Close encounters with South America’s penguins, glaciers and Cape Horn
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” –St Augustine
A surprisingly cold wind swept across the desolate beach at Volunteer Point, one of the Falkland Island’s most popular tourist destinations, but the throngs of king, gentoo and magellanic penguins didn’t seem to mind. This sight made the two hours of bumpy four-wheeling over roadless peat beds worthwhile, and neither the overcast skies nor the mid-summer chill could dampen the excitement I felt as I gazed at the largest colony of king penguins outside of Antarctica. More than a thousand of the stately birds huddled in a protective circle, many straddling a single egg or feeding a downy gray chick. Occasionally a few adults waddled unsteadily away from the group, past a separate cluster of gentoo penguins, looking for their next meal in the frigid, steel-gray South Atlantic waters. As I photographed this mélange of assorted penguins, I felt that this extraordinary penguin encounter alone made our cruise worthwhile.
To put this adventure in proper context, after our recent retirement, my wife and I rented our home and traveled in South America for four months, both to see her family and to explore this intriguing part of the world. As we had learned during a previous extended Europe trip, by including a nice cruise in the middle of our travels, we were able to put aside the demands of overland travel and savor our cruise ship’s unique ability to provide a high level of comfort while taking us to varied and often remote destinations. Which explains how we found ourselves on Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship, the Norwegian Sun, circumnavigating the tip of South America—Cape Horn. This once in a lifetime cruise, beginning in Buenos Aires and ending in Valparaiso, Chile, provided an amazing assortment of adventures with penguins, glaciers and fjords, mixed in with remote towns and hospitable people.
In a journey filled with so many memorable moments, here are the highlights:
- Buenos Aires proved to be a remarkably European-looking city, full of parks, a renowned 200 year old cemetery (site of Evita’s tomb), the widest boulevard in the world and a shoreline bordering the widest river in the world. Not only is it the most visited city in South America, but it provided easy air access to one of the world’s greatest waterfalls, Iguazu Falls, a natural wonder not to be missed.
- Approaching Cape Horn, the southernmost piece of land on earth above Antarctica, we earned our nautical bragging rights as our ship battled formidable waves and wind before we were able to gaze at the rocky point that had witnessed centuries of sailing triumphs and tragedies.
- At Punta Arenas, Chile, we joined our ship’s exclusive DMC Chile excursion to one of South America’s most picturesque mountain ranges, Torres del Paine National Park. This trip required two bus rides and a private plane flight over surprisingly barren expanses of Patagonia before we reached the craggy mountains. From what we could see of the peaks through the clouds, the formations were indeed spectacular.
- From Puerto Montt, Chile, a rather nondescript town, our ship’s tour took us to Petrohue Falls, whose cascading waters framed the perfectly cone shaped Osorno Volcano which we later visited. From our vantage point halfway up the cylindrical cone, we admired the expansive view of Lake Esmeralda and the hilly countryside surrounding it.
- When we entered the Chilean fjords, every passenger watched spellbound as we glided past a series of spectacular glaciers draped across craggy, snow-capped mountains. The massive ice sheets, lined with deep fissures, glowed with deep aquamarine hues in the late afternoon sunlight. Some of the ice walls spewed milky waterfalls as the behemoths slowly melt and creep inexorably towards their demise in the frigid ocean water.
As the Norwegian Sun pulled into Valparaiso’s bustling harbor, we reflected on our once-in-a-lifetime cruise around some of the most remarkable sights in the world. We felt grateful to have been able to sail around the infamous tip of South America and to have waddled alongside king penguins in the remote Falkland Islands. This chapter in the book of our travels, although now closed, will remain among our most treasured memories.
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. See more photos and articles at www.HansenTravel.org or Instagram @doug6636.
IF YOU GO:
CRUISE SHIP: Norwegian Cruise Line, www.ncl.com, 866-234-7350. (Note: We were able to purchase our NCL excursions both before and during the cruise.)
FALKLAND ISLANDS TOUR: One of the top operators is Estancia Tours (family also owns 13,000 acre Estancia sheep farm), http://estancia-excursions.com/.
MISC: Bring good hiking shoes (depending on where you go, trails are often rough or muddy), swimsuit, sunscreen, hat, warm rain jacket or umbrella; the key is to dress in layers to accommodate varying weather conditions at any time. Make extra color copies of your passport to carry with you.