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
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.