First, to explain how we ended up going to Antarctica. A couple years ago Teri Stoner told us about a guy in Seattle who offered fantastic trips at incredibly low prices. To find out what he offers you have to subscribe to his free e-mail called Travel With Alan. So we did. And, sure enough, about every two weeks we received e-mails with incredible deals, all tied to the cruise industry.
In 2010 we took a cruise to Alaska, which was a fantastic experience. But, generally when we travel, it is just Dianne and me and we go at our own pace to places we have checked out on line many times over. Traveling with large groups on tight time lines has very little appeal. We travel for the experience, not just the sights.
Last year Dianne retired and, in addition to the many blessings that retirement brings, we how had the opportunity to look at travel over the winter months when prices are generally lower. After some discussion, we decided that this would be a perfect time to plan a trip to Hawaii, a place we have never been. So, I began the usual research, we talked to people who had been there, and we were literally within hours of nailing down plane trips and making reservations, when all of sudden we get an e-mail from Travel with Alan offering a huge discount for a trip to Antarctica!
Prior to receiving this e-mail we were not even aware that such a trip was possible, so it was nowhere on our “must see” priority list. Dianne and I received the e-mail separately, but we quickly agreed that this would be the trip of a lifetime and it was within our original budget for Hawaii. Within 24 hours after receiving the notice, we booked it.
Now, this is not just a trip to Antarctica. It begins in Santiago, Chile at the end of January, stops at a number of ports, rounds Cape Horn (a sailor’s dream) and proceeds to the frozen continent. After three days there, we head north to the Falkland Islands, then to Montevideo, Uruguay and finishes with two days in Buenos Aires, ending on February 18.
Well, not only was Antarctica not on our radar screen, the same could be said of almost all of South America. Our interests have long been in other places, especially Europe. At the time be booked the trip we knew almost nothing about Chile and the Falklands and very little about Argentina, except we had seen Madonna in the movie version of Evita. That was pretty much it.
These places at this time of year are in the last throes of summer, so we would be going from summer to winter and back to summer all in the course of a few weeks. Packing is never easy, but in this case it was a twisted puzzle. When we go overseas we just pack a carry-on, but we knew we’d never get away with that on this trip. It was too long and covered all four seasons. Plus, in a cruel twist, the cruise ship has formal nights. So, to the carry-ons we added one larger bag each. These were barely enough.
In spite of very short notice and all the other challenges, though, on January 27 found ourselves at the Cleveland airport, bound for Santiago.
OK, so the Travel With Alan plan was, we leave for Santiago on the 27th, arrive on the 28th, do some sightseeing for a couple days, then take a couple hour bus ride to Valparaiso where we would meet our ship on the 30th. The day we flew out of Cleveland was the day the east experienced one of its string of blizzards. The positive effect this had on us was that the plane going to Dallas was 1/3 empty and, more importantly, the plane going from Dallas to Santiago was 1/3 empty also! The two seats behind us were empty so Dianne went back there and we both got something like sleep!
We arrived in Santiago about 10:30 am local time and were promptly met by Alan people who, after we got our bags, directed us to a tour bus. We were immediately impressed by how toasty warm it was.
Because our hotel rooms were not ready, Alan booked us a four hour tour of Santiago right off the plane. And, while we were all excited to see the sites, none of us, regardless of the routes we took to get there, were quite up to another four hours of captivity. Yet off we went. That is, some of the buses went. Ours, unfortunately was involved in a matter of miscommunication and we sat on the bus for an hour waiting for it to be settled. Then, vamanos!
After cruising around a while we arrived at our first destination, the Plaza de Armas, or central square, which features the national historical museum, the post office and the Metropolitan Cathedral:
The cathedral, not much to look at on the outside is quite beautiful on the inside…
From there we were off to the center of government, La Moneda Palace and the Plaza de la Ciudadanía (Citizenry Square).
Some of you history fans will recall that back in the ’70’s Chile elected a guy named Salvador Allende’ as president. Well, as it turned out Salvador was quite the leftist and soon a close bud of Fidel Castro. As you might imagine, a certain Richard Nixon took a rather dim view of this arrangement and was not at all bashful about getting the CIA involved in local politics. Well, one day Salvador awoke to find a multitude of army tanks parked about where I’m standing in the above photo, with their guns pointed in his direction. Like most of these guys, it was not as if he hadn’t been warned. And, before the day was over he either, a) committed suicide, or b) was assassinated. The result was the same.
And, as is typical on this continent, Allende’s successor, Augusto Pinochet, wasted no time at all in rounding up, torturing and killing Allende’s supporters, sympathizers, and suspected supporters and sympathizers. Thousands simply disappeared. Note to self: stay out of South American politics.
Santiago is home to over five million people, or about a third of the entire population of Chile. Of those five million, it appears that roughly a dozen live in actual homes. The rest live in high rise apartments such as these:
The top picture shows the financial district, where our hotel was located. The Andes mountains are in the background. These are boom times for Santiago and all of Chile. It has the most stable government and, by far, the most stable economy in South America. And yet one US dollar is worth 616 Chilean pesos, a conversion rate that had my head spinning. The most commonly used currency is the 10,000 peso bill (worth about $16). I loaded up on these pesos, and those of the other countries we would visit as well, before we left home. In Chile, for about five hundred USD’s I was close to being a billionaire. Alright, enough of the fun facts. Back to the tour.
After failing to overthrow the government we got back on our buses and headed out for lunch. For this purpose the bus pulls up on a side street which has a number of hot dog joints and the entrance to a dining plaza. The tour guide explains that inside the plaza we will find a many nice restaurants. And, we have a half hour for lunch.
I should also explain that, because so many people booked this cruise, Alan sent one of his staff, a woman who goes by the name NanSea, to manage things. Many of the people with us, we now learned, had done lots of Alan cruises before and were quite used to NanSea. We, of course, were not. So, the stage was set for the first (and not last) conflict we would have with group touring. Here is the aforementioned dining plaza:
As you can see, it is clean and on this sunny day very inviting with the choice of multiple restaurants. It took us a little while to choose one, but we finally did. We also discovered that one of the people from our tour, traveling alone, was looking for a place so we invited him to join us. Before we even sat down, however, I found a waiter and made it as clear as I could that we were in a hurry and only had, by now, twenty minutes. There was a lady nearby who spoke English and she repeated what I said. His reply, of course, was “no problemo.”
Here is a customer looking stressed with the smiling waiter in the background:
Well, it is close to time to be back on the bus. No food. No waiter. And, along comes NanSea advising us we need to get back on the bus NOW! I was finally able to get the waiter to give us our salads to go and that was that. We held up the bus by at least five or ten minutes. And so, for the first, but let me assure you, not the last time I found myself asking this question: “If you’re not going to give us time, why did you bring us here in the first place?” It turns out everyone else ate at the hot dog joints.
When we have traveled in the past, we first do our homework and settle on places we might like to visit. When we go there, we go for the experience and to enjoy the area. This will often involve restaurants or shops or whatever. When we’ve seen what we want to see and done what we want to do we move on. It was now very clear that none of this would happen on this trip. From the moment the bus stops we are on the clock and the clock never has more than thirty minutes on it. Often less. So, on day one there was reason for concern that traveling with Alan might have been a huge mistake.
After lunch, or lack thereof, we did some more touring and it was pretty clear that all of us were feeling the effects of long flights and a long tour. At last the bus pulled up in front of our hotel:
It is a Best Western property located on a busy street in the financial district. And very near the subway, which I had already studied before we came here. This was a nice hotel, well located and more than suitable for our short stay. We were advised by NanSea to be in the lobby in three hours for our trip to a local restaurant, which was part of the package.
The rest did us good and by our appointed time we were in much more positive frame of mind. Here is the restaurant:
It was located in a beautiful setting near one of the parks and we were seated outside on a gorgeous summer evening. Finally we had an opportunity to meet, and converse with, some of our fellow travelers, who were all very nice and interesting people. The service was buffet style with offerings of various meats, cheeses, side dishes and desserts. It was a feast. And, on this occasion we were treated to our first, and by no means last, introduction to the Chilean national drink: the Pisco Sour. Heavens! They were tasty! And, the wait staff made sure your glass of wine, or whatever, was never empty! We left in a festive mood indeed. Chalk one up to Alan, this was just what we needed!
The next morning we had to be in the lobby at something like 8:00 to go tour the Concha Y Toro winery. I should note that Chile is two hours ahead of Ohio time, so that wasn’t as grueling as it first seemed. We’ve been on a lot of winery tours, but this one was exceptionally nice, with a beautiful grounds and tasty samples, even though a bit early. (The winery opened just for us, another Alan perk.)
After the winery tour we returned to our hotel where we had the rest of the afternoon off. My plan was to take the subway to visit one of the barrios. Dianne had other things to do, so I went out to find the subway and get some day passes. Well, here’s the problem with my Spanish. If any more words are required than “por favor” or “gracias”, then the conversation comes to a grinding halt. A comedian on the ship noted that if you don’t know the local language then what you do is just speak your own language, but louder! Well, that didn’t work entirely. I left the station with two tickets, but not entirely sure if they were what I wanted. I’ve been in enough subways to know I was close, and they didn’t cost very much.
So, I went back and got Dianne and off we went. Santiago, as I read before we left, is divided into a series of barrios, or neighborhoods. Many of them are safe for tourists. A few, however have left tourists in much the same shape as leftists in the days of Pinochet. Those are the ones we wanted to avoid. The barrio we selected is called Bellavista, an arts area near the university. We quickly learned that the tickets I had bought for the subway were one way only. Not a problem and cheaper than a day pass. Off we went!
In no time at all we found an artisan area with bargains galore which included some nice things to take home to the girls (close your eyes, Emily!) Then, even better:
One of the most popular Chilean treats is called a “completo” which is a hot dog covered with every imaginable item, then slathered with, of all things, mayo! This is a tame version, but absolutely delicious! I mean who ever thought of putting shoe string potatoes on a hot dog! That’s why we travel, people! To find out this stuff!
We finished this side trip and a very nice little outdoor mall:
Then it was two more subway tickets to buy and back to the hotel to get ready for another night out. Next day we leave Santiago and head for the coast.
For our last night in Santiago we were taken to a club called Los Buenos Muchachos, which was quite a contrast to the previous evening. This one was to feature a dinner and a dance show by local performers celebrating Chilean folk music, or something like that. We, and hundreds of others, were seated in long rows,perpendicular to the side of the stage:
Not only did this lend to a poor view of the stage (they had TV screens set up if you couldn’t see directly), but we were also packed in like leftist prisoners.
And, these were very narrow tables also, so dining space was at a premium. Once again the dark Alan cloud started forming. But, the wine started flowing, the food started being served and pretty soon things began to look up. I should point out that a few in our party had been on this cruise before and liked it so much they were doing it again. One of those ladies spread the word to be sure to check out the bathrooms in this place. Well, it wasn’t long before that was more than just a novel idea so some of the guys and myself ventured down the hall. This is what we found:
Soon some ladies took a similar path with my camera and came back with this:
Clearly, this was a much classier joint than we had first imagined. We found dinner to be OK, but by the time it was over the stage show was in full swing, and, much to our surprise, people were up there dancing with the stars of the show. Some were on the stage and some were on the floor in front.
Before long many of us in the group were up there with them. If at our age you are going to get up and dance there is no better time or place than to be among people you will never see again. It turned out that we had much more fun than we expected. Chalk up another one to Alan!
Now it was time to leave Santiago and we left with a very positive impression indeed. I could think of far worse places to be in January. If the price was right and the timing worked out we would gladly go back and really get to know the place. It was a very friendly city and very much up and coming. I would be remiss however, if I didn’t comment on one thing:
Why the whole town doesn’t burn down is beyond me. Chile’, like almost all the countries we visit, operates on 220 volts AC. Somehow the idea of stringing high voltage lines and taking drops off them to individual homes and businesses has proven elusive. Instead, it’s like each house is connected to its own power generator and wires are strung for miles. I asked our guide about it. He said they are trying to upgrade things and even run power lines underground. However, given the number of earthquakes (lots!) they have around here, that solution appears to be problematic. Since Chile is one of the world’s leading producers of copper, I guess they figure, what the hell? I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
So, now it was off to Valparaiso to meet the ship. It was a roughly 2 hour trip by bus and we had plenty of time to kill since we couldn’t even begin boarding till 5. Between Santiago and Valparaiso you cross over two river valleys. Things start like this:
Pretty much like a desert, complete with cactus. But the valleys have been irrigated using a very complicated system. The result is citrus and olive trees as well as an occasional winery.
About half way we stopped at a quaint little tourist place for empanadas, a meat pie that is quite tasty.
The flowers were spectacular!
Soon we arrived on the coast, however we did not head straight for Valparaiso. Instead we visited the beach resort of Vina del Mar.
Like most coastal resorts, there’s some money here:
Eventually, we came across this guy:
Easter Island is part of Chile, and, naturally somebody decided they had to move some of the moai statues onto the mainland. So far they’ve moved three, Here, obviously, is one of them.
Eventually our travels finally took us to Valparaiso, and what a city it is!
Before the Panama Canal, this was one of the busiest sea ports in South America. After the canal, though, it fell on hard times. Now it is starting to experience a resurgence as prosperity returns to this part of the world. It has been called the “San Francisco of South America” mostly by people who have never been to San Francisco. While it is hilly, that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. One guy we talked to in Santiago said he would much rather live here and what we have read suggests there is a lot going on and many cool places. We would have no more idea about that than you since our tour did not bring us even close to any of that. We’ll take their word for it.
One thing that was not totally surprising, Valparaiso is home the the Chilean National Congress. Why? When the city was still experiencing hard times Pinochet built a congress building here and moved the whole bunch of them out of Santiago, the capital. Now they have to drive 2 hours one way every day to do their jobs. It may be great to be king, but it’s even better to be a dictator!
Soon we were at the port, much like the other ports we call on. Incredibly busy!
At last it was time to board the ship! It took no time at all to feel right at home!
Soon we were sailing off into the sunset, bound for Antarctica!
The cruise ship Zaandam, part of the Holland-America line is 785 ft long, 106 ft wide, draws 26 feet of water below the line, and weighs over 61,000 tons. Most importantly, she has automatic stabilizers. She carries 1,432 passengers and 620 crew, almost all of whom are from Polynesia or the Philippines. Of the passengers, I would roughly estimate that a third were German, a third from the US and Canada, a fourth from the UK and Australia and the rest from elsewhere. Those are some fun facts to sort of set the stage.
We spent our first day out of Valparaiso at sea, which gave us a chance to catch up on some sleep and find our way around the ship. It was easy to meet people and we found ourselves playing team trivia games and so on and generally having a good time.
For this cruise, Holland-America brought on board naturalists and scientists who had spent time in Antarctica and even on the first day they began their series of exceptional lectures on a variety of topics related to what we would experience there. It was not hard to believe we were all part of an expedition.
In the evening there were a variety of performers who put on excellent stage shows throughout the cruise. It was never hard to find something to to, or to do nothing at all if that was our preference.
Because we came to this cruise somewhat late, all the primo (and pricey) shore excursions through Holland Amerca were booked up. We would have had to go on a waiting list and hope we didn’t get stuck someplace with nothing to do. Travel with Alan offered their own excursions and we booked most of them. But some didn’t seem to offer much, compared to what was in the area. One of those was our first port of call, Puerto Montt. I decided to rent a car instead and strike out on our own.
The problem with renting a car in Puerto Montt was, we were there on a Sunday. Had it been a weekday we could have rented the car in town and off we would go. But, because it was Sunday we had to rent one at the airport, which, on Google Maps, didn’t look to be far out of town. I reserved a car with Hertz, online.
Puerto Montt is a “tender port”, which means the ship doesn’t pull up to a dock. Instead you ride the ship’s lifeboats to a small pier. This process takes a long time and it is easy to start your day late before you even get to shore.
As it was explained to us, once we get on shore there will be a terminal where you go through security, then there will be a bunch of people wanting sell tours, then there will be taxis. So, my idea was, we would take a taxi to the airport to get our car. Well, when we got to the shore we found the terminal, and the guys selling tours, but no taxis. From within the tour group, however, was a guy who looked like a taxi driver, so, in my fluent Spanish I walked up to him and said, “Aeropuerto?” We each said that word a few times, then he said “Si!” and motioned for us to follow him. What he took us to was not a taxi. It was a car that was neither clean nor in all that good repair. But, he repeated “aeropuerto” a few times and motioned us in. What could possibly go wrong? We climbed inside and off we went.
Well, Puerto Montt is a pretty good sized city, about the size of Mansfield, and quite hilly. And, it shows few signs of prosperity, although we’ve seen far worse. Soon we were zig-zagging through streets and things were not looking good, when all of a sudden we passed under a green freeway sign with the word “Aeropuerto” on it. That was a relief.
As time went on we passed under any number of such signs and it now became clear that the airport was quite far out of town, and now I was wondering if we were going to the right airport. About a half hour later, lo and behold, there’s the terminal and there’s the Aeropuerto! We pile out and I say, “How much?” In the manner of everyone in Chile, he holds up a calculator with the number 65 on it. So now I’m thinking, 65,000 pesos. How much is that US? (Correct answer $104). Well, I don’t know the correct answer but I do know that it seems like a LOT! Then he corrects me, “No $65 US dollars”. Well, that also seems like a lot. He helps me count that out in pesos and I at least know enough to know the count was close to right. But, I end the transaction still feeling screwed. I consider my options: 1) argue with him in a language I don’t even pretend to understand, 2) bring in law enforcement who well may not be in the Gringo Customer Relations business and who might raise questions about my US leftist activities while escorting me to the REAL Castillio El Diablo. I choose plan 3) None of the above.
So, I’m none too happy, but soon we find ourselves in the car rental section of the terminal where, at the Hertz window there is no one there! The other companies have people, but not Hertz. We wait fifteen minutes, then I start asking the other guys. They say he will show up eventually. A half hour later, he does. In no time at all, I am behind the wheel of a rattletrap subcompact whizzing our way down the highway to Puerto Varas!
Puerto Varas lies along the shores of Lake Llanquihue one of the largest lakes in Chile. It is a German settlement dating back to the early 1800’s. The dominant feature of the lake is the thankfully dormant Volcan Osorno (top picture), which looks remarkably like Mt. Fuji. But it’s a little hazy and the view of the volcano from this town is not the best and will be likely better from the next place we will stop. We see some of our Travel with Alan buds and find that their tour is just pulling into town. We spend a little time exploring the village, which is very clean and nice.
We are just getting ready to leave town, when all of a sudden I look across the harbor and see this:
Now, people, in the days to come as we round Cape Horn and cross the Drake Passage we will be sailing over the bones of literally thousands of men who tried these waters and never made it home. I have read book after book about them. But there is very little written about those they left behind. Here, in one piece, is all the fear, desperation and anguish of those who would never see their sailors again. She is made mostly of re-bar, we found out when we went out there, but there was not sign. I thought I’d be able to find something out about her on the internet, but so far no luck.
From Puerto Varnas we were soon off to the lovely village of Fruitillar, another German settlement. This is much more of a resort area with a very active arts community, including an art academy, the Teatro del Lago:
But we also get a good close-up look at Volcan Orsono:
There are many quaint houses with beautiful flowers
We had a very nice lunch at the
On the wall are these lines, either from a poem or a play. According to Google Translate, the last lines are, “will you close the door to the past, Mago, tell me, will this finally be the time we have longed for so much?” A pretty heavy message for just a light lunch.
So, we very much enjoyed our stay in Frutillar. We had hoped to visit a nearby national forest that is home to some of the oldest trees on the continent, but it wasn’t that nearby and since we already gotten a late start and the prospect of being left by the ship in our first port was not appealing, we decided to return our racehorse.
When we got back to the airport there was a long line of taxis just waiting for business. I went up to the first one and asked how much to return to the port (I had a map I could point to). He showed me a 45. OK Looked like a bargain to me. On the way in, though, we looked at the time and decided we still had time to visit the seaport area called Angelmo, which is not far from the ship. This was agreeable to him, so he took us straight there. Total tab? About 50 USD’s. So, the first guy was pricey, but it turned out to not be the total pasting I thought it had been. So for about $15 I was able to further my traveling education. I won’t bother to enumerate the many lessons learned.
Since we had already had a big lunch we weren’t up for the gastronomia side of things, but we did have an interest in the artesanna.
There was no shortage of artisan shops and they wound all the way up main street. But basically it was all leather goods and alpaca sweaters. We did buy a few small things, but in the mid 80’s you are not thinking sweaters. Plus, it was the age old question of where would be put them?
Soon we were back to the ship and heading for our next port. This night we would not be on the open ocean. Chile has a series of inlets and islands very similar to the Inside Passage in Alaska and this is where we were headed. Now the Andes were showing their snowy peaks:
It promised to be a fine evening.
I was on the balcony in our room when I noticed an unusual formation, closer to us than the mountains in the background:
It looked like a butte, as you would see in the southwest US. We got closer:
In time we just passed it by. Later I had an opportunity to show this picture to the Captain and asked him if he knew anything about it. To my surprise he told me he’d never seen it before. And he’ been in these waters many times. The reason he has not seen it is there is a Pilot on board in this location and the Pilot takes over the ship. Still…
As predicted, it was a very fine night indeed.
This was the first night we saw the Southern Cross.
You will notice on the above map that nowhere will you find a number for the taxi service in Puerto Chacabuco. For that reason we booked our first excursion with Travel With Alan. Destination, Rio Simpson National Park. Once again we were tendered to shore, this time to just a little dock that led us directly to our buses. NanSea was there to make sure we a) were wearing our TWA buttons (which we damn well better be), 2) had our color-coded tickets (we did), 3) got aboard the right bus, and 4) remembered which seat we were sitting in, and, most importantly, 5) if we sat in the front the last time we better be seen in the back this time. Since we had not been on the previous excursion we decided to sit in the middle. Once all conditions had been met, we were off! We had a local college student for a guide and he provided some very nice color commentary about life in this part of the world.
As we wound our way through the countryside we passed through breathtaking valleys which huge cliffs on each side. Here was the problem: The windows were so dirty the camera couldn’t focus. Not only that, the bus never stopped the entire way to the park. This was not the driver’s fault. There was no place to pull over. So, people, take my word for it. This area is absolutely beautiful. Maybe you can find some pictures on line. Clearly this is part of Chile not yet ready for the tourist trade. Eventually, we made it to the park. The Rio Simpson park is very pretty and easy to hike. But, we could be just as happy in the Hocking Hills. This is not going to put you on a jetliner headed south. But the road leading here could. There is one feature to the park that is pretty cool, though: If you look on the right side of this rock you will see the outline of a face. We stayed here for about a half hour then went to a nearby waterfall. Again, very nice. It was here that we ran into a couple of Chilean salmon farmers who had stopped by to check their traps: Obviously, they have a lot to learn about the salmon trade. There was also a nearby shrine. Shrines are abundant throughout Chile. From here we wound our way to the village of Aysen. The village lies along the Aysen River, which, the tour guide told us gets it’s name because most of the year there’s ice in it. A welcome play on words, given our language difficulties. Aysen is a very pretty little town, surrounded by mountains.
Soon we were headed back to the ship. It is always nice to see that it is still there, where you left it. In no time at all we were on our way home . When we got back there was only one thing we needed reminded of: These are replaced in the ship’s elevators daily. Otherwise, how would we know? On the way out of town I tried to talk Dianne into investing in a little fixer-upper which could easily become our winter home: It was no sale. Once more we were headed down the fjords: This was one of the few waterfalls we saw the entire trip, unlike Norway where they were around every corner. Don’t know why, because there’s plenty of snow. The thing that sets the fjords of Chile apart from Norway or Alaska is, they are totally unspoiled. There are no villages, no cell towers (We weren’t kidding when we said goodby to the cell phones), nothing but trees, mountains and the sea. Rarely did we see even a boat, and when we did the first question was, where did he come from? In Alaska, if you were ever stranded in one these places, you could count on being eaten by something in fairly short order. Down here, though, there is very little wildlife. Not even Devil’s Club to poison you. Almost a letdown. But very, very beautiful. As we were talking to our new friends on the ship it was evident that none of us knew much about Chile and really had no expectations one way or the other. As it turned out, all we could talk about was how incredibly beautiful this place is. Surprise, surprise!
I regret to report that the thrilling documentary of our travels to Antarctica will be on hiatus so the author can co-host the Thirteenth Annual Findlay Invitational Pool Tournament this weekend. You are welcome to come back for re-runs till then. You can expect a fresh new episode on Monday!