Article Updated April 2016
There are two great capital cities in the Southern Cone of South America: Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Both are located at approximately latitude 35 degrees South, only 700 miles apart but separated by the towering Andes mountain range. Air travel between them is an ‘up and down hop’ of only two hours duration, so spending time exploring both cities and their surroundings is a viable vacation in its own right.
But instead of a quick hop over the snow-laden Andes, why not book one of the luxury cruises in South America? You can depart from Valparaíso (the port for Santiago) and arrive in Buenos Aires an invigorating and memorable 14 days later. By adding a few days extra at each end, this is a wonderful alternative to the standard South American trip. In between, your floating resort will navigate the pristine mountainous channels of the Chilean Pacific coastline, following the sea lanes of the early navigators such as Magellan and Drake as they discovered the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific at the southernmost tip of the continent. You will ‘Round Cape Horn’ within almost touching distance of Antarctica, before making stops in Uruguay’s playground of Punta del Este and its capital, Montevideo, and finally Buenos Aires.
It is very important to point out that these cruise liners are ‘floating resorts’, accommodating over 2000 passengers with every conceivable entertainment available and excellent dining options. These are not the cruises you should consider if you wish to get ‘up close and personal’ with glaciers and to sip 10-year old Scotch with 10,000 year old ice. But they are great options to consider if you wish to get a variety of Patagonian experiences through the available excursions, to be pampered for two weeks and in addition get to visit the important cities of Santiago, Valparaíso, Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
What You Will See
This cruise will introduce you to the natural beauty of Patagonia. It is a land of snow-tipped volcanoes reflected in glorious lakes, raging rivers and lush vegetation such as Volcano Osorno and Lago Todos los Santos near Puerto Montt. It is the National Park of Torres del Paine near Puerto Natales in Southern Chile where the craggy peaks of the Andes mountain chain loom large over this natural wonderland. It is Tierra del Fuego, an unspoilt wilderness and nature-lovers’ paradise. It is Cape Horn, (Cabo del Hornos), a mystical place of sea legends where two great oceans collide. Your cruise will immerse you in a part of the world that is truly unique.
Expect to be surprised at the vastness and untouched beauty of the rugged and mountainous Chilean Pacific coastline from Puerto Montt to the southernmost town of the continent at Ushuaia. Expect to marvel during the ship’s approach to the town of Ushuaia with its picture-perfect snow-peaked backdrop. Here you can feed your spirit of adventure as you witness the small crafts preparing for their 400 mile crossing of the treacherous Drake Passage to Antartica.
But you came for Cape Horn. If you are like me who grew up with stories of the great navigators and of the violent seas around the Cape, then you will succumb to a sense of awe and drama as you finally witness the part of the world where two oceans seem to collide; where thousands of brave pioneers who perished in what must have been a frightening end, are remembered by the monument of an Albatross on the Cape’s highest point.
This is the tip of the South American continent where Patagonia is only separated from Antartica by the treacherous waters of the Drake Passage.
After the dramatic scenery and build-up to your arrival at Cape Horn, the second half of your 14 day cruise takes on a more ‘wind-down’ mood as the Atlantic coastline is flat and temperatures rise again, tempting bathers onto the ship’s pool deck. Before arriving in Buenos Aires there are stops in Punta del Este, the South American jet-setter’s playground and Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo, to look forward to.
Excursions are plentiful at each of the ports of call and with careful planning you can experience many elements of Patagonia’s magic. At Puerto Montt, a good option is a trip to the aforementioned natural beauty of the Chilean lakes region. Your next stop at Punta Arenas is the gateway to many tours to the Torres del Paine National Park, a dramatic scenic wonderland of nature which warrants a much longer visit by itself. At Punta Arenas, a favourite excursion is to Isla Magdalena, which is an island in the Straits of Magellan totally dedicated to a colony of Magellanic Penguins. It is estimated that there are over 60,000 pairs that make the island their breeding ground.
Penguins are only found in the Southern Hemisphere and on the island we were able to walk among them following roped off paths to prevent disturbing their procreative habits.
There are many other excursions which provide additional insight into the flora, fauna and cultural life of Patagonia. For example, on the Atlantic coast of Argentina, the final stop in Patagonia is at Puerto Madryn, a small town founded by Welsh colonists in 1865. From here, a popular excursion is to the Valdez Peninsula, which is the only known continental breeding place for elephant seals. The excursions from Punta del Este and Montevideo provide unique opportunities to sample the history, culture and life of Uruguay.
Of course the cruise ends in Buenos Aires which is a vacation city in its own right. Several excursions are available to sample what this cosmopolitan city has to offer. Certainly this is another location that warrants some days at least to experience the history and culture of this important South American capital.
In summary, the cruise provides a ‘sampler’ for the feast of nature that is Patagonia and in addition an opportunity to experience the life in three important South American capital cities. As always with cruises, the variety and breadth of your experience is dictated by the available budget. Passengers can choose between starting the journey in Valparíso, sailing from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic and disembarking in Buenos Aires, or starting in Buenos Aires and disembarking in Valparaíso. I chose to depart from Valparaíso and on reflection I think it was a good choice, as the coast of Chile is dramatically mountainous and the wonderful sunrises and sunsets as we passed through the many fjords seemed to heighten the anticipation of arriving at Cape Horn. By contrast, the Atlantic coast of Argentina is flat so the second week was more of a relaxing time with excellent visits to Punta del Este and Montevideo in Uruguay, before arriving in Buenos Aires. In the entire two week cruise, there are 6 or 7 full days at sea which is a chance to relax, exercise to burn off the calories from the lunch buffet and recuperate a little from the excursions. The abundance of pure fresh air and chilly temperatures calls out for some relaxation too.
How To Book
A great website to find the dates of sailing, prices, ship information and so on, is VacationsToGo. This website lists all cruises worldwide and the section under South American Cruises will list all of the details, including dates, itineraries, costs, ship details with accommodation descriptions and information on all facilities on board. Reservations can be made by a phone call to a reservations agent who will provide cabin/stateroom availability information for specific dates and will answer any questions you may have. I have found them to be extremely helpful.
You can also enquire about payment terms and cancellation options, insurance needs and cruise-joining logistics. They can also provide some information about the available excursions at each port-of -call which I found to be a very useful pre-cruise planning idea. It is not necessary to reserve the excursions ahead of the cruise but a review of what is available can be a good way to optimise budget dollars.
When to Go
The cruises only operate during the Southern Hemisphere summer months from November to March. I travelled at the end of February and certainly warm clothes are necessary for the days in the extreme southern locations. Temperatures are of course much warmer in the first and last days of the cruise. Weather conditions at Cape Horn are very unpredictable. According to crew members we were lucky to have calm weather at Cape Horn (although some of the passengers were hoping to experience real Cape conditions with high seas and raging storms). You will need clothes for all weather conditions. The Cape can be extremely windy so layer-up.
The website mentioned above provides all the pricing information for each cruise date. The most economical accommodation is an inside cabin for two which will cost approximately $1,500 USD per person for this cruise. These are perfectly comfortable. Generally the earlier and later dates in the season are priced lowest, so bargains can be found if you are flexible with your dates. The website also shows the ‘brochure price’ and then their discounted price. Whilst this most likely is some sort of marketing tactic, I have noticed that as the date for certain cruises gets closer, their discounted prices do sometime drop a little, so availability may be a factor pushing prices lower. If you have identified a cruise of interest, it can help to monitor the discounted price for a few months as it may become more affordable as the date approaches.
Some of the cruises allow you to prepay tips. I like this idea as it avoids the last minute scramble to find currency to be put in envelopes to be distributed to the appropriate personnel. You can expect that this will add about US$200 per person to your published ‘discounted price’ for the cruise.
What is Included
The amount paid for your cruise is then similar in concept to an all-inclusive resort. Everything is covered (except alcoholic beverages). There are several dining options apart from the main dining room and all are excellent. In addition there are a few very up-scale dining choices for which a supplement has to be paid. The breakfast and lunch buffet choices were excellent. Facilities included a well-equipped gym and spa, a running track, casino, computer rooms, reading rooms, retail shops and a theatre for live Broadway-style shows each night among others. On the cruise I took, they had two very good speakers covering information about each of the ports of call, about the wildlife we could expect to see, about the great navigators and their voyages through the Cape and about other topics relevant to the cruise. These were daily presentations and thoroughly entertaining as well as informative. Well recommended if offered. They also provided some evening star gazing presentations of what to see in the Southern Hemisphere – all included in the price.
Regarding land excursions, these can range in price from about $100 USD per person to about $350 USD per person, depending on the itinerary. That can really push up the overall cost, so it is a good idea to plan early before the cruise departs and to book early when on board, as the popular excursions can fill up quickly. I noticed in some ports, such as Puerto Montt, that there are local tour operators at the pier who will offer you an identical excursion to that provided on ship at as much as 50% or 60% off. This could be an option but only for sightseeing and generally is riskier. If you are comfortable in Spanish and are willing to take a chance this can help with the budget. Bear in mind though that if you are late returning, the ship will leave without you and it will be your responsibility to travel to the next port in order to re-embark.
How to Get to the Port
From Santiago the journey by car or bus to the cruise port in Valparaíso will take approximately one and a half hours. Your hotel can also arrange a more private van transport option if this is preferred, to make the embarkation process easier. The cost will depend on whether other passengers are included also. The embarkation process at the cruise port in Valparaíso is fairly quick and straightforward and not unlike the airport process in that you will be asked for travel documents such as passport and confirmation of ticket purchase. The main difference is that your passport will be retained for the duration of the cruise and you will be given an identity card. This will need to be scanned each time you leave the ship and return to the ship at ports-of-call. Luggage is numbered during the check-in process and taken directly to the door of your assigned cabin. Remember to ensure that you have your valid current passport and the appropriate visas if necessary for Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.
What You Should Bring
Bear in mind that you will be departing and arriving in warm temperatures but the Cape region is cold, windy and maybe wet so you need to bring clothes appropriate to both climatic conditions. A good idea is to bring layers for the windy and cold conditions that you are likely to experience. Other ideas include:
- lots of sunscreen and sunglasses
- camera with plenty of storage, if digital
- electrical adapters if you have other than American standard
- if you are addicted to the computer there is a computer room on-board but the internet service was expensive and not very reliable. There was no free Wi-Fi on board.
- suggested option is to access internet at Wi-Fi locations in the ports, such as an hotel lobby, cafe etc.
- good walking shoes/boots
- weatherproof outer garments in case of showers etc during excursions.
- ATM cards for withdrawing local currency in ports for miscellaneous purchases, and/or credit cards for larger purchases. If you haven’t prepaid for tips you will be able to obtain dollars on board.
- small bag/knapsack/backpack for carrying miscellaneous items during excursions
- your preferred seasickness pills just in case Cape Horn is too rough or you feel queasy on small craft
- light clothes for the early and later stages when temperatures are back to summer levels
- swimming costumes for the hot jacuzzis and if you spoil yourself with spa treatments
- workout clothes for the on-board gym which you will need to use to burn off the calories from the perpetual buffet
- a good appetite.
- if you enjoy dressing formally then bring appropriate attire but there is no obligation to do so
Things to See Nearby
If you leave from Valparaíso and have a few days available beforehand, there are several options to consider. Think about taking time to explore the city of Valparaíso or visit nearby Viña del Mar and take the coastal road to Con-Con for a delicious meal at one of the many seafood restaurants along this rugged stretch of coast. There are also several wineries within one hour of Valparaíso in the Casablanca Valley where lunch and a winery visit can be arranged.
Of course there is Santiago, with many places to visit; our blog has several articles to stimulate ideas.
For some of the cruises, the price includes the night of arrival on-board the ship in Buenos Aires. This is a great convenience as the ship will arrive very early in port so there is one entire day to arrange a sightseeing trip around the city or any other excursion available or just to walk the city at your own pace. We chose to disembark and arrange our own short city tour, leaving time to revisit areas of interest and enjoy a meal at our own leisure. You may then return to the ship for the evening entertainment and enjoy a good night’s rest before disembarking the following morning. If you are flying out of one of the two airports in Buenos Aires transport can be arranged prior to disembarking. Otherwise, many taxis and tour operators are located at the arrivals lounge should you wish to extend your stay.
This story was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question before planning your trip.