Argentina/Chile Cruise - Part 1

South America
March 15th 2020
Published: March 15th 2020
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Sabbath 7 March - Embarkation

I briefly contemplated going to a local church today, but decided against it because I didn’t want to haul our luggage around and it was over 30 minutes away by taxi, not to mention $30 one way for the ride. So, we slept in, finished off our tomato, cheese and crackers for breakfast, repacked our suitcases for cruise embarkation and streamed Hope 103.2, so I had some resemblance of peace and holiness among the busyness.

At 12.30pm we checked out and made our way to the BA cruise terminal. It was a busy terminal with 3 cruises boarding that day – MSC Musica, Hanseatic Inspiration and Holland America Zaandam. Given the mass of bodies, checking in was like a well-oiled machine. Upon arrival we were greeted by a smiling Holland America rep, who advised us which line was luggage drop. The friendly baggage guy attached our tags and pointed us to the escalators for CoVid screening, followed by security screening. After security, we were met by another rep and shown into the check in line, where they took our photos. Then onto Immigration. From there we went into another line (6th so far) to collect our room keys and surrender our passports for the duration of the cruise. I guess this is so they can manage all the immigration in every port and no one can do a runner. The last line was for the shuttle bus out to the ship.

The Zaandam is a smaller ship that only carries 1432 guests and 650 staff, and this is the final for the season in South America. Once it ends in Fort Lauderdale, it goes to dry dock for 2 weeks and then starts the New England/Canada season. The average age of the passengers that we’ve seen so far is between 70 to 90. We’ve seen three families with kids under 12. There is a handful of people between 20-50. The guests are mostly white Americans or Canadians but there is a generous spattering of French, German, British, approx. 50 Asians, several African American/Caribbean, several Russians, 4 Indian, 1 Middle East family and 50 or so Aussies/Kiwi.

We opened our Vista Suite cabin door to find we’ve been upgraded from the bottom B category to the top most A category away from the elevators! It’s a spacious suite which is divided into 3 parts. The entry way has the door to the ensuite bathroom (with bath) and cupboards for clothes and shoes. The 2nd part is the king bed and the 3rd section is a 2-seater couch and desk. There are heavy curtains either side of the sleeping area so they can be closed off at night if Dwayne wants to sit up whilst I sleep. And then there is the balcony with floor to ceiling windows, 3m wide x 2m deep, with two sun loungers, foot stools and a drinks table.

All the cabin and wait staff are either Indonesian or Filipino, the higher jobs are European staff. Our cabin boys – Darry & Tarfiq – work from 7.30am – 9.30pm, 7 days a week for 8 months. They then have 4 months off.

After Sabbath, we sussed out the nightly shows and there is only 4 of 14 performances that interests us. There are 3 gala nights, which I’ll be attending on my own because Dwayne couldn’t fit any dress shoes into his luggage. It was either the dress shoes or the hiking boots, and the boots were “necessito”.

We went to Guest Services and tried to get the USD 30 per day of gratuities removed, but the Guest Services Supervisor said they will charge the daily gratuities and then on the last night only, we can request for them to be reversed. Other friends who’ve cruised with HAL advised that once the cruise starts, they don’t waive the charges. Not being content with the supervisor’s answer, we returned later that night and thankfully the desk guy gave us a form to sign saying we wanted the gratuities waved. It’s true that they’ll be waived at the end of the cruise like the supervisor said, but I’m relieved that we have it in writing sooner rather than later.

We had a late lunch at the Lido Market, which is the buffet, and were sure to eat lightly so as not to ruin dinner. They had a chef making salads to order so I had a kidney bean and chick pea salad whilst Dwayne had a side plate size of fish and chips. Dinner in the formal Dining Room was salad for entrée and eggplant cannelloni for mains. They did not have any other vegetarian options and since I’m not a fan of eggplant, we ate at the Lido again.

I think this cruise will be fine for not overeating. We’ve got so much access to food that the urge to overindulge is not there. Then there’s the endless flights of stairs that we’re choosing to use instead of the elevators. We’re on the 6th floor, the buffet is on the 8th, the formal Dining Room on the 5th, the main stage on the 4th, the promenade on the 3rd and the gangway exit in the basement. Whenever we want free water, we have to go to the 8th. If we want to exercise, we can walk 3.5 laps around the promenade for 1 mile (1.6km). We did this tonight after dinner and had the whole promenade to ourselves. Stairs, stairs and more stairs.

Total km’s walked – 9.3

Sunday 8 March - BA

Had a wonderful sleep in our whisper quiet suite, disembarking after breakfast for a 4km walk to the Recoleta Cemetery. I don’t usually think of cemeteries as a tourist attraction, but this one is different. Rich residents pay tons of money to establish their crypts and the designs of each are impressive and interesting. It’s almost a little suburb rather than a boring cemetery. Eva Peron (nee Duarte) is also buried here with her parents and siblings so we found her tomb, which is actually pretty modest compared to most. There was a HAL tour group there who’d paid USD 90 for their excursion, so we tacked onto the back of them and got the general gist of the cemetery layout and significant tombs. It was more interesting than I had expected.

Afterwards, we walked to Plaza de Mayo, which is the location of the Casa Rosada – essentially the Pink Palace, styled in the Napoleonic way. This is where the President has his offices and makes speeches from the balcony. The plaza in front of the palace is about the same size as The Domain in Sydney. It was here that 2 million people chanted for Evita to announce her candidacy for Vice President. She declined 5 days later, mainly because she was dying of cervical cancer. As was the case in 1955, so today there was also chanting in the plaza. It was a local rally with a thousand or so people protesting against the unification of church and state, and wanting to legalise abortion.

We watched for 5 minutes and then walked to a nearby McCafé to get our fix of good coffee and free wifi before we set sail. We thought about catching a taxi back to port, but opted to walk instead.

We’d heard a lot of reports about pick pocketers, muggings and the general warnings about street crime. However, we’ve not seen any evidence of it on others nor been the target of an attempt. For us, BA has been a safe experience. In fact, in all our travels around the world, we’ve not experienced a single pick pocketer in any city. We’ve been hassled by street vendors to buy trinkets and by gypsies for handouts, as well as had 20 euro stolen from our payment during an altercation between a waitress and child gypsy, but we’ve never been physically targeted. Touch wood.

BA reminds me of Mexico City. The Napoleonic architecture in the buildings, the people and food are quite similar. What’s different to MXC is that nearly every woman under 30 has a tattoo, which is more ink than we’ve seen anywhere in the world, and the smell of urine on the streets is regular and potent. It’s significantly more expensive compared to MXC, where a frappe at Starbucks in Australia is $6.50, it’s $4.75 in BA and $2.75 in MXC.

I’m glad I’ve now seen BA, but I probably wouldn’t come back unless I was transiting to another country. Where I was pleasantly surprised by MXC because I came with low expectations, I came to BA with high expectations and therefore haven’t found it as captivating as I anticipated. I like it, but I don’t love it. It’s interesting, but not endearing.

Total km’s walked – 16.4

We bid farewell to tango city and set sail for the high seas.

Monday 9 March – Montevideo, Uruguay

As Dwayne snored, I watched from the balcony in my complimentary bathrobe as the Zaandam manoeuvred into Montevideo harbour at 7.30am. It’s amazing how agile these mighty ships are when it comes to rotating on a virtual turntable.

We had downloaded an app called VoiceMap and it had an audio guided tour, so after a lazy breakfast we hit the streets at 10am. It was actually a great tour, because it gave you directions and then used the gps on the phone to speak to you when you reached the next destination. So, we put the phone in the pocket and would walk and stop as the voice told us. The location services were so exact as well – you’d stop and he’d say “Do you see the lady in the upstairs window behind the stage? She’s making sure no one is sneaking in without paying” And because you were literally at the place, you could see exactly what he was talking about. No guessing on a map.

The old town of Montevideo – the Cuidad Vieja – is compact and easy to navigate in hours. There are a couple of nice plazas and a pedestrian strip similar to Pitt St Mall with shops and cafes. Apart from that, it’s nothing special and certainly not worth adding to an itinerary.

We also withdrew some USD from an ATM, because the fee was only A$9. It’s still steep but we could withdraw more so it wasn’t so bad. What was bad was the cost of food and drink in this town. A cheeseburger at McDonalds is A$8.50, as was a frappe at Starbucks. I don’t know how people can afford to eat out there, as I doubt the wages are very high.

Anyway, we wandered for several hours, getting our steps in before two days at sea. I hope we don’t get bored or sea sick.

Total km’s walked – 12.4

Tuesday 10 March – at sea

We had a gentle night with 4m swells rocking the boat from bow to stern. One second, I was sleeping uphill, the next I felt like I was floating off the mattress. We slept through until 8am, at which point our cabin boy knocked on the door and opened it to say “Good Morning”. As soon as he realised the cabin was still dark with us inside, he promptly closed it again. The damage was already done so we decided to get up for a late breakfast.

We haven’t had breakfast or lunch in the Dining Room yet, but we’ve been eating wherever the menu is most appealing, and so far, we’ve split our time 50/50 between Lido and the Dining Room.

It was a beautiful sunny day with only small swells and the captain said this is quite unlike South Atlantic waters, so we should enjoy it whilst it lasts. We went to the pool and hopped in among the sloshing waves. We swayed like seaweed from side to side, allowing the tidal current to take us where it wished. We then had a quick spa and settled down in the shade on a recliner lounge. If there was one thing I wasn’t expecting to see, it was scrotums. However, it seems that some men don’t realise that their swimmers are just way too baggy and before you know it, you cop a balls-eye view. My eyes, my eyes!!

There is a burger and taco bar at the pool, so I made myself a bowl of haystacks with typical American melted cheese and homemade guacamole, and it was good. It’s my new haunt for lunch.

There was nothing of interest in the afternoon so I had a nap, we exercised around the promenade, played some cards and went our separate ways for dinner – me to the gala night and Dwayne to the Lido. I was the 3rd wheel with a retired couple from St Louis in Illinois, who were well travelled and gave me tips for going to Petra and Egypt. Later that night as I was walking past the piano bar looking for Dwayne, the husband saw me and came running after me to show some photos from Luxor. He said “Well, I think you and I are the youngest people here. Thank you for saving me from more Abba. I guess I have to go back to the rest of the show now.” He was quite a character. The ironic thing is that Dwayne had exactly the same dishes in the buffet that were on my gala menu, except mine was plated in fancy surroundings and his was not. The only difference was that I got chocolate souffle, which wasn’t offered in the buffet.

We finished the evening with a 9.30pm song and dance show, which I thought was mediocre. The singers had great voices but their song list was uninteresting and uninvolving and only one of the five dancers looked like she was actually an expert. The others were somewhat awkward and stiff in their movement, as opposed to the one girl who had the “fluid back and soft knees”. I’m sure they’re all proper dancers, but I think they’re the B crowd rather than the A team. And I thought it was a tango show according to the promo photo, yet there was no tango. You can’t be on a South American cruise and not do tango!!

We’ve met some lovely people whilst on board. There is a couple from Cherrybrook who we’ve chatted with a couple of times, and another couple from Toowoomba, both in their 60’s. Most of the time we feel like paupers compared to everyone else, who’s going on expensive shore excursions and we’re doing our own independent thing every time. Thankfully, the Toowoomba couple are watching their pennies too, so we often bump into them and have a laugh at some additional charge or share plans of what we’re doing at the next port. We’ve had breakfast with a guy who was on the British ship that was sunk during the Falklands War, so he’s returning to pay his respects to the 44 colleagues he lost. We’ve dined with Americans and Canadians, and I even saw one of the 40-something Afro men wearing an Adventist Community Services shirt. I’m going to try and find him and ask how he’s connected.

Total km’s walked – 7.3

Wednesday 11 March – at sea

I didn’t realise how much a ship creaks when it’s riding the swell. It sounds like lots of popping or water dropping on our ceiling and walls. It can be a little annoying when trying to fall asleep but once we’re in noddy land, we don’t notice it.

Today was foggy and raining, which apparently is exactly what the South American Atlantic is like, so the captain seems to be relieved that the weather has returned to normal. It wasn’t the best day to enjoy the rising sun and room service breakfast on our balcony, but we did it nonetheless. The swell has decreased to 2m, the front-to-back rocking has gone and there is only the slightest hint of side pitching. So far, the waters have been calm and I’m looking forward to a bit more action in the Magellan Strait.

However, there was still bad news to be had. Holland America, as a company, have made the decision to stop all self-service food options across their entire fleet, in the name of protecting against CoVid, and this means our beloved taco bar has been shut down. No more haystacks! This is a tragedy of gastronomic proportions.

There weren’t that many activities that interested me today. There are several fitness classes I’d like to attend, such as pilates and body pump, but they are at additional cost. That’s one thing I really don’t like about this cruise – all the extra charges. It feels like a constant money grab. They don’t even provide water in the rooms. For $600 a day a decent hotel would provide two bottles of complimentary water but here, it’s $10 for 1L of sparking water, or you have to carry cups of water down to your room to drink or fill water bottles. Alternatively, you buy their packages – wifi package, alcohol package, coffee package, water package etc. And it’s not like you can buy one package and share it, no, you have to buy two. It’s not a reasonable cost either – everything is triple what it would normally cost so you know they’re just taking the mickey. I asked to see a modest diamond ring in the jewellery store, and it was a square 0.5ct diamond with two 0.27ct diamonds either side. Want to guess how much? USD 10,880! It wasn’t even F or VVS grade. Don’t fret, I was told, because it’s their end of season clearance and we not only get 50% off the price, but we get another 20% because it’s end of season and we get an additional 10% because it’s an anniversary cruise. So, after 80% discount, we can pick it up for USD 2176. I’m sure that’s still more than its actual value, but that’s an example of taking the mickey.

I attended two training sessions in the Microsoft Studio on OneDrive and creating digital photo albums, but both these sessions were pretty pathetic, thanks to the trainer who spent more time explaining what to do and not even demonstrating it on screen. He’d say things like “let’s pretend that we’ve uploaded all our images to this folder here”. He wasn’t from Microsoft or anything official. Just an Argentinian who they’ve hired to be the IT guy. Speaking of IT, it was hilarious on the first day of the cruise when half the enquiries were from people trying to access the wifi, even though they’d been given a piece of paper with 5 easy steps on how to connect. Needless to say, I think the Microsoft participants went away just as confused as before they’d joined the session.

We went to the movies tonight and watched “Midway”, which was rather B grade. It was a corny script with a lot of overacting. It’s a shame because the actual battle itself is quite interesting and I think they could have done a better job of it.

Total km’s walked – 8.4

Thursday 12 March – Stanley, Falkland Islands

Overnight we sailed through fog and had the pleasure of hearing the horn every 2 minutes. The balcony door is wonderfully thick so it remains a dim boom and allows us to nod off quickly. There is no swell to speak of. The temperature has dropped from 30C in BA, to a frosty 10C in Stanley. I didn’t think we’d be hitting those sorts of temps until Torres del Paine NP, but it seems the thermals are coming out today. We also had to tender to shore as we’re 2km away in a deeper channel. It’s the only tender port on the itinerary, thank goodness. Given we hadn’t paid for a shore excursion, we were on a later tender at 10am. It still gave us 5-6 hours on shore to explore the tiny town.

East Falklands is a windswept, tree-less landscape of rocks, tundra’s and peat bogs, not dissimilar to Newfoundland or parts of Ireland. They have some beautiful beaches and bays, as well as 5 different types of penguin species. The $1000 tour went to the remote corner of the island to see the largest colony of King penguins outside of Antarctica, the $600 tours went to other exclusive locations to see Gentoo, Magellan and Rockhopper penguins. We did our own $60 transfer with a local, who drove us to nearby Gypsy Cove, where 50-100 Magellan penguins make their homes. He stayed in the car whilst we spent an hour looking around. Good money for him!

These black and white penguins surf the green frigid waters off the beach and then scamper up the white sand to their dugout burrows in the side of the hills. It is prohibited to walk the beach and surrounding hills unguided, mainly because of undetonated Argentinean mines, but the penguins are so light they don’t trigger them. Tourists stick to a dedicated path that weaves around the top of the hill overlooking the beach, snapping photos of random groups of penguins either on the beach, on the hillside or in their burrows. We even saw fluffy chicks that are only 6-8 weeks old.

We also walked around the main town for several hours, grabbing fish and chips at an English pub and picking up a souvenir or two. The highlight was seeing the Commersons and Peale’s dolphins, as well as 4 playful sea lions. There were also some flightless ducks and interesting geese. The post office had a poster on their entry door calling for donations for the Australian fires, so it seems that our news has touched even the end of the world. I also took a photo of the toilet paper aisle in the supermarket, which was stocked full. No runs here!

We returned to the ship, played some trivia with a group we’d never met before, and grabbed dinner in the Dining Room before watching the evening show.

Tomorrow we start the scenic cruising in the Strait of Magellan.

Total km walked – 10.6

Friday 13 March – at sea

Today I am peeved. The itinerary said we were scenic cruising the Strait, so imagine my disgust when we’re told it’s actually a sea day and we’re only entering the Strait at 9.30pm, with the scenic part happening during sleeping hours and complete darkness. What a bait and switch! Not happy Jan.

We woke at 9am, decided to skip breakfast and attend the Cruise Director’s talk on Ushuaia instead. His port talks have been a surprising highlight. He’s an Argentinian guy in his 20’s with a very dry sense of humour - his dead pan jokes and the way he delivers them is excellent. He’s actually better than the singers and dancers! We also chatted to our friends from Toowoomba, Pauline & Ian, for a little while about plans for Ushuaia.

We finally experienced lunch in the dining room. Not that we could see anything because of the fog, but the black bean soup and Opera slice were delicious. We met a couple from Florida and chatted right through the meal. Everyone we’ve met so far has been interesting and easy to talk to. I finally met the other Adventists onboard. Derek and Davinia are from Maryland, where Derek works as the North American Division Direction for ACS (Adventist Community Services). They are the domestic disaster response arm of the church. In Australia, ADRA has both an international and domestic program for emergency management, but this is rather unusual in the ADRA world. Most ADRA offices only work internationally, and since ADRA International has no domestic program, ACS fills that void in a lot of countries where ADRA works. Anyway, had a lovely chat to them and said we’d catch up in more depth at another meal.

The fog lifted around 4pm and we had clear views of the ocean. We’ve had no swell since leaving Stanley, with less than 1m according to the bridge. It’s all very boring. Where are the 4-6m swells that the Atlantic is famous for? Oh well, the Strait is said to be wild and woolly so we’ll see what eventuates.

On the plus side, we were ecstatic to see wildlife during dinner! We had a window seat and there was a small pod of 3 or so whales playing about in the middle of the Atlantic and then we saw a decent pod of approx. 20 Commersons dolphins. They are tiny – about the size of a large penguin. We also saw 4 penguins diving for fish. All of these were anywhere from 2m to 50m away from the boat’s starboard side. I couldn’t believe that we saw all these glorious creatures so close to the ship in a 1km patch of sea when they could have been anywhere in the 1500 nautical miles that we’ve covered thus far.

Total km walked – 7.2

Sabbath 14 March – Punta Arenas

We came through the Strait last night with still waters that were calmer than some of the ski days on Lake Macquarie. So much for the wild and woolly experience. Bah humbug.

The Captain made another announcement this morning. Carnival has suspended all cruises globally for 30 days, and therefore our Fort Lauderdale bound ship is terminating in Santiago. We were always going to disembark at Santiago so it doesn’t affect us, but a large portion of the guests now have to get home to the US and Canada from Chile. I’m glad I’m not the HAL logistics coordinator!

Of all the places in the world we could have celebrated our anniversary when we booked in June 2019, this is quite possibly the best. South America is relatively unaffected and our cruise is healthy with no confirmed cases. If we had gone to Greece or Norway like we had discussed, our holiday would have certainly been interrupted. Personally, I don’t care if I get CoVid or have to go into quarantine. It’s only the flu so who cares. I’m also not really that worried about a lack of toilet paper. I can make my own bidet with a turkey baster and hairdryer.

Let’s talk scenery. Punta Arena is our first Chile port and the gateway to Patagonia. The town itself is quite unremarkable and typical for a Chilean town that doesn’t have a lot of wealth. Lots of buildings are boarded up in the wake of unrest, some have been graffiti’d and most everything was shut because it was the weekend, despite it being the last cruise of the season. We took a taxi out to their local ski resort, Club Andino, which is about 8km out of town and one of the few in the world that has great views of the ocean. It’s not high but at 600m and this far south, it was still cooler than down at sea level. There were several hiking trails and we chose one that was supposedly 4km long, so we rode the chairlift to the summit and started the descent. Unfortunately, we missed the marker and ended up walking the top half on the access road, until we picked up the trail half way down.

The forest was dense enough that you couldn’t do any tree skiing, with layers of green moss draped over every trunk and branch in sight. It was quiet with the exception of a babbling brook and a single bird call towards the end of the walk. The weather changed from drizzle to fog, back to drizzle and sunny patches in between. We estimate that it was only about 2km. Still, there was only one other couple doing it independently, and they happened to be our cabin neighbours from Canada. All up it cost us A$80 for the return taxi and one way chairlift, but the busload of shore excursioners who were there before us had paid US $100pp for the privilege.

We returned to the ship and were dealt a minor blow with more CoVid news from the bridge. Today the Argentinean Government closed its ports to cruise ships, so our stop in Ushuaia has been cancelled. This is a little disappointing but it has more upsides than down. With the extra time, the Captain has chosen to re-sail the Magellan Strait during daylight and some of the channels that were going to be done at night are also going to now be sailed in the day. I’m personally much happier with this arrangement than docking in Ushuaia. I didn’t come all this way to see a city so the increase in scenic cruising is a plus for us. Not to mention the free wifi voucher they’re giving everyone so they can amend pre-arranged plans and make contact with family.

Total km walked – 8.8

Additional photos below
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16th March 2020

It's nice to hear about your trip in almost real time...
with updates about how the Covid-19 virus is affecting you. Even without these updates, yours is one of the better "cruise" blogs I've read with all the interesting details. I look forward to reading about how all this turns out.

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