South America's West Coast

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2002

Independent South American travel by land and air can be an intimidating experience, and with the exception of perhaps Argentina and Chile, a cruise or organized tour may be the best route. But be sure to plan a healthy budget for shore excursions.

Ship travel, for example, is the best way to explore the Amazon basin and see the scenic Strait of Magellan and Chilean fjords. Cities such as Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Salvador de Bahia and Lima (Callao), are easily accessible from the sea, and Rio de Janeiro's dramatic setting is a must-see from the deck of an incoming ship. But inland sights - Iguassu Falls and Ecuador's high-altitude capital of Quito - require flying, and Machu Picchu is reachable only after an air, rail and bus odyssey.

Having cruised South America's East Coast, Patagonia, and Chile's fjords, I wondered what it would be like to sail the less traveled West Coast to explore northern Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. Several lines offered such cruises, and in the end, I picked Orient Lines' 848-passenger Marco Polo sailing north from Valparaiso through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean, rhythmically alternating between port calls and days at sea.

On a previous Marco Polo sailing from Singapore to Bombay, I noticed the passenger list included serious travelers from all over the English-speaking world - Australia, South Africa, Britain, Canada and the U.S. Originally built in 1965 as the Aleksandr Pushkin and rebuilt in 1992/93 with more modern accommodations, the mid-size Marco Polo looks and acts like a real ship, not a top-heavy floating resort grafted to a hull. Give me a good book and a wooden deck chair on a broad teak promenade, and I am a contented soul. (In fact, I ended up reading three.)

Orient Lines often begins its cruises with a hotel stay, in this case in Chile's sophisticated capital of Santiago. The stylish, high-rise Hyatt Regency, located in a quiet residential district, was happily within 10 minutes' walk of the French-designed Metro that took us to the pedestrian-friendly central business district, attractive urban parks, sprawling produce markets, and two great restaurant neighborhoods. At one of them, I enjoyed barnacles the size of a man's fist, swimming in a butter and cream sauce, followed by grilled eel in a mushroom and shrimp sauce--typical Chilean fare.

Two hours by road from Santiago, the port of Valparaiso, seemingly frozen in the nineteenth century, is surrounded by hillside residential districts accessed by rickety, aging incline railways. But creaky rides up two funiculars rewarded us with terrific views, including one of the very handsome ship we were soon to join.

More than half of Marco Polo's passengers had embarked two weeks earlier in Buenos Aires and called at Montevideo, the Falklands and ports in Patagonia, then passed close to Cape Horn and nudged up to calving glaciers in the Chilean fjords. Continuing northward, the new complement numbered three British passengers for every American, plus some Australians and other English-speakers.

The cold, northerly flowing Humboldt Current and southerly trade winds gave most pleasant conditions over the open decks right up to the Equator. Coastal temperatures ashore became increasingly hot and humid, but dropped at high inland elevations.

In the main dining room, the appetizing menus were never repeated, and with lively table conversation, mealtimes were happy occasions. Raffles, the Lido indoor/outdoor restaurant, served a set Oriental dinner one night ($15 surcharge included tip and wine) and buffet meals at other times. For most breakfasts and lunches, we chose to eat out by the pool.

Our cabin, of moderate size, had two large windows and plenty of storage space. Its only drawback was poor soundproofing, but happily the neighbors did not switch on the TV early or late in the day.

The ship's public rooms are pleasantly decorated in sea and sky colors, offering an English tea in the Palm Court, good piano entertainment before dinner in the Polo Lounge and a small dance band after 9 p.m. in the Charleston Club. Apart from a show lounge evening devoted to music and dancing from the Cotton Club era, the entertainment was thoroughly routine. Two excellent lecturers, one a political expert and the other a geographer, provided much-needed insight into the complexities of a poorly understood continent.

We received a hard lesson in personal safety when at the first port of call--Coquimbo in Chile--I was jumped by two men in broad daylight on steps leading up to the town's Millennium monument, as several residents looked on from their balconies. We struggled on the pavement until one began kicking and the other produced a nasty looking foot-long dagger. I quickly gave up and let them run off with my camera and wallet.

The ship's doctor patched me up; the ship's agent provided a phone to cancel credit cards; and the police filled out a report for insurance purposes. The police took us back to the crime scene and interviewed the onlookers, but as they were apparently fearful of these two well-known local drug addicts, they hesitated to intervene. We put it down to a completely random incident in a country where violent crime is not the norm; hence, there had been no warnings.

We took the ship's excursions elsewhere, and on walking tours in Lima, Quito and Cartagena, the groups had reassuring police escorts. In some ports, free shuttles were provided to beaches and shopping centers for those who didn't want an organized tour.

The call at Arica in northern Chile provided a spectacular three-hour mountain and moonscape drive through the Atacama Desert--known as the driest place on earth--to a small village with historic trading connections, overlooked by pre-Inca terraced fields and nestled at the foot of the 18,000- to 19,000-foot High Andes ($95). More than 200 satisfied passengers who pre-booked a two-night tour flew from Arica to Peru to visit Cuzco and Machu Picchu, returning to the ship at Callao ($1,298).

At Callao, I toured nearby Lima, Peru's capital, with its fine Spanish colonial architecture fronting on the main squares; a mansion occupied by the same Aliaga family since the first part of the 16th century; and the city's diplomatic and beach resort districts ($45). At the same time, my companion flew via 12-passenger Cessna for aerial and on-site views of the mysterious pre-Inca Nazca Lines, animal and geometric drawings in the desert ($495).

After we docked at the Ecuadoran coastal resort of Salinas, a chartered 727 took 95 passengers on a 75-minute flight to the country's high-altitude capital of Quito for a walk through the city's Spanish colonial squares. They also climbed to a scenic overlook, took a side trip to a monument straddling the Equator, and enjoyed a very good lunch on the rim of a volcano ($358).

Panama has recently become a more frequent shore destination for cruise ships in addition to the ever-popular canal transit. The Marco Polo docked at the Pacific port of Balboa, and our excursion drove inland along dirt roads to the fast-flowing Chagres River for a motorized dugout ride upstream to a stilted Indian village. Here we could see the remote rain forest way of life, buy locally-made crafts and watch some unexciting dance routines ($75). Others visited early Spanish fortifications in nearby Panama City ($28), took a launch cruise on Gatun Lake ($58) or toured the canal operations at the Miraflores Locks ($25).

The passage through the Panama Canal lasted an usually long 10-1/2 hours because of delays entering the Gatun Locks, but we had a most welcome diversion by going through in tandem with the motor sailing ship Wind Song.

At Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, some passengers went on an animal and bird watching trip along the Tortuguero Canal ($75); we drove into the hills to visit a research station where we spotted a howler monkey, a spider monkey and a few birds deep in the cloud forest ($75).

Cartagena, a popular port in Colombia, offered a trip by high-speed launch to 17th-century Spanish fortifications at the harbor entrance, a close-up view of an island fishing village, and a colonial district walking tour that included a good restaurant lunch ($55). With the company's running mate, the Crown Odyssey, in port, the two ships hosted festive open houses for passengers and crew.

After we disembarked in Aruba, the Marco Polo went on to Barbados and continued transatlantic to begin the European season. The west coast of South America is not an especially easy place to make port calls and inland visits, but given a generous budget, the destinations are most rewarding for their highly varied scenery as well as their Indian and Spanish colonial heritage. Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, and the upper part of Chile are not countries recommended for independent travel, but Costa Rica and southern Chile can be visited safely without a tour.


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