perished attempting the voyage around the Horn. A short distance from the memorial is a very small Chilean Naval station that consists of a residence, a chapel and a lighthouse. The lighthouse is maintained by a keeper who spends six consecutive months here before being replaced for six months by a fellow keeper. In total we spent just over an hour with the Captain maneuvering the ship so that passengers on both sides of the ship would get a view.
Below is a video with some details about Cape Horn and also footage of what the island looks like.
After 7 days of sailing south on the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Chile, we were about to begin our journey north on the Atlantic. Our next port of call, Puerto Madryn in Argentina, approximately 1500 kilometers from Cape Horn, would take us a full 2 days and nights of sailing. Since we had spent more than an hour in the frigid winds and driving mist on our balcony as we circled Hornos Island, we were happy to come back into our stateroom to change and enjoy a hot breakfast at the buffet restaurant.
We spent most of the rest of the morning just resting and relaxing then went to the Tuscan Grille which was having a special lunch event to commemorate “rounding the Horn”. We had booked a window table a couple of days ahead of time so that we could take in the views of our sail through the Drake Passage. Due to the overcast skies and heavy seas, there really was not a lot to see. On the other hand, the surf and turf offered for lunch was spectacular, featuring mouthwatering filet mignon, lobster tail and jumbo shrimp.
In the afternoon, we had reserved spots to do a backstage tour of the main theatre. This was a surprisingly interesting tour for me. Considering how elaborate the sets and performances are, it was a revelation to see how little there is to work with back-stage. There is a tiny, common dressing room for each group of performers, and in some cases, they are doing costume changes in closet sized storage rooms. Personal effects for the performers are stored in wall mounted cubby holes. Costumes are recycled and retrofitted by a seamstress (and sometimes, by the performers themselves). It is amazing that despite the limitations of the backstage area, the challenges of performing on a bobbing vessel in a variety of sea conditions and the restrictions of being confined on a ship for months at a time, that these professionals are able to excel at their craft.
In keeping with the surf and turf lunch that we enjoyed earlier in the day at the Tuscan Grille, we chose more sea and land fare for dinner. The appetizers and salad menu featured Lobster Bisque, Caesar Salad and Steak Tartar, so that is what we opted for and decided to forego the heartier choices on the entre menu.
After a good night’s sleep and our usual breakfast fare, we settled in for another sea day. Celebrity had engaged Alan Riles, a noted geologist and earth scientist, to provide timely lectures based on our current locations on various topics that included Plate Tectonics (the theory describing large-scale motion of rocky plates that make up the earth’s continents), Glaciers of South America, the Falklands and today’s topic, Super Continents - their formation and break-up. I had attended all of the previous lectures and decided to take this one in as well.
We met up after the lecture and decided to try out the Oceanview Cafe, a market-style, casual restaurant that offers an international cuisine. We both opted for Italian and selected a combination of made-to order pasta and oven made pizza and capped that off with refreshing gelato. We finished just in time for the start of the afternoon game show - Latin America versus the Rest of the World - hosted by the Cruise Director, Alejandro. Latin America won (but this might have been slightly rigged).
Our evening meal in the main dining room was Beef Brochette, Spring Rolls, Lobster Ravioli and Veal. Needless to say, after 2 full days at sea we were looking forward to getting to a sea port so that we could walk off the countless calories that we had been storing. We were really looking forward to getting to our first Argentinean destination - Puerto Madryn.
Continue to Day 11 - click here
After 3 days at sea, we were excited to be finally getting into a port of call. We woke up early and headed up to the top deck with our cameras at 4:30am. We were sailing through the calm waters of the Beagle Channel on our way to Ushuaia and the pre-dawn twilight cast an eerie glow on the snow-capped mountains and glaciers on our starboard side. We stayed out on the deck for about half an hour watching the landscape slide by and then decided to get a few more hours of sleep as our arrival in Ushuaia was not scheduled until 10:30am.
After a hearty breakfast, we disembarked the Eclipse which had docked at the base of the town. We found our driver at the entrance to the pier who introduced himself and then we drove into the town to pick up our guide.
Ushuaia is a quaint little town with a population of approximately 60,000 people that is located on the southern shores of Isle Grande de Tierra del Fuego and overlooking the Beagle Channel to the south. It claims to be the southernmost city in the world and is situated just 1,100 kilometers from the Antarctic coast. Being a principle stopover for tourists rounding Cape Horn or heading to Antarctica, it thrives from tourism but also generates much of its economy from fishing and natural gas. Recently, it has generated a considerable income from manufacturing electronic products and has the largest electronics factory in Patagonia.
Following a quick tour of Ushuaia, we drove westward along the Pan American highway for 30 minutes towards the Chilean border and eventually arrived at the End of the World Post Office, a small metal structure that sits on stilts overlooking the Beagle Channel. People from all over the world stop in at this post office to mail postcards back to themselves that are postmarked “End of the World Post Office. We walked along the beach by the post office where the skies were bright blue with billowing clouds hanging over the mountains and the brisk breeze was creating frothy caps on the water that was lapping against the shoreline.
We left the Post Office and drove a short distance westward to the end of the Pan American highway, which covers a distance of 17,000 kilometers from its starting point in Alaska. The road ends at the tip of Lapataia Bay where we exited the car and walked around to take pictures of the breathtaking landscape.
Driving back towards Ushuaia, we stopped briefly at the Tierra Del Fuego National Park Information Centre to use the facilities and have a light lunch.
Upon arriving back in Ushuaia, we pre-purchased tickets for a catamaran cruise on the Beagle Channel and then walked around the picturesque downtown for an hour before the cruise was scheduled to depart.
We boarded the catamaran and found an empty table by the window on the upper deck. I purchased a glass of wine for each of us to enjoy as we sailed away from Ushuaia and into the Beagle Channel.
Our first stop was at a small island that was covered in hundreds of cormorants. We paused long enough to get some pictures and then continued sailing to another small island where we docked and disembarked. We had a chance to walk around this great rock that was remarkable for the extensive fauna that covered its surface. After reboarding the catamaran, we continued sailing further into the channel and stopped beside a small, flat island to view the sea lions that rested on the cold rock at the edge of the water.
A short distance from the sea lions was another small island that is totally barren except for the red and white brick lighthouse that protrudes skyward from its base. This is Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse otherwise known as “The End of the World” Lighthouse, which was built in 1920 and is still functional today. Although it is uninhabited, it is fully automated and remote controlled and generates electricity for its light via solar panels. After visiting the lighthouse, our catamaran made the return journey to Ushuaia which took about 45 minutes. We took one final, brief walk around the plaza by the pier then made our way back to the Eclipse.
We boarded our ship and then returned to our stateroom for a quick change before going to the dining room for dinner. After dinner we went to the main theatre to enjoy a concert that featured a skillful pianist and a variety of accompanying singers. We then retired to our stateroom to relax on the balcony and chatted about our day. We did not stay up too late as tomorrow at 6:00am we would be passing one of the key points on our South American cruise - Cape Horn!
Continue to Day 9 & 10 - click here
After leaving Puerto Montt, we were supposed to have 2 sea days sailing approximately 1300 kms south through the Chilean Fjords (Tierra del Fuego) and then through the Strait of Magellan on our way to Punta Arenas. Due to high winds and heavy seas after leaving Puerto Montt, our captain opted to wait out the storm for approximately 12 hours to avoid the 30 foot waves that we would have encountered. This resulted in an additional sea day and also meant that we would be forgoing our port of call at Punta Arenas. Although we had planned to celebrate a significant birthday for Kim at a local restaurant in Punta Arenas, we appreciated the captain’s focus on the safety and comfort of the passengers and crew.
While we were at sea, there was still lots to do on board the Celebrity Eclipse. We actually slept in a bit on first sea day after leaving Punta Montt, not waking until just after 8:00am. We arrived at the Oceanview Café for breakfast at 9:00am and had to circle the eating area a few times before we could find a table. The restaurant was unusually busy this morning and we took turns going to the buffet for fear we would lose our table. We kept this in mind as we would be having several more sea days before we finished our cruise.
We always enjoy a few sea days on a cruise as it gives us an opportunity to rest and relax and to enjoy the various amenities on the ship. This particular cruise had contracted a guest lecturer who gave relevant talks about the geography of South America with a particular focus on the glaciers, fjords and climate of the South American Patagonia. I attended all of the lectures and found them quite informative as they gave me a real appreciation for the areas that we were visiting. They were organized such that a given lecture described the area that we would be sailing through the following day. This included descriptions of the glacier formations sliding between the mountain peaks that we would see as we passed through the Chilean Fjords as well as the islands and inlets of the Strait of Magellan, which was widely used as the main sea passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans before the Panama Canal was built.
As well as attending the guest lectures on our sea days we spent time exploring different parts of the ship. One day we took a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship’s galley located on the 3rd deck. What was most amazing is how small the galley is given the 2850 passengers and 1270 crew that it feeds. Equally amazing is how organized and pristine the area is. The galley is divided into sections that are dedicated to specific dishes and/or menus (breakfast/lunch/dinner). All of the counters and appliances are sparkling stainless steel; a must in order to maintain sanitary conditions as the galley is inspected on a regular basis.
We also visited 2 of the specialty dining rooms aboard the Eclipse - Q-Sine and Tuscan. Q-Sine is a very eccentric animated dining experience, reminiscent of something you might see at a specialty restaurant on a Disney Cruise. The dining room itself is cheery and brightly coloured, but the main feature is the table setting. As the experience begins, the luminated table becomes an animated 3D seabed complete with coral, flora and sea critters. Your dinner plate becomes a solitary island where a lobster and little chef perform a tug-of-war which the chef eventually wins. While we didn’t get to eat at this restaurant, this seems like a great place to spend an evening that would be enjoyable for the whole family.
The second restaurant that we toured was the Tuscan Grille. This is a totally different experience from Q-Sine, being much more traditional and with wooden arches, large wine cabinets and a wonderful sea view at one end of the restaurant. The menu is distinctly Italian, with a focus on mouth watering steaks and a great wine list. We did end up eating at this restaurant a couple of times. We booked a table to celebrate Kim’s birthday (on the day we were supposed to be in Punta Arenas). Kim selected the lamb in phyllo for her meal, while I enjoyed a deliciously marbled steak with side of potato. The restaurant was featuring a Surf and Turf lunch on the day that we would be sailing through the Drake Passage, so we decided to book a window table for that as well.
One of the other unique experiences aboard the Eclipse was the opportunity to participate in a glass-blowing class. While this was an add-on cost, it was a one-on-one experience with a glass blower who would assist you through the process. You also got to keep the product of your hard work! Kim booked a session, which takes place on one of the outside decks. Since we were sailing through the Strait of Magellan at the time, the outside temperature was quite cold. She persevered through the chilly winds and the endless blowing and turning of the glass in the furnace and produced a beautiful blue glass water tumbler.
By the end of our 3rd sea day, we had explored most parts of the ship, attended the nightly live entertainment in the theatre and were well rested and ready for our next port of call - Ushuaia, the most southern city in South America.
Continue to Day 8 - click here
After leaving Santiago on the evening of January 5th, we sailed for a day and a half (more than 1,000 kms) south along the Chilean coast, arriving at Puerto Montt just after 8:00am on January 7th. After our usual buffet breakfast in the Oceanview Cafe, we went to pick up our tickets on Deck 4 at 9:00am for the tender that would take us to the port pier. We thought we had given ourselves plenty of time as the ticket distribution was scheduled to start at 9:30. We were shocked to find an endless line of waiting passengers that extended the entire length of the ship! It seemed like forever before the line in front of us finally started to move.
We received our tickets for tender number 19 and waited for nearly an hour before we were finally able to disembark. We had booked a tour of the area that was scheduled to depart at 10:00am. We didn’t arrive at the pier until 11:00 and still had to wait for 2 other couples to join our group of 10 before our 12-passenger van was able to leave. Our group was accompanied by a driver and a local guide who admitted to us that this was her first tour. While she was very nervous at the beginning, she persevered through her initial jitters.
Puerto Montt is the capital of the province of Llanquihue and has a population of 250,000. The main industry is salmon farming followed closely by agriculture and tourism. It is strategically located at the southern end of the Chilean Central Valley and is a gateway to the Andes mountains and Western Patagonia. The sky was overcast and the air chilly as we drove away from Puerto Montt and headed 45 minutes to the northwest. Our destination was a viewpoint beside Llanquihue Lake in order to observe the peak of Osorno Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the Chilean Andes. The volcano was discovered by Charles Darwin and last erupted in the 1869. Unfortunately, the low-lying cloud obscured Osorno’s summit so we were only able to see the base of the volcano. This part of Chile is known as the “Magic of the South” because the nearly 200 days of annual rainfall contribute to the lush vegetation and greenery that blanket the countryside.
We continued another 20 minutes west to Petrohue Waterfalls situated between Llanquihue Lake and Todos Los Santos Lake. Our driver parked the van and we walked the short distance to the falls, following a boardwalk and lava rock path. Petrohue appears more like a rapids than a traditional waterfalls. The fast moving Emerald green water flows through craggy lava rock formed by the volcanoes. The brilliant emerald colour is caused by a weed which is reflected through the water.
After spending some time walking along the falls and observing the birds and wildlife, we walked back to the parking lot where we boarded the van and drove another half hour to an observation deck overlooking Todos Los Santos Lake, also referred to as the Emerald Lake. We were served a light lunch of empanadas and wine. The area around the lake is surrounded by 3 volcanos, Cerro Tronador which is dormant, as well as Osorno and Calbuco, both of which are considered active. Calbuco has the most recent eruptions, occurring in 2015.
On our way back to Puerto Montt, we stopped at a small town called Puerto Varas. The town, with a population of around 40,000, was founded by Germans in the 1850’s as part of a colonization project and their influence is evident in the architecture and food throughout the area. It is referred to as the “City of Roses” because of the abundance of plants and flowers lining the streets, boulevards and parks.
We arrived back at the cruise terminal in Puerto Montt at 5:15pm and were tendered back to the Eclipse in time to drop our day bag in the stateroom and proceed to dinner. During dinner, the captain announced that there was a severe storm approaching and as a result we would be staying in port for the next 12 hours. This meant that we would miss our next port of call - Puerto Arenas. As disappointing as it was to miss out on a visit to Puerto Arenas, allowing the storm to pass would mean not having to endure 80 km winds and 30-foot waves. We spent the evening attending the live show in the theatre and relaxing with a glass of wine on our balcony.
Continue to Day 5, 6 & 7 - click here
We started our last day in Santiago with a buffet breakfast at the hotel just before 8:00am. After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and got ready for our 8:30 departure. Our bags were loaded into the luggage compartment of the coach since we would be dropped off at the cruise port at the end of our day.
We would be spending most of today in the coastal part of Valparaiso Region, but before heading out of the city, we did a quick panoramic tour of downtown Santiago. The downtown comprises of beautiful Colonial architecture, with magnificent detailed porticos on many of the older buildings. Sadly, the political protests that had occurred over the past few months did not exclude these historic structures as many of them were covered in graffiti. Because some of the traffic lights had also been destroyed, there were volunteers at several of the intersections who were directing traffic.
We finally made our way out of Santiago and headed Northwest towards the coastal port of Valparaiso approximately 130 kms away. There are two key agricultural valleys on the route between Santiago and Valparaiso. One consists of avocado plantations, apple orchards, peach orchards and walnut plantations. The other, Casablanca Valley, is considered the “Napa Valley” of Chile, as vineyards border the highway on both sides for many miles.
We arrived in the port city of Valparaiso at 11:00am under mostly overcast skies. We drove through the town on the narrow winding road that follows the coast. Valparaiso was once considered the “Jewel of the Pacific” because of its importance as a major sea port. Prior to the building of the Panama Canal this port was the main stopover for ships crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Straights of Magellan. Because of its historic quarter and colourful buildings stacked along the cliffsides, it has been declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are no major job-producing industries in Valparaiso other than the port and the naval base, so tourism has come to play a major role in the city’s economy.
As the coach wound its way up the steep hillside towards the crest of the town we marveled at the narrow houses stacked all along the hillside, many protruding over the cliffs and supported on one side by stilts. The coach stopped at the top of the hill and we disembarked to take in the brilliantly painted houses and myriad murals that decorate the streets. We walked back down the hill towards the centre of town snaking back and forth through narrow streets and alleyways.
Partway down the hill we stopped at a small cafe to have a light lunch and then took an ancient funicular the rest of the way to the main square at the port. We spent some time wandering through the market inside the square that was filled with vendors and artisans selling handmade crafts, fresh fruits and vegetables and a variety of other sundry goods.
Finally, we reboarded our coach and headed out of Valparaiso, passing by its prosperous sister town, Vina del Mar. While Valparaiso is a historical city with no sustained industry other than the port, Vina del Mar boasts an oil refinery and casino and is resplendent with beautiful gardens, beaches and high-rise apartments. Despite the close proximity between the twin cities, they do not share resources, so they are economically divided.
Leaving Valparaiso and Vina del Mar behind, we headed back to the Casablanca Valley where we stopped in to visit Casona Veramonte, one of the many wineries in the area. Being on the main highway between Santiago and Valparaiso, this was a more commercialized winery than the one we had been to in San Estoben. There were quite a few tour buses that had stopped here when we arrived and the expansive wine store sold a plethora of non-wine items and souvenirs. Nonetheless we sample some Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon before we reboarded the coach and drove the 45 minutes on our final leg to the port of San Antonio and our awaiting cruise ship.
We boarded the Celebrity Eclipse around 4:00pm and enjoyed a welcome champagne in the Martini Bar before heading to our cabin on the 8th deck. We just managed to drop off our carry-on bags before we were summoned to the Muster Station in the Murano Restaurant for the standard briefing on safety procedures. We then went back to our stateroom to unpack our suitcases then proceeded to the dining room for our 6:30 seating. Kim ordered prime beef and I had the Celebrity Spaghetti Bolognese. After dinner and an exhausting day we made ourselves comfortable on the balcony of our stateroom and enjoyed a glass of wine under the Chilean skies.
Continue to Day 4 - click here
Our 2nd day in South America was filled with bright sunshine and clear, blue skies. We were picked up at our hotel just after 9:00am and climbed into a 14 passenger van where we were greeted by our driver Jorge and our guide Hector.
As we made our way out of the downtown area, the evidence of the political protests which had been going on for months, and which we had witnessed the day before at Plaza Italia, were on full display. Block after block of beautiful Colonial architecture had been defaced with anti-government grafitti. Hector explained that while the protests had been going on for months, for the most part they started out peacefully and would gradually turn violent in isolated places, like Plaza Italia, after the police arrived. While the protests were primarily aimed at the sharp increase in transit costs, there was also general unrest regarding the inequality of wealth in Chile. According to Hector, because voter turnout in Chile is low, the President was elected by a small group of the population who represented the upper class. Compounding the unrest is that much of the infrastructure in Chile - roads, water, electricity - is privately owned by the same people who elected the President.
The graffiti became less pronounced as we travelled out of the downtown area and we soon found our way on the main highway heading north, out of Santiago in Chile’s Metropolitan Region and towards the north eastern part of the Valparaiso Region. Our drive took us along the foothills of the Andes which is one of the reasons that this area is typically very dry. Apparently, the humidity from the Pacific, about 130 kilometers west of our route, is blocked by the coastal mountains. The area has an abundance of acacia trees which thrive here because their long root system can absorb what little water there is in the ground. As we approached San Estoben, Hector pointed out the peak of Anconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Andes (6900 meters) about 60 kilometers to the east in Argentina.
Our morning excursion was to a winery and archaeological site in the town of San Esteban. As we turned off the main road and onto the local road leading up to the winery, we passed through an old neighbourhood consisting of houses constructed from adobe - mud and straw covered in plaster and paint. The dusty road led us up an incline bordered by vineyards on each side. The vineyards were separated from the road by a row of rose bushes. The roses attract bees and keep bugs away from the vines while allowing natural pollination to occur. Owls nesting in burrows throughout the vineyards help to control rodents that might otherwise damage the plants.
Our van pulled into a small, empty parking lot protected from the sun by large, leafy trees. After leaving the van, we walked up a meandering dirt path that led us through the vineyard which blanketed the side of a steep hill from the base to the peak. Patches of dry brush and tall, prickly cacti were scattered throughout the vineyard, a reminder of the dry climate that dominates the area. As we reached the crest of the hill we had wonderful views of the Aconcagua Valley. This is also the main site of the Paidahuen National Monument and an opportunity to see ancient petroglyphs that date back nearly 1000 years. These petroglyphs are scattered about the hilltop all along the path leading from the vineyard.
After spending some time taking in the views and admiring the petroglyphs, we retraced our steps back through the vineyard to the winery. In a secluded clearing beside the winery, a large table had been set up for our small group to enjoy a lunch of fresh made empanadas and taste some of the fine wines of the area. Our wines consisted of 3 varietals - a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Carmenere. All of the wines were very good but my favourite was the Carmenare, a wine for which Chile has become renowned. Carmenare is a dark-skinned grape that was imported from France in the 1850’s before the phylloxera epidemic wiped out most of the vineyards in France. While nearly all of the other grapes recovered in France, Carmenere did not, and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Chile in 1991 and has become one of that countries premier wines.
We finished our lunch and wine tasting then loaded back onto our van for the 1 1/2 drive through the scenic Andes mountains. Our drive took us along the Paso Internacional Los Libertadores, the main transport route out of Chile into Mendoza area of Argentina. The drive has spectacular views of the mountains and valleys with breathtaking hairpin turns (29 of them!) as we approached the Portillo Ski Resort and Laguna Del Inca near the Argentinean border.
The resort hotel seems to be the only structure in the area and sits at the southern end of the lagoon. The lagoon itself is a serene lake, bright blue in colour and surrounded by a backdrop of magnificent mountains. We walked down to the lagoon and sat on the bank admiring the peaceful calm that permeates the area. After spending some time at the lagoon, we walked back up to the resort where we had a light lunch at a lakeview table in the hotel dining room. The hotel is at 2875 meters above sea level and provides panaromic views of the lake and mountains that surround it.
Following our lunch, we drove back to Santiago which took roughly 2 1/2 hours where we were dropped off at our hotel. After freshening up, we walked to the Eladio Restaurant which was about 1 kilometer from our hotel. Kim enjoyed Chilean Sauvignon Blanc to complement her breaded steak stuffed with cheese and ham. I enjoyed Cabernet Sauvignon and a delicious strip loin steak with frites. We walked back to our hotel and prepared for our departure from Santiago the next day.
Continue to Day 3 - click here
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.