By Rafael Belliard
Going around South America’s Cape Horn has always been fraught with awe and understandable concerns about ships wrecked by rough seas, icebergs, huge waves, and strong currents. As avid cruising sailors and travelers, Linda and I had always dreamed of visiting South America and rounding Cape Horn.
When Linda, the perennial travel opportunities researcher, found the perfect way to round the cape, we decided to make it happen. We would take the trip within the sybaritic comforts of a cruise ship on back-to-back cruises from Miami, Florida, to Valparaiso, Chile, and on to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which included the much sought-after “rounding of the Horn.”
Part One: Miami to Chile
Linda and I boarded Century Lines’ Infinity around noon on Dec. 14, 2016, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Founded in 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain, the city of around 1 million sits on the Caribbean Sea. The approach impresses with its huge, well-protected and buoyed bay flanked by Spanish-built forts on each side of its narrow entrance and a skyline reminiscent of Miami. An 11-mile-long fortified wall surrounds the city’s historical Colonial Zone.
Britain had attacked Spanish possessions in Panama since the early 1600s and set its sights on Cartagena de Indias, the main shipping port for all gold and silver coming from Spanish possessions farther south.
When Spain got wind of the plot, the king summoned Don Blas de Lezo, an admiral in the Spanish Navy. A seasoned warrior and tough customer, the admiral suffered many wounds in combat, earning him the nickname “Half Man.” Local Viceroy Sebastián de Eslava and Blas De Lezo were entrusted with preparing the city’s defense, centered at San Felipe Fort.
Starting in mid-April 1741, the city endured a siege by a large English armada under the command of British Adm. Edward Vernon. The Battle of Cartagena de Indias was fought by an English armada with 25,600 men, including 2,000 North American colonial infantries.
Vernon lifted the siege after a failed attack on San Felipe Fort on April 20, 1741, which left 800 British dead and another 1,000 taken prisoner. George Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence Washington, was among the British colonial troops. Lawrence named his Virginia estate “Mount Vernon” in honor of his British commander before the estate passed to his half-brother and future first president, who retained the name.
The Panama Canal
After stopping in Cartagena, Infinity proceeded to Colón, a large port town at the Caribbean Sea entrance to the Panama Canal. While there, we took a tour bus to Panama City. Situated some 48 miles from Colón, the capital city is home to 1.5 million of Panama’s 4 million people. The entire countryside between Colón and Panama City is mostly jungle. We toured the city and visited Panamá Viejo, the old city founded by the Spaniards in 1519.
The entire 47.9-mile passage through the canal took Infinity 12 hours, but some ships may take much longer, depending on size and circumstances. We saw only a few sailboats during our passage. Most passengers crowded at the ship’s huge port-to-starboard lounge high up near the bow for the best view.
At dusk, Infinity finally entered the Pacific Ocean at the southern terminus of Balboa, near Panama City, thus completing our Panama Canal crossing.
The ship headed south along Colombia’s Pacific coast, bound for its next port of call: Manta, Ecuador.
Infinity crossed the equator some 63 nautical miles north of Manta, Ecuador, while we slept. That imaginary line that divides the Northern and Southern hemispheres also lent its name to our next host country: Ecuador.
As usual with these ships, arrival and docking at a port is a silent operation, greatly appreciated by passengers that may still be asleep. Customarily, cruise ships arrive around 7 a.m. and depart 4 or 5 p.m. for the next destination.
A busy fishing port, Manta, is Ecuador’s fifth largest city with a population of around 250,000.
The most ubiquitous vendors in the busy town center were Panama hat makers and peddlers. Made in Ecuador, Panama hats got their name because they were favored by Panama Canal workers for sun protection during construction. Locals decided to keep the name instead of spoiling a good thing. We watched women make Panama hats. They wove the hats on a support post, which they rested their chests against while weaving.
The ship left Manta around 6:30 p.m., this time bound for Lima, Peru.
After sailing a day and a half, Infinity arrived at El Callao, Lima’s seaport. The capital city itself lies about an hour’s ride from the coast. A big city, El Callao has a population of 1 million. The town was spotlessly clean, no garbage anywhere, with buildings of square-shaped brown bricks ubiquitous throughout Latin America.
Lima is a beautiful city with fine Spanish colonial-era buildings and architecture. It also has many upscale neighborhoods dotted with high-rise apartments and condominiums. Of Peru’s 30 million population, 9 million live in Lima.
Lima became the seat of the Spanish conquest and colonization of South America because gold was abundant. Gold was transported by ships from here to Panama and taken by mule train across the isthmus to Caribbean ports, where it was shipped to Spain on galleons.
The country is geographically and climactically divided into a narrow strip of arid coastal plain, giving way eastward to the Andes mountains with high snowy peaks, and lastly, a jungle where the Amazon River is born before flowing into Brazil.
With scarce rainfall, the coastal plain (Lima in particular) depends solely on snowmelt for its water supply. The small, dammed Rimac River supplies Lima’s water needs. At the time of our visit, the city had seen no rain since 1970, some 46 years before. Some residents have never seen rain in their entire lives; in fact, our tour guide had seen rain only twice, once in the Andes and once in New York.
As a result, the streets of Lima and El Callao have few gutter drains or storm sewers. What they do have—and blame for the lack of rain—is plenty of fog. The fog, in turn, is blamed on the Humboldt Current, a cold-water current originating in Antarctica, flowing northward along South America’s west coast in a counterclockwise manner, returning to the south Antarctic Pacific Ocean and then north again, completing the cycle.
Sadly, just a few weeks after our visit, Peru experienced torrential rains and flooding that caused hundreds of deaths and a great deal of damage.
The Green Pacific
After Lima, we had a couple of days sailing the placid Pacific, but the temperature dropped. A walk on the promenade deck now demanded a jacket or sweater. In these latitudes, the Pacific is not bluish (as the Caribbean or Atlantic) but greenish, which our lecturers attributed to a large amount of plankton in the water.
On Dec. 21, Infinity arrived in Arica, Chile’s northernmost port. Chile borders three countries: Peru to the north, Bolivia to the northeast and Argentina to the east. The Pacific Ocean lies to the west.
An incredibly long and narrow country, Chile runs 2,700 miles from north to south (longer than the 2,680-mile width of the U.S.) and averages just 110 miles wide.
The country’s middle third is a fertile forested area of pasture and farms, while its southernmost third is sub-Antarctic, desolate and mountainous, with a coastal labyrinth of fjords, inlets, twisting canals, peninsulas and islands.
Chile’s northern third encompasses the Atacama Desert, which contains great mineral wealth, mainly copper. This desert plateau comprises a 600-mile strip of land along the coast, west of the Andes mountains. The world’s driest desert, it gets less precipitation than the polar areas.
The Atacama Desert occupies an estimated 41,000 square miles, or 49,000 square miles if the Andes barren lower slopes are included. Geographically, the Atacama sits between two tall mountain chains (the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range), which prevent moisture advection from either the Pacific or the Atlantic oceans and form a two-sided rain shadow. The area is so arid it has been used to film movies about Mars and by NASA to test instruments intended for probes sent to that planet.
Arica is basically desert with huge, ever-present ecru-colored sand, pebbles and dunes. Everything is covered by a fine dust.
At different times, Arica has been part of both Bolivia and Peru. The Pacific War (1879–1883) was fought largely about rights to export Arica’s guano: the stinky accumulated droppings of marine birds and a powerful fertilizer.
Having decimated Peru’s navy, Chile emerged
The huge promontory in the town center is where the Pacific War’s final battle took place. Today the area has a military museum and a small version of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue.
The town center soon gives way to one- and two-story buildings and homes, all covered with dust. As in Peru, it seldom rains here, and water is supplied from artesian wells filled in summer when the only river carries meltwater from the Andes. Town sectors receive water on a rotating schedule via covered troughs running along the streets. The water is then pumped to rooftop tanks.
Arica is home to the world’s oldest unearthed mummies. The area’s Chinchorro people buried some of their notables and even children in an upright or sitting position in the desert sand. The dry, salty sand rapidly sucked up all body fluids and transferred some of its salt to the flesh. The result was no decomposition and natural mummification. At a local museum, we saw 15 mummies that had been carbon-dated to 8,000 years B.C., or about 10,000 years old. Three hundred such mummies have been discovered to date.
The local Chinchorro people constructed geoglyphs on the hilly slopes of a nearby valley. Geoglyphs are large piled stone recreations of humans or animals on mountainsides, while pictographs are drawings or paintings on stone, more often found in caves. The Chinchorro geoglyphs of humans and animals were built some 900 years ago using dark stones that stood out from the surrounding lighter-colored sand.
By 5 p.m., Infinity left on a two-day sail to Valparaiso, the terminus for this cruise and where many of the passengers would debark on Christmas Eve. Dec. 23 brought a gray, cool and cloudy day. Ship personnel removed outdoor chairs and tables and stored them inside, as they don’t expect passengers to venture outside much.
Infinity arrived in Valparaiso at the appointed time. The Greater Valparaíso metropolitan area, which includes the neighboring city of Viña del Mar (Vineyard of the Sea), is the second largest in the country. It also has a modern container port. Chile has a total population of 18.2 million and an area of 291,930 square miles.
Santiago de Chile, the capital, is home to 7 million, or 41.2 percent of the country’s total population; it’s located inland, one and a half hours away by car.
Said to be a city of 45 hills—all inhabited—Valparaiso is reminiscent of San Francisco, California, in many ways, particularly its dangerous earthquakes. Locals nicknamed their city “Pancho” (the Spanish nickname for Francisco). It’s considered the most quake-prone city in the Ring of Fire, the Pacific’s encircling tectonic plates whose movements are blamed for so much seismic activity.
A working port town, Valparaiso has many buildings or shells of buildings that have been abandoned or partially torn down after collapsing or being made unsafe by earthquakes. Many empty lots show where other structures have been razed for the same reason. One multi-storied modern building was constructed inside the shell of an old architecturally cherished building to preserve the original historical façade.
Valparaiso’s port is home to a significant naval fleet, and several warships were berthed opposite our ship. With an incredibly long coastline and dependencies as far offshore as Easter Island, Chile is a maritime country with interests to protect.
Easter Island, with a population of 5,000, relies on Chile for food, medical care
Valparaiso has three operational funiculars, or cable railways, that provide pedestrian access to its many inhabited hill neighborhoods. At one time, the city had more than 20 funiculars, but most disappeared with the advent of vehicles. Locals say besides learning to drive, a person in Chile must also learn how to drive in Valparaiso because of its many tight curves and narrow streets.
On Christmas Eve, locals were out in force, shopping at countless vendor stands and stores. In Hispanic countries, the most celebrated winter holiday is Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.
The adjoining town, Viña del Mar, began as a collection of vineyards but has morphed into a plush tourist and residential city of high-rise condominiums and apartments, each costing in the millions. A beautiful town, it’s buzzing with commercial activity and has a beautiful golden sand beach.
Valparaiso’s wealth and prominence derived from being the most important port on the Pacific. It’s where Chile’s main products (guano, copper, seafood and produce) were exported to the rest of the world. Although its importance waned after the Panama Canal opened in 1914, today it’s a big container port.
Most of our ship’s passengers departed on Christmas Eve, with only a handful remaining for the next two-week cruise to Buenos Aires, Argentina. During the afternoon, the ship returned to capacity when a large contingent of passengers came aboard. They were mostly Latin Americans with children celebrating the Christmas holidays and visiting relatives in Argentina. By 5 p.m., we set sail for Puerto Montt, Chile, a day and a half away.
This story continues in the Spring 2019 issue as the ship sails from Chile, around Cape Horn to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Rafael G. Belliard, a retired internist, and his first mate, Linda, are avid travelers who first sailed on their own boats and later on cruise ships as retirees. Their travels have taken them to three continents. Belliard, Mansfield (Ohio) Power & Sail Squadron/7 past commander, has been a member of the Toledo (Ohio), Baton Rouge (Louisiana) and New Bern (North Carolina) squadrons. He has also taught Sail, Advanced Piloting and Cruise Planning.