Cruising South America

More and more ships are going to South America every year. At least eleven major ships from cruise lines that include Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, NCL, Orient, Princess and the luxury lines Radisson, Seabourn and Silversea will visit there in 2003.

In light of the fact that more cruisers will be venturing down to the land of our Latin neighbors this year we asked veteran cruise writer Marvin Petron to send his tips on how to make your South American cruise as comfortable as possible.

PACKING: Here is the first thing to remember when planning your cruise around South America: when it's winter up here, it's summer down there. But not the kind of sweltering summer you get back home. Especially in the southern reaches of the continent, where mid-summer temperatures hover around 50, and feel even colder with the wind chill. So packing could be a bit of a problem because you've got to include summer wear for places like Rio, and bundle-up togs for southern Argentina and Chile.

Here's what I suggest for those cool days in the south:

  • One sweater, preferably cotton, to reduce bulk in packing
  • One hooded nylon parka
  • Knit gloves
  • A sweat shirt
  • A cotton tee shirt as an initial layer (layering is the best and lightest way to keep warm)
  • A Pair of warm socks
  • A folding umbrella

Of course, use your judgment in packing for hot spots like Rio and Montevideo. Less is better, particularly if you're flying to and from South America.

Other Things to Pack: If you're heading around the horn, you'll get really close to glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, sea lions (and other wild life) - aboard ship and in port. But you'll really miss out if you don't take along a pair of binoculars and certainly, a camera and lots and lots of film. Holland America Line provided all passengers with fairly good binoculars in its own carrying case. A nice touch.

SIGHTSEEING IN PORT: There are two ways you can get to see all of the sights you've read about in magazines and other literature (important: do your homework, learn about the destination before you ever get there).

OPTION ONE: Book your sightseeing tours offered on the ship. A good idea if you only have a short time in port, say only a morning or an afternoon. That way, you're assured of getting back to the ship on time. Even if the tour returns late, the ship won't sail without you. But there are a couple of negatives:

  1. It means going off with hordes of other passengers on tightly-crammed busses.
  2. It will cost you at least two-to-three times what you'd pay if you booked the same tour portside.

OPTION TWO: If you're in port for a full day, it's a good idea to join up with a couple of other passengers and hire a taxi for a few hours. The safest spot to get a cab is at the pier terminal itself. Most often they're radio cabs and an attendant will get one for you. This will cost you anywhere from $10 to 20 an hour (for the taxi - not per person). And you don't have to pay till the driver delivers you back to the cruise terminal or dock. If there isn't a radio cab desk, walk a block or two out of the dock area and negotiate a fare with one of the many cabs available. Remember - the closer you are to the dock, the more expensive the ride.

In most cases, while you're touring, the driver will park or circle around while you sightsee or shop on foot. I like to do my sightseeing in the morning and get back to the ship at one or two for a Lido lunch. Then I have the rest of the day to wander around a bit on my own or stay aboard and hunker down in a comfy deck chair. Many passengers prefer to have an early lunch aboard and then go off for the rest of the afternoon. But remember - if you're doing it on your own, you have to be back aboard ship one-half hour before sailing - so don't cut it too close. Again, know where you want to go and create your own, private tour. NOTE: If you happen to get to Puerto Montt in Chile's lake district, be sure your driver takes you to see the falls (Saltos de Petrohue). Niagara, eat your heart out!

SAFETY IN PORT: Everyone warns you about ports like Rio: "don't flash a lot of money, don't wear a lot of jewelry, don't walk around at night. You could get mugged." Good advice, but hey, that could happen right in your home town. So it's important to follow basic precautions, the same as you would in most major cities. That means don't wear a lot of jewelry, don't flash large amounts of money, don't use an ATM machine at night, avoid dark or deserted streets.

DRINKING WATER: When in doubt about the safety of the local drinking water (in some of the smaller ports), take along a bottle of mineral water from the ship. Wine and beer are okay, but tell them to hold the ice.

CURRENCY EXCHANGE: On a recent round-South America Cruise (we started off in Rio), we visited Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. And we never had to change U.S. dollars into local currency. Armed with a major credit card and a handful of one dollar bills (don't take large bills with you), we were able to take care of our basic needs in port. Nice to know that U.S. dollars are very welcome and respected in South American ports. And everyone, including taxi drivers, seems to be aware of the current rate of exchange. They'll even give you change - in dollars. If you're staying for a few days, at the beginning or end of your cruise, you might want to change some money at a bank or your hotel.

SHOPPING: Each port on your South American itinerary has specialty items of the area. In Chile and southern Argentina, hand-crafted woolens are the thing. Leather items are a good buy in Montevideo. In Buenos Aires, where one Argentine peso equals one U.S. dollar, there are wonderful buys all over the city. Men's shirts for $10.00; blazers for $50; shoes for $12.00. The prices are so good, you could come with an empty suitcase and buy a completely new wardrobe in Buenos Aires. There are also excellent values in leather, suede and woolens.

Ushuaia (oosh-why-a), on the southern tip of Argentina, although it's a duty-free port, prices in general seem a bit high. Better to buy your duty free items aboard the ship (toward the end of the cruise when they're marked down). If you're into emeralds and other gemstones, Rio, of course is the place. Although they're supposed to be good value, unless you know the worth of these items, buy with caution. Best to go to a top merchant like H. Stern. In Buenos Aires, the enterprising Mr. Stern will shuttle you from the pier to his showroom in the very fashionable part of the city. And there's no obligation to buy. Same in Montevideo - one of the leather merchants will take you from the pier to his shop in the heart of the city.

MEDICAL ATTENTION: While in port, if you happen to become ill, hop in a taxi and get back to the ship as soon as you can. In the unlikely event that you have to go to a hospital, if you can't do it yourself, please have them, or one of your cruise mates call the ship. IMPORTANT: You should always carry the ship's phone number with you whenever you're in port.

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