Cruising South America

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January 29th 2008
Published: January 29th 2008
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8-night South America Cruise
January, 2008

It was winter in the States, and a cruise in the southern hemisphere seemed inviting, so we chose an 8-night itinerary on Royal Caribbean International’s Splendour of the Seas. Skirting the eastern coast of South America, we visited Brazil, Argentina, and a tiny country tucked between those two massive neighbors, Uruguay.

A 10-hour overnight flight on Continental, upgraded to Business Class, bought us to Sao Paulo, Brazil, at 11 o’clock the next morning, January 5, 2008. A representative of Royal Caribbean International met us at the terminal, where we boarded a bus for the scenic two-hour drive over the Serra do Mar mountain range and through the Atlantic Forest to the port of Santos, Brazil.

As we arrived at the docks, we saw that there were seven ships in port and thousands of people milling about in a terminal the size of two football fields. There was no organization, no signage, and there were no lines—just a mass of people trying to get onto seven different ships. Since so many ships had to share the terminal, RCI had only a few computers allotted to them. In addition, the power kept going out, plus many people had not filled out the forms ahead of time, all of which slowed things down considerably. When it was time for the ship to depart at 5 p.m., most of the people had not yet boarded, so we didn’t leave until 10 p.m.

Our delayed departure from Santos, of course, brought us late into Rio de Janeiro the next morning, but as we pulled into the port, the famed Christ the Redeemer monument atop 2,200 foot-high Corcovado Mountain welcomed us to Rio. Despite the fog, we were still able to see it from quite a distance away.

Although the sky was overcast and often rainy, we truly enjoyed our 9-hour tour of Rio de Janeiro, home to 11 million people, with our guide Jimmy, who is fluent in eleven languages. We began with a drive through the central business district along the “Wall Street of Rio,” Rio Branco Avenue, with views of Our Lady of Candelaria Church and the opera house, en route to the famed Copacabana Beach. We were told that some of the downtown buildings have soccer fields on top. The city is quite spread out, 80 miles long by 40 miles wide, and the air is very clean. All cars run on ethanol, which is less than half the price of gasoline, which runs about $8.00 per gallon here.

Our first stop was Sugar Loaf Mountain, so named because its shape resembles the shape of loaves of sugar that were traded centuries ago. Sugar Loaf is a rock that juts straight up from the bay and is accessed in Flamengo Park by aerial tram in two stages. The long waits in line were well worth the awesome view from the top of the 398-meter Sugar Loaf. Although overcast and foggy, the clouds parted for a brief view of Christ the Redeemer across town on Corcovado Mountain.

Lunch was a delightful, typically-Brazilian experience at a churrascaria called Torreo Grill. At a churrascaria, you help yourself to the salad and vegetable buffet and then sit at tables where waiters bring various meats on spits to your table and carve them individually for each person. There were no fewer than a dozen different meats, from chicken hearts to lamb to prime rib, and you eat until you can eat no more.

Next, we passed through the Parque Nacional de Tijuca (largest national park in Brazil and at one time a coffee plantation) to visit the most renowned attraction of Rio, the monument to Christ the Redeemer. We boarded the cogwheel railway, then an elevator plus two escalators, climbing a total of 2,400 feet to marvel at the spectacular 360-degree, panoramic view of Rio and the imposing monument rising above us. It was a moving experience to actually be at the base of this famous 125-foot high statue of Christ, with his peaceful, contented expression and arms outreached to embrace all. It was built between 1929 and 1931 to commemorate the centennial of Brazil. We were told that a Jewish man was so moved by seeing it that he sold his entire fortune to buy a huge ruby stone and had it shaped like a heart to be placed inside Christ’s monument. The ruby has been moved to Vatican City, however, and is no longer inside the statue. The monument was constructed like a building, with steel and concrete and rooms inside. The exterior is covered in glued soapstone chips, which makes it look like marble. Before leaving, we peeked inside the Catholic chapel at the base of the monument, which costs $140,000 to use for weddings.

A drive through the most expensive real estate in the world, the borough of Ipanema, took us along Ipanema Beach before stopping at Rio’s Cathedral of San Sebastian. This is an amazing architectural structure, about 300 feet tall, in the shape of a pyramid with flattened top. The stained glass windows form a cross cascading down its sides. Since it is located in the middle of the business district, which is completely empty on weekends, there was really no need to build a church there. However, the mayor had wanted to sell the land for commercial development, so the three orders of Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits collaborated to build a church there so the church could keep the land. It is an amazing structure that seats 5,000, but in reality no more than 50 people actually attend the one mass held there every Sunday. It is jammed with people, however, when thousands of children from the entire region receive their First Communion each fall. It was also packed when the Pope came to Rio a few years ago.

We had two leisurely days at sea before arriving at our next port, Buenos Aires, Argentina. We enjoyed the ship’s activities and played a lot of Uno on the deck while watching dolphins frolic in the waters along the ship. We learned that there are 2,000 passengers on board, including 1,500 Brazilians, 168 from the U.S., and the rest a mixture from 20 other countries. There are only 250 English speakers and only 95 previous RCI cruisers. We really lucked out with our dinner tablemates…they are entertaining, interesting, intelligent, and funny. Dr. Charlie and Rina are from Toronto, Canada; Jacques and Beverly are from Johannesburg, South Africa; and Tom and Julie are from Cincinnati, Ohio. There is never a moment when somebody isn’t talking!

Our guide in Buenos Aires, Monica, took us on a four-hour tour of the city, which is nicknamed “Paris of South America” because of the prevalence of French architecture. The wealthy ruling families of the late 1800’s loved anything French and brought over architects and engineers to reproduce the French style of buildings. About 95% of the people of this city of 11 million (including the suburbs) are of European descent (50% Italian and about 35% Spanish). There is definitely a European feel as you drive around the city, but it is a complex city in a country where inflation is out of control—about 100% per year.

We drove down one of the widest boulevards in the world, the 24-lane “9 de Julio,” so named for Argentina’s independence day, and past the obelisk commemorating the first 100 national years of the national government. We stopped at the Plaza de Mayo (May Square), which is bordered by the Casa Rosada (where Eva Peron addressed the people and which was tinted pink with oxen blood to keep out humidity), the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Cabildo (colonial town hall). We toured the cathedral before driving to the colorful La Boca area, where the first Italian immigrants settled in 1851 and the home of the tango, for overpriced shopping.

Our final stop was the remarkable and unique Recoleta Cemetery, the city’s aristocratic cemetery dating from 1822. The grounds cover some four city blocks, and the 6,400 mausoleums form an architectural free-for-all, with tombs resembling churches, Greek temples, and pyramids, each holding as many as 70 family coffins. Costing many thousands of dollars to purchase and up to $10,000 per month to rent, only the aristocratic families could afford to be buried there. We visited Eva Peron’s tomb, which was one of the smaller ones but nonetheless impressive. A drive through the upscale Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires completed our tour.

The theater performance on the ship this evening was by an Argentine tango band and dance group from Buenos Aires, and they were sooo good. We truly enjoyed the one-hour show of sensuous tango dance and music.

Because we departed Buenos Aires several hours later than scheduled last night, we arrived in Montevideo a couple of hours late this morning. However, we weren’t prepared for the pleasant surprise that this charming city would prove to be, nor did we realize that we were about to visit what would be our favorite port on the trip. The capital and largest city of Uruguay, Montevideo contains half of the country’s population of 3 million, has a high standard of living, nearly 100% literacy, and excellent social services, yet has a small-town, laid-back European feel. It is an architect’s delight due to the influence of European immigrants with styles ranging from colonial to Art Deco. It is situated at the mouth of the River Plata, which is the widest river in the world, 150 miles wide at its widest part. It is directly across the river from Buenos Aires.

We began our tour of Montevideo with a drive through the Old City (originally a walled Spanish citadel in the 1700’s) and then stopped at Independence Plaza, the heart of the modern city, surrounded by many public buildings. In the middle of the plaza is a 30-ton statue of the country’s independence hero, Jose Artigas. A drive down their main avenue took us along the coast, where we drove for miles admiring the many beaches on one side and the beautiful residential areas on the left. Many people retire to Montevideo because housing is inexpensive, and for $200,000 one can buy a condo or house with three bedrooms plus another bedroom for your “help.” We toured the residential areas--the Carrasco and Prado neighborhoods with their beautiful homes—all priced between 100,000 and 300,000 dollars. In fact, the president of the country refuses to live in the presidential mansion because he has a home in Prado and chooses to live there.

A brief stop was made at Plaza Virgilio with the monument dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Navy and an impressive view of the city. This was followed by a drive through Ordonez Park and a stop at Belloni’s sculpture, La Carreta (Covered Wagon) Monument. Here I purchased a mate’ cup and silver spoon from a vendor.

Mate’ is an herbal tea served in a hollowed-out gourd that has been dried and decorated. The leaves from the mate’ plant are ground into a powder and poured into the hollowed-out gourd. Then boiling water is poured into the cup and the liquid is drawn out using a straw that has a filter for the tea leaves. It is a social drink that is passed around a table with friends and family during conversation. We also saw many locals walking on the streets with their mate’ in hand.

We then drove through Prado Park, stopped at another Bellini sculpture, La Diligencia, and passed by the monument to the last Charruas Indians. When the Spanish arrived in this area, they encountered a very primitive, warrior-like society of indigenous people called Charruas. They had no language, but they numbered about 10,000 and managed to kill many Spaniards before the Spaniards declared war on them and basically wiped them out by 1832. The nine who survived were made slaves, and four of them were taken to Europe to be circus attractions. When they died, there were no indigenous people left in Uruguay.

Next, we visited the Congress Building, constructed in the early 1900’s using 55 colors of local marble (the only color Uruguay doesn’t have is pure white, which is found only in Italy), local granite--all 19 colors of granite (including pure black which is mostly shipped to Japan), and 12 different kinds of local wood. Uruguay has elections every five years, and everyone over the age of 18 MUST vote. If not, you can’t get a passport, work in a public job, or get married; in addition, you are fined.

When we returned to the pier, we walked around a small park near the pier which had the original anchor and navigation device of the World War II German battleship Graf Spee, which sunk itself in the port of Montevideo rather than be captured by the British.

The next day at sea was spent relaxing, taking tango lessons (inspired by last night’s show), attending a cocktail reception for platinum and gold RCI cruisers (there were only about 25 of us), listening to a talk about Brazilian culture, and watching people play miniature golf and scale the monstrous climbing wall. The show in the theater that evening was a fast-paced, highly-entertaining Argentinean folkloric and Gaucho show from Buenos Aires.

Our last port was Porto Belo, Brazil, a fishing village of about 25,000. We took an excursion to the German city of Blumenau, founded in 1850 by German immigrant Otto Blumenau and sixteen fellow countrymen who were impressed with the fertility of the soil and the similarity of the climate to Germany. By 1880 there were 15,000 inhabitants, who did not inter-marry with the Brazilians. Today, it is a major city of a quarter-million inhabitants, and the people still speak German and live by German traditions.

Bavarian-styled architecture dominated the city, as our tour took us first to the Beer Museum, which exhibits instruments used in beer manufacturing, and then to the Biergarten where Oktoberfest is held. We also walked through the Colonial Family Museum, a park with historic homes. Lunch was at a churrascaria, which featured a mix of German and Brazilian dishes. The entrees brought to the tables on spits included grilled cheese and a variety of fish in addition to the usual meats. The German cabbage slaw with raisins was my favorite salad bar dish, and the Cappuccino at the end of the meal was almost better than Starbucks!

A visit was made to Glass Park for shopping and to the adjacent Crystal Museum, where we watched crystal being manufactured. It was quite fascinating to watch a blob of glass transform into a brilliantly-colored crystal fish in a matter of minutes.

The return drive of about 60 kilometers to the pier at Porto Belo took us through a portion of the Atlantic rain forest where the highlands meet the ocean, with its gorgeous, green scenery. As we approached the port, traffic back-up from an earlier accident caused us to be over an hour late returning. The tender from the ship was waiting for us, but once again, the ship was late departing the port—this time, our tour’s fault.

The long journey home began the next day, as we disembarked the ship in Santos, Brazil, around 9 a.m. for a two-hour bus ride to Sao Paolo. Since we had 12 hours before our plane departed, we opted for an 8-hour city tour of Sao Paolo, the third-largest city in the world with a population of 18 million. We toured the historic district and the upscale residential and business districts. Lunch was a fantastic buffet of authentic Brazilian dishes at Restaurante Amineira. Highlights included an entire roast pig (they brought out three while we were there), a sampling of fruit liqueurs including sugar-cane brandy, dulce de leche with chocolate, and sweet cassava cake. Our final stop before going to the airport was at a shopping mall in the northern part of the city.

Arriving at the airport at 5:30 p.m., we had to wait until 8 p.m. for the Continental desk to open. Continental only has 2 flights out of Sao Paolo—one to Houston at 11:20 and one to Newark at 11:10—so they share a counter with Swiss Air. Once we checked in, however, we enjoyed the remaining 3 hours in the Air France President’s Club lounge with more great food, as if we hadn’t already eaten enough.

We were happy to have Business Class seats, which facilitated sleep, on the journey home. The ten-hour flight put us in Houston at 5:20 a.m.

On many of our trips, we discover a well-kept secret (at least, well-kept from us)—some totally-unexpected, quaint, intriguing, pleasant destination that turns out to be a highlight of the trip. On this trip, it was Montevideo, Uruguay, the charming and clean southernmost South American capital. Elegant, “3-bedroom + servant-quarters” homes on the beach or in exclusive neighborhoods cost as little as $100 - $200,000, and the standard of living is very high. In addition, Uruguay is the second-least corrupt country in Latin America (after Chile). Voting in national elections every five years is compulsory; otherwise, you cannot get a passport, get married, or work in a public job. Public university is free, and there are 8 cows and sheep for every person in the country (25 million cattle and sheep; 3 million people), and there are 300 miles of beaches. Every home has an indoor barbecue, or fireplace, to cook the huge, inexpensive steaks that are the staple of every meal. There are no indigenous people—the country is comprised 100% of immigrants from Europe. It’s a fascinating country that intrigued us…and we may be back!


18th September 2009

I am impressed with your Blog, congratulations for the willingness and the adventure pace you and your husband have. I would like to comment about your South America Cruiser... Do you remember the City Blumenau, a small part of Germany in Brazil?? what a coincidence, I used to live 50 miles from Blumenau, in Rio do Sul... the world is really a small place....
18th September 2009

I am impressed with your Blog, congratulations for the willingness and the adventure pace you and your husband have. I would like to comment about your South America Cruiser... Do you remember the City Blumenau, a small part of Germany in Brazil?? what a coincidence, I used to live 50 miles from Blumenau, in Rio do Sul... the world is really a small place....

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