By Rafael Belliard
When my first mate 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 with 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 Two: Chile to Buenos Aires
We arrived in Puerto Montt, Chile, the day after Christmas. Located at the northern end of the Golfo Corcovado, the area surrounding Puerto Montt is known as the Lake District for its many inland lakes. Founded in the mid-1800s for the express goal of populating southern Chile, the city is now the area’s largest. The Chilean government invited Germans to settle here, offering a plot of land to each family. The Germanic influence can be seen everywhere—in the yards, gardens and homes with their ever-present lace window curtains.
Due to insufficient depth in the harbor and no adequate dock, our ship anchored in front of Puerto Montt. Tenders shuttled us to shore, where we boarded a bus for a 4½-hour tour.
The green, forested Lake District has many pasturelands, lakes and rivers. It produces a large percentage of the beef and seafood consumed in the country.
The Lake District
Not far from Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas has a population of around 44,000. Frutillar, a small, quaint town on the shores of Llanquihue Lake, has a population of 13,000. Despite its size, the town has its own modern theater, concert hall and arts center, Teatro del Lago. A School of the Arts is located in the area as well. Llanquihue Lake is Chile’s second-largest. Two volcanos lie many miles away across the lake, but low-lying clouds precluded us from seeing anything but their bases.
We heard the area had experienced a 7.5 earthquake a couple of days earlier. Despite the quake’s severity, not a single structure was impacted, which is a testament to Chile’s strict earthquake-proof construction codes.
The Chilean Fiords
When we departed Puerto Montt on Dec. 27, fog made it difficult to see the islands along Corcovado Sound. At the morning lectures, we learned what to expect en route to Tierra del Fuego and during the passage around Cape Horn.
Infinity entered the Chilean fiords the next day in the early afternoon. Vessels go between the many islands and fiords, completely avoiding the passage around Cape Horn.
The passage’s navigable channel narrows considerably between Farrel and Chatham islands. Every ship traversing these waters must have an experienced Chilean pilot aboard who handles the ship during these inside passages.
Punta Arenas, Chile
We arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile, on Dec. 30, and once again, the ship’s tenders ferried us to shore.
Ferdinand Magellan, employed by the Portuguese Crown to find a shorter route to the Moluccas Islands (known as “the Spice Islands”) was the first European to find a natural passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in 1520. It took Magellan 39 days to negotiate the strait; Infinity did it in just 16 hours.
Punta Arenas means “sandy point,” and the town stands on a sandy point on the western shore of the Magellan Strait. Europeans settled here as well, mostly Croatians fleeing turmoil in the Balkans.
Being on the Magellan Strait, this town saw a great deal of maritime activity and an economic boon from sheep ranching, mining, fishing and maritime trade; however, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 led to its decline. Now, tourism provides significant business in the summer months when three to four cruise ships visit the town each week. During the rest of the year, the town survives by exporting sheep’s wool and seafood and serving as a stop for cruise ships going to and from Antarctica.
At the end of the day, our ship weighed anchor and headed for Ushuaia, Argentina’s southernmost town. We arrived in Ushuaia at 10 a.m. the next day. The town’s name means “deep bay” in the local Yaghan language. A true sub-Antarctic outpost, the town sits on a rather narrow coastal plain that gives way to a steep upgrade that turns a one-block uphill walk into a cardiac stress test. Thankfully, the streets parallel to the shore are level.
We ate at an Argentinian “parrillada,” an all-you-can-eat indoor barbecue restaurant. You take your plate to a window where the cook serves you from the meats—usually lamb, beef, chicken and chorizo—roasting on an open fire.
The ship left at 7 p.m. bound for Cape Horn on New Year’s Eve.
Rounding Cape Horn
On New Year’s Day, we got up at 5 a.m., as this was to be “Rounding the Horn Day.” Even with our winter gear, we were chilly. The temperature hovered around 35 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the normal local temperature in this austral summer!
Located on Isla Hornos in the Wollaston Islands at the southern end of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, Cape Horn marks the northern edge of the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica. The cape lies within Chilean territorial waters, and the country maintains a naval station on Horn Island.
The Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet right at Cape Horn, which at times can be beset by strong winds and currents, icebergs, and large waves, not to speak of poor visibility due to fog. It’s often said you can experience all four seasons there in just in one day.
Beagle Channel, a long strait in Tierra del Fuego Archipelago on the extreme southern tip of South America between Chile and Argentina, was named after the HMS Beagle during its first hydrographic coastal survey of southern South America.
The channel separates the larger main island of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from various smaller islands to the south.
About 130 nautical miles long and 3 nautical miles wide at its narrowest, Beagle Channel extends from Nueva Island in the east to Darwin Sound and Cook Bay in the Pacific Ocean to the west.
By previous arrangement, King Neptune was in a good mood and provided smooth seas around Cape Horn, and the ship lingered in the area for an hour.
The area’s most striking features are total isolation and remoteness; you really feel like you are at the end of the world.
Puerto Madryn, Argentina
After rounding Cape Horn, Infinity headed for Puerto Madryn. Strong winds caused a significant delay, and the ship had to use all thrusters to dock.
Puerto Madryn is located in Patagonia, a sparsely populated semi-desert region located at the southern end of South America. Shared by Argentina and Chile, the region comprises the southern section of the Andes mountain chain as well as the deserts, pampas and grasslands east of the southern Andes.
The Spanish were slow in colonizing Patagonia, and it took the discovery of gold in 1879 to ignite interest in Tierra del Fuego. The construction of the Pan-American Highway finally brought all the indigenous locals, rather abruptly, into the 20th century.
The Peninsula Valdés juts off the coast and has a narrow isthmus that forms two protected areas: a small bay to the north called Golfo San José, and a larger one to the south, Golfo Nuevo. Puerto Madryn lies at the latter gulf’s cul-de-sac to the west and is more than 800 miles south of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.
With one of Argentina’s few protected harbors, Puerto Madryn is primarily a commercial port with sturdy docks capable of handling large vessels. The port receives bauxite (aluminum ore) from Brazil and Australia, which a plant at the dock converts to aluminum for export.
Puerto Madryn has some of the nicest beaches, making it a magnet for vacationers, who congregate in hotels and apartment buildings along a nice seashore dive. The town also exports a great deal of wool from Patagonia’s immense sheep population.
After a one-hour bus drive, we arrived at the city of Trelew, an industrial town of 120,000 with a Welsh name thanks to its early settlers. We visited the Museum of Paleontology, with its collection of dinosaur skeletons that have been discovered in Patagonia.
When the dinosaurs roamed, South America was a huge island continent with a rainy tropical climate and a warm, swampy tropical forest. When the Pacific and South American tectonic plates collided some 45 to 50 million years ago, the resultant uplift gave rise to the Andes mountains and created the isthmus we know today as Panama. This uplift also joined Central and South America. The Andes eventually cut off the moisture-laden westerly Pacific winds, which led to the gradual desertification of Patagonia, putting an end to the abundant life it supported. The museum has a large collection of fossils; some are dinosaur species found only in this area.
After lunch, we rode along the Golfo Nuevo shore to visit a sea lion rookery. Sea lions sat on rocks, and cavorted on the sand and in the surf. Petrels and cormorants perched on the cliffs above and flew overhead.
North of Patagonia is what Argentines call the “pampas,” endless stretches of fertile flat lands, where farming (mostly wheat) and cattle-raising predominate. The latter produces what is said to be the best beef in the world. Both are some of Argentina’s largest exports.
Later that day, the ship left in calm waters with a following sea. The temperature was warm, and we were back in shorts. What a difference 800-plus miles makes!
Our first port in Uruguay was Punta del Este, a resort town with a permanent population of around 20,000 that swells into the hundreds of thousands during their summer months when Uruguayans and Argentines flock there.
With an area of 68,000 square miles, the country is the second-smallest in South America after Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana). The country is almost flat with undulating hills; its highest elevation is 1,770 feet.
The Rio de la Plata got its name from the first Spanish discoverers, who thought its waters were silvery. The waters are mostly a muddy brick color. The water’s salinity fluctuates, depending on ocean currents. The Rio de la Plata divides Argentina to the south from Uruguay to the north.
A bus tour through the resort town of Punta del Este and into the countryside took us to an olive farm and oil-producing operation about 1½ hour’s drive from the port. On the way, we stopped at a tiny hamlet (of probably not more than 200 people) called Pueblo Eden, which prides itself in being a peaceful community that insists upon tranquility and has signs to that effect. The signs did not specify what happens to those who do not comply, and we opted not to ask.
Simply beautiful, the Uruguayan countryside features gently rolling hills whose pasture lands feed sheep, horses and cows, with an occasional olive grove or vineyard. The country is windy and uses wind to generate much of its electricity.
Upon our return to the ship, we sailed for Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. In Montevideo, a bus tour took us through most parts of town, with its tree-lined streets. We watched a couple demonstrate tango dancing on a wooden platform at a city park.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
That afternoon, the ship set sail for Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, a beautiful city that’s often described as “the Paris of South America.”
The day began with an early bus tour of the city. The old and ultramodern mix well in this neat, clean metropolis of squares, statues, monuments, parks and ornate public buildings.
The following day, we toured Tigre, a city some 17 miles from the capital on the Paraná River delta.
The Paraná and Uruguay rivers come together to form the Rio de la Plata estuary. The Rio de la Plata runs for 180 miles and is 140 miles wide at its mouth. We took a 1½-hour sightseeing cruise through the delta.
Our last tour in Buenos Aires was to the Caminito. Variously described as seedy, funky, quaint and bohemian, it’s credited with being the birthplace of the Argentinian tango. Women in tango garb offer to pose for photos with you, but pickpockets often work the crowds.
We returned to the ship by late afternoon to pack our luggage for the next day’s disembarkation. Although we both were ready to go home, we felt sad. After 30 days, Infinity had come to feel like home.
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.